Zoe Saldana

The Incandescent Zoe Saldaña

From the quiet ache of From Scratch to the colossal appeal of Avatar, her star is shining brighter than ever.

Saldaña is not of this world. She appears to exist in a liminal space between present and future, in a place where million-dollar spectacles play alongside emotionally charged stories seemingly designed to pull at every tear. That’s the way she likes it — because for her, that impossible place, unreachable and untouchable by mere mortals, is where she belongs.

Zoe Saldana
Valentino outfit. Cartier jewelry.

JD Barnes

"I had no idea Avatar was going to have the impact that it did on such a global scale," she says of the 2009 film, the awe in her words evident, even with over a decade to let the facts settle. "Those things are unimaginable."

Thirteen years ago, Saldaña wasn't a mom. She wasn't Gamora from the Guardians of the Galaxy and she wasn't Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura. She was Neytiri, a blue-skinned Na'vi princess in Avatar, a James Cameron-helmed blockbuster that nobody could quite describe, primed to change how everyone experienced movies. In 2009, 3-D still felt like a gimmick, and Avatar made huge, special-effects heavy tentpole films into events that families watched together. And Saldaña continued to be a part of them, deftly shifting from the parable of Avatar to the slick, time-jumping, universe-saving world of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot and, of course, the slick, time-jumping, universe-saving Guardians of the Galaxy. On Dec. 16, Avatar: The Way of Water will arrive in theaters, and since that first otherworldly adventure, everything has changed.

"I had so much hope that it was going to be well-received, because it just felt so special to me," Saldaña says of the first film. But even without knowing that the movie would become a phenomenon, she understood how important it was and how its message would resonate as climate change became a more urgent global concern. "It was the first time that I started tapping into this awareness of the environment. I love the fact that James Cameron, for me at least, was the first person that was having this conversation that I had ever heard, and it was through his art, which is storytelling."

Saldaña’s own skill for storytelling is evident in From Scratch, a slice-of-life drama that arrived on Netflix in the fall. Though it’s based on a memoir of the same name by Tembi Locke, who also produced the show, Saldaña admits that there are similarities to her life and love. Her character, Amahle Wheeler, marries a Sicilian chef named Lino, played by Eugenio Mastrandrea; Saldaña’s husband is Italian artist Marco Perego. The two married in 2013, after Avatar had broken records (including one previously held by another James Cameron masterpiece, Titanic). 

Zoe Saldana
Valentino outfit. Cartier jewelry.

JD Barnes

According to an interview with People, Reese Witherspoon “recruited” Saldaña for From Scratch before Locke’s book had even been published, when she eyed it for her book club, after the two of them went to dinner and she saw Saldaña and her husband together. Saldaña saw not only a love story reflective of her own, she saw herself in the show’s grief and motherhood storylines, too.

"It gave me a brand new perspective about what it must have been like for my mother, losing a partner at such a young age and still having three daughters to care for and having to wake up with a positive attitude, even though your heart is completely broken," she says of what drew her to the complexities of the show. Saldaña lost her father in a car collision around her ninth birthday; she says From Scratch helped her grapple with grief, even after all this time. "It was selfless joining the project, but it was also self-focused for my own kind of healing. It was so draining, but so worth it." 

She explains that going from theatrical blockbusters to such an intimate story was jarring and brought a new set of challenges, like stepping into someone else’s real life and family. 

When you’re going through the pain, you kind of go, ‘Oh, my god, I’m never doing this again. This is unbearable.’ ... And then, after, you enter the stage of euphoria and you have nothing but gratitude in your heart.

“I haven't been lucky when I'm a part of a story that's based on real events or a real person,” she explains, not mentioning the 2016 Nina Symone biopic, Nina, by name, but not really needing to. “Just the toll that it takes on me, on my body, on my spirit: It's quite grueling. You do have artistic freedom, but you really don't, because this really happened to someone.”

As for her real life and love, Saldaña took a quick break during her cover shoot to FaceTime her husband when David Bowie's "Heroes" played (“our song,” she said on set). She’d been moving between dynamic, balletic posing and the regal stillness of ancient Greek sculpture, all while wearing haute couture and mouthing Bowie and Beyoncé lyrics. ("I faked it," she says of those moves, though once upon a time a classically trained ballerina, she studied at the ECOS Espacio de Danza Academy in Santo Domingo. "I like to believe that I still have it. But no, I probably don't even have half of what I used to have in terms of ability, range, and elasticity. My body hurts now. It just hurts.") 

She compared the emotional catharsis of showing love, life, and death all in one project (often on the same day, thanks to the intricacies of filming TV) to giving birth. Cliché as that may seem, embodying a single twenty-something, then a wife, mother, and ultimately, a widow is a lot, and it is rare to see any actor achieve such transformation in the span of one limited series.

"When you're going through the pain, you kind of go, 'Oh, my god, I'm never doing this again. This is unbearable. Fuck everything,'" she says of the show's display of raw emotion, in terms any parent can understand. "And then, after, you enter the stage of euphoria and you have nothing but gratitude in your heart, not just for yourself, but mainly for the people you were doing it for." And she would know; she welcomed twin sons Cy Aridio and Bowie Ezio in 2014 and another son, Zen, two years later.

The actress reiterates that she's "known for being a very private person," having made every effort to keep her personal life just that, and any similarities between her story and that of From Scratch are purely coincidental. She does share tidbits when her sons come into the conversation, which they do because it's hard to imagine they're not awe-struck by the fact that their mom is a big-screen superhero. Saldaña chuckles when she explains that she's raised three geeks — albeit very good-looking ones.

"They are going to grow up to be really pretty nerds. I know that every parent finds their children super-handsome. Maybe that's what's to blame. But I look at my kids and I'm like, 'My god, you guys are so fucking handsome,’" she says, adding that they're already immersed in the world of fantasy. Playing Gamora comes with its perks, she says, for example her kids are now realizing their mother is a bona fide guardian of the galaxy. "I see how he's trying to place me in his mind like, 'OK, you're mama, but you're also Gamora,'" she says of her youngest. "They're going to watch these movies, and it's going to be a part of what they like and what excites them. And the fact that that gives me street cred with my kids, it's fun, it's great."

Zoe Saldana
Alexandre Vauthier outfit. Ana Khouri ring & earrings. David Yurman ring.

JD Barnes

It doesn't come without a price, however. Saldaña has to endure hours in the makeup chair for her Gamora transformation, which starts at 3:30 a.m. — mornings she'd rather spend with her boys. While memes have been born of those (not-so) glam sessions, she says it's part of trying to stay sane while prepping for Marvel's demanding production schedules. 

"Delirium is your best friend at that time," she says of those idle, early hours while her makeup artist Vera Steimberg works her magic, prosthetics and all. Blame the delirium, but Saldaña gotten herself into a bit of trouble with her Marvel overlords while sitting in that chair. She wasn’t offering up spoilers, but even the tiniest glimpse of a script in an Instagram was too much.

"That can be annoying sometimes," she says of intense script secrecy that can sometimes leave her with just hours to work out her lines. "That's not cool, because you have to memorize, you have to prepare, you have to do research. And I tend to take myself a little too seriously sometimes,” she says. “I really enjoy working with filmmakers that don't underestimate my intelligence and know that I am an adult. I will be discreet. It is as important to me as it is for him or her that I don't let these scripts out of my sight."

That crack in the veneer is another reason that Saldaña endears herself to the legion of fans hoping for a tiny behind-the-scenes reveal into the inner workings of her projects. She says that the imperfections and missteps are what keep her grounded in the reality of being a mom and a mega star.

“I've always felt very insecure around people that are just too cool and that have themselves so put together and know exactly what to say and know everything. I've always felt very unstable around people like that,” she says. “I like to be around people that are naturally curious and honest about the curiosity. And when they don't know something, I like when they say, ‘I don't know what you're talking about.’ My kids are like that; they feel so present.”

It may be tough to recall a time when Saldaña wasn't a major fixture in Hollywood, but remember she made a jump that very few actresses manage: going from movies that saw her playing a teenager (she pirouetted her way into the spotlight with Center Stage and starred alongside Britney Spears in Crossroads and Nick Cannon in Drumline) into projects that had her cast as a full-fledged adult, with her characters being a mother in Avatar, Netflix's The Adam Project, and From Scratch. Without a blueprint for success after making it big as a matinee star — Saldaña was 24, not a girl and not yet a woman, in that pistachio-green convertible — she had to figure it out for herself and admits there were moments of hopelessness along the way. She considered quitting acting entirely after a small role in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

"Pirates was just too big of a production. I just felt lost and not considered properly and overlooked. I remember thinking, 'If this is Hollywood, then I hate it. I don't want it. Take it, keep it,’" she says of the experience. She explains that Steven Spielberg, who directed her in 2004's The Terminal, told her to be more selective with her roles. That refreshed mindset earned her top billing in Guardians of the Galaxy (which has a third installment on the way) and Star Trek (there's one more coming soon if things work out, according to Saldaña, who says, "I hope the schedule permits," when rumors of a fourth film with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto make headlines).

Maybe because I'm a woman of color, you can't look back into your history and not feel a level of sadness. It's just history. It's what happened. I was always more charmed by the prospects of the future and what that would represent.

"I join projects because I believe in the people behind them. When they're magical and thoughtful, thought-provoking, and collaborative, that's what changes my life for the better," she says. "It gives me experiences that raise me, that help me grow, that make me feel good about people."

Those choices have earned Saldaña the distinction of being the only actress (or actor) to star in three of the top five highest-grossing movies of all time — Avatar, 2018's Avengers: Infinity War and its 2019 sequel, Endgame — and she explains that she chose those films because they're exactly the kind of movies she likes to watch. 

"I love action movies. When I was a kid, that's what I was watching, not princess things. My idol was Ellen Ripley [Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien] and Sarah Connor [played by Linda Hamilton]," she says, which may explain the lack of rom-coms on her résumé and her penchant for pushing toward the final frontier.

Having those huge franchise roles has allowed her to not only explore the outer reaches of space and time, it's allowed her to speak about the unique circumstances that come with working in the limitless playground of science fiction. Without the tethers of historical accuracy,  she's told stories of family (biological and chosen, often in the same film), tragedy, and hope in a way that feels liberating. It's not just lasers and explosions, especially when she's following the go-go boot-clad footsteps of Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series.

"Maybe because I'm a woman of color, you can't look back into your history and not feel a level of sadness. It's just history. It's what happened. I was always more charmed by the prospects of the future and what that would represent," she says of her explorations on the USS Enterprise and time as Avatar’s Neytiri. "I get to imagine something that is completely unimaginable. It just made me feel more free, that I can try new things and not be judged for it because you can't compare to anything. I always felt that science fiction gave me that freedom — that sense of escapism — and a sense of comfort."

Zoe Saldana
Marc Jacobs outfit. Pomellato necklace.

JD Barnes

The Way of Water sees new names entering the family, including Michelle Yeoh and Academy Award winner Kate Winslet. They join much of the cast from the first film, including Sigourney Weaver ("My idol," Saldaña says without hesitation.) in a new role; and Sam Worthington, who Saldaña says grew up alongside her as they navigated the world post-Avatar. Both have welcomed children and carved out distinct careers, but stayed ready to reunite for more outings in the soft glow of Pandora's bioluminescent flora and fauna. (And then reunite again, she assures fans, saying "nothing is ever up in the air for James Cameron," including the rest of the Avatar installments.)

"Kate Winslet is a queen," Saldaña says of her new co-star. "I can't even tell you. She's just so marvelous. The moment you meet her, she just gets down and dirty with you, goes and does the work and beats herself up, and works harder than everybody else and demands 120% of herself.”

Saldaña adds that the simple act of spending time with Winslet sparked something, that just being around someone she admires fills her with energy. “I've met so many of my idols, especially women, and I have to say that I've never really walked away disappointed,” she says. “If anything, I walk away from working with someone like Kate Winslet repurposed, re-inspired. I feel raised a little more. I'm too hard on myself, just like every artist and every other person in this world. I do suffer from imposter syndrome a great deal, so if I've earned her respect from the experience that we had working together, that’s checked off my bucket list.”

Zoe Saldaña social cover for InStyle Winter 2022
Marc Jacobs outfit. Pomellato necklace.

JD Barnes

That work they did together included learning free diving. Much like Saldaña had to learn motion-capture techniques for Avatar, The Way of Water introduced another challenging element to the story, plunging her (literally) into new depths. It was a personal struggle for someone who grew up with a deep reverence for water and its power.

Being raised in the Dominican Republic, she says, "The water has always been an element of life that I look up to, I respect, but I fear a great deal. I'm an island person, I come from generations of island people. It's funny that the folklore passed down about water when you grow up on an island is you're taught to respect it. You're taught to fear it and to admire it from a distance."

That all changed thanks to Cameron, who managed to get his cast to hold their breath for more than five minutes and act — all while they were 30 feet under the surface.

"You get in the water and you apply all the techniques, and the views are peaceful and quite amazing," Saldaña says. "And you're proud of yourself that you got to do something unimaginable."

Zoe Saldana
Laquan Smith dress. Patou jacket. David Yurman ring.

JD Barnes

After mastering water, it wouldn't surprise Saldaña if Cameron takes it even further. When the hypothetical idea of soaring through the Pandoran sky without the help of a banshee, or ikran in Na'vi parlance, is brought up, she laughs, saying that her 44-year-old body may not be able to handle something that extreme, adding that "if there was going to be any skydiving, then that should have been the first movie." (She was 29 when Avatar started production.)

Joking aside, Saldaña is confident that Avatar's underlying themes have managed to be a catalyst for change, saying that she believes the public has become more aware of issues such as climate change and rising sea levels.

"This conversation around the environment has become a global social dilemma," she says. "And what I admire the most is that the younger generations are the ones that are guiding this narrative."

Zoe Saldana
Laquan Smith dress. Patou jacket. David Yurman ring.

JD Barnes

With The Way of Water on the way, which might be the only thing kept under higher security protocols than that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 script and the nuclear codes, Saldaña reflects on what drew her to the project in the first place.

"The part that makes me feel truly humbled is knowing that, with picking projects with my heart and my heart alone, it resonates with so many people," she says. "I feel like we're all trying to do the same thing in our lives, which is to just make decisions with an open heart."


Photographer JD Barnes

Videographer Miasarah Lai

Stylist Petra Flannery

Hair Lacy Redway

Makeup Renee Garnes at Opus Beauty using MAC Cosmetics

Manicure Julie K Nails

Senior Editorial Director Laura Norkin

Creative Director Jenna Brillhart

Senior Visuals Editor Kelly Chiello

Senior Video Producer Justine Manocherian

Beauty Direction Kayla Greaves

Social Direction Danielle Fox

Associate Photo Editor Amanda Lauro

Associate Producer Sahara Pagan

Executive Video Producer Bree Green

Camera Operator Mike Piantadosi

Booking Talent Connect Group

Related Articles