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Zoe Saldaña on "Special Ops: Lioness" – Action that's down-to-earth

She stretches our imagination, portraying characters from other worlds in "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Star Trek," and those multi-billion dollar franchises, "Avengers" and "Avatar." Zoe Saldaña has acted in so many sci-fi blockbusters that she's broken an earthly record: she's the only actor to star in the top three grossing movies of all time: "Avatar," "Avengers: Endgame," and "Avatar: The Way of Water."
Playing characters that are green- or blue-skinned has, she says, given her a life: "I can take my kids to a coffee shop and I'll be recognized of course, sometimes. And sometimes I won't."
"It's given you some anonymity?" asked Doane.  
A New Yorker of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, Saldaña says she was drawn to science fiction since she was a kid, but worried it might restrict her career. "There was always that fear, like, if I say yes, will I not be considered for other parts with other directors?"
"If you took these sci-fi roles, you were worried it would have a negative [effect]?"
"Being typecast? Yes," she replied. "And I was already being told of a limiting career being a woman of color, being a woman. And it's still a wobbly genre."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well, you know, 'Oh, you do those superhero movies.'"
But those "superhero movies" have been a boon. She said, "I blinked, and I was a part of the biggest franchises worldwide. And they've given me so much. But I still wanted to explore more."
Which is what brought Saldaña to Morocco and the set of "Special Ops: Lioness," a spy thriller out next week on Paramount+ (a division of our parent company). She plays a CIA station chief.
To watch a trailer for "Special Ops: Lioness," click on the video player below:
Doane asked, "How much of this was a concerted effort to do something different?"
"I think it was the primary reason," she replied. "It's one more item I got to check off my bucket list.
"There's a lot of items in this bucket list," she said. Such as? Working with Taylor Sheridan, the producer behind the hit series "Yellowstone" and its prequels. "And Nicole Kidman. Morgan Freeman. And wanting to challenge myself – I wanted to see if I had it in me."
She plays the lead role, a mom with a demanding job. It's a familiar juggle for this 45-year-old who has three children with Italian artist Marco Perego-Saldaña. The day Doane visited, they were on set, along with Saldaña's in-laws. 
It was a similar scene when we met later in Paris, where she was filming.
Saldaña was nine when her father died. Her mother, Asalia Nazario, worked (sometimes as a hotel housekeeper) to raise Zoe and her two sisters. Nazario told Doane, "You pray for God to guide them and to make their dreams come true. And Zoe's dreams were very, very big. So, I prayed harder for her!"
With her sisters, Saldaña runs Cinestar Pictures, a production company promoting underrepresented storylines. She acknowledges her own missteps when it comes to representation, after portraying music legend Nina Simone in the 2016 biopic, "Nina." Saldaña faced harsh criticism for wearing a prosthetic nose, and make-up to darken her skin.
"I should have never accepted the part," she said. "I am Black. Nobody will ever tell me how to be Black. But as a person of Afro-Latino heritage and African heritage, I have to understand just how complex this conversation needs to be in order for me to propel accurate portrayals of women of color."
Doane said, "I read through interviews earlier on where you were supporting the decision to portray her; it seems that your thinking on this really evolved through the controversy?"
"Yes," she replied, getting emotional. "I was being attacked so aggressively, and my instinct was to protect myself. It's very frightening when you're bullied to the extent that I was. Also, I grew up listening to her and I felt that she did sing to me. Because if I don't fit in that world, what other world was I going to fit in? Definitely not the white world. So, it was, um, it was very isolating, and very painful and scary. And growth comes from that."
"Why do you think it touches you so much all these years later?"
"Because I love Nina Simone still," Saldaña said. "I would love to be able to listen to her music."
"You stopped listening – why?"
"I felt, um, I felt I hurt her."
Saldaña told us she's sensitive to making sure there are opportunities for all, having experienced her own casting rejections. "It was always in a very mild form of, like, 'Oh, the director really liked you, but he wants to go traditional.'"
"What do you think that meant?" asked Doane.  
"Just meant that I wasn't American-looking. I wasn't white. But obviously, they don't say it like that. They just, they would say, 'Well, but the director wishes to just keep it traditional.'"
It lead her to that genre which captured her attention from the beginning. "Well, what are the genres, you know, where I can go around that? Action. Science fiction."
For now, she's focusing on more terrestrial roles, on-camera and off. 
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       Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Brian Robbins.