Whether or not you believe Zoë Saldana is the biggest black actress in Hollywood—a case made stronger by the prolonged absence of Halle Berry—she’s certainly one of a very small handful of black actresses who can play the lead in a Hollywood film, let alone the highest-grossing movie of all time (see: Avatar).
The 33-year-old Queens native, born to Dominican and Puerto Rican parents, grew up attending ballet school before making her film debut in the 2000 ballet drama Center Stage. After a string of supporting roles in films like Crossroads opposite Britney Spears, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, Saldana got her big break starring as the female lead, Starfleet Officer Nyota Uhura, in J. J. Abrams’s 2009 blockbuster Star Trek. That same year she starred as Neytiri, a female Na’vi, in James Cameron’s sci-fi spectacle Avatar.
In her latest film, Colombiana, Saldana plays Cataleya Restrepo—a woman who witnesses her parents’ murder as a child in Bogotá and grows up to become a Jason Bourne-like assassin who seeks vengeance against the Colombian crime bosses who killed her parents.
Saldana opened up to The Daily Beast in a wide-ranging interview about losing her father, what it’s like being a black woman in Hollywood, working with Britney Spears, potential motherhood, Avatar and Star Trek sequels, and much more.
Does your ballet background help with your action roles in films?
Absolutely. Dancing for the length of time that I did, it centered me in such a way to be really in tune with my body, and I just feel like I’m physically able to do things because of my ballet background. Without ballet, I don’t think I’d look graceful at all on screen. And half of my ballet teachers were ones that would make me cry every other day, so that taught me to really take it. I’m a very feminine person, but I have this hard shell, man, and I stay focused and don’t take things personally.
Does being a New Yorker also help with your tough-gal persona?
We left New York for the Dominican Republic when I was 10 and stayed there for seven years, then I finished high school when I was in New York. We wanted to go back because New York was our everything. I love the humidity in New York, and having so many different faces and foods. It also gave me a little of a crass spirit, because New Yorkers are very raw.
We don’t take too much shit.
How did you transition from ballet to acting?
I had lost my passion for ballet a year after I graduated high school. I was 18 or 19, and I felt like I had already reached my peak and taken my body as far as it was willing to go. In my mind I wanted to be such a better dancer. I grew up in theater because I was always onstage dancing, but I felt I wanted to incorporate my voice in my art, so I tried acting and I really liked it.
One of your first early roles was in the road film Crossroads with Britney Spears. Do you look back on that with fondness or embarrassment?
Oh, my God! [Laughs] I have so much pride in that. I played a character I’d never played before—this little Southern belle—and I got to meet an artist that was at her peak at that time. She had the most amazing energy and was always positive and a very discreet person. We were young, too, and got to make a movie about three friends on a road trip. It was so much fun!
Did you bond with Britney, and do you two still keep in touch?
Not in that sense, but while we were shooting the movie and a little while after, we stayed in touch. I dig Britney since the beginning—since “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” I’ve been there. [Laughs]
Many of your fellow actors, like Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, were critical of the 2011 Oscars for having no black nominees and only one black presenter. Has it been difficult to be a woman of color in Hollywood?
I don’t live in that reality. That’s not how I was raised, and I choose not to think like the common people, because then you just become a person that’s half-empty. However, I do understand that there is a problem, and little by little, through evolution, we have been addressing it. But the race issue for me is secondary. The biggest battle that I have is being a woman in the world. That takes center stage for me.
There are very few women top-lining films these days, especially as action stars.
And how many female directors do we have? Very, very few. That’s the biggest thing we need to be addressing. When it comes to color, I’m never one to sit and complain and point things out, I want to be the one to change things.
Being cast as the female lead in Star Trek was really your big breakthrough. How did that change things for you?
It was awesome. I got to go to space! I was in heaven. I’m a sci-fi girl. If I can have anything in life, I’d want tons of great science-fiction movies and stories. It’s so progressive, beautiful, and imaginative.
What’s the deal with the Star Trek sequel?
It’s going down sometime next year, and we all can’t wait to go back. When did we know about Super 8? When it was already in theaters! [J. J. Abrams] is very discreet, not only to the world but also to his cast, and it’s not cool all the time, but it’s awesome in the end. You’re curious. I’m like, “Are you going to kill me off? Am I going to marry Spock? Is Captain Kirk going to want to kiss?” You think about all these things!
What sort of stuff did you geek out on when you were younger?
Oh, just sitting down with adults and reading books by Gabriel García Márquez or Stephen King, and talking with my family and friends about what we thought about a certain book. I would geek out about that. They’d be sipping their wine while I’d be sipping a Coke.
And you followed up Star Trek with the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar. Is there going to be a sequel?
Oh, yes! [Laughs] But I don’t know when. [James Cameron] is such a perfectionist, so I don’t think he’s going to greenlight any scripts where he doesn’t feel completely confident about the story.
That experience must have changed things for you. Did the offers start pouring in? Or were you disappointed that they weren’t?
Hmm … it’s a little bit of both. It definitely gave me the exposure and the respect of all the people I’d grown up admiring, but at the same time, filmmaking is a very big industry, so if you want something, sometimes it falls into your lap and sometimes you have to go out and get it. It’s the nature of the beast. I wouldn’t want it any other way, because it always keeps you hungry and grateful for doing what you’re doing.
It’s also been reported that you experienced a mental breakdown after promoting Avatar.
That’s actually been very misconstrued and taken out of context. What I explained in that interview was that it was such a beautiful experience, but you were on such an emotional roller coaster, since it was so overwhelming and amazing, that the body and the mind just needs a little break. I felt a little tired, but I didn’t go get depressed or get on pills. It’s just after you’ve been releasing so many endorphins, you kind of crash a little bit.
What attracted you to this kick-ass role in Colombiana?
To work with a filmmaker like Luc Besson was a dream come true. I grew up watching La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element. I thought it would challenge myself to play a role that’s very difficult and agile, but also very frail and broken.
She is a character who experiences great loss. Have you ever experienced similar feelings of loss?
Yes, but not through the hands of violence, thank God. I lost a parent when I was very, very young. You can always identify with any kind of loss when you’ve had that. I was 9 when my father passed away. Through the eyes of a 9-year-old, you’re devastated, but you still find things to make you laugh because the adults are the ones who are bearing all the pain for you. You still have this innocence, so you fall in and out of consciousness about the reality all the time. One day, you’re 18 or 19 years old and that’s when it hits you.
Was your father’s passing why your family moved to the Dominican Republic when you were 10?
After my mom found herself a widow, and needing to raise these three young girls in a time when New York was a little dangerous—the late 1980s—my mom made the executive decision to move the entire tribe to the Caribbean. And it was the best thing she did. We were very distraught about it because obviously you want to stay home and keep your friends, but as long as we were together it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t change a single thing. Once we were there and got used to it, being there in the soil and embracing your ancestry was amazing.
And how handy are you with the steel now after Colombiana and The Losers?
I can shoot, so I do go out with my friends and my family and we go to the range on a nice Sunday afternoon, but I’m not a meathead. I’m not going to start punching walls.
Have you ever been in a real-life fight situation?
I’m from New York, are you kidding me? My sister was a paramedic, all of our friends were cops, firemen, or paramedics, and we would go to Irish pubs since before I was meant to be drinking, so of course I’ve seen a couple of fights.
But have you ever come to blows with someone?
[Laughs] I’d rather not answer that, but I wouldn’t fight for myself. I would just fight if somebody that I loved was being threatened.
I read some bizarre criticism about how Colombiana was anti-Colombian because of its depiction of gang violence in Colombia.
So if you consider that a movie about a character that was born in Colombia is negative towards Colombia, then yeah. But other than that, I don’t see why that would be an issue. It isn’t a stereotypical, ignorant movie about a country that’s so beautiful and so amazing. It’s a movie about vengeance and a girl who lost everything in her life, and it just happens to be set in Colombia. But I really hope in my heart that the Colombian community will watch this movie and just be taken for a great ride.
Congratulations on your recent engagement. After Star Trek and Avatar, did you feel like you had attained a certain level of professional success, so you decided to shift your focus to the personal?
I don’t know! I guess it just worked out that way. I feel very, very blessed. I found something that I’m actually good at doing and that makes me happy, and I found a good family and people in my life that are amazing.
Not to get too tabloid-y on you, but is motherhood the next mountain to climb?
You know, the sky’s always the limit. I’ve always known that I wanted to be a parent, and I have a niece and three nephews that I’m absolutely crazy about. So if that’s in my books, I’d welcome it very, very gladly.