Words by Chesley Turner
Photographs by Perou
Zoe Saldana laughs with a sharp, staccato outburst that belies her physical grace. But when you hear it, you’re hearing the authentic expression of a tough Latina from Queens. Zoe’s a study in juxtapositions that combine to create this extraordinarily unique woman.
Think of it — she splits her time between L.A. and Milan. She made an impact on screen with Center Stage and also Avatar. She’s confident in her talents, yet humble before her icons and the women that raised her. Put away your preconceptions: Let’s get to know Zoe.
Moves caught up with Zoe right after she wrapped filming for Rosemary’s Baby, a 4-hour mini-series set to air on NBC. This modern adaptation of the dark subject matter, a pregnant woman battling some pretty daunting suspicions about her neighbor, is set in the City of Lights. Polanski’s classic has been re-envisioned by another Pole, but this time, it’s a woman. “Words cannot describe how inspiring Agnieszka Holland is for women. She’s absolutely needed in our community because of the kind of woman she is, the kind of artist. She’s tough, but she’s dedicated to her craft.”
“I barely got to see Paris.” She laughs her signature laugh.
Artistry is paramount with Zoe. “Every frame – I shit you not – every frame is a work of art. But also, our DP (Director of Photography) was just marvelous. It’s great to be working with these kinds of artists. They’re old-school because they’re of a certain age, but their material is flawless.”
Beyond the astute direction, it seems that filming in Paris is quite a different experience than filming in the U S of A. “The artists here in France, and the crew, they’re just elegant in how respectful they are. There were moments in which we were starving, there were moments in which we were cold, and it was definitely very humbling.”
Okay, well, they weren’t exactly starving. “You know, there’s no take-out and there’s zip, zero delivery. No delivery. So I, as an American, felt so hopeless and exhausted at the end of the day. So I just started bringing my food back from the caterer’s from work. It’s the one city in the world where you get to eat great food all the time and I’m literally eating leftovers – which, by the way, was delicious gourmet food.” And after the wrap party and the champagne and the celebration? She did what any Parisian would do. She walked. “Vera Steinberg is my makeup artist that I’ve been working with for years. It was so good for her and I to just walk. And that’s what we did. At one o’clock in the morning, we were still walking around Paris, in the Marais. It was just– it was so– it was better than getting a massage!”
Zoe alludes to how important it is to her to be surrounded by accomplished women artists when she relates her experiences with Rosemary’s Baby. And she’s very clear that the mantle of the role model is one she does not take lightly. “The older I get, it is a duty, it is an absolute duty. I feel that I have to give back.” Especially women, she says. “We’re too divided. And yes, we are moving forward, but I wish the pace was faster. Because it’s very heartbreaking whenever you work with women and they just prefer to be the only woman or to work alone.”
One stand-out from the crowd that she’s looked up to? Any guesses? Whoopi Goldberg. At the end of last year, Zoe and Whoopi sat down together for an interview for “Watch What Happens.” She was a more than a little starstruck. “I couldn’t believe that I was next to Whoopi Goldberg. I think I did control myself. But this woman has impacted my life since I can remember in such a beautiful, positive way. To see such a beautiful face…And she was quite unique, you know. She was the only one of her kind.” Zoe references the booming film industry of the 80’s when Whoopi Goldberg was a lone, extremely individual actress in a predominately white-washed casting lot. “She was taking risks. She was also very androgynous her whole life. Whoopi Goldberg has done it her way.” When they met, it struck Zoe how loving, generous, and open she was. “Just everything a leader should be, and a role model should be. She’s basically my idol. I remember telling her and her daughter, ‘Can we please be friends? I live in LA but if I’m ever in New York–‘ and she goes ‘Baby, yes, come by!’ and it made me want to cry!”
It wasn’t just meeting Whoopi Goldberg; it was that she was meeting a woman of confidence and kindness, who also happens to be a woman of color. “It’s very powerful. I feel that I am in a very small group because of the color of my skin, because of my background and because I am a woman–primarily because I am a woman. You kind of feel alone a lot. And when you do try to reach out to a woman and you get cut off at the knees, it really hurts. Trust me, the worst feeling I’ve had in this business has been when I’ve gone up to a woman, just trying to touch her at least, for being so inspiring in my life. To have that same woman be a major disappointment can be really heartbreaking. So to be able to meet a real woman that embraces other women is like divine intervention. It felt very spiritual. I don’t know how else to put it.”
But even while there’s a bit of the starry-eyed girl in her, Zoe also has very clear perspective on the challenges facing women in the film industry, despite the difficult strides made by actresses like Goldberg. The substance is great, but it’s all being told from a man’s perspective. “We go to the movies and we pay to see men tell us their stories. For me, on a Friday night when I want to go to a movie, the older I’m getting, the more I want to see women, as opposed to just sitting down and watching another male actor jump through a cliff to kill the bad guys, never cry, be such a macho, and have all those one-liners that are so stupid and ridiculous. All the while, the women in the film are simply swept off their feet. That’s such an unrealistic thing.”
Here she laughs again, “To see women nowadays swept off their feet? Come on, let’s be real.”
So she’ll choose to stay at home and have a glass of wine with friends, sharing an intellectual conversation, rather than throw more money at another male-dominated movie. When will that change? When will films with female protagonists begin to gain some ground? “The consumer, believe it or not, is the one that is the boss, is the one that gets to choose. And we are the ones who get to make it for you.” So women of New York, remember that next time you fork over $20 to catch a flick. The way you spend your cash is being analyzed on the back-end. Throw your money in the wrong direction, and we’ll just keep seeing those male dominated box office reports.
Now, as a woman in her early 30s, Zoe has set aside identifiers like “ingenue” and “starlet.” We asked how she would describe herself, and she took our breath away:
“I am an artist. I am no different than a clown. I am no different than an animal act at a circus. I am no different than a singer, a painter, a poet. Any person who does anything with passion and imagination is an artist, and that is what I am. I want my work to be what is famous about me. And not my name, not my face, not my life.
“Words like ‘starlet’, I don’t understand them. Because we’re all made of stars. And I know it’s a quote from like a fucking song or something, but I do believe that we are made of stardust. So yeah, I’m just an artist – that’s getting paid now! Not tomorrow, but I’ll still be a fucking artist, trust me.”
And in this, it’s clear that Zoe has taken a page from her husband. What do you do with passion? “You let it out! Like my husband says, ‘You just vomit it.’ My husband has a very thick Italian accent, and he says, ‘you just vomitate it’ and I love that!”
Although she was in Milan visiting family when we chatted, part of Zoe’s heart will always belong in New York City, for one very big reason. “My family. As soon as I land, I’m calling my mom and my grandma and they’re coming into the city. New York is home. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s the place that, as I’m landing, I’m hungry, I want to laugh, I want to cry– everything. I’m so comfortable in New York.”
It’s also, she confesses, where her true Queens side shows through. “I’m a former hoochie mama, and I’m very proud of it. So as soon as I get out of the plane, I’m like, ‘Yo, what’s up? How you doin’? What happened?’” Zoe’s proud of her Latina roots, and particularly proud of the strong women in her life. Her grandmother and mother? “They are opinionated to a fault. You could be at mass at the Vatican, and my grandmother would just be like, ‘mmm…can I say something?’” Zoe laughs, no doubt imagining this scene playing out. “‘Because what I was gonna say was…’ and you’re like, ‘Aw…here’ we go!’” It brings up an interesting sidebar, though, because if Saldana’s grandmother actually was to voice her opinion in the Vatican, she’d be speaking to the first Pope to ever hail from Latin America, Pope Francis. She exclaims, “Baby, he’s Latino! We are dancing every day! Like, one of us is in the Vatican, and he’s the POPE! No, we don’t call him “Francis.” He’s not “Francois.” He’s Francisco! I mean – I shouldn’t say that he’s the shit. He is a great man, a great leader. We’re proud to know that he is Latino as well!”
Zoe’s pride in her Latino heritage is clear, in particular because of her mother and grandmother. “We are who we are because of the women who raised us. But also because of the men that loved these women. Because it takes a stronger man to be with a woman that makes her own choices, that doesn’t need an opinion when they make a decision.” And the women in her life, she admits, have been through so much. That’s precisely what makes them strong and formidable Saldana women. “They’re unbreakable, because everything has been broken. There’s nothing else to break.”
Reverent and irreverent, respectful but brash and brassy, a confident woman. You can take the girl out of Queens, but there’s no need to take the Queens out of the girl.