Zoe Saldana - The kick-ass geek who found fame as an alien

Despite working with some of Hollywood's top directors, Zoe Saldana had never quite jumped into the big league. That changed after Avatar, she tells James Mottram

Apparently when you become famous in Hollywood, it's not just fans that stop you in your tracks. Moments before arriving for our interview, Zoe Saldana gets accosted by Paul Haggis. She'd never met the Oscar-winning director of Crash before. "I was just coming up the stairs and he was like, 'Zoe! Hey, I'm Paul. Nice to meet you.' I'm just like, 'I feel so cool right now.'" Then again, that's what starring in the biggest film of all time will do for you – even if your likeness is nowhere to be seen on screen.

Since James Cameron's $2.7 billion-grossing 3D spectacle Avatar 18 months ago, the 33 year-old Saldana's stock has risen immeasurably. And this coming from an actress who'd already featured in the original 2003 Pirates of the Caribbean film, Steven Spielberg's The Terminal and as Lt. Uhura in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot. Still, while she passed by largely unnoticed in those films, playing the alien female lead in the groundbreaking Avatar – albeit one the colour of a Smurf – made people sit up and take notice. "In my geek mind," she says, "I accomplished everything I set out for when I did Avatar."

She may think of herself as a geek, but there's little of that on display today. Wearing a beautiful black-feather Lanvin dress, she's sporting a sizeable engagement ring, courtesy of her boyfriend of 10 years, actor and CEO of My Fashion Database Keith Britton. Already au fait with the world of fashion, last year, she modelled for Calvin Klein's underwear line Envy. "I learned how to dirt bike when I was nine," she purrs in the black-and-white spot, playing on her tough-girl image. "And I can be deadly with a bow and arrow. It's true. Don't mess with me. And I can watch action any day over romance."

Right now, action is where it's at for Saldana. "I think Avatar created a little monster in me!" she laughs, though recent films – heist movie Takers (a poor man's Heat) and CIA black ops yarn The Losers – were hardly ideal showcases for her talents. At least her latest, Colombiana, gives her a first solo lead – one that's been co-scripted by Luc Besson in the mould of his own 1990 female assassin classic Nikita. Looking lean and mean, Saldana plays Cataleya Restrepo, an elite killer who witnessed the slaughter of her parents in Bogota by drug-dealers when she was a child. "She felt to me like an open wound," she says. "I loved that fragility about this character."

A no-nonsense revenge tale, it's hardly Hamlet but it did allow her to indulge her Besson fantasies. As a child, she watched his 1988 aquatic classic The Big Blue. "It was just so beautiful and whimsical," she sighs. And she's already managed to trace a line between Besson's female characters, from Nikita to Mathilda (the would-be mini-hitgirl in Leon) to Leeloo (The Fifth Element) and now Cataleya. "Besides the tragedies that bind them as broken souls, there's a level of innocence that they have, because they were really young when they experienced violence. There's an animal-like approach to the violent nature within them."

Saldana seems to think in animal terms. Already her director from The Losers, Sylvain White, compared her to a jaguar – "shrewd and fast, and always there when you don't know she is". How about in her personal life? "Sometimes I'm very ape like, when I'm bouncing off the walls," she says, before telling me she's also "obsessed" with wolves. "From their social structure to their communities, I think we take more as a human species from wolves than lions. For me, the lion is such a loser! In the animal kingdom... he sleeps all day, steals from his women and eats his cubs. But they are beautiful – because they have great hair. Like a rock star, I guess!"

It's a random segue, but then Saldana has a habit of going off on brain-spinning tangents, when she's not being super-earnest about her "craft". "I was always a very physical child," she confides. "I was very hyper by nature. And my Mom used to say about my sisters and I that we were very feminine tomboys!" Born in New Jersey to a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother (which explains her alluring caramel-coloured skin) she was raised in Queens, until her family moved to the Dominican Republic when she was 10. It was there that she developed her love for dance, enrolling in an academy where she studied ballet, before she moved back to New York when she was 17.

Feeding into her first role as a ballerina in the 2000 film Centre Stage, within two years Saldana was starring alongside Britney Spears in Crossroads. This would be the point where you say 'and she didn't look back'. But scoring the role of Anamaria in Pirates of the Caribbean brought her down to earth with a thud. "I didn't like the experience of working on Pirates and I feel that it is my job to be completely honest. To me, that's what a Hollywood movie felt like. If that's what I have to witness, and have to go through, to do a Hollywood movie, I'd rather do something else." So what was wrong? "It was just too massive. You really felt the immensity of it. Just not my taste."

Push her further, and she clams up. "I will never get specific, because then we're going into gossip. It's nobody's business. And it's my right to never talk about that. It just wasn't for me." Did it not worry her? "I think for three or four months of that year I was like, 'I don't know if I really want to do this. Maybe I will do something else. Maybe theatre or go back to ballet.'" But then came The Terminal with Steven Spielberg "which was another Hollywood movie, and my experience was completely different. It felt to me more appropriate of what filmmaking should be about. So I kept chasing that dragon as opposed to the other one."

At least Avatar has given her greater career control. "Now that I'm picking these roles, I feel like they're picking me," she muses. Still, knowing that she may get pigeonholed as an all-action ass-kicker, Colombiana could be the last time that we see her unleash that inner animal. She's just wrapped the more cerebral The Words, the story of a writer who pays the price for plagiarism, in which she co-stars with Bradley Cooper. More intriguingly, she's just directed her first short. Sponsored by Glamour magazine, "It's going to be the first sci-fi motion capture 3D short they've ever done," she laughs. In fact, she's not quite ready to take on James Cameron yet (as the piece, KAyLien, follows a young girl's struggle with autism).

Soon to don that Starship Enterprise uniform once more for the upcoming Star Trek sequel, there's also the little matter of reprising her role as the blue-skinned Neyteri for the two proposed Avatar sequels. Details, please, Ms Saldana? "He's still being very protective about the script," she says of Cameron. "I know that he will release it to the studio and to the cast when he feels very confident with the direction that he wants to go with the story. I think that he's protecting it, and he has very good reason to do so. If you allow a lot of cooks in the kitchen, you might fall really closely in the danger zone of sequels and how you can easily mess something up."

Of course, the great irony with her career is that, despite being in the biggest hit of all time, she has still remained relatively anonymous – given her Avatar character was performed via the technique of motion capture and then created digitally. Did it ever concern her? "It did cross my mind, for a slight second, before we even started shooting Avatar, 'Well what if people don't recognise me?' Then there was a voice that told me 'Are you stupid?' I don't want people to know – or want to know – me in my personal life before they know my work. And after Avatar, I can still go out and pump gas and have a private life. But I got the respect of my peers and I got their attention."

Living in Los Angeles now, she certainly sounds like she has her head screwed on about the city. "It's just a whole bunch of land with homes built on it," she shrugs. "When I was younger, I would go and live for six months at a time in California. You went there with that idea that Hollywood was going to be this thing. But you have no idea what that thing is. And then you realise that it's the suburbs! You have to drive everywhere and it has traffic! And half of your neighbours have different professions."

If she sounds downbeat, she doesn't mean to. After all, just about everyone in Hollywood has got her number right now.

'Colombiana' opens on 9 September

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?