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Good Graces

by C California Style

From Galactic Voyages to ’50s Jazz Bars, Actress Zoe Saldana Keeps Her Cool on Hollywood’s Wild Ride.

In Hollywood, every day is judgment day…it comes with the territory. And if you’re an actress, expect the nth degree: You’re too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, too black, too white, can’t speak a second or third language. Add paparazzi and the pressure proves too great for many young starlets. But, there are a few girls out there who have managed to pass to the other side. Zoe Saldana, a 34-year-old, black Latina from Queens with a collection of talents, is one of them.

In 2009, director J.J. Abrams called to offer her the coveted role of Uhura in the widely anticipated reprisal of Star Trek. Saldana had never seen the film before auditioning, but Abrams recognized her inner trekkie. On the phone from the set of her new movie, Infinitely Polar Bear in Providence, RI, she talks about being a minority in the industry. “I’m only aware of all these little boxes that people put me in or put each other in when they’re brought to my attention. I’m an artist, so when I read a script I just go for it…I’m able to carry myself in a very neutral way.”

Abrams’ second installment, Star Trek Into Darkness, is being released this month and the gang (Chris Pine, Eric Bana, Zachary Quinto) will meet in Germany to kick off a worldwide press tour. The movie was shot in L.A. and San Francisco and is expected to do as well, if not better than, the first: $257 million at the box office. This time, Saldana admits of the plot, “Oh my god, we are in deep shit.” The star has proven her mass appeal with big-budget projects like Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar and Colombiana. In fact, the only public protest over having Saldana on a bill was when she was cast to play her own childhood hero, the famous black singer/composer Nina Simone, in a biopic that will be released later this summer.

“When I signed up for it, I had a feeling there was gonna be a little controversy. I’m not unaware of the world that we live in, especially American culture,” says Saldana, who lived in New York until the family moved to her mother’s native Dominican Republic when she was 10. The backlash arose from certain camps that argued she wasn’t “black enough” to play the Civil Rights activist. “It did hurt a little, but at the end of the day, I wanted her story to be told. She wanted to be a classical pianist at a time when it was very hard for black women. I did it out of love.”

First-time director Cynthia Mort (“Will and Grace,” “Roseanne”) wrote and directed the film under equal criticism. Saldana purports, “If Elizabeth Taylor could play Cleopatra, if Diana Ross can play Billie Holiday, if Denzel Washington can play Malcolm and Meryl Streep can play the Iron Lady…the only thing I ask is to be given a chance to play Nina Simone. And if at the end, you watch the movie and don’t like it, then OK, but at least you saw it.” Let us not forget that she played a non-human in Avatar and learned to speak a completely made up dialect.

The role was well researched. Saldana had access to many of Simone’s former band mates including Al Shackman, the legendary session guitarist for Atlantic Records who knew the singer when she was just 20 years old.

With two other movies coming out this year (Out of the Furnace, Blood Ties) and a video game (Star Trek), Saldana can’t afford many distractions, but there’s one that’s unavoidable.

For a family oriented girl in her mid-thirties, she’s thinking hard about the idea of having children. “I’m not the kind to ‘make a list, stick to the plan.’ The day that I wake up and I feel like its time for me to be a mother, whether there is somebody sleeping in the bed with me or not, I’m going to be a mother. That’s just the way I was raised. I do what I want when I want it and as long as I don’t hurt anybody, I’m going to be OK.”

She’s quick to point out that she has experience: an older sister, Mariel, has a daughter who Aunt Zoe takes to MOCA and LACMA (Saldana loves Rothko, but her niece prefers Baldessari and Basquiat). She also spends summers on location with her family wherever her work requires (when filming Colombiana in Paris, her mother, grandmother and niece all joined her for the month). “I really want [kids] in my life, but I want them to come when it’s time for me.”

For as far as she’s come since lacing up her point shoes in Center Stage, she never plans more than a week in advance. It leaves life open to so many more surprises. One is her new dog, Mugsy, a mutt she found last fall wandering the streets near Larchmont village. “I have a friend that calls me [Mugsy]. He says that I’m Mugsy from “DuckTales” because I live in my own little world. I’m unfazed. And my Mugsy is like that, too.”

Whatever other surprises lay ahead, she’s ready: “I’m not a person who regrets much in life. Trust me, I don’t regret anything. So, bring it.”

Written by Kelsey McKinnon
Photographed by Diego Uchitel