“Oh my God! Where are the stunt people?”
That’s what Zoe Saldana wants to know, as she surveys a cannon-like contraption designed to shoot her from atop a platform all the way down to the bottom of a 30-foot water container on the set of the sequel to the 2009 sci-fi phenomenon Avatar. She’s been well prepped by her stunt coordinator (“I trust him with my life”), and James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director, has no intention of calling for a stand-in. “Nope,” he says. “You are going to do this.”
“I was like, ‘Okay, suuuure,’” Zoe recalls a week later with nervous laughter. But the tough-talking actress from Queens, New York, didn’t become the female face of this and two other testosterone-fueled franchises (Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Trek) by shying away from such challenges. So she summoned the courage to allow herself to be launched into that “big-ass tank”—and ended up enjoying it.
“We often equate success with our physical beauty. It’s so f-cked up!”
“The moment he says, ‘Action!’ you forget you’re from this planet and you really believe you have superpowers,” she says. “I was bummed when he told me, ‘I got it, that’s it.’”
It’s a rainy early-spring day, and Zoe’s in a car heading back to the set in Manhattan Beach, California. On the way, the former ballet dancer reflects on her journey from a rising star of teen classics (think Center Stage, Drumline, Crossroads) to internationally recognized kick-ass action heroine, with legions of fangirls and fanboys.
“There’s this sense of responsibility to keep growing,” explains the actress, who turns 40 on June 19 and is currently onscreen as lime-skinned ex-assassin Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War. “You sort of go, ‘I can’t drop the ball.’ So I’m always pushing really hard.” And that applies whether she’s training for a new film or raising her sons (1-year-old Zen and 3-year-old twins Cy and Bowie).
Indeed, because Zoe is often doing crazy-awesome stunts (which in the past have involved martial arts, archery, and horseback riding) or chasing her kids, keeping physically and mentally fit is just a way of life.
“I like feeling that I’m giving myself—my body, my spirit, my mind—the attention it needs.” She’s not only about adrenaline-boosting activities, either. When she has time, she’ll hit up a yoga class. “I often take for granted how helpful stretching and breathing exercises are,” she says. “Yoga reminds me to breathe and slow down.” The key for her is being intentional and pushing her body in some way.
Zoe got hooked on the intensity of movement during her days as a dancer. “I love having that kind of intimacy with my body and getting my body to do things I never thought I could do.” And she happily admits that she takes pleasure in food as well (especially Italian), though she opts for gluten-free and organic as often as possible.
“When I was younger, I was more strict,” recalls Zoe. “I felt I needed to control that part of my life in order to feel I was going to be successful at something—because we often equate success with our physical beauty. It’s so f-cked up!”
“That ‘Mom’s the boss’ thing is not going to happen in our family.”
These days, she finds validation in other ways. “My boys are a constant source of strength for me,” says Zoe. “They keep me on my toes, reminding me how much I still have to learn and grow as a person.” (Her sons even appear with her in Drake’s “Nice for What” video.)
It was the birth of her twins, she says, that inspired her to launch BESE (pronounced bee-say), her new digital media company that aims to provide millennials and Generation Z’ers with positive portrayals of their Latin peers. “I’ve been a victim of exclusion, of being considered ‘other,’” she says. “And that sucks.”
Lending support to all of her pursuits: her artist-husband of five years, 39-year-old Marco Perego Saldana. (Yep, he took her last name and she took his; she’s Zoe Saldana Perego.) “I have the most perfect partner in my life,” she gushes. “I’ve never met a male like my husband, who [believes] any woman is naturally his equal.”
The equality theme is big in her family, as Zoe and Marco are intent on raising their sons in a gender-neutral household. “That ‘Mom’s the boss’ thing is not going to happen in our family, because that means he’s the fun one, the good guy, while I’m the disciplinarian,” says the actress, who was brought up by a single mom in the Dominican Republic after Zoe’s dad was killed in a car accident when she was 9. “I don’t want my kids to look at women like, ‘Oh, god, they’re so annoying! They always come with structure.’”
Shortly before arriving at the Avatar set, Zoe reveals a major car confession: She hopes to soon star in an all-female superhero film. The girl-power plan was hatched on a recent Marvel Studios photo shoot that assembled the current female members of the Marvel universe, including Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok), Brie Larson (Captain
Marvel), and Scarlett Johansson (she reprises her role as Black Widow in an as-yet-untitled movie).
Though the actresses are part of the Marvel family, some of them met only that day. “We were getting to know each other, and it became this lovefest,” Zoe says. “We started feeling bolder, braver, and super inspired, and it was decided: Marvel should have all-female-cast movies!”
As if on cue, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige entered, and the women seized their moment. “He was very overwhelmed, because we were all talking at the same time, with all this energy. We wouldn’t let him leave!”
Climbing out of the car, Zoe reflects on the real force that united them. “The energy came from connecting with each other, from being fearless and saying, ‘You know, we’re going to talk about what we truly feel,’ versus just staring each other down like we’ve always been encouraged to do as women.”
“And it is important that we have an all-female movie,” she adds. “Our girls need it. Our boys need it. We need it!”