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Zoe Saldana gets real

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Known for playing out-of-this-world women, Saldana says her characters couldn’t be more authentic...

[She] has instead established herself as the woman directors turn to when they need an actor who’ll be comfortable spending four to five months covered in blue or green body paint.

Zoe Saldana is not interested in playing “strong female characters” — a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in a Hollywood slowly waking up to the idea that women over 30 might like to be cast as something other than somebody’s mother or the girlfriend of a much older leading man.

Now 36, the native of Queens, New York, has instead established herself as the woman directors turn to when they need an actor who’ll be comfortable spending four to five months covered in blue or green body paint. But those kinds of characters — Avatar’s Neytiri and the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise’s Gamora — are more than strong to her. They’re real.

"When you see a real woman, you shouldn’t be saying she’s strong, you should be saying she’s real.”

“It bothers me that I’m always told that I do strong female characters,” she said in an interview with the U.K. website Den of Geek in July of 2014. “When, in reality, I look at my characters and I feel like they were all broken. 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. When you see a real woman, you shouldn’t be saying she’s strong, you should be saying she’s real.”

As fantastical as the three intergalactic heroes she’s best known for may seem (the two aforementioned extraterrestrials, along with Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot), to Saldana they’re completely authentic. Even when she’s painted electric blue and masked by a coat of CGI magic, she relates to them. “I’m not afraid to use my imagination,” she told British newspaper The Telegraph while promoting Guardians last summer. “I’m not just saying the lines and then, when they say ‘Cut’, going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I just said that.’ If anything, you’ll hear me go, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if it was real life?’ ”

"I avoid playing someone’s girlfriend here on Earth, because that’s a bit of a canker sore.”

Better to use your imagination than be saddled with a string of roles based on stereotypes and tired clichés. It doesn’t worry Saldana that she might be typecast as a sci-fi standby. “I like working with filmmakers that have the balls to kind of imagine the unimaginable,” she told the website Screenrant. “Those are kind of the radicals that I identify with. I found the escape to be much more rewarding, at least for me. And then on the basis of being a woman, by playing an alien I avoid playing someone’s girlfriend here on Earth, because that’s a bit of a canker sore.”

Rejecting that type of role hasn’t left Saldana at loose ends. Back on Earth, she co-runs a production company with her two sisters, Cisely and Mariel, and says she flies her extended New-York-based family out to her home in L.A. for sleepovers as often as her schedule will allow. Last November she gave birth to twin boys, becoming a parent for the first time with her artist husband, Marco Perego. And the new mom has no plans to put her galaxy-hopping acting career on hold. James Cameron has talked her into three Avatar sequels, slated to shoot simultaneously, with the first one hitting theatres in 2017. Marvel, too, has a sequel in the works for Guardians, also tentatively scheduled for a 2017 release.

"No more complaining. We have to do it.”

With all that back and forth between green and blue, Neytiri and Gamora, Saldana may be at risk of forgetting what she looks like — but not who she is. The actor has definite goals in mind for her post-body-paint future. “I would love to play Nefertiti or Cleopatra or the Queen of Sheba,” she told Marie Claire last August, a few months after her Nina Simone biopic premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. “We preserve more male history than we do female. We have to preserve it. No more complaining. We have to do it.”

Corrina Allen writes for TheLoop.ca.