LONDON – Standing in the costume department for Marvel's wild new science-fiction action-comedy adventure space opera whatever you want to call it, “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” I was struck by just how singular the designs were for the wardrobe worn by Gamora, a dangerous new character played by Zoe Saldana.
There was a decidedly punk edge to the drawings, but they were also gorgeous, like something you'd see for a runway show. Saldana is stunning in person, ethereal and delicate and yet with this sort of lacerating edge that she seems perfectly capable of laying down verbally. You get the sense she chews on her words and really thinks about what she's saying to you during an interview. I don't think she takes it lightly, and part of what she considers is how her physical appearance is part of the brand she's built as an actress.
We asked her about the development of the particular shade of green of her skin in the film. After all, when you look at her character, that's the first thought: green. There are all sorts of cool details to the Gamora design, but first and foremost… green. And in Saldana's case, she has experience with this, having been blue for “Avatar,” although that was in performance capture and not in actual make-up. We asked how involved she was in finding that particular hue, or if it was decided before she showed up.
“We had maybe seven or eight camera tests that we had to do. When it came to, you know, all the characters and for mine specifically, [the question] was how alien do we want Gamora to look? What I was thinking was she just needs to be pretty…”
As she said that, she smiled, but it was not like she was kidding, but more like she was surprised she was starting the interview at this degree of candidness. “That”s usually a thing that I don”t think about with other characters that I play, but for some reason because I was gonna be green… and because I was gonna be the lead girl… I just wanted teenage boys to find me attractive. I don”t know why.”
Everyone laughed, and Saldana kept that same smile in place as she continued. “I really was… while we were testing, that”s where I was coming from. Everybody else was just about context. Do we dye the hair? Wig, no wig? What color hair? How long is it? I'm like… pretty. Teenage boys, please. We gotta get their vote.”
Here's where the laughs stopped, though, because Saldana continued, “I mean, because I'm older… and you kind of go, 'Am I losing my sex appeal?' When you”re green for four months, it definitely, you know, it moves you a bit and you do, you do kind of wobble, going, 'Oh, okay, what is it? What is beautiful?' Then, finally, you start to find your character really appealing and very beautiful in how different she looks because you get used to it.”
Look, my son Toshi just turned nine. When the “Columbiana” junket happened in LA, I took him with me to do the interviews. He was a huge fan of both “Star Trek” films, and “Avatar,” and he expressly told me he wanted to come along so he could meet her. I'm not even sure he knew why he felt that way. When we walked in to do the interview, I introduced him, and she stood up to shake his hand. He went a startling shade of crimson, immediately, head to toe, and stayed beet-red until we left the room six minutes later. He never said a word. I'm not entirely sure he ever even blinked.
Which is to say, Zoe Saldana really doesn't have anything to worry about.
Besides, what makes her really interesting is the way she's made choices in these films, the very distinct humanity she brings to the roles. Not everyone would be able to play a character like Gamora after playing Neytiri in “Avatar,” especially knowing that she's going back to do it again soon. Not everyone would want to. There's probably some legitimate reason to worry about being put in a box in terms of what other roles she's offered, except she's working non-stop right now, and doing a lot of different things. “To me, it would be no different of a concern than Cate Blanchett or Keira Knightley need to have because they primarily do period pieces. I feel like just because I”ve done a film that is considered… science fiction, then, you know, then so be it, I guess. As an artist, I like working with filmmakers that have the balls to imagine the unimaginable. Those are the radicals that I identify with and I grew up in a household where there [were] a lot of stories that were placed in unconventional places. I found it, I found the escape to be much more rewarding, at least for me. Now, on the basis of being a woman, by playing an alien I avoid playing someone”s girlfriend here on Earth, ’cause that”s a bit of a canker sore.”
Smile still firmly in place.
See what I mean? Saldana talked about how she tries not to look at reference material much because she doesn't want to imitate something. Her take on Uhura is nothing like the character from the original show, and that's not a slam at all. That's just true. She went a very different direction with it, and since I'm not a big “Guardians” reader, I'm not sure if her take on Gamora is going to be faithful or not. In trying to describe Gamora's energy, she compared herself to the witch in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, a puff of smoke with a blast of hairpins and manic energy flying in every direction. As she was in the middle of the description, she stopped, laughing. “And I'm green. Isn't that funny?”
She got to her larger point, though, a serious one. “If I read the comics, I would be cheating myself out of the adventure that I find so beautiful, which is conceiving a character and doing all my research. That”s the part that belongs to me that I don”t really have to share, you know, and that”s the part that I remember the most about what I do and I like the most.”
Asked to describe what makes Gamora different than roles she's played before, she considered it. “I understood that for Neytiri, the dehumanization of myself was absolutely crucial because these creatures, this species, came with a very specific requirement by James, you know. In this one, because it”s sort of like a dark comedy, we”re kind of like The Rolling Stones of the whole Marvel comic universe, and I find that so fucking appealing. We”re the ones that always failed in class, you know, but for some reason we can burn the house down, and I like that.”
She talked about turning to an expert for help. “My nephew is eleven. He”s the only person that I know that reads the Guardians. So I would ask him. He goes, 'Who do you think Gamora is?' and I said, 'She”s a warrior.' He goes, 'Yeah, but not only is she a warrior, she”s an assassin, and she”s very lethal. What saves her is the same thing that can doom her. She has a sense of righteousness. She”s a very righteous individual.'”
She seemed amazed. “That was coming from an eleven year old boy, and I was just like that”s it. That”s gonna be the overall mojo of Gamora, her sense of always wanting to do the right thing. It”s why she compels the Guardians to not sell The Orb. She”s trying to ask them not to sell their souls for money, because if it means that a lot of people will lose their lives, then it”s not really worth it. She”s the one that starts going in that direction, and then everybody else kind of follows, too, which is what I like the most about this movie. We”re all starting as inmates, you know. We”re all like lost kids and by running away, because we wanted to run away from the families that we were brought into, we end up creating a very beautiful family unit and become a good, decent people sometimes, you know.”
You almost feel bad following up a comment like that with, “Tell me about the weapons,” but one of the other reporters did, and Saldana griped about the sword that is her character's signature weapon. She talked about how she's great with guns, but her wrists are thin and swords are all about wrist strength. “You rely on really good stunt people. I'm working with a woman. Her name is Chloe and she”s, you know, the stealth Gamora. It”s very important if I do action movies and I have a stunt person to work with them not only by memorizing the choreography, but also it”s important to study that individual and it is imperative for that individual to study you, because you”re not playing two different people. You”re playing the same person and, in order for the actors” wishes to be respected in terms of characteristics that your character is gonna have, you have to work with good and intelligent and talented stunt people that not only can carry weapons well but can also carry a personality, you know?”
She went on, passionate about how important this is. “For Gamora, it”s so easy to just not invest in the action part of it and sort of not aid the stunt team, to go, you know, 'That”s great, she can jump, she can land, she can definitely fight with the sword.' But instead of looking like Jackie Chan, why don”t we give her an air of Jet Li? Jet Li is much more graceful than karate, which is what Jackie Chan has trained in, and I find that with women, you have to maintain some kind of grace. At least, that”s my personal opinion, and so I was very adamant with Chloe and Steve and Thomas, the choreographers to study the bullfighters, ’cause I find it very seductive, the way a bullfighter can seduce a bull into surrendering to his own death without touching him at all… just with the red. It”s a dance. It”s a very sensual dance that eventually the bull, you know, caves in and basically runs towards this red thing and there”s a sword meeting him behind it so he”s basically running to his own death. I thought that was very interesting for Gamora to have. She”s a woman. I'm pretty sure she knows how to use her charms to get what she needs, so there might be a bull fighting kind of method into how she approaches an opponent.”
Now I'm going to look for that in the film. I'm curious to see how much of that actually reads in the performance she gives and the action that Gunn designed and shot. Asked to describe the rest of the cast, she ran through the characters quickly.
QUILL: “Interesting but he”s such a douche. At first he”s very immature, and it”s inconceivable for her to even have a wet dream with him in it.”
GROOT: “She”s intrigued by Groot. At least I am. He”s such a human, and he”s the most inhumane physical character out of all of this, but he has this compassion.. if she needs to soften herself, then Groot is definitely a subject to study.”
DRAX: “Drama queen. I'm not the only victim. Drax lost his family in front of him like I did, so… we are kindred spirits in that sense.”
ROCKET: “Had a lot of alterations done to his body, and so did Gamora.”
NEBULA: “Oh, that's… it's complicated.”
Indeed. Nebula is Gamora's sister. Sort of. They are both foundlings, abducted when their parents were killed in front of them. Same with Ronan. All of them collected by Thanos and raised as his own. It's a really sick version of what a family is, and it seems like it serves a hellish counterpoint to the family that the Guardians become over the course of the film. For Gamora, choosing one over the other is tantamount to a declaration of war.
“Gamora wants to change,” Saldana insisted. “She”s just different. She”s never really had it in her. Nebula definitely was born with a sense of wanting to taste blood, and that”s something that”s very frustrating for Gamora. There”s this big responsibility that she feels to Nebula and Nebula doesn”t see it that way, doesn”t love her back in the same regard. That to me is heartbreaking. I'm one of three sisters, and if I could marry them, I”d be the happiest person. I”d be complete. When I'm playing characters where there are similar dysfunctions, it”s a little heartbreaking.”
Before we wrapped things up with Saldana, she talked about how remarkable the physical work on all the characters is on the film. ” think my sister”s really hot,” she confessed. “She”s wonderful. The transformation is absolutely wonderful, and the balls on her, man… to shave her head. I would”ve been like, 'Dude, how much are you paying me? No, I can”t.' I think she”s very beautiful. I'm fascinated by Dave”s makeup. He comes to set and he”s gonna bring it and you just go, oh, my god, but when you meet him in real life, he”s so tender, so sensitive, very soft spoken, really kind… but a kickass actor.”
She remarked on how hard Pratt worked in the lead on the film. “The transformation that Chris has done is not only physical. Physical is the most apparent but he”s really devoted himself to this character, to this movie, and it”s wonderful to come to work and kind of be surrounded by people that take their jobs very seriously. The day that you feel like slacking, you merely correct yourself, you know. It”s like, 'Oh, we”re on day 85 with green makeup. By the time I get to set, ugh. I”ve worked eight hours. I”ve been here for eight hours doing hair and makeup by the time I get to set. To come to set and see happy people and people in full character, inside and out… you know that you have to always bring your game, so that”s good.”
How good? We'll find out when “Guardians Of The Galaxy” hits theaters August 1st.