Science-fiction has almost always been skewed towards male characters. Just look at the BFI’s ranking of best sci-fi characters of all time; only two women – Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Gillian Anderson’s X-Files special agent Dana Scully – rank in the top 20, beating computer representation by one (HAL-9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Thankfully, things are gradually changing in the movie business. The last two Star Wars films were both led by women, The Force Awakens starring Daisy Ridley as probable Skywalker Rey and Rogue One featuring Felicity Jones as rebel fighter Jyn Erso. Scarlett Johansson has become a fantastic action hero, playing Black Widow in The Avengers and the titular character in the box-office hit Lucy. There’s also Gal Gadot, who’s already won over legions of fans as Wonder Woman, while Brie Larson will soon become the Marvel cinematic universe’s first leading female superhero, Captain Marvel.
Despite all these fantastic performance, though, there is only one woman who can claim to have appeared in three of the most successful franchises of the last decade: Zoe Saldana. Since 2009, she has played Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura three times, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora twice, and Avatar’s Neytiri once, making her one of the most prolific science-fiction actors of the moment. Yet, somehow, Saldana is still an underdog when auditioning.
“There are so many boxes that exist, and you can grow a reputation for doing films in the same genre,” she says with a raspy voice, having picked up a cold the day before. “It’s hard when you go and fight for a role, because they’re like ‘I don’t know, man, you mean, it’s like the blue girl from Avatar? I don’t know, I want to go down a different route.’ I feel like a little bit of an underdog because I live in space, nobody wants me here on Earth.”
The main reason Saldana perhaps doesn’t have the star power of someone like Johansson is because she’s too often covered in layers of CGI and make-up. “I was pretty lucky,” her co-star Pom Klementieff says. “To get completely ready – hair, make-up, clothes – was two hours for me, really not that long compared with Nebula or Gamora, who took four hours for just hair and make-up. There were some pick-up calls that came at 2am, so it was pretty hard for them.”
Luckily, feeling like an underdog helped when it came to approaching Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn’s Star Wars-inspired space opera. Before the first film reached cinemas, even the most avid comic book fans struggled to recognise the Guardians, something that worked in the cast’s favour.
“When we started these movies, a lot of us felt like underdogs in our own right,” Saldana says. “Which played quite nicely because the Guardians are the underdogs of the Marvel universe. I remember when we went to San Diego Comic Con the first time. Everyone was like ‘Why the Guardians, out of all the heroes you can do?’ It just means you have a clean slate and you can do whatever you want. That’s what James Gunn did for us.”
While her character, Gamora, may remain an excellent killer, throughout the second instalment she’s less hard-hearted, playing a more motherly role within the group.
“Gamora’s completely opposite to how she was,” she says. “She’s found a family, she’s acclimating quite nicely. She’s playing this motherly role because she has to, she doesn’t have a choice. She has to keep the Guardians focussed and out of trouble and keeping them good. Before she was selfish and now there’s this nurturing thing that’s growing.”
Quite rightly, both Gamora and Avatar’s Neytiri have become fan favourites, both roles inspiring legions of women to wear heaps of blue and green make-up at various Comic Cons. Her co-star, Drax actor Dave Bautista, talks about “how euphoric that feeling is to inspire someone”, but for Saldana it’s something more.
“Seeing young girls look up to you as an action hero makes it hard to say no to these roles,” she says. “I remember what it was like to be a little girl and to have no icons that I could really love in action movies. If it wasn’t for Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner, I don’t know what I would have done. It’s funny, because both of these characters were nurtured by James Cameron and then I eventually ended up working with him. I hope there are those little girls like me that are always thinking outside the box and want something else and I’m able to fill a space and give women more options in terms of how they can think of themselves.”
As franchise enthusiasts will tell you, Saldana isn't going anywhere else anytime soon. Returning to Star Trek hasn’t been confirmed, but Gamora will feature in Avengers: Infinity War while Neytiri will no doubt play a fundamental role in the various Avatar sequels. Whereas some actors may not enjoy returning to the same character over and over again, Saldana seems thankful to have these various acting families she meets with numerous times over the years.
“Something like Star Trek prepared me for Guardians,” she says. “We’ve gone back three times and we’ve been hit really hard, with Anton’s passing. It’s only made us grow stronger. When you grow up with a cast and you continuously go back and experience there lives and your lives in different stages, you only take that as a gift, so I’m lucky that the films that I have betted on and have betted on me have been favourites to the audience.
“That they’ve been able to become franchises, I take it all in stride, I never take a day for granted. I will nurture my bonds with all the people I’ve met along the way with all these films. I just hope I get to know them for a very long time.”
‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2’ reaches cinemas 28 April
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