“I want to go big or go home,” says the Guardians of the Galaxy star
If you’re searching for clues about what makes Zoe Saldana tick, don’t look for them on the big screen. There are few working actors of her generation who have shown less of themselves on film. First of all, her looks are almost always obscured. In fact, the lithe, saucer-eyed actor’s highest-profile roles often require her to be unrecognizable: from her breakthrough performance as blue-skinned alien warrior Neytiri in the 2009 James Cameron blockbuster Avatar—for which her facial expressions were captured on a computer-generated character—to the green-hued martial arts mistress and “most dangerous woman in the universe,” Gamora, in Marvel’s box-office hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies. She’s found her niche playing comic-book heroes and reprising a Star Trek role, characters that are not of this world at all.
In reality, Saldana lives the grounded, sometimes gritty and often challenging existence of an artist, juggling a family with her husband, Marco Perego, a former professional soccer player and painter originally from Italy, and a production schedule that would make anyone’s head spin. The evidence of this appears on a much smaller screen: A window on the YouTube homepage. In the videos she and her sisters, Mariel and Cisely, create for their production company, Cinestar Pictures, Saldana puts it all out there when she ponders big, significant questions—like what it means to be American and what resilience looks like—over dinner with a few well-known guests and seemingly more than a few bottles of rosé.
“We’re always working, always creating something,” says Saldana, who introduces the “kick-ass” YouTube lifestyle channel for millennial moms and women (which airs roundtable-style discussions and even cooking demos with her mother-in-law) by saying that the Saldana sisters came from Queens to Los Angeles “chasing stories.” So far, Saldana’s personal narrative arc has been riveting, even by Hollywood standards.
Born in New Jersey, Saldana moved with her mother to her father’s native Dominican Republic after he died suddenly in a car accident when she was 9. There, she fell in love with dance, enrolling in the Ecos Espacio de Danza academy. While attending high school in New York, she acted in a theater troupe and landed parts on television. After a breakout performance in the tween-beloved 2000 dance movie Center Stage, she was on the path to film stardom, taking increasingly larger roles in a string of small movies. In 2006, she moved to Los Angeles.
“I had been coming out here so frequently, staying for five or six months at a time since about 2000, that I finally decided to make the move. I was reluctant at first. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 30 years old. I guess I waited until I ran out of people who were willing to drive me to the grocery store,” she jokes. “Once you live here and get used to the space and the warm weather, it’s hard to go back.”
Her break came in the form of the aforementioned Avatar, a role that she landed, at least in part, because of her athleticism. Saldana’s strength and poise, the product of a lifetime spent training as a dancer, makes her uniquely qualified to play supernatural heroes (though she has, of course, made an impression in less CGI-tastic turns as Lt. Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot films and as Nina Simone in the biopic Nina). She is graceful and flexible, shockingly comfortable in a full-body unitard, and able to communicate with her body as much as she is with her words.
“I’m such a physical person, so I tend to get these more physically demanding parts,” she says. “But you still have to put your mind and your heart into that character. You need to understand their issues and root for them. You can’t be afraid to go to that scary place.”
Saldana and Perego have three boys together: 3-year-old twins Cy and Bowie, and months-old Zen. The one plot twist that took even Saldana by surprise, and that has made her life infinitely more complex, is that her career starring in multiple major, demanding movie franchises took off right as her nesting instincts kicked in.
“My career and the kids really all happened together at the same time,” she says, noting that the next couple of years of her life will be mostly spent filming and promoting two more Avatar films. “You can’t expect your career to be super high all the time, and you can’t say no when opportunities like this come along,” she adds. “But I find myself really looking forward to downtime.” It’s a blessing for an actor to have such steady and lucrative work, sure, but it can be challenging for a young parent to know that she will miss more bedtime rituals and family dinners than she would prefer.
“I thought that mothers were the ones who really felt the separation from their kids,” she says diplomatically. “But I’ve seen the pain in a father’s eyes when they’ve been away. It is universal for parents, not just for women.”
Still, the bittersweet nature of the trade-off is, like everything, creative fuel for Saldana, who has yet another comic-book adaptation (I Kill Giants, in postproduction), another Marvel movie (the next Avengers sequel) and three more Avatar features on deck.
“The life of an actor is always a mix: There’s a fear of missing out, a certain level of anxiety and a desire to create,” she says, adding, “I like to be artistic in everything I do.”
This desire extends to the red carpet, where she is known for her bold, flawless choices, such as a feather-laced Dolce & Gabbana gown with a 10-foot train at the Met Gala in New York, and a sculptural off-the-shoulder Ulyana Sergeenko dress with razor-sharp angles at the London premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. “Zoe is a stylist’s dream. She loves a fitting,” says longtime stylist Petra Flannery, who has a 9-year history with the actor.
In the step-and-repeat spotlight, Saldana seems as much in her element as she is dangling from a wire in an action scene, owning the moment. “I want to go big or go home,” she says. But more than an opportunity for self-expression and all-out glamour, Saldana views every aspect of the promotional machine as part of the deal she has struck—an intense arrangement that, over the past few months, has taken her to Japan, London, New York and Mexico.
“I have a lot of great people helping me raise my children, and also a partner in life. Lately, I understand how much you need this,” she says of the demands of pursuing personal and public dreams simultaneously. “You have a responsibility to show up—you can’t think twice about it,” she adds. “And in that way, I’m really leaning in.”
Photography by KURT MARKUS.
Styling by ALISON EDMOND.
Written by CHRISTINE LENNON.