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.”
|Saldana greets Gamora fans at the “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” premiere.
“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. “I don’t need to play Juana, the prostitute from Washington Heights, in every movie,” she told Complex Magazine. “I’m fine with being poor.”
She didn’t commit to living in Los Angeles until 2006, and didn’t learn to drive until she was 30. Around the time she grabbed the wheel on land, she blasted off into space in “Star Trek” and “Avatar,” the first two franchises that turbocharged her career; in 2014, “Guardians of the Galaxy” joined that lineup.
Whether her skin is blue, green or brown, a Saldana heroine is smart, fearless and emotionally open, even when playing, say, interplanetary assassin Gamora who’s scared of nothing but love. Her characters crack jokes and bash evil, and they’re always the most capable person in the room. And they move — those years of ballet taught Saldana to express a world of emotions in the swoop of an arm.
“Science fiction is a universe where a person like me who is unimaginable is imaginable by so many filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and James Cameron and James Gunn,” says Saldana. “I got to really flourish in this genre. I got to be brave and I got to be strong and I got to play characters that weren’t only the daughter, the wife, the girlfriend. I was a warrior and I was relevant to the storyline, and I’m very proud of the path that I’ve chosen for myself by avoiding falling into stereotypical boxes.”
I got to really flourish in [science fiction]. I got to be brave and I got to be strong and I got to play characters that weren’t only the daughter, the wife, the girlfriend.”
Last year, around the time Saldana’s worldwide receipts crossed $6 billion dollars, she came face-to-face with her wax figure at Hollywood’s Madame Tussauds, a “numbing experience,” she explains. “There’s a part of me that’s looking at all of my imperfections, all of the things I don’t like about myself — I’m just going to admit it, because it’s human. And then there’s another part of me that’s like, ‘Wow, I guess the things that I’ve done and the stories that I’ve been a part of are resonating.’ ”
When Saldana got the call that she’d been given a star on the Walk of Fame, her husband, Italian painter Marco Perego-Saldana, began to cry. She was uncharacteristically stoic.
“Really, really, good news makes me sort of have an out-of-body experience.” Today, however, Saldana chokes up. “It’s taken me a year to digest it and it’s finally sinking in that this recognition is really important for someone like me. Because all I know how to do is just work like everybody else around me. I believed I could, and to be recognized for that means much more than what I want to acknowledge.
“According to mainstream America, I fit the profile of a person that would have gotten lost in a broken system,” says Saldana. “If I had ever surrendered to the impossibilities that were given to me, I don’t think I would have ever been in ‘The Terminal,’ ‘Drumline,’ ‘Avatar.’”
In February, Saldana launched the website BESE (pronounced “bee-say”) to highlight scientists, activists, historical figures and newsmakers who don’t make headlines, from Sylvia Mendez, who won a major California school segregation case in 1946 when she was just 9 years old, to Guatemalan artificial intelligence whiz Luis Von Ahn, the inventor of Captcha, the online test to distinguish a human from a bot. It’s her own Walk of Fame for people who deserve to be part of history.
“It’s important to be seen and be heard because it is the proof that you are here and you mattered. BESE is a manifestation of the gift I was given of being nurtured by amazing role models,” says Saldana. “They saw me, they heard me, they believed in me, and their conviction of what I would be capable of doing gave me the confidence that I needed to believe that I can do anything.”
Recently, Saldana Instagrammed a still from “Crossroads” on #flashbackfriday, a young girl in a ridiculous shirt and low-slung jeans.
What would she tell that kid about the future? The warrior queen of outer space pivots back to her home planet and quotes Louis Armstrong: “What a wonderful world — this world is great.”
What: Zoe Saldana receives a star on the Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m. May 3
Where: 6920 Hollywood Blvd.