The question I often get before a trip to Los Angeles to interview one of our cover stars is an avaricious, conspiratorial ‘Who?’ This time, when I murmur, ‘Zoe Saldana’, the response is astounding. And, actually, infuriating. The eyes widen, that unmistakable confusion as the interrogator wracks their brains. ‘Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar…? She’s in the new Marvel Avengers movie!’ The light dawns. A sheepish look follows.
But Saldana is a star. A star of some of the biggest films and franchises of all time. So why isn’t she in the same one-name or even nickname league as Angelina, J.Law or Reese? Why aren’t you sick of seeing her on the cover of every magazine? Why isn’t her every outfit detailed by savvy social media accounts? (Because, incidentally, her style is impeccable; cool in a Sacai-shirt-and-Cèline-bag kind of way.)
It’s not because the fans don’t get it. The fans are plentiful and enthusiastic; a nice bunch, too. Saldana explains that since her boys were born – twins Cy and Bowie, three, and Zen, one – she and her artist husband, Marco Perego, have taken a new approach to selfie requests and, without fail, the legions of people who approach her understand. “It has been confusing to [the boys] when they see us approached for a picture; it shifts their behavior. So I talk to that person: ‘I’m teaching my sons about strangers, and [taking a picture with you] will be very confusing to them.’ The response is 100% receptive. People go, ‘My God, we get it,’ and walk away, knowing why I turned them down.” This isn’t a line concocted to protect herself from unwanted attention. When I went to get ice cream with the couple two years ago in Atlanta, the twin boys safely ensconced with their nanny, the actress was mobbed in a way I’ve never experienced before, and she posed happily then, even asking the people behind the camera phones about their evening plans or their families. No, the fans aren’t the problem here.
“People in this industry look down at Marvel…They think we’re selling out. They should be more cognizant about what a superhero means to a child”
So why does she think that her work does not receive the same recognition as some of her peers? It’s not the easiest question to answer without rancor, and Saldana doesn’t do raging or bitterness, so she shifts uneasily in her seat as she forms a reply. “I’ve been in rooms with people in this industry who are great at what they do, but they’re absolutely elitist and they look down at movies like the Marvel films or actors like myself. They think we’re selling out in some way. Every time they speak I feel so disappointed in them, because whenever you see pictures of people in this industry who donate their time to children in need, it’s these actors that live in the world that you feel is selling out. It’s these actors that understand the role that they play inspires a five-year-old who has one dying wish to meet a superhero. That actor takes time out of their life and sits down with that five-year-old and says, ‘I see you, I hear you, and you matter.’ Those elitists should be a little more cognizant about what playing a superhero means to a young child. Because you’re not just dissing me, you’re dissing what that child considers important in their world. I feel so proud to be living in space, to be playing green and blue aliens, to inspire, primarily, the younger generations. I remember what it was like to be young and to feel completely excluded out of the mainstream conversation of life because I was just little and unimportant and ‘other’.”
The entire sci-fi world is, explains Saldana, a refuge for anyone who has ever felt excluded – the creatives who populate it have often been outsiders themselves. “I work with filmmakers who gravitated to this genre because they were exiles in their own right, excluded from a mainstream conversation. They found their world and they were able to imagine the unimaginable. Everything about how they create, and how they invite characters to join them, is absolutely inclusive.”
“I feel so proud to be living in space, to be playing green and blue aliens, to inspire the younger generations”
Saldana’s experiences of starting out as an actress as something ‘other’ than the industry’s presented norm of white is sadly familiar, but her take on it is, like her, surprising. When asked how it felt to grow up not seeing herself represented, she rejects the suggestion. “But I did! As a child, when I saw Sigourney Weaver play Ellen Ripley or Linda Hamilton play Sarah Connor, they were my true north, because I loved action, I loved science fiction and I loved the roles that they played. They were inspiring to me; I wanted that. It wasn’t until I started in my own career that I was reminded that I wasn’t ‘like’ them.”
Saldana is American, born in New Jersey. Her mother hails from Puerto Rico and her father was Dominican; she has Lebanese and Haitian heritage, too. She speaks English and Spanish and has added Italian to the mix, courtesy of her relationship with Perego. She and her two sisters, Mariel and Cicely, split their childhood between the US and the Dominican Republic, so the influences of both countries as well as the lessons learned from a strong, smart single mother are imprinted on their psyche. But it wasn’t until she started out in Hollywood that her ‘cultural composition’ was presented to Saldana as a negative. “Every time I read a script, even if it was a period piece, I read it thinking that I was going to go after the lead role. It wasn’t until I would come across the introduction of a supporting ethnic role that I realized, ‘Oh’. I wasn’t even allowed to try to get that main role, because ‘they want to go traditional on the part’. I would hang up on that conversation from my agents, thinking, ‘What about me is non-traditional’? It was a very hard pill to swallow.
“In my country, where I pledged allegiance every day since I was five, to be told when I’m out there trying to pursue my American dream that I was not a traditional American was very hurtful. I will never accept that I am not a traditional anything. I come from where I come from, I can’t change that, and you come from where you come from. But if you tell me that where you come from is the only right place, and therefore I don’t fit that traditional mold, let’s just establish, very clearly, that you are the one who’s wrong. Because everything about me and where I come from is just as right.”
“I will never accept that I am not a traditional anything. If you tell me that where you come from is the only right place, and therefore I don’t fit that traditional mold, you are wrong”
In an attempt to change perceptions in the world that their sons are growing up in, Saldana and Perego have just launched a media company, BESE. “I want the American narrative to continue, I just want the characters to vary,” explains the actress. So when she’s not filming – right now that’s on James Cameron’s Avatar 2, already behind schedule, she says, because Cameron is asking scientists to invent the technology he needs as they go along – or spending time with her boys, the couple are looking for investors, “getting on a plane, meeting with brands that we believe have a philanthropic mission of inclusivity.”
So, how about those magazine covers. Does she have any theories on why she hasn’t been selected for more over the years? “It stopped mattering after a while,” she offers. I believe her, and yet it obviously stung for a time. “It was something I was acutely aware of,” she admits. “And it was always, like, why? When I’m doing everything that they consider right, why am I not on these covers?” It’s not a whine: Saldana’s approach is to analyze, to fix and not just find a way around problems in her path. “I do understand that it’s a business, that they have a lot of issues to sell. Magazines, even though they’re run by male corporations, they’re being carried by females. When females are raised in a female traditional box, they will only gravitate towards certain female traditional things and they will exclude things that feel masculine. I feel like the action genre, for many of these editors, feels rather masculine, and I’m just going to say it like that for their benefit, because I’ve also seen a lot of females that are in action-driven films be on the covers of their magazines.” Suddenly, Saldana looks tired and says, “I think it has a lot to do with race.”
“Every time I rip myself away from my children it hurts so much, so the least I can do is make sure that whatever it is I’m doing is rewarding”
I worry that I’ve pushed too hard, that this isn’t a fair line of questioning, but she rallies like the otherworldly beings she portrays. “‘Color doesn’t sell’ – they hide behind that excuse. But in reality, if you are in a position of leadership, that means that you have the responsibility to guide the narrative and re-shape it and put it on the right track. When you’re not setting that trend, then you are no different than the shackles that are binding you.”
It’s not Saldana’s nature to play the victim. Superheroes are literally much more her scene. And she’s excited that her sons’ introduction to these powerful beings has come via Wonder Woman and yes, playing with their Gamora dolls (“They play with Gamora action figures all the time, and they break her”), rather than exclusively male characters. Although she enthuses about working with the likes of Robert Downey Jr. on Avengers: Infinity War, she’s also quick to list her female co-stars in the blockbuster: Brie Larson, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Elizabeth Olsen and Karen Gillan. Saldana’s all-inclusive world of sci-fi is stepping up to the casting plate. It’s clearly a world – or multiple worlds – that truly inspires her; something worth being away from her boys for, when the job demands it. “I’ve never experienced the constant ache in my heart than when I became a mother. Every time I rip myself away from my children, it hurts so much and it hurts them and they share that with me, so the least I can do is make sure that whatever it is I’m doing is rewarding.” She and Perego have made the decision to stick at three, she says, telling me that the story of Zen’s birth – Saldana did not carry him herself – is not something that she will share without his permission. “We feel that that story belongs to Zen. We don’t know yet if he wants to share that or not, or how he wants to share it.”
It’s yet more proof that Saldana has a good heart, like those sci-fi characters she loves so much. Truly, I might even believe she has a few superpowers of her own. Don’t be surprised if she does save the world. She’ll certainly try.
Avengers: Infinity War is out April 26