Half Dominican, half Puerto Rican, all beautiful and talented, Zoe Saldana first popped into public consciousness playing an aspiring dancer in the 2000 film “Center Stage.” Since then, the 35-year-old, who was born in New Jersey and raised in the Dominican Republic and Queens, has been featured in a wide variety of projects: She’s been an action figure in “The Losers” and “Columbiana”; Lt. Uhura in the new iteration of the “Star Trek” series; and the daughter of an extraterrestrial chieftain in the mega-blockbuster “Avatar.”
In “Out of the Furnace,” opening Friday, Saldana plays Lena, ex-girlfriend of Christian Bale’s Russell, a Pennsylvania steelworker seeking his missing brother (Casey Affleck). Newsday spoke with the actress by phone from Los Angeles.
This is a fairly small role for you. What made you decide to take it?
I knew that the part was small, but the story was moving, the characters were moving. I loved what (director) Scott Cooper had done with (his previous film) “Crazy Heart,” and I thought it would be great to collaborate with him. I was intrigued to play someone like Lena, who’s very different from me – her fragility can be interpreted as weakness. I didn’t want to just write her off; I wanted to understand her, and I had a great deal of compassion for her.
The film was shot in Braddock, Pa., a decaying Rust Belt town that became temporarily famous thanks to some Levi’s ads a few years back. What did you think of the place?
I was very moved immediately, how I saw the town; and the more you drove around, you felt the pulse – the town is still alive.
So what does the film say about Braddock and towns like it?
We have to pay attention; no matter how bad we have it, there are others going through worse things. Whatever our country has experienced in the last 12 years has impacted a lot of American families. Jobs closing, people having their sons go to war and the damages that happen to their spirit.
What was working with Christian Bale like?
I didn’t interact with Christian; he’s a person so devoted to what he does, he was his character, he stays in character. Casey was the same way, Forrest (Whitaker, who plays her current boyfriend). I learned a lot, I was very impressed. I learned to stick with it, if you are going to be an artist playing other people, become that person, stay in that person’s space.
What kinds of roles are you offered? And because you’re bilingual, do you get offered Spanish-speaking roles?
I have been (offered Spanish-speaking roles), but not often. That’s something I’d like to keep exploring the older I get; it’s a big wish to be known in the Latino media. The more I work, I’m offered roles that are substantial and not about the things that are arbitrary, like we need you because of your color or your gender. Now, it’s we need you because we know you can deliver in this part. I don’t try to avoid anything; the only things I avoid are one-dimensional characters and characters that objectify women.
It’s just been announced that you are going to play jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ wife in a film directed by and starring Don Cheadle.
I’ve been attached to this for several years. (Davis) is a unique and artistic soul who lived a very troubled life, but his talent was eternal. Their love affair inspired him a great deal, and she was a very fiery woman, and very outspoken. I’m very intrigued by it. For Don Cheadle to have stuck by this, and fought to get this movie made, is to be admired.
You’ve also made a film about the life of jazz singer Nina Simone. There was a lot of criticism about your casting, specifically that you are not African-American, and much too light-skinned for the role. Were you upset by the criticism?
I’m human; I’m gonna be affected, and it did. I will have more to say when the film comes out. But I’m never gonna regret telling her story. She was real, she was a woman and should have been born in a different time. She ran by feeling, and her talent was undeniable.