Nice and early on a Friday morning, we had the pleasure of nattering with Zoe Saldana, for her upcoming role in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Saldana plays Gamora, a lethal assassin turned key member of a hastily cobbled-together group of unlikely galactic saviours, alongside Chris Pratt’s rough-and-ready hero Peter Quill (also known as Star-Lord), Dave Bautista’s hulking Drax the Destroyer, Vin Diesel’s living tree, Groot, and Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, a genetically-modified raccoon bounty hunter.
Although Saldana’s no stranger to playing exotic aliens on the silver screen, she’s no longer masked by a layer of slick CGI as she was in the 2009 juggernaut, Avatar. For James Gunn’s knockabout space opera, she’s painted a delicate green hue and turns in a great, physical performance as a self-described “righteous individual”.
We talked about the film, and moved on to talk about movie directors, Doctor Who, and what “strong female characters” actually means…
Let’s start with Guardians Of The Galaxy. That makes sense!. There’s a streak of comedy through it, a camaraderie that comes through. But also, it looks really hard work! Can you talk us through the project, and how you locked into it?
My interest came from having a conversation with James Gunn. I like directors who are very determined and give their word. I had a feeling that he was going to honour it. I like that about people, I still believe in people’s word. Especially when they commit enough!
He never said I’m not going to make any promises, he just went ‘Zoe, this is going to be great’. It felt like there was so much love, commitment and passion.
We worked on Gamora, trying to make her a little more meaningful. Out of all the characters, she felt like the one that was the least complete. Then throughout rehearsals, it was just great. We got along fabulously: the cast, the director. There was something special about this, and I think it was the love in which it was coming together. James Gunn is a fan of the kind of films he does, because he likes to watch them. As opposed to approaching this as a great opportunity, an in with Marvel. James was guardian number one.
There were challenges. We knew we were facing a lot of work. Even though Chris didn’t have any make-up, he had a lot of training to do. When we were getting make up done and prosthetics, Chris was training and learning all his fights. We were constantly moving from one thing to another for five months. But I had a feeling it was going to be worth it.
So no mass punch ups behind the scenes or anything then?
[Laughs] You always have drama, you kidding me? When a light isn’t working, when you can’t get the shot, when the actor doesn’t understand the emotional beat, when the director is a little too overwhelmed and paying attention to three of four million things at the same time. But I call that a Tuesday on a film set!
From your point of view, if we dig right back, was your dance and theatre background of real use here, in finding things where there’s not necessarily much around you? You worked with Nicholas Hytner very early in your career, and I wonder how pivotal he was to you – a man who transcended theatre and film successfully?
I was very lucky. I feel like I’ve been very blessed with the directors I’ve worked with from the beginning of my career. The fact that Nicholas Hytner was the first director that I worked with on Center Stage, and I was a fan of his work without even knowing who he was… not just his films, but his theatre work. Miss Saigon was just this thing for us that we loved to see on Broadway. There’s a sensitivity that certain directors like Nicholas have in terms of the actor’s needs for rehearsals. For contact with their environment.
That’s what helps the imagination. You have to be exposed to some kind of environment that you’re going to be interacting with, before the day you shoot.
That’s the thing I miss about theatre and ballet I guess. You’re constantly rehearsing in the space you’re going to be shooting in. You are so familiar with the floor, with the item in it, the props. Hollywood, what tends to happen is that the actor shows up in the morning to what’s supposed to be their house. I would be scared to touch anything! I’m not going to improvise in this take if I don’t know how it works. But if I had been here the night before, and rehearsed it with my director, I would have been living in this space for at least an hour. Those are the things that I take with me.
Everywhere I go, as soon as a director says the word rehearsal, I’m like yes, let’s do it.
Have you read John Badham’s books on how directors interact with actors?
He makes some interesting points. He says that the majority of movie directors are scared of actors.
I believe that.
He also says that a bulk of hugely valuable directing is done in rehearsal. That you treat it as a free directing session, you get a chance to explore without dozens of people on the clock milling around. He also talks of different directorial styles across film, TV and theatre. But how have you found your directors, across the various mediums in which you’ve worked?
I love theatre directors. When I worked with Neil LaBute on Death at a Funeral… we had the entire cast, and whenever someone didn’t make it, he would let them know. Either through his assistant or whatever, that he was a bit disappointed. Because it was going to help all of us if we were all there together.
The moment that anyone hears that their boss, their captain, their father figure is disappointed in them, you immediately show up. Everybody showed up, from Tracy Morgan to Chris Rock to Luke Wilson. We were all there rehearsing in this house that we were going to be spending two months in. And it was fantastic. It reminded me how important it is to me to always ask or implore to my director of rehearsal time.
Film directors don’t like to bother the film actors. Because sometimes film actors can be a bit intimidating. They’re too busy, they’re doing fitting, they have other businesses, they have their own production company. They’re travelling in the night before they start to shoot. And I think no, if a director puts his foot down, I don’t care, you need to be here at least a week before we start shooting because we need to all get to know each other. We did it for Infinitely Polar Bear. We did it for Guardians of the Galaxy. We did it for Death at a Funeral. We did it for Center Stage.
When you rehearse, you show up the day of shooting, and you’re warm. You don’t feel anxious, you’re not trembling. You’re familiar with this actor. You broke the ice already. You had small talk. He knows about your life. You know about him. You’ve spoken to the director, and you know it’s okay. To the point where you know where he doesn’t mind me pushing, you know how many questions you can ask… I know then after that how much I had to do on my own, as opposed to showing up on the day and having to do everything at once.
Now you’re in the Marvel universe of course, and also Star Trek, you’re in control of characters that are inevitably, at some point, going to be taken on by other directors. So how do you approach that, and how should a director approach it do you think? Because you’re the guardian of the characters there?
I think what’s important is when you create a foundation for a character. For Uhura, I gave her air for my own lungs. I worked it with the original director. She talks a certain way, she moves a certain way. Backstory is everything for me. When in doubt you always go to the backstory. It doesn’t matter whether you go for a sequel or a threequel or whatever, you go to that backstory. I love them. I love creating backstories from when my character was five, even though nobody will ever hear it. It’s the only time I use a journal to write, is when I do it through the eyes of a different person. And I create a world for them. That’s so meaningful for me.
So I think that whatever James Gunn and I have created for the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and I hope he’ll come back for the sequel, it’ll fortify that.
I have a little bit of a problem with the way the film media reports on film at the moment, and I wonder if I could get your view on something. There’s this phrase banded around, ‘strong female characters’, and as someone put it to us, if it’s not a female bodybuilder, they shouldn’t be described as a strong female character.
Thank you, thank you. I agree 100%.
Appreciating it’s a lazy shorthand, when you receive scripts before you delve in, are you then finding that the characters you’re presented with are guided by that misnomer? That they’re either heavily emotional but no obvious strength, or an awful lot of strength but no emotion? Do you then have to delve in to do the fleshing out?
I read a story, and if I like a character because it feels like a real person to me, a real woman, then I’ll play it. Sometimes a character may physically not be strong, because she had a trauma, or something happened, or you create something to justify this weakness. Or a director explains it to you. Even if you find the explanations, if they don’t make any sense it’s not a character worth doing.
But I agree with you. It bothers me that I’m always told that I do strong female characters. When in reality, I look at my characters and I feel like they were all broken. They all came from a very devastating past. They were trying to achieve something, they had hope, and they wanted to get someplace, like everything other character that has a meaningful and relevant arc in the story.
It’s because we don’t really know women. We don’t write women accurately. We don’t see women the way that we should see women as a society, as a human race. When you see a real woman, you shouldn’t be saying she’s strong, you should be saying she’s real.
I’m not saying that Gamora is an exception, but you look at my character in Colombiana, and she’s stealthy, she’s agile, she’s physical. But even if I wasn’t physically agile, she would still carry the baggage of whatever happened in my childhood. And I handle myself in the way that I feel a woman should be. I don’t create it. It’s just something that comes natural.
So when people think they are paying me a compliment, in reality what we are saying as a society and as an art society, is that we need to focus more on the real aspect of what a woman is, and not the superficial cosmetic features of a woman as a muse to inspire us to create calendar girls. To create bombshells. To create serviceable characters, beautiful paintings of the girl with a pearl earring: if there’s nothing there behind it, it’s just her face – what’s the story?
Two quick questions to finish. Marvel, Star Trek, Avatar. When are you going to secure your pension and do Doctor Who?
Oh my god, that would be amazing. I would love it.
I have an 11-year-old niece who is a die hard Whovian, and what made her year is that Karen Gillan sent her a video of her going hi. My niece knows every single actor from the beginnings of the show. She dresses like a Whovian every day, that blue colour. It would be wonderful for me to be in Doctor Who. I’d be cool forever to her.
Finally: what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie? You’re in Britain now, so we have to ask you?
Oh! [that was an upbeat “oh”, rather than a ‘call security’ “oh”].
I have to say the Guy Ritchie ones [laughs].
Zoe Saldana, thank you very much.
Guardians Of The Galaxy is in theaters on Aug. 1.
With thanks to Rachel George.