Zoë Saldana stars in the romantic drama, The Words, opening Sept. 7. / Justin Stevens for USA WEEKEND
If Avatar is the only Zoë Saldana movie you’ve seen, you might be surprised to learn that she is not 8 feet tall (or blue). Actually, the actress is just 5’7” barefoot — unless she is wearing her favorite 5-inch heels — but still turns heads when she walks into a room. Primarily a woman of action in films like Star Trek and Columbiana, Saldana, 34, lay down her weapons to star opposite Bradley Cooper in The Words, a romantic drama opening Sept. 7. Here she shares a few words about fighting, fashion and family ties.
Was it difficult to switch from fighting to loving?
“I was really high-strung because of the kill’em action shoot’em-ups and needed a break. Climbing a tree, shooting arrows, shooting guns — those things are easy for me. I wanted to add a little diversity to my resume. I’m afraid to show vulnerability, but once I surrendered to it, I learned so much.”
What did you learn?
“You have to have unconditional love. And you become less ignorant about people who are different from you. At first you think, ‘Oh, [my character’s] a wimp.’ But then you realize, ‘She’s stronger than I am. She’s given everything for love.’ ”
How do you choose your roles?
“I can’t just work for a paycheck. I’d be the most grotesquely bitter person ever. I want to matter. I don’t care if it’s the lead, but the character must be relevant to something in the story. She can’t be there to open the door and ask the questions, just so she can lead the story forward. I can’t be the wind beneath the man’s wings. I’m flying too, and I’ll meet you there.”
No wonder you like action movies.
“I didn’t grow up with [weak] women. I would never surrender. Women are not just here to serve and assist. In my world, I am the center. I cannot portray roles that will be untrue to my nature and what I believe in. I want to inspire women to be unique and to matter. It’s all about equality.”
How would you advise people to express themselves through their style?
“Look at yourself in the mirror with open eyes. Accept who, what and how you are. Sometimes it will be a challenge, but you have to do that. Only then will you be honest enough to find your own voice. Stop comparing yourself to everyone around you. Dress for yourself, not for a man, not for a community, not for a trend.”
What is your best advice?
"On your worst day, when you feel your ugliest, wear the best outfit you have in your closet. And wear red lipstick. If you dress according to how you feel on a gloomy day, you might as well just shoot yourself in the foot. It's painful. When you feel the most negative, sad and invisible, make yourself matter. Three steps out the door you are walking better. You never will get slouchy. I really believe in that.”
What is the the best advice your stylist, Petra Flannery, ever gave you?
“You can go to a cheap store, buy a cheap outfit and just wear it three times. Or you can make a great investment that will last you a long, long time and you might even pass it down to others. I'd rather have a closet with eight great pairs of shoes than have a closet with 300 pairs of shoes that will do nothing but crush my feet and will break. Those eight pairs will last you a good four to five years if you know how to wear them well. If I buy something for $550, I'm going to wear it for five years. I'll try to wear it 550 times. That's the way I see it."
What will you be wearing this fall?
"I'm looking forward to layers — T-shirts, sweaters, cardigans, leather jackets, boots, ripped jeans. I feel more feminine and pretty in that kind of androgynous look. I like to feel very strong and present. Last fall, I collected so many coats, jackets and jeans, but I was so busy working (watch for her in the Star Trek sequel, Blood Ties, and Out of the Furnace) that I didn't get a chance to wear them. Snap, I missed a season. I'm looking forward to wearing them this fall."
Do you only wear big-name designer clothes?
"I'm a sucker for a good bargain, whether it's at Barneys or the Salvation Army. I know something great when I see it. Target has the best white T-shirts. I like wearing things that are made well. It doesn't matter what price, what department store, what designer.
“I do like investing in great outfits, great designer things, but I'm not a label person. I'll shop anywhere — Gap, Old Navy, T.J.Maxx. I don't look for a name. I let my eyes decide. With jeans, I no longer look for labels. I want jeans that look good. I don't even know who makes them half the time.”
How large is your closet?
"I had to extend it. Then there's this third guest bedroom in my house that's full of racks. It can get overwhelming. But I have so many women around me. If they don’t fit into my clothes, they’ll ‘fit’ my shoes or my bags.”
How would you describe your style?
“I don't want to be that person who walks in a room and someone says, 'Zoë was here. Didn't you see her?' I want you to see me. I don't yearn for the attention, but I like to matter.”
Did this start when you were a little girl?
“I always had visions of everything — not just about what I wanted to wear, but what I wanted to eat — the taste I wanted to have in my mouth. My breakfast this morning was steamed butternut squash. I wanted that taste.”
How did you learn about fashion?
“My great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother were seamstresses. My sisters and I learned to sew when we were little. Sewing is very therapeutic. I remember it as a bonding experience. I felt really close to these women, who were so regal, so beautiful — my caretakers. I grew up in such a wealthy environment (Saldana was born in New York, but raised in the Dominican Republic) when it came to culture, respect and dignity. It wasn’t about superficial things like labels and money.”
Can you shop incognito?
“Going to a mall is hard, but my life is still very simple and discreet. I’ll fight very hard to keep it that way. I have a hard time knowing I’m in the public eye because I’m such a private person.”
How do you manage to stay private?
“It’s like learning to shoot a gun. It feels great to release, but it’s something you don’t play with. I treat my profession the same way, as if it’s an armed weapon. I always want to learn how to shoot better, but I don’t want ever to abuse the privilege and power of it because it might come back and bite me on the [butt].”
How important is family?
“It’s what drives me. I gravitate to people who are family-oriented. My two sisters and I own a production company. My older sister, Mariel, is very much a caretaker. She keeps us together and also gives us structure. We come to her with all these ideas, and she helps us focus. My younger sister Cisely and I co-directed twice last year — a short film for Glamour magazine called Kaylien, and three webisodes of a series Vin Diesel created called The Ropes. We’re not ‘chicks.’ We want to be Kathryn Bigelow (the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker) when we grow up.”