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By Ray Rogers | December 11, 2013 | People
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She rose to worldwide fame by effortlessly inhabiting a sensitive otherworldly being in Avatar and was right at home far off in outer space on the Starship Enterprise in the two recent Star Trek blockbusters. But back here on planet Earth, in the terse, bare-knuckle drama Out of the Furnace (in theaters December 6), Zoe Saldana had to stretch to play far outside of what comes naturally to her.
In the film, directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), the fierce, uncompromising Saldana plays a woman who makes safe choices, going against what she knows to be true in her heart. When her on-screen love, Christian Bale, is sent to prison, she abruptly settles down with a local policeman. Her exquisitely nuanced performance came from a place of compassion, says Saldana. “Why didn’t she visit him in jail? Why doesn’t she stand by her man?” she asks. “In order for me to understand, I couldn’t villainize her. I had to understand where this vulnerability comes from, this lack of strength—‘Why did I have to jump to the next person that was willing to take care of me? Why do I need to be taken care of?’ And then all of a sudden you’re left with a real human being that you have to play, and you can’t judge—you just have to be.”
What makes her small but essential role come to life is the depth of feeling Saldana brings to the character, says Cooper, who cast the actress after sitting with her for a brief meeting in which he could immediately sense “she has a deep sense of humanity—she’s very in touch with her emotions and is so real, so present.”
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The 5-foot-7 Saldana, a staple on best-dressed lists, is a stunningly gorgeous woman by anyone’s standards. But “she also has a very beautiful interior life, and that’s why we’re compelled to watch her,” Cooper says. “She leaps off the screen and is vital to the narrative. When she’s on-screen, she’s so vivid and beautifully realized. I wanted the audience to wish for more of her, because, ultimately, Christian Bale’s character wishes for more of her in his life.”
For as much as she lays bare on the big screen, she’s just as intensely private off-screen. Never one to flaunt her love life in the pages of the tabloids, she kept mum about an on-again off-again spell with Bradley Cooper after she split with the longtime boyfriend she was engaged to (entrepreneur/actor Keith Britton, whom she was with for 11 years). More recently, she has refused to confirm or deny reports from the likes of US Weekly that she wed Italian artist Marco Perego in a secret ceremony this June. When asked if her recent real-life marital decisions gave her any insights into the on-screen character’s tough choices, she puts up an instant stop sign. “Come on!” she says. “What does that have to do with acting?”
Her explanation is not just typical Hollywood starlet lip service. Saldana is resolutely serious about keeping her work and home life separate. “I love what I do so much, but I love my [personal] life more. And I realized throughout the years of being in this business that the only way to maintain some kind of sanity is to protect that which is most dear to you, which is your life and everyone that’s in it.”
That, she notes, “provides a sanity that gives me the ability to be insane by playing other people and living in other bodies for a long period of time, and then coming back home and knowing that my roots are so grounded that it’s easy for me to go back to being myself. The only way I can continue having that is by absolutely avoiding the questions that are asked.”
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She also has a protective streak when it comes to friends and family. “I like respecting all of the family members that are in my life and my friends. These are people that choose to be in my life; they’re not choosing to be in what I do. So I owe it to them to keep them protected.”
Relaxing in bed at the boutique Hotel Pavillon de la Reine on the chic Place des Vosges in Paris, though it’s nearly 4 pm her time during our interview, she’s getting some much needed downtime after what sounds like a taxing four-month shoot for Guardians of the Galaxy, based on the Marvel Comics superhero team, which wrapped just one day earlier.
“It was a very hard, challenging process because I was wearing makeup and then prosthetics, and the last third of the movie we were working six days a week, so everybody’s spent,” she says, explaining that a day of bed rest, followed by a night out in Paris, is just what she needs.
The country of France played a pivotal role in the life of her most-anticipated upcoming project, stepping into the formidable shoes of singer-songwriter Nina Simone. It’s a dream job for Saldana, who recalls a time when seeing the icon live in concert was on her bucket list. She never had the chance, as Simone died in 2003 at age 70 (Saldana was at Jazz Fest in New Orleans when she heard the news, and recalls being devastated). But she has the next best thing, bringing the legendary performer and outspoken civil rights activist to life on the big screen.
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Yet as with many things in her life, the job came with some obstacles. When news broke that Saldana signed on, haters quickly started in on the choice—she’s too light, too skinny, too Hollywood. Even Simone’s own daughter Lisa Simone Kelly weighed in on the casting: “My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark,” she told The New York Times. “Appearance-wise, this is not the best choice.”
The controversy only made Saldana’s resolve that much stronger. “It’s one of the scariest projects I’ve ever been involved with because it was about an iconic figure, and there were so many political [issues] around it from the beginning, but I really wanted it to be a love song to Nina Simone and I wanted it to just come from a place of absolute love,” she says.
As for backlash about her appearance, she’s not having any of it: “I can’t stop to think about who thinks me to be black enough or not black enough. I know who I am. I like who I am. And I’m not going to explain who I am. I’ve always been like that—I was raised to be that way.”
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It’s not the first time she’s weathered hurtful words. As a child, Saldana was bullied for her looks and otherness after her family uprooted from the melting pot of Queens, New York, to the far more insular Dominican Republic. Her mother is of Puerto Rican descent, and her father was from the Dominican Republic. After the latter died in a car crash when Saldana was just 9 years old, her mother packed up and moved Zoe and her two sisters with her to the Dominican Republic to be surrounded by family.
“It was culture shock at first. Kids are going to poke at whatever is foreign to them, and here we come: these three girls speaking English. We’re also very intelligent and kind of sassy, and we were going to a very prestigious private school and we were one of the least fortunate families. Kids tend to be a little cruel to what they don’t know. But even though throughout those years we kind of suffered because we got bullied, as soon as we left we just became these forces. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and it was not going to kill us, trust me!”
Enduring those formative years made her “absolutely fearless. I’ve been called everything, I’ve been told everything. And yet the moment you realize they were coming from a place of complete fear because they knew that you were the one who was going to get away, you’re free.”
The experience also instilled in Saldana and her sisters a firm grounding in their heritage. “It gave us such a beautiful understanding of our ancestry, and the beauty of what it’s like to be Latina. That, at the end of the day, is the biggest essence of my sisters and me—that whatever we have in our character, our fire, our stubbornness, our love, it’s all because of our roots. We’re so proud of it.”
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The tight-knit siblings remain just as close today, all of them living in Los Angeles (“We can’t live apart!” Saldana says), where they formed a film production company, Cinestar. “It’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, to always be with my sisters and work with them. Now we’re finally reaping the benefits of all these years that we’ve been planning, working, and starting our own company,” she says.
With Cinestar, the trio is looking to “shed light on the Hispanic market,” which, she notes, is “a growing and thriving population in America, filled with consumers, voters, tax payers, and avid vocal speakers. We want to finally be able to make projects that, somewhere or another, have a Hispanic presence.”
Saldana and her sisters are never far from one another. They rang in 2013 together in Miami (dinner at Catch, followed by partying at SL), en route to the Dominican Republic to start the year off with some R&R. Saldana, who premiered her 2011 feature, Colombiana, in Miami Beach, stays at the Yacht Club or the Hotel Victor when in Miami, and never comes to town without a stop at Cuban restaurant Puerto Sagua. “Oh, my God! The ropa with white rice!” she raves. “I’m a Caribbean girl. Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans are not even distant cousins, we’re first cousins, so the food is very similar, and I love Cuban food. This place is authentic; it’s been there forever. A friend introduced me to it 10 years ago, and even if I’m in Miami for just one afternoon, I have to stop [there]!”
This New Year’s still feels a long way off for Saldana, with her schedule crammed with film promotion for Out of the Furnace a nd t he upcoming thriller Blood Ties, from French director/actor Guillaume Canet, as well as post-production and editing with director Cynthia Mort on Nina (on which Saldana is also a producer). But right now she’s thrilled for a small break with her beau in the City of Light.
“I am totally lounging in bed. I haven’t opened a single curtain, and I don’t even know what time it is,” she says with a laugh. “For some reason, I keep resisting the urge to say ‘we,’ but moving on...” she says with what sounds like a wink, as she describes her current position, curled up under the covers. Never mind that I’d been instructed to call her hotel and ask for the room under the name Marco Perego. A restorative bath is on tap next, and then the Parisian night beckons. “I’m going to dress up in a very Frenchy way and go out and walk around, and have some caviar!”
Photography by Randall Slavin; Styling by Kris Zero at starworksartists.com; Hair by Mara Roszak at starworksartists.com; Makeup by Vera Steimberg (makeupbyvera.com) for the Criterion Group Inc.; Manicure by Beth Fricke for artistsbytimothypriano.com; Set design by Marc Rarh