Zoe Saldana’s first credited role was a small part in a 1999 episode of Law & Order. Fifteen years later she rules the world of geek blockbusters, being a part of the ongoing Avatar saga (films two through four start shooting next year), the rebooted Star Trek series and now, with Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If she can get a part in any of the upcoming Star Wars movies her dominance will be complete.
In Guardians of the Galaxy she plays a character very, very unlike her previous roles. Gamora is a cold-blooded assassin, a green-skinned warrior who was raised from childhood simply to murder. When interviewing James Gunn (that interview will be published later this week!) he revealed the secret to why he cast Saldana: she seemed like a big pain in the ass. So I had to ask her about that.
Q: I was talking to James Gunn and he told me about the first time he talked to you on the phone and he thought, from that conversation, that you would be a big pain in the ass. He said that he wanted exactly that energy for Gamora. Can you talk about your working relationship with James?
ZS: My working relationship with James is actually really great. He’s tough, he’s very determined, he’s very passionate, he knows what he wants. That gives you, as an actor, a sense of security you sometimes don’t find in other filmmakers. Sometimes it’s good to have a platform from which you can jump, and James provides that without making you feel limited, by giving you the room to add things.
It’s funny - when I got off the phone with James, I didn’t think he was going to be a pain in the ass but I certainly thought he was going to be someone who would fight for what he believes. That’s the way I like to work and the way I like to live my life. I like to be around people who are very passionate. People that won’t fight but that will be very over-protective and outspoken about their opinion, their point of view, their ideas. That’s who James Gunn is and that’s who I am too. Our debates were sometimes intense, but they were always with so much love because in the end of the day it was never personal. It was always for the sake of trying to do a better job for Gamora, for the movie, for the moment.
Q: He said there was a similarity you have with Gamora - that you both have a lot of street in you. Can you talk about how you see this character?
ZS: If I ask you to play a badass for me you’re going to bring whatever your background’s idea of a badass is. I’m from Queens, New York, I partially grew up in the Caribbean, there’s a little urban in me! I kind of thought I wanted to make her fighting very stealth, I always thought she was a fencer because the sword was her weapon of choice. She’s very primal, she chooses to fight with her hands and with knives as opposed to rapid weapons that don’t give you any physical contact. She has to have a level of street in her to make all these choices she’s made in her life.
Q: We talk a lot these days about women in film and strong female characters. Do you consider Gamora to be a strong character beyond her physical strength?
ZS: I think her strength comes from wanting to protect herself, from keeping her guard up. She was very abused, she was taken from her planet, she was forced into a life of violence and treachery and at the end of the day that wouldn’t have been the route she would have taken had she had the right to choose. There’s a vulnerability about Gamora that makes her strong, in my eyes. She has a sense of justice because she’s seen so many wrong things being done to creatures all around the galaxy and on her own planet and she just wants it over. She’s willing to die to not have to fight anymore. I saw that as a vulnerability that made her very fragile to me.
Q: What is the role Gamora has on this team?
ZS: She’s sort of the one who has common sense. Rocket comes off to her like this mad scientist, like he’s just out of his mind. Quill is a thief, so therefore he cannot be trusted - he’s a liar and a womanizer. Drax is a man with a lot of baggage! I think she questions his level of intelligence. Then she has Groot, and I think Groot is the only creature where she goes, ‘You’re alright. You get it.’ She’s with these guys and they’re all stuck in their own minds and feeling sorry for themselves and being selfish and she’s going, ‘Don’t think about yourselves, think about what you’re doing to others.’ She’s the voice of reason.
Q: You occupy an interesting space in the nerd world, in that you’re now involved in three major geek franchises. You have Avatar, you have Star Trek and now you’re in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What is it about these scifi movies that attracts you?
ZS: A compilation of things. I get to work with amazing filmmakers who are visionaries. They give themselves the right to imagine the unimaginable. I’m the kind of person that, even if I wasn’t in this business, and I was at a BBQ and someone like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams was at that BBQ - and they weren’t filmmakers - we’d still end up talking. I’d be in that group. I’d gravitate towards those people more - they’re such interesting creatures to me!
You find a way to work with people you have more in common with.
I like being in space because there are better parts for women in space. I don’t have to subject myself to just being the love interest or playing a character that doesn’t feel relevant to the story or playing a woman that doesn’t feel like an actual depiction of a real woman. When I read films in space and I’m working with these kinds of filmmakers there’s a neutral sense to the way they develop characters. It makes me feel very significant, very relevant and very excited.
Q: The franchise model requires you to sign on for multiple pictures, and you’re on multiple series with multiple picture commitments. Is it hard for you to look at these commitments and realize at some point you may have to turn down an interesting smaller role because you’re locked into Avatar 3 years in advance?
ZS: I hope not. If there is a great role I hope they’ll wait until I finish Avatar 3! I like the opportunity being a part of these films has provided for my career in other genres. The notoriety that I’ve gotten by being part of these films that are liked by so many people around the world allows me, on the off-time from these films, to do great characters or to be part of great projects that are small but just as special. I’m able to also keep working with great filmmakers and actors and crew people.