Zoe Saldana stars as a cover girl for the July 2016 issue of Allure magazine, shot by Patrick Demarchelier and styled by Rachael Wang.
Here’s the cover story:
Zoe Saldana is talking shit. No, for real: “Everybody told me, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I know you hate changing diapers, but when you have your own kid…. Well, guess what? I had my own kids, and I will do whatever I need to do to not change a dirty diaper,” the 38-year-old star of this month’s Star Trek Beyond says of her now-19-month-old identical twin boys, Cy and Bowie. “A blowout? I can’t do it — I end up with shit everywhere! There is shit on the boy; there is shit on me; there is shit in my hair. And I’m like, How did this happen?”
How did this happen? How did the little girl from Queens who got shipped off to the Dominican Republic at nine years old when her father died suddenly and her mother needed to focus like a laser on supporting her family end up here, dropping an ice cube into the glass of pink champagne she’s having to celebrate wrapping up a photo shoot with Patrick Demarchelier? Well, first of all, you get the feeling that things don’t “happen” to Zoe Saldana. She wills them into existence with the same titanium-core determination that propelled her from her breakout role as a mouthy ballet student in the 2000 movie Center Stage straight through to her impressive current position of starring in not one, not two, but three blockbuster movie franchises that have already grossed a cumulative $4.4 billion worldwide (and that’s before the filming of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has even wrapped or Avatar 2, 3, 4, or 5 has come to an IMAX anywhere near you). But enough about her hugely successful career. Saldana wants to get back to talking about her toddlers.
You know that badass college roommate who turned into the personification of a BabyCenter message board as soon as she reproduced? Saldana is basically the Hollywood version of her, but at least she admits it. “I’m one of those people now,” Saldana says. “My husband and I went to dinner the other night with some friends, and all I kept doing was talking about the boys. You can see how conversations just…” She pantomimes eyes glazing over. “I remember asking Marco, ‘Am I talking too much about the boys?’
And he says, ‘A leetle bit’ — you know, in that accent.” (Her Italian husband, a long-haired professional soccer player turned artist, took Saldana’s name when they got married in 2013. And yes, he’s as sexy as every part of that sentence would suggest.) “We decided we need to just talk to ourselves, and that’s what we did the whole night,” she says, rolling her deeply lined brown eyes at the memory.
Saldana and I have been sitting in an empty café for a good 40 minutes. Finally, a distracted and very smiley waitress bounces over, and Saldana launches into the thing women in groups tend to do at restaurants (“I could order something, if you want. Or not. I had some salmon tacos at the shoot”). Once you allow that you, too, could eat (you know, if she wants to), Saldana orders a caprese salad and fried calamari. “Two plates, two forks, two knives? Thank you, honey.”
The fact is Saldana makes having small children look damned good (and not just because Cy and Bowie’s mom is remarkably lean, graceful, and poised in the Rag & Bone skinny jeans and gauzy black Helmut Lang top she’s changed into for the plane trip back to Atlanta and the set of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). As patronizing as it sounds when magazines declare motherhood to be the role of someone’s lifetime, I’m starting to think Saldana wouldn’t be insulted in the least by such a declaration.
She’s thrown herself into parenting with all the gusto she brings to everything — acting, ballet, stunt training, martial arts. “When I heard we were having boys, I wanted to make sure to give them the space they need. I’m a little…intense,” she says.
Her twins were born two months early by emergency C-section after Saldana’s own health started failing, a harrowing surprise that only heightened the intensity. “The boys came at 32 weeks. They found protein in my urine; my platelets crashed. I didn’t qualify for an epidural, so I delivered under general anesthetic. I didn’t even meet them until a day later,” Saldana says ruefully.
“Looking back, I think the boys were three or four months old, and one morning I woke up with just this flood of emotions. Marco had them, too, and we were able to have our deconstruction session in the bathroom while they were napping, to say to each other, ‘Holy shit, did we come close to it all changing forever?’ We allowed ourselves to have a moment of ‘poor us.’ And that was it. Then somebody cried, and it was ‘Got to go!'”
For Saldana, “got to go” also applied to work. But the studio behind one of her films initially turned down her request that it cover the extra child care she required in order to put in 15-hour days on set. Perks that male stars typically get — private-jet service and tricked-out trailers — were one thing; babysitting, apparently, was another.
“The tone changed in the negotiations. I was starting to feel that I was…difficult,” she recalls, bristling at the memory. For babysitting to be “considered a perk, or ‘Give this to me; I’m having a diva fit’? No. This is a necessity that you must cover for me in order for me to go and perform my job,” she says. While her request was ultimately granted, there’s something that still bothers her about the skirmish: “The fact that there are women working in these studios — and they’re the ones [enforcing] these man-made rules. When are we going to learn to stick together?”
Female solidarity — or the quest for it — is a theme in Saldana’s life. “I come from a family of women. Of tough women,” she says of growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, with her sisters, Mariel and Cisely. “Not in a bad way, just resilient, and strong, and determined, and super-opinionated.” Saldana’s mother, Asalia, worked long hours as a courtroom translator and a hotel maid to support them after her father’s death, and it’s clear Saldana is still awed by her children’s formidable grandmother. “She’s the goddess of ‘I could give two shits about what you have to say about me; I do it all my way,'” she says admiringly.
Though Saldana has spoken about being teased by girls in the Dominican Republic and her sometimes-fraught relationships with other women, she’s arrived at a different point in her life. “Part of growing up for me has been realizing that being the only female in a cast is no longer the coolest thing. It’s lonely,” Saldana says. “I used to love it because I thought, Ooh, I got in! I’m a cool girl! But while all the guys were flexing and talking about their motorcycles, I was sitting there wishing I had women around.”
Her wish came true when she got pregnant. “We were all reaching out to each other,” she says of her acting peers, her eyes shining at the memory. “I got an email from Jessica Alba — who I only know from conversations in the bathroom at events — saying, ‘Hey, congratulations. This is my to-do list of how I did things. Maybe there will be something you can use.'” When Cindy Crawford heard that Saldana and her husband were ready to sleep-train the boys, “she emailed to say, ‘There’s this doctor, and I swear by his technique,'” Saldana says.
“That love and support from the network of women around you, it made me really…” Her voice trails off, and tears well up. “I get emotional because if we continue to do that, we will be unstoppable. As opposed to nitpicking at each other for arbitrary things such as weight and hair color and purses. It’s such fucking minutiae when there are bigger issues that we have to be talking about, like equal pay and equal rights,” she says.
Even after her reputation as a bankable action heroine had been established, Saldana found herself struggling with these issues — most memorably when a producer told her, “I hired you to look good in your underwear holding a gun.” The line is as much of a gut punch now as it was when it was delivered years ago. “I was told walking into this project that they really wanted me for the part, and that any input or ideas I had to please share them. That’s what I was doing, and this producer was so bothered by the fact that he had to disrupt his vacation to call me and tell me to stop being a difficult bitch. I thought, Wow, it’s real. It really happens.”
That said, it won’t be happening anytime soon, at least not to Saldana. “I have a strong sense of self,” she says. “I have no problem admitting my errors; just have respect for me. If I am just like wallpaper, there’s no need for me to be here. It’s kind of like that Nina Simone song — you’ve got to learn to leave the table when love isn’t being served.”
Which brings us to a topic that has dogged Saldana for almost five years: her role as the iconic black singer in the recently released biopic Nina. From her initial casting in 2012 to the first trailer on YouTube to the quiet, no-fanfare release of the film in April, Saldana has been pilloried online for having the audacity to play the dark-skinned, highly political singer. And after Saldana tweeted a quote from Simone, the singer’s estate tweeted, “Cool story but please take Nina’s name out of your mouth. For the rest of your life.” Saldana faces these criticisms, like everything else in her life, head-on.
“There’s no one way to be black,” she says quietly and slowly, clearly choosing her words carefully. “I’m black the way I know how to be. You have no idea who I am. I am black. I’m raising black men. Don’t you ever think you can look at me and address me with such disdain.”
The very idea that Saldana could be considered too pretty to play Simone seems to make the actress more sad than defensive. “I never saw her as unattractive. Nina looks like half my family!” she says. “But if you think the [prosthetic] nose I wore was unattractive, then maybe you need to ask yourself, What do you consider beautiful? Do you consider a thinner nose beautiful, so the wider you get, the more insulted you become?”
What seemed to drive criticism about Saldana daring to take the role — one she turned down for a year, by the way — was not just the idea that she wore skin-darkening makeup to play Simone but the even deeper affront that the job went to someone seen as apolitical. This characterization doesn’t necessarily square with Saldana’s own experiences. “Reading all the postings for castings for the 20 years I’ve been an actress, there’s so often that last line about ‘the director wants to go traditional with this part,'” she says — meaning Caucasian. “But every now and then, I encounter filmmakers like James Cameron, J. J. Abrams, Ben Affleck, James Gunn, and they go, ‘Why not you? You’re “traditional.” You’re everything.'”
Still, she has no regrets. “The script probably would still be lying around, going from office to office, agency to agency, and nobody would have done it. Female stories aren’t relevant enough, especially a black female story,” she says. “I made a choice. Do I continue passing on the script and hope that the ‘right’ black person will do it, or do I say, ‘You know what? Whatever consequences this may bring about, my casting is nothing in comparison to the fact that this story must be told.'”
“The fact that we’re talking about her, that Nina Simone is trending? We fucking won,” Saldana continues. “For so many years, nobody knew who the fuck she was. She is essential to our American history. As a woman first, and only then as everything else.”
After all, the problem isn’t just that one role for an African-American actress may or may not have been miscast; it’s that Hollywood needs more non-white female everythings. If the systemic problem of underrepresentation is ever truly addressed, more minority writers, directors, and producers would no doubt create amazing roles for the Viola Davises and Audra McDonalds and the entire list of actresses who “should” have gotten the role in Nina. “Let it be the first movie,” Saldana says. “If you think you can do it better, then by all means. Let ours be version number one of ten stories in the next ten years about the fucking iconic person that was Nina Simone.”
Still, after years of having to defend one artistic choice in a long and busy career, Saldana is ready to move on. She’s excited to be a part of Ben Affleck’s upcoming period movie, Live by Night, set in the era of Prohibition, but not afraid of getting typecast as an ass-kicking alien. “Hey, if it were up to me, I’d only do movies in space,” Saldana says, picking one last bite of fresh mozzarella off a slice of tomato and popping it in her mouth. “They can be romance, they can be action, they can be kiddie movies, they can be independent movies — I don’t care. I have an affinity for the limitless possibilities that the universe provides.”
But for the moment, the universe is short on time. Soon enough, Saldana stands up, gives me a hug, and grabs her Louis Vuitton suitcase. It’s time to head to the airport and fly back to Atlanta. Her boys are waiting.