“I can climb a tree and get my own mangoes, I’ll tell you that!” Zoe Saldana is a revelation. It’s not the tree climbing that shocks; her lithe dancer’s body looks easily capable of such a feat. It’s not even that she has quietly become one of the world’s most-watched actresses, starring in three of the most successful movie franchises ever (Avatar, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy). No, 38-year-old Saldana is a curveball because she’s the kind of person who leaves your eyes bright and your mind racing. The kind of person who reminds you how great it is when people are honest and direct and interested and interesting. And that is rare, rarer than it could be perhaps, and definitely rarer that it should be.
She is also something of a contradiction. “My family makes fun of me because there is more than one person in here, and they are like oil and vinegar,” says the actress. “One is super-easy, chilled; the other one is so rigid that even the temperature of my water needs to be perfect.”
“I know what it’s like to grow up with MTV, then be in a place where you’re doing homework by candlelight”
Saldana attributes that duality to her Gemini birthday, but her childhood likely had some bearing. With Dominican, Haitian, Puerto Rican and Lebanese ancestry, Saldana and her sisters, Mariel and Cisely, lived in New York until she was 10 years old, when their father died suddenly and they moved to the Dominican Republic. “I know what it’s like to grow up with fast food and MTV, then all of a sudden you’re in a place where the power goes out every three hours and you’re doing your homework by candlelight.”
“The high road is saying, ‘You’re a d**k! I’m not asking you to idolize me, I’m asking you to pay me equally’”
She mentions this not as a lament, but to explain the impact of such varying influences on a young woman. “We moved to a small community: one culture, one religious belief, one opinion about women. Latinos are traditionalists at heart, and super-machistas. Even though the women are the matriarchs, it’s still a man’s world.”
Saldana’s response? To become a champion of women. By proving she could do anything she set her mind and body to (she spent six months training in martial arts, archery and horse riding for the physically demanding role of alien Neytiri in Avatar) and by actively deciding to make things better. Take the issue of female equality in Hollywood: it’s a discussion Saldana thinks we need to keep having. Loudly. “The high road is no longer silent,” she instructs. “The high road is speaking up and saying, ‘You’re a d**k! What you are doing is unfair. I’m not asking you to idolize me, I’m asking you to pay me equally, because you always come to me whenever you need me for a press tour!’”
And she’s not letting the rest of us off the hook here, either. Our role is not just to read or to listen and nod. “The responsibility can’t only fall on women in the public eye. The audience have the power,” says Saldana. “They are the ones buying the tickets to all these man-made movies. There are films being made by female directors, by female writers, with lead female roles, but women are not going to those movies. We’re going with our boyfriends to hold their hands to go see a movie that we couldn’t care less about!”
She leans in now, hypnotic. “As women in positions of power, we have to use it to help other women. I got used to being the only girl in the room. Look at The Losers, look at Star Trek… It’s lonely! I couldn’t care less about male-driven stories and war movies, not because I’m not an intellectual individual, but because I want to know what’s happening to a woman.”
It’s something of a continuous crescendo, a conversation with Zoe Saldana. Even when she’s discussing baby sleeping techniques, she speaks with passion. She’s only just met you, but she’s with you. Like the woman she met in the baby-changing queue in a Vancouver restaurant, and discovered that she too had given birth prematurely to twins (Saldana’s boys, with her husband, Italian artist Marco Perego, are now one and a half years old). The actress connected with her in the space of a diaper change, exchanged numbers, and when the family left Vancouver after Star Trek Beyond wrapped, they passed on all of their toys and clothes.
Of course, fortune has favored her, too. Those adorable sons, Cy (named after Cy Twombly, Perego’s favorite artist) and Bowie (named after the late singer), who, when they arrive on the set of today’s photoshoot, stretch eager arms out to their mother and spin with her under the bright studio lights. A husband who stays on the set all day, marveling at his wife’s transformation into a music icon.
“We work as much at home as we do outside. Love is a lot of work. But it’s work you should take pleasure in”
Saldana is not oblivious to her position. Without naming names – though she previously dated actor Bradley Cooper – she reveals that she learned some tough lessons on the way to happiness. “We feel sad for friends who are with [unworthy men], but when we have a true gem, we take it for granted. When a man is wonderful, it’s infinitely sexier than a ‘real’ man! Men are beasts, creatures that can blow my mind. But when a good man has walked beside you? That stops the show.”
Perego travels back and forth from wherever the family are on location to his LA studio. “We are never apart for more than a week,” says Saldana. “We don’t want distance to come between us because we are creatures of habit. Even when we fight, the goal is to never go to sleep angry. And to practice love; to work just as much at home as we do outside. Love is a lot of work. But it’s work that you should take pleasure in doing.”
Saldana’s work ethic cannot be faulted. She’s just finished five months of filming for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and then there’s Cinestar, the production company she runs with her sisters – they’ve just signed up to produce Gone Missing, a documentary about Canada’s huge numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women. As an actor, she works with Hollywood’s A-list: James Cameron on Avatar; James Gunn on Guardians…; Ben Affleck on next year’s Live by Night; and, until this recent installment, J.J. Abrams for Star Trek. It was Abrams who handpicked her for the role of Lieutenant Uhura.
“James Cameron came to work when we were shooting Avatar and said, ‘There’s a surprise visit today, I hope you thank me later!’” says the actress. “At that time, Avatar was this mysterious thing – every director wanted a day pass to the set, so he used that to bring J.J. over. I didn’t know, but they’d been in touch about me the entire time.”
Abrams passed on the baton for Star Trek Beyond because filming clashed with another project, a little thing called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “We missed him,” says Saldana, “but to know that he was realizing his dream was beautiful. And Justin [Lin] did a great job – he killed it!”
Another change to proceedings was British actor Simon Pegg taking on writing duties alongside his on-screen role as Scotty. “He doesn’t know this, but my family and I have been devoted fans since [his film] Shaun of the Dead,” reveals Saldana. “I love his writing; I love the choices he makes for the characters. We were in safe hands.”
While hard work doesn’t faze her, Saldana is making changes in her life to stay healthy. Along with her mother and sisters, she has a disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. “Your body doesn’t have the energy it needs to filter toxins, causing it to believe that it has an infection, so it’s always inflamed,” she explains. “You create antibodies that attack your glands, so you have to eat clean.”
It’s tough for foodies like Saldana and Perego, but these days they are gluten- and dairy-free. “I had a great time in my twenties,” says the actress. “Then your doctor says you’re losing calcium in your bones. What the f**k is that?! I would hear those conversations with my mom and grandma, thinking I’d never get there. I’m going to live forever! But all of a sudden it hits you; it’s from night to day.”
“I learned early on that in order for me to be OK, I need to surround myself with better people than me”
It’s difficult to look at Saldana and imagine she is anything other than genetically blessed. For all her talk of pounding it out at the gym with the other moms, there is something otherworldly about the actress that befits her sci-fi successes. If she wasn’t so grounded, that is. “I learned early on that in order for me to be OK, I need to surround myself with better people than me.” She pauses, sensing a protest. “I’m not being hard on myself, I’m being honest with myself. I have the tendency to get lost in whatever environment I create for myself. And I’m an artist; I’m prone to vanity. So I look to better people than me – my husband, my sisters, my parents and my friends. And I’m like, as long as I’m surrounded by you people, every time I want to go shallow, you guys always remind me that it’s not about me.” We told you – full of surprises, this one.
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.