A report by Lina Das for the Daily Mail.
For an actress used to playing aliens and manning spaceships in sci-fi blockbusters from Avatar to Star Trek, ZOE SALDANA’s latest role presented a new challenge: the real world
Actress Zoe Saldana would be the first to admit that very little fazes her, but when Ben Affleck approached her to star in his latest movie, Live by Night, she was, she says, beset by doubts.
Set during the 1920s prohibition era in the US, the film required Zoe to play a Cuban revolutionary and love interest to Ben’s morally conflicted mobster. ‘It felt inconceivable to me because so many of the projects I’ve done have been set in the future,’ she says. ‘I had to psych myself into this project and I thought to myself: “Man, I’ve been doing films in space for too long!”
At 38, Zoe has starred in three of the most popular sci-fi movie franchises of recent times
She’s not kidding. Not only has Zoe been lucky enough to traverse various cinematic galaxies during the course of her career but, at 38, she has starred in three of the most popular sci-fi movie franchises of recent times. In the successful Star Trek reboot she played the iconic Lieutenant Uhura opposite Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk; in the Marvel superhero movie Guardians of the Galaxy she was a deadly green-skinned assassin. And in James Cameron’s 2009 epic Avatar, she shifted hues, playing the blue-skinned alien Neytiri – the lead role that catapulted Zoe straight to Hollywood’s A-list in what went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time, taking almost $3 billion at the box office.
Little wonder, then, that Zoe was nervous about setting foot in the past. ‘But Ben [who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film] put me at ease,’ she says.
He had performed similar multitasking feats for the 2012 film Argo (set during the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis), winning the Oscar for best picture, ‘and even though he had a lot on his plate on the set of Live by Night, he handled it with such grace and never allowed one role to interfere with the other,’ she says. ‘He also listened to my suggestions. It’s wonderful to see that humility in a film-maker, and when the director tells you that they want only you for the part, you feel pretty blessed.’
One of the benefits of having a blue-skinned alien from the fictional kingdom of Pandora as your most famous role to date is that you get to enjoy the benefits of A-list status while still being able to walk down the street relatively untroubled – a state of affairs that suits Zoe perfectly.
Currently on a break from her gruelling schedule (she has just finished filming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 alongside Bradley Cooper, and is soon to embark on an eye-watering four-sequel filming schedule for Avatar), Zoe is chatting away.
Beside her play her adorably rambunctious twin two-year-old sons Bowie and Cy by her husband, artist Marco Perego. ‘I didn’t know what fatigue was until I became a mother,’ she says. ‘When my sister had her daughter 13 years ago, she was a single mum so [our family] helped raise her and I thought, “Ah, kids are easy!” Then my husband and I had these two Mowglis who are so savage and so playful, and boy, was I wrong! But we’re loving it.’
Her children have already had a taste of the peripatetic lifestyle of an actor, travelling to Savannah, Georgia, with their mother while she filmed Live by Night alongside Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning and Chris Cooper.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote Shutter Island), the film follows Joe Coughlin (Ben), the son of a Boston police captain who turns his back on his upbringing by becoming a bootlegger and subsequently a notorious gangster in Florida.
The film is at times brutal but softened by the presence of Zoe who, as Joe’s eventual wife Graciella Suarez, brings peace and tranquillity to her husband’s life.
They meet – and enjoy an instant attraction – when Joe heads to Florida to expand his bootlegging business with Graciella’s brother Esteban.
‘I’ve never played a character like that before,’ says Zoe. ‘I’m usually too busy playing women who know how to use swords and fire guns. But Graciella is a lovely, gracious lady whose eventual ambition is to give shelter to the abandoned wives and kids in her neighbourhood. She is totally in love with her partner and is a redeeming influence for him. She is one of the only characters who lives by day, whereas all the others are compelled to live by night.’
The film depicts a US at odds with itself, with a simmering unease between the neighbouring Irish, Italian and Cuban Americans in some ways reflecting the divisions in the US today, particularly in light of the election of Donald Trump.
Back in September, Zoe and her fellow Star Trek cast members posted a message on Facebook decrying Trump’s controversial presidential campaign and warning that his being elected ‘would take this country backward, perhaps disastrously’.
Today, however, Zoe’s stance has softened. ‘It is my duty as an American to respect whichever president the people have chosen,’ she says. ‘I’m hoping for greatness from him, but if he doesn’t follow through with that, I’ll protest. I’m very patriotic and, now more than ever, I have to be pure about my hopes for my country. I’m a first-generation Latina and it’s a rising group in the US, so in 40 years it’s estimated we will compose about 30 per cent of the population. That’s a big number and I take great pride in it.’
Having been born in New Jersey to a Puerto Rican mother and a father from the Dominican Republic, Zoe admits that, ‘I’ve been reminded my whole life that I am different from whatever the common flavour of the community or society is. And Hollywood is not immune to that. It’s as though you’re invited to the party, but that’s your chair and you shouldn’t try to claim any other chair.’
Perhaps it explains why she has often gravitated towards roles where she plays the outsider, the alien. ‘Maybe subconsciously I ran away from one-dimensional characters,’ she admits. ‘But being different has given me an empathetic approach to life that prohibits me from judging others the way that I’m constantly judged.’
The middle of three sisters (her siblings Cisely and Mariel both live nearby in Los Angeles), Zoe spent her formative years in Queens, New York. Her young world was shattered, however, when her father Aridio was killed in a car accident when she was nine. ‘That was tough,’ she says. ‘My father had the best laugh and, even now, it’s heartbreaking that I’ll never hear it or see him again. But you live with the heartache and the pain. I don’t ever want it to go because I never want to forget who he was.’
Having been born in New Jersey to a Puerto Rican mother and a father from the Dominican Republic, Zoe admits that, ‘I’ve been reminded my whole life that I am different from whatever the common flavour of the community or society is. And Hollywood is not immune to that.’
After her father’s death, Zoe and her sisters were sent to live with relatives in the Dominican Republic while their mother Asalia, believing New York to be too unsafe a city in which to raise children on her own, remained there in order to work. To support her family, she took on two jobs, as a courtroom translator and a hotel maid. ‘It was really difficult for her,’ says Zoe. ‘She was just 29 when my father passed and to lose your other half at such a young age with three children to raise was grim.
‘She was a trouper but it was stressful and sometimes that stress would seep down to us. I remember on my 14th birthday I was waiting for the bus to go to ballet class and I was thinking: “I’m so stressed – why is that?” And it was because I could feel the stress my mum was going through. But I immersed myself in ballet and would sometimes dance six hours a day after school because it kept me focused and gave me real happiness.’
Zoe attended the acclaimed Ecos Espacio de Danza academy in Santo Domingo and, after returning to New York at 17, her passion for performing led her to join the New York Youth Theater. It was her training as a dancer, though, that helped secure her first movie role, playing Eva, a headstrong ballerina in the 2000 film Center Stage.
Thereafter she appeared in the Britney Spears film Crossroads (2002), played a female pirate in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2003) and starred in the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks movie The Terminal (2004). But it was in 2009 that her career really caught fire thanks to starring roles in both Avatar and Star Trek, and Zoe has scarcely looked back since.
She has been vocal about challenging the disparity in pay between women and their male co-stars, ‘and I’ve had many heated arguments about it,’ she says. ‘But it’s not as black and white as it seems. You’re often told [as an actress] that you’re not as popular as your male co-stars, and your team [of agents and managers] are told that, too, so they can also become doubtful. It’s almost like the fight is beaten out of you. But you have to take a stand and be pragmatic. Once you have your pros and cons, you then make a decision based on what you consider your worth to be and you fight for it. I’ve done it before,’ she adds, ‘and I felt like I was triumphant and it gave me proof that silence is no longer the high road – it’s actually speaking up about what you believe in.’
Does Zoe feel that some men might be intimidated by her outspokenness? ‘I don’t think men are consciously intimidated – I just think that they feel entitled; it’s embedded into their psyche. They can be friends or co-workers with the biggest hearts but have no idea they’re being sexist. They’re raising daughters and telling them the American Dream is out there, but once a woman speaks about [inequality] it becomes: “No, we’re not going to talk about that now.” That happens more than you think; and in our industry especially you can see the imbalance. There are more male directors, male writers, male producers and more male stories being told, and it’s an issue that we must address. It starts with us as individuals.’
Zoe’s husband Marco is, she cheerfully admits, ‘not a sexist man at all, which is a rarity – trust me, I’ve looked around! I’m always analysing everything that comes out of his mouth and I can honestly say he’s wonderful. But it works both ways: I try to make sure I don’t emasculate the men in my life either as that is just as wrong. It can manifest itself in many ways: speaking to men in a bad way, not listening to them and not allowing them to be fathers while parenting their kids. As mothers we can sometimes emasculate our partners a great deal. So I’m constantly checking myself, too. I have a partner who is very equal so I feel very lucky that I’m not going to f*** up our kids with him.’
The couple have adopted each other’s surnames – she is now Zoe Saldana-Perego and he Marco Perego-Saldana – and although they married three and a half years ago, she still refers to him rather sweetly as ‘the man I’m dating. We’re totally still in the honeymoon stage of our relationship.’
The couple had met years earlier through mutual friends, and after they bumped into each other again on a plane a few years ago they dated for just three months before tying the knot at a ceremony in London. ‘I thought he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen so there was an attraction the first time I set eyes on my husband,’ she says. ‘But I guess we were both in different places in our lives and we were also with different people. But I’m happy that the second time around we had resolved a lot of things with all the people in our lives…and I’d resolved my anger issues towards men by my 20s,’ she laughs. ‘It meant that we were able to dedicate all our attention to each other and make our relationship work.’
Zoe’s exes include online entrepreneur Keith Britton, whom she dated for 11 years and was engaged to when they split, and actor Bradley Cooper, with whom she starred in the 2012 film The Words. ‘With Marco, it was the first time I had loved without fear,’ she says. ‘There had always been a sense of keeping my guard up and not wanting to be rejected or being the one to be left [in previous relationships], so I ended up only loving halfway. But one day I woke up and thought: “I don’t want to love this way – I feel so incomplete”, and then the right person came along while I was making that decision.
‘I didn’t date a lot before – I was always with people for long periods of time. But even when I was unhappy I didn’t discuss it, maybe because I’m a wimp!’ she laughs. ‘But as a girl you hear the fairytales and learn to fall in love with potential as opposed to reality. I think, though, that had I accepted what the man was really like, I wouldn’t have dated half the people I did.’
In Star Trek, Zoe’s character Uhura has a relationship with the cold, somewhat emotionless Spock, ‘but in relationships, I’m the one who can be very Spock-ish,’ she admits. ‘I can be withdrawn, pragmatic, and it’ll be my husband who says: “Relax, please. How was your day? How was my day? I love you. You love me. Fantastic!”’ she says, doing a rather nifty version of her husband’s Italian accent. ‘I was so rigid before I met him and he compelled me to laugh. He would tell me: “Look, I’m not going to yell at you. I’m not going to cheat on you, hit you or take your money. Just relax.” Now I know how great it is to date a warm, cuddly person.’
Zoe admits that her father’s death in part contributed to her fear of letting people get too close lest they disappear. ‘But even before that I was very guarded,’ she says. Her parents had a tempestuous relationship, splitting up at times: ‘My mum and dad weren’t always together when we were young. In a way, they were like teenagers dating, who also happened to have three kids. They truly loved each other and there was so much fire between them, but occasionally it ended up burning us all. They were young when they had us and I’m sure they would have loved each other differently had they met with more maturity. So one thing that I was adamant about was that I wouldn’t have kids young or to save [a relationship] or save myself. I wanted to have them when I felt happy and sound, and if I never got there, then I wouldn’t have had them. But, luckily, it all worked out in the end.’
Zoe’s family is still tight-knit, with the sisters gathering regularly with assorted husbands and kids in tow to watch football on the TV. ‘And my older sister Mariel is married to a Brummie, so we’ve visited England loads of times. I love the English – they’re fantastic people.’
Her mother eventually remarried when Zoe was 14 and her stepfather Hilario has, she says, been an impressive father figure. ‘He always helps us celebrate our father’s life and is the one who reminds us of his anniversary. He’s an amazing partner to my mother and I get as choked up talking about him as I do about my dad.’
Zoe recently revealed that she, her mother and her sisters all have the autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a condition that causes the body to filter toxins poorly, meaning that Zoe has to observe a gluten- and dairy-free diet. Other than that, however, she seems – by Hollywood standards at least – to possess a laid-back attitude to health and beauty. That can’t be hard, admittedly, when one has Zoe’s enviable good looks and dancer’s physique.
‘But every two weeks or so I’ll look at myself in the mirror while I’m brushing my teeth,’ she says, ‘and I’ll grab the skin on my face and body and pull it and stretch it to see how it looks. I go back and forth on the whole thing. Changing yourself to look like somebody else is something you should probably talk through with a therapist, but I have no problem with anyone trying to modify themselves. Today I don’t feel like I’m going to get anything done, but if tomorrow I do, I hope the people around me won’t judge. But if one day I do end up going under the knife, you know what? It’s my face, my body and my money, so I’ll do it!’
With a slate of upcoming films including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and Dominion, in which Zoe plays – guess what? – a half-human, half-alien, in addition to filming those four Avatar sequels back-to-back and raising her two boys, she admits that, ‘our lives are full. My husband is a full-time artist, we’re full-time family members and we do everything 100 per cent. Our household is full of different people and we feel grateful for that. I know this world will hurt our children, though, and I still have to figure out how to deal with that. Even now I’m reminded constantly that there are a lot of ignorant people around and I’ve even had friends look at my sons and say, “My God, they’re dark” and I’m, like, what the f*** does that mean? So I’ll have to address that in the future,’ she says.
She may, she says, take a leaf out of her mother’s book and encourage her children not to pay heed to the barriers imposed on them from outside. ‘I remember when I was a kid coming home from school,’ says Zoe, ‘and telling my mum: “The other kids at school are calling me the n-word and they’re calling me black,” My mum would say, “Well, black is the colour of your skin – what do you want me to say?” She never tried to uplift me by putting someone else down and she never paid attention to what people said. She simply told me: “You’re not black Zoe, you’re not tall Zoe, you’re not skinny Zoe – you’re just Zoe. You decide what kind of Zoe you want to be.”’
Given how far Zoe Saldana has come, her mother’s advice was, it seems, pretty spot-on.
Live By Night will be in cinemas from Friday