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

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