Filling the shoes of a twelve-year old wouldn’t normally be seen as a difficult task, but in the case of Colombiana, the Luc Besson-produced thriller which opens in the US next week and is being seen as a spiritual remake of his 1994 smash hit Léon, those shoes belong to Natalie Portman and the role in which she gave a star-making (and arguably still her best) performance. Whilst the name of the character might have changed from Mathilda to the rather more exotic Cataleya Restrepo, and her age increased by two decades, the similarities between the two roles would be a daunting legacy for any actress to take on.
Taking on challenges hasn’t exactly daunted Zoë Saldana in the past, though. Whether or not she kicks the young Portman to the curb remains to be seen, but she has made her name by taking on the kinds of roles which would make those of a less fearless disposition shy away. She took over Nichelle Nichols’ historic legacy as Uhura in J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot, before playing the entirely performance-captured role of Neytiri in James Cameron’s comeback smash Avatar. No surprise that she has developed a reputation as one of the silver screen’s few credible female action leads.
This is Flixist’s tribute to an actress who is fearless, fierce and fricking foxy.
Even her name is damn cool. Born Zoë Yadira Saldaña Nazario, she’s from Dominican stock on her father’s side and Puerto Rican on her mother’s. Add New Jersey as her place of birth and an upbringing in Queens (NY) to that hefty dose of Latino sass coursing through her veins, and already a pretty clear picture is painted of why she has fought her way to a career playing characters as far removed from Hollywood’s usual simpering girlfriend roles as could be imagined.
During her teenage years, she and her family moved to the Dominican Republic, where she took ballet lessons at one of the country’s most highly respected dance schools. That ballerina’s grace was instrumental in her making Neytiri such a striking screen presence almost fifteen years later, but we’ll get to that a little later. It also led to her earning her first professional big screen role, as Eva Rodriguez in dance movie Center Stage. Having returned to New York at 17, she participated in a youth theatre troupe called ‘Faces’, which put on plays for teenagers dealing with such loaded topics as drug abuse and sex.
With her experiences on screen with Center Stage and on stage with the ‘Faces’ troupe to draw on, she started ascending the career ladder pretty quickly. She nabbed a primetime television role in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and found her role-every-actress-would-rather-forget by popping up in the staggeringly awful Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads.
For all the deep, deep shame that must have come with realising what a trainwreck that movie was, it granted her much-needed career exposure, and her next role was not only the first where she got to show off some of the fighting spirit which became her trademark, but also in one of the biggest and most unexpected hits of its year. In Pirates of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl, she played pirate captain Anamaria, whose ship is ‘borrowed’ by Cap’n Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) whilst tracking down his nemesis Barbossa. For everyone who had to sit through the dreadful third sequel, On Stranger Tides, eight years later, watching her give Depp a damn good slapping makes her all the more likeable.
The next few years proved more of a challenge for those following her career: she got to work with Steven Spielberg in her first post-Pirates role, but sadly only on The Terminal. The next five years yielded ten roles in movies whose collective average on IMDB ranks a tragic 4.8. These included suffering through Guess Who, where Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac attempted to remake one of Sidney Poitier’s most important movies with revisions of their own (oh, the humanity!), and the teen comedy Dirty Deeds.
Her run of bad form came to an end when cast to take over one of the most important black roles in screen history, that of Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. The movie was important for a number of reasons: for one, it ended her five-year streak of truly terrible movies when it opened to acclaim from critics and Trekkers alike (who don’t usually have form in seeing eye-to-eye). Secondly, her dynamic and modern take on the character brought her into the mainstream limelight for the first time. Any controversy surrounding the role circled around the character’s new relationship with Spock and her finally being given a canonical first name (Nyota). Saldana’s portrayal was uniformly praised, with many lamenting that she wasn’t given more time on-screen. Having meetings with Nichelle Nichols, the original Uhura, and taking notes from her mother, a die-hard Trek fan, probably helped.
As if taking on the legacy of such an important black character weren’t ballsy enough, Saldana immediately accepted the part of one of the most important blue characters in movie history. And no, I’m not talking about The effing Smurfs. Avatar was far and away one of the most talked about movies of the decade, not only for being James Cameron’s comeback movie after Titanic twelve years earlier, but also in its pioneering use of performance-capture for several of the lead characters (including Saldana’s Princess Neytiri) and introducing audiences to a new kind of 3D technology.
Suffice to say, it went pretty well. (Well, apart from how 3D has been steadily ruining the cinemagoing experience ever since). Saldana gave by far the best and most nuanced performance in an enjoyable but not exactly subtle movie, and the enormous box-office grosses established her as one of Hollywood’s top female stars. Alongside Avatar, her following two roles (The Losers and Death At A Funeral) made her the first actress to have three movies in the box-office top twenty at the same time for three consecutive weeks.
Outside her acting roles, Saldana supports the non-profit microfinance organisation FINCA International, which brings the advantages of financial service to those who would not normally have access to them, and has been involved with a number of successful modelling campaigns. Most famous among these were a 2007 Gap ad where she was photographed alongside her sisters Cisely and Mariel, and a television commercial for Calvin Klein’s ‘Envy’, in which she rolls around on a bed in her undies whilst reminding everyone in her deliciously smoky voice of how deadly she is with a bow and arrow.
Never has there been a more perfect encapsulation of everything that makes Zoë Saldana so utterly fantastic.