Zoe Saldana on Colombiana, Avatar 2, and Fighting the Lack of Female-Driven Films in Hollywood

zoesaldana300.jpgMuch of director Olivier Megaton's female assassin pic Colombiana coasts on a certain popcorn movie badass factor -- lithe star Zoe Saldana as stone-cold killer hell-bent on vengeance for the murder of her family, slinking through missions in skintight catsuits (or less) and gracefully blasting away bad guys with beautifully cold precision in the grand tradition of producer Luc Besson's most famous female killers. But Saldana feels a more weighty responsibility when it comes to her action heroine debut and how its success might affect opportunities for women in film to follow.

It's the same risk Bridesmaids faced earlier this year: Succeed at the box office, and you show Hollywood that certain kinds of female-driven movies are worth backing; fail, and become a scapegoat for why those projects aren't worth the investment. Saldana, who over the course of her career has gone from her debut in the 2000 ballet drama Center Stage to J.J. Abrams's Star Trek and the biggest movie of all time, James Cameron's Avatar, is practical about the challenges women and minorities face in Hollywood. "This film means a lot because I'm a woman -- because I'm a Latin American woman," Saldana told Movieline. "I really want people to see it, because we can't just sit here and go, 'They don't want more women like us.'"

Movieline spoke with Saldana about her childhood role models, the influence of films like Besson's The Professional and La Femme Nikita on her Colombiana assassin, the challenges facing minority voices in film and her directorial debut(s), why, despite reports to the contrary, she did not suffer a nervous breakdown after the exhaustive whirlwind that was Avatar, and diving back into Cameron's world for Avatar 2.

As a young girl, your character Cataleya idolizes Xena, Warrior Princess and hopes to grow up to be something like her; did you ever envision yourself as an action heroine as a child?

I wanted to! You know, when you're little everybody has different things that they would want to do, and I thought it would be so great to be like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, or Nick Nolte or Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours, or play Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley. [Pauses] Or ride that bike that Prince rides in Purple Rain! Those are the films I used to love. So that's what I was thinking about. It all depends on what you like. I was never thinking, 'Oh, but when I get the guy that I want...' Of course I was, but not predominantly. So to be able to be here... I don't know. Somebody likes me a lot.

I was just thinking back to the first movie I ever saw you in, which was a little over ten years ago in Center Stage...

It was more! It was 11 years ago, and it was shot 12 years ago in '99. I can't believe that, time flies! It feels like it was yesterday and I had so much fun doing that movie, because it was my first. Because it was about ballet, and I really felt I had so much fun acting, I thought, 'I think I found something I'm going to be happy with for a very long time.'

Was that the moment you considered acting as a career, as opposed to dance or something else?

Yeah. I was still debating, when I got Center Stage. I remember one of the choreographers for ABT [American Ballet Theatre] that was helping us in the movie, he looked at me and said, 'You know, Zoe -- after this movie is done, if you wanted to go back to ballet I can take you under my wing and I can train you.' And I almost thought about it, but I'm like, 'I'm done, I've made that decision.' I was done.

You did Colombiana right after finishing up with your Avatar duties, which according to recent interviews sounds like it was quite draining on you.

You know, I really do have to set the record straight. The comment that was released after the article that I did was completely misconstrued. There was no such thing as a nervous breakdown, it was just exhaustion. After coming off of an amazing, beautiful high of a journey like Avatar was -- because it was special from the first moment, up until the time we delivered it -- and the people took it under their wing and were captivated by it, then awards season... you expel so much energy going all over the world and promoting the movie that you get home and you just go, 'I'm completely awake,' because your adrenaline is still pumping, but your body is sort of slowing down. So all of a sudden, your body starts ripping from your brain. Then I signed on to do Colombiana so I was training for Colombiana and I remember, it was just taking my body a little too long to register something, to understand something. That was what was going on.

Did you consider taking a break before going right into another physically demanding project?

No! I had no intentions of stopping. [Laughs]

So it was more of a natural exhaustion than anything else?

Exactly, it was natural exhaustion. And you are a bit emotional; Avatar meant so much to all of us, to all the people that were a part of it. So to come out of the Oscars and to go, 'Oh my gosh, it touched everybody!' -- it over-exceeded all the expectations and the wishes and the prayers we had for it. And now they go, 'What's next?' If anything, you're more alive than you've ever been, but your body's like... because you're in different time zones and everything!

Are you prepared to jump back into the world of Avatar in the near future?

I can't wait! But James Cameron is such a wonderful filmmaker and such a great friend, what we learned and how he took especially Sam [Worthington] and I under his wing... You know, I would do anything for that man. So if he were to call tomorrow and go, 'Cancel everything! We're going to Pandora!' I'd be like, 'Dude, my bags have been packed for a long time.'

He supposedly wants to go into the ocean for the next film, so you'd better pack your swimsuit.

[Laughs] We're gonna have to learn to breathe underwater, then!

Back to Colombiana, watching the film there are a handful of notable nods to Colombiana's genre predecessors -- basically, every Luc Besson movie, The Professional and La Femme Nikita, and even a touch of Scarface. Were those touchstones in mind while you were preparing for the film?

They did have an overall essence that made them feel like they were kind of like distant cousins from each other. The one thing they had the most in common was that [the heroines of those films] were extremely lethal, and extremely innocent when they were taken from their own lives and thrown into a world of violence and raw, raw shit. So when they're thrown back out, they've missed so many things that would have contributed to them having a balanced life. That was one thing I had to take into consideration. I didn't really have to see them because I know them by heart already, since I was very little, but I was watching a lot of films about revenge. I was watching the movie Revenge that Tony Scott directed, I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well. I was studying the wolves and how they are as a family structure, especially the omegas, when they're expelled from their pack and they have to live very solitary lives. How they just yearn to always have the approval and the love of the leaders. I love studying the animal kingdom, every time I try to sort of get how people work, because we're very much animals as well.

Interesting, to apply the lone wolf concept to the character of this character we first meet as an innocent-looking little girl.

That's who she was in her life, being Cataleya. But when she's playing an assassin, she's an absolute snake -- deceitful and unpredictable, you can't let her out of her sight because she can fit through a hole that small [points to an air vent], you know?

Looking at how women have operated within action films in recent years, what kind of stamp do you hope to make on the genre with Colombiana?

I hope that studios invest more and more in films that are driven by women, and not only a specific demographic of women but more diversity. Obviously we can spend all day talking about how there's not enough of this and there's not enough of that -- there's not an Asian presence in cinema, in our art, and that really doesn't bother me, it worries me. Because I'm not angry at it. We know what we have to do. Once we get there, once we're in those positions, we really have to then continue to open doors and create art that resembles more faces that look like us. That way we won't grow up so confused half of the time going, 'Is it this or is it that?'

So that's why I've never really been nervous about anything that I've done, until now. Because everything I've done, I've done with no regrets; I never really cared if people went to see it or not, because I did it, and I had a blast, and I learned so much and know how special it was. For Colombiana, it's a different beast. This film means a lot because I'm a woman -- because I'm a Latin American woman. I really want people to see it, because we can't just sit here and go, 'They don't want more women like us.' The reality is that when they do make films like this, or with a woman heading it, nobody goes to the movies to see it. So the thing is, you want to blame the studios? You know what, blame the consumers. When we go to the movies we have, like, a male hottie with a gun, and then we have a female with a gun, and we're like, 'Ehhh, I'm going to go to see this one.' It's like, no -- see them both! Encourage that. Because studios and people that finance movies, they're not doing things on purpose, they're following the money. If something was an investment worth doing for them again, you bet your freaking ass they're going to do it! Therefore, we just have to encourage people to go to the movies and support these kinds of films.

Along these lines, I'm curious to hear about you making your directorial debut.

I directed twice this year, one with my sister [Cisely Saldana]. It was a web series that Vin Diesel created, and he asked my sister and I to co-direct some of the episodes. We did, and it was raw, and it was awesome. Then I directed a short for Glamour Magazine which my sister co-produced, with these incredible producers Kevin Chinoy and Francesca Silvestri, along with Clarisonic and Glamour.

What was the experience working on Vin's project like?

Well, the thing that I co-directed with my sister is a series of Vin's called The Ropes. It's loosely based on his life as a bouncer before he became an actor. So that was raunchy and really New York and raw, and it was right down our alley. He was worried that because we're girls we weren't going to be able to handle the violence, or the kind of promiscuous content. And the funny thing is, we went overboard!

The Glamour short you also directed, KAyLien [written by Saldana's Haven director Frank E. Flowers, starring Bradley Cooper and Malin Akerman] -- why was the subject matter important to you?

For Glamour, you had to deal with subjects that the readers submit, and two of the subjects that hit a very soft spot in my life are children getting bullied in school and autism. So we did a story about that, and obviously I wouldn't be me if I didn't add a little bit of science fiction. [Laughs] So we did do that.

Colombiana is in theaters Friday.