Zoe Saldana as Uhura in  Star Trek: Into Darkness

Zoe Saldana as Uhura in Star Trek: Into Darkness

In the movie business, there are few things more frustrating than being given just a glimpse of a hotly anticipated film. But when the international press gather in Los Angeles to see a mere nine minutes of Star Trek: Into Darkness, nobody is more desperate to see the rest than star Zoe Saldana. "You have no idea," she says, rolling her eyes emphatically. "And I'm a very impatient person. I just want to see it now now now now now!"

When we meet at the Four Seasons, Saldana, 34, has kicked off her designer heels and sits on the couch with a large, sequinned cushion on her lap. The cushion frequently becomes a prop for whatever takes the willowy actor's fancy mid-conversation: she hits it, throws it about, hugs it.

At one point she holds it out in front of her as a stand-in for industry woes. Imagining a work talking-to she says, "Sorry," before dropping it like a hot potato, then sniffing, "not mine to deal with. Good luck to you!"

It's a perfect introduction to an actor known for her forthright manner off screen and her all-in commitment on screen. Indeed, her impassioned performance in James Cameron's Avatar – as, thanks to the magic of motion capture technology, a nine-foot-tall blue alien princess – was so arresting that many commentators felt she should have been nominated for an Oscar. Given the quality of her work, it's not difficult to imagine there are statuettes in Saldana's future.

In contrast to the serene and unflappable communications officer Nyota Uhura, who Saldana is playing for the second time in Star Trek: into Darkness, she speaks quickly and emphatically, occasionally pausing to stab at the air with her finger, fire off a phrase in Spanish, or collapse into cascades of husky laughter.

"I'm very outspoken," she says, giggling at what quickly becomes an obvious statement, "but I've lost that violent edge of, 'Argh, I will fuck you up!' When you're young, and I don't know if it's hormones or whatever, you have so much anger. [But] after the anger subsides and wisdom and maturity and experience come in, you want to work out of love."

That mellowing is reflected in Saldana's Into Darkness performance. "She feels more comfortable in her own skin and what she does," she says of Uhura, "where she can have her captain trust her and she can also question her captain, so that was very interesting. The way that J. J. wrote it let you feel that she had grown and become more ..." she pauses, "... relaxed."

She's laughing as she says this, because Saldana is anything but relaxed. Not that she is stressed, more that there's a tremendous energy about her, much of which she credits to her mother's influence.

Born in New Jersey, Saldana's Dominican father Aridio died when she was nine, after which her Puerto Rican mother, Asalia Nazario, moved the family to the Dominican Republic. There, Saldana studied dance – ballet, Latin and jazz – at the ECOS Espacio de Danza Academy. Returning to Queens in the mid-'90s, Saldana became involved in community theatre. It was this combination of acting smarts and dance ability that led to her first major role, as headstrong ballerina Eva in the 2000 film Centre Stage.

She worked solidly from then on, but it wasn't until nine years later that she hit the big time. With roles in two of 2009's biggest blockbusters – J. J. Abrams' reboot of Star Trek, and as Neytiri in Avatar – it's safe to say she's now on a collision course for sci-fi superstardom.

In addition to her return to the Star Trek and Avatar universes, Saldana will play jazz singer Nina Simone in a forthcoming biopic. Her current dance card may not be short of meaty roles, but the rest of what she is offered, acting-wise, is more of a famine. She has said in the past that it's "boring" to play little more than "the support system" to male characters and her stance has only become more steadfast.

"It's tough. You wish there was more of an abundance of female presence, not only in characters, but also behind the scenes: writers, producers, directors," she says. "I love movies, and I will always see films, but as a woman I definitely want to see more of me. I want to see more women! I want to represent a real woman, because that's what I see around me every day. If you just want to dress me up to look pretty, I'll be like, 'Where's the part of the costume where it's brainy?' We're not just one thing, so when they write one-dimensional female characters, I don't even finish the script."

When she does finish reading scripts, it's because Saldana has made a point of working strictly with writers and directors who see female characters as more than just set decoration or love interests. "I want women to be more of the characters that are dealing with the bigger dilemmas [on screen], because I mean, I'm the protagonist of my life. When we write stories, why not tell it through the eyes of a woman? And if that's what you yearn for, then you stick to the directors, whether male or female, that don't discriminate and Jim [Cameron] and J. J. are known for that. You know they respect human beings as equals, and you want to work with a person like that and learn from them."

Indeed, such is Cameron's commitment to writing interesting female characters – his former co-producer Gale Ann Hurd said in 2009 that Cameron feels that "just about everything you could explore in a male action hero could be explored better with a woman" – it's no surprise that he and Saldana clicked creatively and that she will soon film two Avatar sequels with him in New Zealand.

The notoriously demanding director may well have met his match in his Avatar leading lady; earlier this year she told the website StarPulse that she had made her demands to Cameron clear: "I need at least six to seven months of training to get into Neytiri again. But the good thing about Jim is that he gives you something that changes your life."

And heading into sci-fi has certainly changed Saldana's. But no matter the career benefits and artistic opportunities the genre has given her, she has found it a very male work environment.

"In a workplace, especially where it's predominantly ruled by men, it's very hard for you to be heard. So it's not like you have to fight, you just have to continue to speak up and if they don't listen, it's like ..." She snaps her fingers in the air, then continues, "Guys! Guys! I'm right here! Nice tie. By the way, this is what I think about this."

As her star rises, Saldana appreciates the possibility that her own clout will mean she can give female filmmakers a leg-up into the industry. "In order for us to have a presence in Hollywood, we have to back each other up. And if you see script [written by a woman] that nobody wants to put money into, then you back it up," she says.

"The older I get, I am becoming more comfortable accepting the business side of filmmaking; it's not just art, art, art. And that is what has helped men succeed in business, because they're strategic and methodical and practical. It doesn't mean they're compromising any integrity of the art. In order for me to green-light a movie, I have to work with the tools that will facilitate that; I have to learn from women and men."

On the topic of romance, Saldana is equally forthright. Having reportedly dated her The Words co-star Bradley Cooper on and off for a year, Saldana was more often in the headlines as Cooper's alleged squeeze than she was for her work, a situation that she found infuriating.

"I wasn't built to be the wingman to a man – not in my life, not in my work – and I'm not just here to cater to a man. It's not natural to me," she says with a stern nod, before softening a little. "I can't even fake it, not even if I wanted to! But I don't want to battle men, I don't want to be men, I just want to work alongside them, not behind them; that's very important for me. And I try to apply that in every aspect of my life, whether personal or work-related."

Such is Saldana's commitment to the pursuit of equality that the topic consumes most of our time together, and her zeal – as she punches the air, thumps the couch cushions and widens her eyes – is infectious. She credits her matter-of-fact approach to equality to her mother's parenting techniques, which allowed the young Saldana to believe anything was possible. "I was never labelled in my house [with regards to] colour or gender by my mother," she recalls.

It was then, perhaps, a baptism of fire navigating the notoriously retrograde gender politics of Hollywood, but Saldana's upbringing equipped her with the confidence not to bend to every whim of studio executives. "I've worked enough and I've had enough experiences – whether good or bad – that have taught me what I want to duplicate," she says. Conversely, there have been mistakes she describes as "horrible" and never wants to repeat.

"I've been in situations, work-related, where I've felt sexism – and that is a very painful feeling," she says quietly. "But as I've got older I've realised that I can't just cry about it. Instead I have to say, 'What you said is uncalled for and shame on you and don't you ever do it again.' And I've said that to producers, to friends and to colleagues. I don't need to be a part of any movement to tell [them] what they said is completely uncalled for; I'm just Zoe, and you're wrong.

"As a woman," she continues, "it's very important to be opinionated about your feelings, and when something doesn't feel comfortable, you speak up. You might not be heard, but that's not your problem; you spoke up and that's what matters for you. If I feel like an idea comes that I strongly believe in, I have to say it. The older I get, I'm beginning to realise that I really do matter, and that what I go through is important, and that what I feel will never be wrong."

And if you have a problem with that, well, she's just Zoe, and you're wrong.

 


- originally published in Sunday Life, 2013