Zoe Saldana: Boldly going where no one has gone before

Zoe Saldana has played a blue-skinned alien and a green-faced warrior, and is now set to make her third appearance as communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in this summer's "Star Trek Beyond." Her dream: being able to use a real-life transporter.
Mark Mann

Zoe Saldana has battled Klingons, a genocidal maniac from the Kree Empire and an evil corporation intent on plundering Pandora in the Alpha Centauri star system.

Starring in some of the biggest sci-fi franchises in recent years -- as Lt. Nyota Uhura in "Star Trek," the assassin Gamora in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and Neytiri in "Avatar" -- wasn't a fluke. Saldana, a dancer who got her start in the 2000 teen drama "Center Stage," says movies set in space offer female actors something that's hard for them to find: strong, meaningful characters.

"If I wasn't doing these sci-fi movies, I would be at the mercy of filmmakers that would just look my way if they need a girlfriend or sexy woman of color in their movie," says Saldana, who took time out from filming the sequel to "Guardians of the Galaxy" to talk to CNET. "Space is different...but we can still do better. We can still give women more weight to carry in their roles."

Saldana and her sisters, Mariel and Cisely, are doing their part to provide that heft through their production company, Cinestar. "We hope our TV series and films inspire not only fellow Latinos and women, but also all people to be comfortable with who they are," says Mariel. "The fact that our sister is a role model for girls is extremely rewarding."

Saldana spoke with Connie Guglielmo, editor in chief of CNET News, about why she finds acting in sci-fi movies empowering, how she missed out on Nintendo and why she hopes someone will invent a real-life transporter. Here's an edited transcript of their conversations.

Q: Why do you think sci-fi as a genre offers women more-interesting characters?

It allows you to experiment with other roles besides someone's girlfriend, someone's mother, someone's wife, someone's victim. No matter how big or small your part may be, you feel much more relevant in space. You're helping the whole crew save the day. You're translating alien languages as opposed to being the one that encourages [someone else] to win the day.

You said you really enjoyed working with directors James Cameron and J.J. Abrams because of the way they portray women. Can you explain?

James Cameron is one of those rare men in the film industry that really isn't threatened by women. He lets you know with the characters he creates that he does spend time thinking about why women are who they are, why they think the way they do. He is aware of the sacrifices and how hard-working women can be -- Sarah Connor [in "The Terminator"], Rose [in "Titanic"].

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Mark Mann

Jamie Lee Curtis' role in "True Lies" was a-mazing. She wasn't a victim. It wasn't like she found out [mock crying], "My God, you're, like, a spy. I don't know what to do."

She was like, "Oh fuck, my husband's a spy. I'm gonna fucking spy myself. I'm gonna get to where his mission is. I'm gonna fuck his mission up and I'm gonna tell him, 'You are in big trouble cuz you lied.'"

I love that. She gets to discover that she is a badass machine and she can save her family just like her man saves every mission he does. I get goose bumps. I really do.

J.J. Abrams -- look at the role he created in the new "Star Wars." It's through the eyes of a female and we're not gonna compromise the strength of the movie. We're not gonna compromise her bravery. It's like, you guys still have your testosterone-driven PEW! PEW! PEW! [pretends to fire a blaster] and it's gonna be a girl that's doing it.

Filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and James Cameron -- they're practicing what they preach, and they're having their art imitate the life that they see and the utopia they would like to bring to life. And they let you be as collaborative, as suggestive, as opinionated, as passionate... I don't work to make friends; I don't work to be liked. I work to bring a character to life, to walk away not feeling that I'm a disappointment in myself. That I gave it my all.

When I'm met on the other side by a filmmaker that sees that, recognizes that and has a duel with me, I feel really seen. I feel like I matter. And for an artist and also for a woman, that sometimes can be everything, because we don't feel like we matter in a lot of things.

You've said your favorite character so far is Neytiri in "Avatar." What makes her special?

I created this character with James Cameron. He allowed me to add textures to her. There's the way she would walk -- if her tail is this strong, then it's an extra limb. It's not just a tail. It's not gonna just look pretty and be in the background stealing the attention from everything. This tail's gonna dictate the way that she walks, the way that she moves her neck. And he was like, "Yes, absolutely. Let's research it. Let's confirm it. Let's call a doctor that would let us know that this makes sense." I loved that. I felt so present when that happened.

And then you've been on other sides where you feel like wallpaper [laughs]. And you just go, "OK, even this is a learning experience of what not to continuously represent." So [for] all those young women out there that are looking up to me -- who are 5 today and will be 25 tomorrow -- I want to be a part of those elements that form them, that made them feel, "I felt seen, I felt relevant, I felt challenged. And one of those people was this actress named Zoe Saldana, and she did all these roles and all these movies that I really enjoyed. And that's what I want to be."

If I do that, then yes, I guess as an artist I will find a way to live forever.

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Mark Mann

You're going to live forever anyway because you have three action figures modeled on your characters. What did you think about becoming an action figure?

That's when I turn into, like, a chick and get really critical. My first reaction is I'm happy, I'm proud, I'm humbled.

[But then] my God -- that isn't my face. Why do they do the hair like that? Those arms are just a little too like [Vin] Diesel. And then you realize, Can you just stop and appreciate the fact that you're an action figure.

Your next film is set in the past. Are you moving away from space?

I've been doing the same thing for the past seven years because these films are sequels. I would like to try new things. I did a movie called "Live by Night" that Ben Affleck directed, and it takes place in the 1920s and 1930s around the whole Prohibition era.

I read the script and I thought it was really interesting. I was excited about being alongside females like Elle Fanning and Sienna Miller and working with Ben, because I think he's an amazing storyteller. I had a blast.

I'm exploring something I never thought I would want to do. But I like the future, I do. I am the kind of human being that looks forward as opposed to back.

You engage regularly with your fans on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but you've said you also worry about online bullying. What does social media mean to you?

I really think that we could use this for a greater good, because it gives you a direct connection to your fans. You're able to better represent yourself than [being at] the mercy of the media that sometimes doesn't capture you so accurately, or doesn't interpret you in the way you would have wished.

The fans are really listening. And they're also looking for words of inspiration, words of encouragement. They want to find similarities with your personal experiences in order for them to feel that they can make a change somewhere.

Right now I'm experiencing what it's like to be on the negative side of social media. I was a part of a film called "Nina" and it's been getting a lot of negative traction because people [are] very passionate about their opinions. I'm trying my hardest to maintain an open heart and listen.

How much tech do you use?

Not enough. I love it. I love sitting down and watching people use tech. It makes me wish I was a little more tech savvy growing up, or at least more tech curious. I would have experimented doing more. I remember when Nintendo came out. [My mother] really didn't feel it was productive to spend the money buying us a Nintendo set. But now I know it would have been our introduction to technology. It's no different than a kid learning to play the piano. We would have found a way to have our brains work our thumbs.

What technology that hasn't been invented would you really love to have?

Anything to reduce the time to travel. I would be a test dummy once you can prove to me that if you energize me in New York I'm not gonna be like applesauce by the time I land in Paris. My body isn't going to just combust.

I like time travel because that means that you can take your kids anywhere and you just go, "Oh, where are you? In New York? I'm in LA. You're gonna go in an hour to the restaurant? All right, I'm gonna be there in half an hour."

The fact that I'm not going to live to have that conversation makes me a little jealous of future generations. That's how much I like the future. I don't like the past. The past is done. There's nothing we can do about it. 

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Go to www.cnet.com/zoe-saldana to see our video interview with Zoe Saldana