Zoe Saldana Sets out to Conquer the Galaxy and Beyond

By Nicholson, Amy | Variety, May 2, 2018 | Go to article overview

Zoe Saldana Sets out to Conquer the Galaxy and Beyond


Nicholson, Amy, Variety


The first time Zoe Saldana saw the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where on May 3 she'll be awarded her own plaque, the ground moved. Saldana, then a 20-year-old ballerina from Queens, was visiting Los Angeles with a theater troupe of kids from all five boroughs who wrote and performed skits about guns and gangs. At 1 a.m., they slipped out of their hotel to see the stars.

"We were inner-city kids and obviously you're looking for, like, Arnold Schwarzenegger," laughs Saldana from her now-permanent home in L.A. on an early morning when, for once, she's not on set. They walked the streets for two hours talking about their futures.

"'Oh my God, we're here! Our dreams are possible!" beams Saldana, "and then, 'What was that!?'" An earthquake.

"I'm a first-generation Latino and part of my culture is super superstitious. We rely on signs," says Saldana. "If I would have followed in the footsteps of my forefathers and foremothers, I think I would have taken that as a sign and become a dentist or a psychologist. But thank God I decided to ignore it and pursue my dreams of becoming an actress."

Saldana was the family drama queen, a teasing nickname thrown at her when she'd fight with her siblings. She loved music, theater, dance, books, museums, film "and nothing else - not science, not math, not physics. I had a complex about that."

In the Dominican Republic, where she spent seven years of her childhood after her father died in a car accident, she and her mom, a classic sci-fi buff who loved "Metropolis" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," watched movies from all over.

"What we call here in the States 'foreign films,' were just considered films. It gave us a diverse tone for storytelling that I'm still so grateful for."

Young Saldana knew she'd be an artist, maybe a dancer. Acting came later when the family moved back to New York and her mother, a courtroom translator and hotel maid, and new stepfather appraised their extroverted daughter and said, "You're living in the theater capital of the world, almost. Just go and see what's out there."

They were "blissfully ignorant" says Saldana, "but because we had nothing, we always had nothing to lose." She'd page through Backstage Magazine and the Village Voice trying to figure out the system - "What were auditions? What was SAG? Oh, the union. What IS a union?" - and naively barge into open calls asking if she could sing.

She felt luckier than the other kids in her theater troupe, who channeled their traumas into battle-scarred, uplifting scripts. "My sister and I were kind of the only part of the troupe that didn't really have anything violent that we can relate to, but through our compassion and empathy we held on to the group - we were being really inspired."

Sometimes, jaded advisers would caution her to keep her ambitions in check. "They'd say, 'Oh honey, I'm not discouraging you. I just know it's going to be really difficult - you're an ethnic woman,' " Saldana recalls. "I remember hearing that for the very first time and going, 'What's ethnic?'"

She'd go home and her mother would ask, "'Do you believe that you're different in a way that makes you less-than?' I'm like, 'Mom, no. I look in the mirror and there's nothing wrong with me.' " Her mom would smile and say, "Great, keep going."

"I always felt limitless," says Saldana. She played small parts Off Broadway and that got her signed by a manager. From there, she auditioned for soap operas and TV commercials and booked an episode of "Law & Order," "which if you're a New York actor, you know you're heading in the right direction if you book 'Law & Order.'"

The year after her earth-rumbling Hollywood trip, she landed a lead role in the dance drama "Center Stage," then she got cast in the road-trip pic "Crossroads" as Britney Spears' snobby best friend who snipes, "I can't help it if I'm popular, so just lay off."

Box office popularity took longer. Saldana turned down parts she felt were typecasting. …

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