Zoe Saldana seemed to have come out of nowhere to star in two of the best received blockbusters of the past year, the critically acclaimed Star Trek reboot and of course, the till-busting Avatar. Now the 31-year-old actress is cementing her reputation as the latest screen queen. She can currently be seen in cinemas in the UAE in Neil Labute's American remake of the British comedy Death at a Funeral, also starring the comedian Chris Rock.
It's a big career change for Labute and the actress was enamoured to be working with the playwright, novelist and director: "We email all the time because we are trying to find something else to do together. For some reason I just love hanging out with the boys, and Neil is one of those. "I just love how he writes and I also respect how twisted his mind is. When he is trying to tell a very dark message he finds a way of saying it and showing that side of human beings, and there is nothing wrong with this. There is as much that we can benefit from watching broken characters as we can benefit from watching the ones that are great and everything."
'Overnight sensation' is quite possibly the biggest misnomer in entertainment. Most actors who make it in their twenties or thirties will have stories about the years trying to break into the movie industry, the bad roles they have had to take to pay the rent and countless tales of rejection and the desire to give up. Saldana is no different. Born in New Jersey, the actress, who is of Dominican descent, moved to the Dominican Republic to stay with her father at the age of 10. She trained to be a ballet dancer and her childhood dreams were of being a ballerina. She describes the physical exertion and need to train everyday as perfect groundwork for being an action heroine.
"I danced for 10 years and I'm very much in tune with my body," she says. "I've always been a very physical person and I just love doing sports and exercising and training and things like that and it's always helped me when its come to addressing my character physically because I know how my body works and I know what my limits are." She moved back to New York at the age of 17 and veered towards acting.
There is a sense of relief in her voice as she says: "I would always watch it and support all of my friends that are still dancing right now, but it's not something that I would go back to. You have to love it unconditionally to do that, and if that was the case I wouldn't be acting right now." She studied acting at the Faces Theatre Group and her dance career came in very useful when she won her first role of note when she played a headstrong ballet dancer in the film Centre Stage in 2000.
Her big break came in 2002 when she starred in the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads and as a dancer in the musical Drumline. This led to small roles in Pirates of the Caribbean and The Terminal, in which her character Delores is presciently revealed to be a Trekkie. The next few years saw her star slowly rise. She says of her ascendancy: "I was never that ambitious. I wasn't the kind of actress who felt that I needed to be working at all times, or thought I needed to be a thespian, or be this, or that. I was just happy making one film a year and getting paid enough to have enough rent money and to live for the year.
"I never had a problem turning down a bad role. I want to be part of great things and if they come every five years, I'll work every five years, I'm okay with that." She need not worry about the rent anymore. Cast as Uhura, the role originally played by Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek, J.J. Abrams' reboot was such a success that a sequel is already in the works with speculation that a third is on its way.
Saldana admits she had to sign up for three movies when she got the part and the success of part one means that there will inevitably be a trilogy. The same is true of Avatar, although Saldana admits that she has little idea when the next film will be shot or the direction that the story is likely to take. Nonetheless, through her choices she has found herself in one of the most enviable positions in Hollywood.
Earlier this year, she was the star name in Sylvain White's adaptation of the comic book The Losers. In the action adventure she plays Aisha, a feisty mysterious character who tries to cut a deal with a team of American CIA black ops soldiers who have been betrayed and left for dead in Central America. In the film, no one is quite sure whether she is a double agent or not, but with nothing to lose and an attractive female to hang out with, the machine gun wielding fighters are willing to take their chances.
In the Losers, her action credentials are such that it's no surprise seeing her giving as good as she gets when fighting guys. She says that the physical preparation for the role was fun. "Because the same stunt coordinator that trained me for Avatar did all the fights for The Losers. He knows how my body works and just started from where he left off before," she said. "For the last three years I've been on and off training with guns, bows and arrows and horses and things like that, but I like it, I'm a very physical person so I like the challenge."
Yet, to think of Saldana as only an action heroine these days would be wrong. She says: "Right now I've got into a certain type of exposure that I'm very happy about because it's given me the ability to sit down with directors that I've admired and producers that I've wanted to work with for a while. I've proven myself in terms of my acting and it's not just about the way my body looks." Her career has skyrocketed to such an extent that she has inevitably made the move from the East to the West coast and landed in LA. It has put her in a perfect position to star in Christopher B. Landon's comedy about LA stereotypes Twisted Palms.
The film had it's world premiere at the Newport Film Festival at the end of April and had audiences in a state of shock with it's tricky brand of humour. It seems that Saldana wasn't joking when she said she was attracted to dark subject matter. But it's the more traditional roles in Star Trek and Avatar and their respective sequels that will ensure that she remains hot movie property. As for the forthcoming Star Trek sequel she says: "I definitely want Uhura to kick butt in at least one scene."
Expect to see the actress continue to put all that physical training to work.