Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”

By Kristian Rose-Anderson

zoe01-255x301An artist’s role is “…to make people feel on a deep level… And when you’ve caught it, when you’ve got the audience hooked, you always know because it’s like electricity hanging in the air,” noted Nina Simone in her autobiography.

Electrify is exactly what musical storyteller and icon, Nina Simone, did to audiences, making her one of the most extraordinary artists of the twentieth century. Simone’s remarkable talent and amazing body of work fashioned a sense of deliverance, empowerment and love to all who listened. Composer of more than 500 songs and 60 recorded albums, Nina Simone rightfully earned the title “High Priestess of Soul.” There were many sides to Nina Simone. Complicated and passionate, this artist and activist paved the way for people of color and for women alike. It is because of artists like Nina Simone that artists like Zoe Saldana can effectively exist.

Like Nina Simone who was classically trained in music performance at Julliard, Zoe Saldana too took her art form very seriously, classically training in ballet at the prestigious ECOS Espacio de Danza Dance Academy in the Dominican Republic. It was Zoe’s love for dance and appetite for acting that helped land her first big screen role as Eva Rodriguez, the talented and headstrong ballet dancer in the film Center Stage.

If Nina Simone had a chip on her shoulder, it undoubtedly ascended from the daunting difficulties she had to overcome to establish herself as a singer. Like Simone, Saldana has also had to prove herself as a female force in a male-dominated industry. Since her professional career began, Zoe has held her own in major motion picture productions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek and Avatar, securing the respect and praise from industry leaders such as Jerry Bruckheimer, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, the late Bernie Mac, Keira Knightley, Ashton Kutcher, Kirsten Dunst, and Orlando Bloom.

Many have disputed the decision of casting Zoe Saldana as the late great Nina. But, as the Nina Simone song states, “Don’t let me be misunderstood,” it is due to intense concentration and resilient determination that Zoe has the opportunity to do projects like Nina; projects that challenge her both professionally and personally. Zoe Saldana discussed with Monarch about tearing down walls in Hollywood and how significant it was to help tell Nina Simone’s story.

Playing the late, great Nina Simone, what inspired you to do a project like this?

Nina was a true genius and an iconic artist. It was a dream job for me. It’s one of the scariest projects I’ve ever been involved with because it was about an iconic figure, and there were so many political [issues] around it from the beginning; but I really wanted it to be a love song to Nina Simone and I wanted it to just come from a place of absolute love. I loved the complexity of Nina and her beauty that she expressed with her music. I wanted to do right by her and knew it would be challenging. I feel so blessed to have such an amazing opportunity to play a true legend.

How did you prepare for the role?

I did a lot of research to prepare for Nina. I took piano lessons, voice lessons, worked with a dialect coach, and I really invested months of just doing research about Nina – her background, her story, her life. My research ranged from reading books about Nina, listening to her music, watching footage of her.

How did the controversy about you playing Nina affect you?

The Nina Simone story needed to be told, and I’m really blessed that I did it. I’m human. I wish I was made of steel and so certain things wouldn’t affect me. So it did affect me but I couldn’t let that deter me from doing what I needed to do. Just like everybody else I feel very strongly about Nina Simone, and that [this] was a story that needed to be told. I do believe that if everybody had more information about how this all came to be, it might help; but then again, I’m not here to get the acceptance of everyone – I’m here to be an artist first. Hopefully people will enjoy the film and I helped shed some light on this amazing iconic woman.

Do you feel like your heritage and ethnicity is always questioned? 
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I find it uncomfortable to have to speak about my identity all of the time, when in reality it’s not something that drives me or wakes me up out of bed every day. I didn’t grow up in a household where I was categorized by my mother. I was just Zoe and I could have and be anything that I ever wanted to do … and every human being is the same as you. So to all of a sudden leave your household and have people always ask you, “What are you? What are you?” is the most uncomfortable question sometimes and it’s literally the most repetitive question. Because I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they can contribute as individuals and not what they look like … I feel like as a race, that’s a minute problem against the problems we face just as women versus men, in a world that’s more geared and designed to cater towards the male species.

Can you tell us about some of your other projects coming up in 2014?

Book of Life  The film is an animated film about the journey of Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart. Before choosing which path to follow, he embarks on an incredible adventure that spans three fantastical worlds, where he must face his greatest challenge. It is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired love story set during a Day of the Dead celebration. Diego Luna, Channing Tatum and Christina Applegate also voiced characters.

Infinitely Polar Bear – Directed by Maya Forbes, the film is inspired by Maya’s memories of being raised by a bipolar dad played by Mark Ruffalo in a mixed-race household. I play Maggie, the mother of their two children who is aggressively trying to cross the barriers of race and gender inequalities of the 60s even if that meant leaving her family while she sought a better education and career. The film paints a portrait of a family forced by necessity to upend every expectation imaginable at the time.

I also have the Guillaume Canet-directed drama Blood Ties with Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup and Clive Owen.

Then Disney/Marvel’s The Guardians of The Galaxy out in August.

Outside of acting, you are the celebrity supporter on the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA). Can you tell us about the organization and how you became involved?

FINCA provides financial aid to women in developing countries to build small businesses that create better lives for their families. I became involved with the organization after doing research about the organization. I felt very passionate about their initiatives.

Do you have any other projects/organizations that you’re currently supporting?

I support the Haiti Relief Fund, the Children’s Defense Fund and also Autism Speaks.

I read that you have been working with your sister and the Jones sisters (Kidada and Rashida) on a new television series project. Is that something you are able to discuss? 

My sisters and I have Cinestar Productions. We have teamed with Lionsgate’s Pantelion for a first-look deal to develop content for Hispanic audiences.

You studied dance as a child. How does dance performance compare (or contrast) to acting?
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I loved ballet and I truly felt it gave me core strength physically and also prepared me for many of the roles I have played including the physicality and movement of Neytiri in Avatar.  Dancing also gave me this amazing creative outlet and taught me that one needs to be so diligent with any craft to succeed. As much as I loved ballet and dancing, something was missing and it felt like a part of me was dying inside. It takes a lot of courage to face up to things you can’t do, because we feed ourselves so much denial. With dance, you use every part of your body except your voice. I wanted to start acting because I wanted to use my voice.

In your career thus far, you have been able to successfully shift between roles like the supportive, beautiful wife/girlfriend, to roles like a take-charge, female destroyer. Do you relate to one character more than the other? Is there a genre that you prefer more than others?

I feel truly blessed to have been able to play a range of characters and roles as well as work with amazing filmmakers. I love each role I take on as I treat them all as individual characters. I love the science fiction genre and feel that women like N’ichelle Nichols, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton paved the way for such amazing and strong women roles in that genre. I have an affinity for science fiction as I am a total sci fi geek. I do love to try new things though, and would love to do more comedy at some point.

It’s rare that Hollywood actresses are afforded such diversity in the personas they play, especially in big budget productions. Is there a secret you can share?

I don’t think there is a secret but I feel grateful and blessed to play roles that I have been able to play, especially that there can be ideas for a look of a character. Then someone who doesn’t look like the original concept does a great job with the role; it can open eyes. I love when people think outside the box. 

As an unofficial comic book aficionado, I am pleased that you were chosen for the role as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. What was the training like for this role?

I loved playing Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. I mean who wouldn’t want to play the deadliest assassin in the galaxy!? When we meet Gamora she’s a bad guy working with Ronan and Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and by extension for Thanos. Gamora doesn’t necessarily like doing that anymore, and tries to find a new path for herself. But she has such a reputation as the deadliest woman in the galaxy that people aren’t greeting her with open arms. Training was challenging but fulfilling. We had an amazing team of stuntmen and crew. I love any sort of physical role though especially someone who can kick some ass. I think the most challenging aspect with preparation was the hours of hair, makeup prosthetics as Gamora is green and has specific physical traits. That was a lot to do every morning at 4am but I loved playing her so much, so it was all worth it!

Hollywood seems to be warming up to the female heroine.  Do you believe you are a trailblazer in this effort?

I feel that when women can play a strong character who is the heroine that we are making huge strides as a whole. Women can be just as powerful as men with these type of physical roles and I am grateful I have been so fortunate to be able to have played these amazing women who are powerful and make a difference and not just the pretty thing who has a couple of lines to say. With Colombiana, Avatar, Star Trek, etc. I feel fortunate to represent these women and hopefully they made an impact in some way for strong female characters.