Zoe Saldana - Hollywood's new action queen goes into orbit

Zoe Saldana played no-nonsense heroines in Star Trek and Avatar, and she's just as tough in her latest film, The Losers. The actress tells Gill Pringle why she wants to 'kick some ass'

Friday 07 May 2010 00:00 BST

After spending months trotting the global red carpet with the director James Cameron and her co-star Sam Worthington during the awards season, Zoe Saldana grew a little weary of the "Who's she?" whispers from Avatar fans.

Saldana, of course, famously spent more than two years rehearsing and performing the role of Avatar's beautiful Neytiri, although ultimately she is a blue motion-capture version of herself for the entire film. Not that she is complaining. The sci-fi 3D film has since broken all box-office records, taking in a staggering $2.72bn worldwide, and sending her career spinning into outer space in the process.

But, lest anybody still fail to recognise her face, she hopes to change that forever by starring in two films released within the space of a few days – Sylvain White's action flick The Losers and, alongside Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, Neil LaBute's comedy remake Death at a Funeral. (She also recently wrapped Burning Palms, a dark ensemble drama set in Los Angeles, in which she stars alongside Nick Stahl and Rosamund Pike.)

Rivalling Angelina Jolie as Hollywood's go-to girl for tough female action roles, the 31-year-old actress is proving a formidable adversary. "I love working with the boys, and I probably do that more than most actresses. I got to do it on Star Trek, Pirates of the Caribbean and now this," she says, clearly relishing her position as the only female cast-member of The Losers, starring opposite Jason Patric, Chris Evans and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. "It just makes me feel sexy, I guess. And these kinds of films – sci-fi and action – with all-male crews are just the kind of films I want to make. I love girls, don't get me wrong. I'd do a Jane Austen film any day. But, as a woman, to get to play rough characters that are usually part of more male-driven stories, gives me a lot of freedom and versatility in terms of my career."

Don't imagine that working with the boys makes her job any easier. "When you're the only girl in a cast, I almost feel like you have twice as much work to do because you don't want to be singled out. You're already the only girl, so if you're the one that says, 'I can't do this' or whatever, it's gonna be like 'Oh, my gosh, she's wimping out because she's a girl', so I toughed it out. I really wanted to impress the guys. I like being around men. I feel like I can hold my own and Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] was absolutely amazing in the fight scenes. There was a couple of moments there where I'd immediately look at him and go, 'Oh my God, did I really hit you hard in your head?!'

"It also helps when you get along with the actor and Jeffrey was such a gentleman and so respectful because – trust me – as a woman, try doing that with a frickin' prick! Been there, and it's not a good day at work. You're the only one that's naked and you have to act like you're not aware that you're naked and, not only that, you have to flip your hair and have an orgasm. It's really no fun. So when you work with a good director and a good actor, that makes it seem like a regular Tuesday, and then love scenes are like any other fight scenes."

When asked if she holds a secret burning desire for more traditional female roles, she frowns, "Like the damsel in distress? Yes, of course. But I want to play great characters, too. Right now, I feel like Hollywood has made a living out of portraying women to be such canker sores; like we just have to be rescued all the time because we're so incompetent when in reality sometimes art needs to reflect what's going on in real life, and in today's society – especially in American society – women are doing so much. I am from Queens – I'm not from that era where I was baking cookies. I grew up in Queens in the 1980s where women were the care-takers and they were the soldiers and I'm in that phase right now and, not until I burn that, will I be the damsel in distress. But, right now, I like holding the gun and I like participating in saving the day because I think it's really sexy."

Unafraid of stereotyping she adds: "I do recognise that but, for the moment, I've decided to continue exploring this kind of role and it's not like I'm only aiming to just be like Lara Croft or whatever. But I do like it therefore that requires a certain kind of training. I do like to stay on my toes and therefore I like to take care of my body."

No wimp when it comes to punishing training schedules, she was thrilled when the former martial-arts champ Garrett Warren was hired as stunt coordinator on The Losers. "He trained me on Avatar, so he's the one who beat me up and knows exactly what my body can do at times when I didn't even know I could do it. He knows my weaknesses and my abilities. With my dance background, if I'm taught well, I think I'm pretty much able to do anything. So by time we got to Puerto Rico for The Losers, we basically substituted the bow and arrow for guns and kicks. I trained with Garrett for eight months, doing martial arts and weight-lifting, and it was very different to Avatar – just to be a human at least. In Avatar, I had to walk a certain way because I had a tail and the action was in a more constrained environment. I was always wired and there was a level of safety at all time for the stunts, whereas with The Losers, every location was a warehouse or a hanger, and we're just whooping out guns and there's stuff firing at you. I did full weaponry training and learned how to plant a pretty lethal kick, which really paid off. I pretty much pulled off half of my stunts instead of just reading the paper all day."

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Equally adept at fighting with or without heels, she discusses a certain hotel-room scene where she takes out Morgan in flats: "Honestly, I could have done it in black Gucci boots, too. But they wanted no heels, so I just thought, OK, heels or no heels, a woman can still kick a man's ass if she wants."

Sylvain White, the director, can't sing her praises enough: "As Aisha, Zoe is a warrior," he says. "She was like a jaguar – shrewd and fast, and always there when you don't know she is. It's a powerful female role in an action movie, where usually you have the female in distress or the side-kick girlfriend. But she's a full, active action component and actually saves the day."

Like any actress who gets to play tough women, Saldana's success has been dogged by the inevitable lesbian rumours, which she shrugs off. In her private life, she has enjoyed a romance with the actor Keith Britton for the past five years, having met him in 2004 on the set of the crime drama Haven, a film which ignited Saldana's career, if not Britton's.

While flexing some muscle on screen, in person she has a dancer's poise and femininity. Born Zoe Yadira Zaldana Nazario in the US to a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother, she moved with her family to the Dominican Republic when she was 10 years old and enrolled in a prestigious dance school. Returning to New York aged 17, she performed with a local theatre company, her dance experience helping land her first big role as a willful ballerina in the 2000 film Center Stage. Four years later, she tasted major recognition with breakout roles in Haven, The Terminal and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Discussing her recent giddy career high of Avatar, she says: "You wouldn't believe how validating it's been; to get the acknowledgement and respect of your peers, of directors like Steven Spielberg or Sylvain White, takes years. You have to be patient, but it also brings it back to, 'Why did I become an artist?' I didn't become an artist because I wanted people to recognise my face before they recognised my work. I wanted them to know my work," says Saldana.

Of course, today's billion-dollar question is that Avatar sequel. "I really don't know," she smiles. "It's whatever the boss says. Whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen. And the good thing that we all know about Jim is that – and which is not so good sometimes – we may have to wait 10 years for it but, by time he does come around, he gives you something that sort of changes your life, or at least touches it in such a way. So I do know that Avatar 2 will be just as good as the first one because Jim is the S.H.I.T! I'm just so proud of Jim and feel so honoured to have worked with him on such a close basis and Sam, who is one of the most selfless, brilliant actors I've ever worked with. And to get to work with Jim for two years and get to become his friend; get to fight with Jim; to get to laugh and be yelled at by Jim – to see Jim yelling while you're hiding under a table. I was like 'I love this!' It was absolutely brilliant. And, just because I've done it before, doesn't mean it will be some overnight thing. Jim already knows how long it took me – six or seven months maybe – to get into training as Neytiri. I can't just slip back into the Na'vi language; it's not something I can turn on and off. Everything has a learning skill and preparation," says the actress.

Having brought a whole new sexuality to the role of Uhura in last year's Star Trek, she is understandably anxious to get back on the bridge of the USS Enterprise but – like the millions of Trekkies out there – she is still awaiting news of a sequel: "Trust me, I email J J [Abrams] every other day, just like the rest of us, and we're just like, 'What the fuck, dude?' J J is an amazingly talented man, full of surprises. I heard through the grapevine that we might be starting back into the Enterprise next year. I think it will be really great. As for Uhura and Spock? Everyone's putting in their two cents. I don't care as long as I get to kick some ass."

'The Losers' is released on 28 May and 'Death at a Funeral' on 2 June

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