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Avatar: An Interview with Zoe Saldana

Fans of Zoe Saldana will get a one-two punch from the actress this week with the April 22nd release of Avatar on Blue-ray and DVD, and the April 23rd release of The Losers in theatres. has a one-on-one interview with Saldana conducted shortly before Avatar was released.
Interview conducted by and copyright 2009 Edward Gross

When she’s not manning the communications console of the starship Enterprise or donning her motion capture outfit for Avatar, the odds are you’ll find Zoe Saldana getting her geek on with Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, the Travel Channel series in which the host travels around the world to feast on local cuisine — often times to the audience’s horror.

“I’m not known to watch things over and over again,” Saldana smiles sheepishly, “but I can watch his episodes over and over again. I totally freaking geek for Anthony Bourdain.”

Reassuringly, she also gets pleasure from Nintendo DS. “It stimulates my brain,” she offers matter of factly, “and I have this fear of becoming dumber as I get older. The brain is a muscle and if I don’t exercise my brain, then I’m going to be dumb. So I’m really hooked on Nintendo DS for brain activity.”

She’s also hooked on acting. Born on June 19, 1978 in New Jersey to a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother, Saldana’s early roles include the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads as well as the part of the pirate Anamarie in the original Pirates of the Caribbean before graduating to the roles of Uhura in Abrams’ take on Star Trek and the alien Neytiri in Cameron’s Avatar.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: Having worked with J.J. Abrams on Star Trek and James Cameron on Avatar, I wonder if there’s a way to compare and contrast the two of them as filmmakers.

ZOE SALDANA: It’s like comparing every actor or every writer. People are going to be different. They’re both special for being authentic. J.J. is known and there is an essence to him, and there’s a James Cameron essence. I will say that they did meet and I was sort of their connecting point. It was just amazing, because they’re both very much fans of the other. Jim definitely surprised me. He was shooting one day on the set and he said, “I have a surprise for you,” and there was J.J. and J.J. — you should have seen his face. He was so happy to be there as a filmmaker and a fan of Jim. They were both talking and Jim was pretty much putting in a good word for me, and J.J. was, like, “You don’t have to sell me. I’m already sold on Zoe. I want her for the part [of Uhura]. She doesn’t want to do it.” Jim looked at me and said, “What? You don’t want to do it?” I said, “That’s not what I said,” it was just very funny. I was hesitant of Star Trek for a slight second for the same way that J.J. was hesitant to direct. It was stepping into these big shoes that already existed since before I was born, and there was a real fear of failing the fans.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: Shifting to Avatar, the making of it has to be so different from anything that you’ve experienced.

ZOE SALDANA: It is, and the part that makes it very surreal is that it was created out of thin air by Jim. For Jim to have created these characters, this world and this concept… it was not like he created it three years ago, but more than 10 years ago he was germinating this story. It says a lot about the kind of person he is and the way that Jim’s brain works. It would be foolish to compare because one thing would have nothing to do with the other, but I would give Jim props the same way I would give Gene Roddenberry a lot of props for conceiving a show like Star Trek, or Star Wars and George Lucas. I really have all the hope in the world that this will be the kind of story and the kind of character you’re going to have a hard time getting over.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: Can you describe the character and her appeal to you?

ZOE SALDANA: I play Neytiri. She’s a princess of her tribe and she’s also a very strong warrior. It’s so many things combined when it comes to Neytiri. I almost feel like it’s Taming of the Shrew, where she’s a rebellious, very spirited person who just wants to be in the forest and live her life. But all of a sudden she finds herself in a place where she has to make strong decisions and follow a certain tradition. Sometimes things end up working in her favor and sometimes they don’t. To me she’s a very typical girl in a sense, but at the same time what I loved the most about her is the fact that she was very strong. There was no such thing as dependence when it came to her, in any way, not to her parents, not to a partner, not to a friend. She was a person who could do anything on her own.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: So her arc should be a strong one.

ZOE SALDANA: You start out with that rebellious nature where you think you need no one and nothing, but then you come to realize that you do need everything that’s around you in order to be happy. It’s a very universal story when it comes to Avatar; it’s what happens when we need to explore other planets and galaxies in order for us to continue surviving, because we ravaged the earth of its fruits. What happens when you get to a foreign place and this place happens to be habited and they’re not okay with you coming into their territory and moving in as though it’s yours? It’s the trials and tribulations that happen as a consequence of that.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: As an actress, what was the experience like working in this film? Obviously this was a far cry from walking in, hitting your marks and performing.

ZOE SALDANA: It was amazing; it was learning constantly every day. I’ve never felt so hungry to learn. Watching someone like Jim and working with actors like Sigourney and Sam Worthington… and it’s not like we were working together for only three months. We were working together inconsistently for two years and it was sort of like a thesis. It came to feel like it was a baby that we were all needing to feed in order for this child to continue to exist. We were these amazing, responsible parents. I’m telling you, it was a very beautiful and magical thing. I think the longevity of shooting was what made it so special, because you were in it long enough to know and learn from it. And Jim is an amazing filmmaker. He’s very stern, very adamant about what he wants, because he’s already gone through this vision in his head more than a million times for more than 10 years. Although it’s really good when you come into a stable environment, in this case your interpretation is highly considered. It was very surreal for me as an actor, because we have very little control sometimes of our performances, of the story we’re trying to tell and our characters. But when you get to work with a filmmaker that has nothing but the utmost dignity to be loyal to what you’re doing, it’s heaven.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: So he’s not so focused on creating this non-existent world that he’s losing track of the actors and the characters and all of that? Other filmmakers, who shall go nameless, in recent years seem more intent on creating a digital reality than offering up a solid story and characters to populate that world.

ZOE SALDANA: Not at all. He is in tune with everything. The vision, everybody’s vision, with the story, with the characters. Jim created these characters and they’re alive in this world. They are alive. The way he cares for them, for Jake and Neytiri and Grace and Pandora, the planet, it was the most beautiful thing for me to see. As a filmmaker and artist he is so amazingly delicate with something that any other director could just come in to the story and shit all over it and walk out. When Jim tells a story, it’s very sacred to him. I love that about him; it was infectious. I left that project with that notion and I really hope that I stay with it forever. Look at Titanic and the way he shot it with the class and grace and consideration that he needed to have, because this really happened and people lost their lives. He tracked down the same company in England that made the China for the original ship and they made it for the movie. That, to me, is art. That is the fundament of art, and Jim embodies that from head to toe. We were always in awe of him. A year into shooting Avatar, Sam and I were calling Jim our friend. This man was everything and more than we had envisioned and we were always very psyched about that.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: There’s also, unfortunately, the reports of the other side of that on his past films. On Titantic, for instance, he supposedly drove some of his cast crazy with that attention to detail.

ZOE SALDANA: That’s for weak people. I’m not going to personally diss on anybody, but if you can’t hang, then don’t sign on for it. It’s a [frick]ing sinking ship. You mean to tell me you’re going to be frustrated because you’re wet for three months? Shut up and take it! But that’s the kind of person that I am. I will cry wolf when I’m missing a limb, but so far I’ve got my four limbs. My thing is that there were moments in which I felt overwhelmed, because this character had gotten so much into my skin and this was so alive to me. The characters in the story were dictating where it wanted to go. To go at it with James Cameron is a [frick]ing privilege, let me tell you. There were times when I’d say, “You know, Jim, I absolutely disagree with you,” and Jim would take it, also. It was amazing.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: On a personal level, what was it that drew you to the character and made you want to bring her to life?

ZOE SALDANA: I’m not going to point out the good things, because that’s up to the people that know me. You know, “She’s really kind and I’m kind, too.” [laughs] I think her rebellious nature; the ability to always go on your own and do your own thing. That’s the one thing where I felt that we were sisters.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: How about the actual physical performing for this film? What did that encompass, your shooting this film?

ZOE SALDANA: It’s motion capture, and motion capture is not like you’re coming to work and just lending your voice and a couple of mannerisms that the filmmakers can try and simulate. Everything you do, your character does. You put on this Velcro suit and these dots have sensors so that every time you move, it reflects the light these cameras on the ceiling kick off. You also have these dots that need to be on specific muscle areas in your face and you have a helmet with a camera that is documenting all of these things. All of these dots are fed into this system and that’s placed into this world. You are your character and your character is you. That means that if I sneeze, my character sneezes simultaneously with me. That gives you so much peace, because what you are doing is exactly what is translating into the character. You can only pray that you work with amazing directors who will honor your performance so that by the time you get to see it on the screen, it’s you. There were times when I would look at her and Sam’s character, Jake, and I kept losing track of who was blue and who was otherwise. I can’t explain it, but hopefully it will happen to the audience once it gets used to seeing the movie.
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