‘Avatar’ star Zoe Saldana says the movie will match the hype: ‘This is big’

Nov. 23, 2009 | 7:56 p.m.
“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 26 DAYS

Our daily coverage leading up to the release of “Avatar” continues today with a chat with Zoe Saldaña, who may be the sci-fi actress of the year with her spirited turn as Uhura in “Star Trek” and now her “Avatar” performance. She talks about her role, her fellow cast members and also boldly declares that, with “Avatar,” James Cameron has gone where 3D and motion-capture rival Robert Zemeckis has never gone before.

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GB: Some of your costars have said their work on “Avatar” gave them the feeling they were part of Hollywood history because of all the film’s innovations and ambitions.

ZS: Well it was amazing, yes, but for me I’d have to say I’m just excited that I got to work with an amazing director and a great cast and crew.

GB: You had to deal with learning a language that was invented for the film. Was that hard?

ZS: I was really concerned about it. I’m bad with languages, and I was worried about it. Jim created the words and then we worked with a linguist who helped us, and he figured out the language. One of the things that was even harder was figuring out how to speak English with a Na’vi accent, trying to decide what that sounds like. The actors are from all over and have different accents. My family background is from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, CCH Pounder is the West Indies, Laz Alonso is Cuban, all of us with our own accents. We had to find a way to make this new accent, and all of us sat down and tried to meet in the middle.

GB: It’s a big film in every way, but how would describe it from your personal point of view?

ZS: It’s a beautiful love story. It’s a story of a young man’s self-discovery and growth. He belongs to two worlds and needs to figure that out.

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GB: You’re talking about Jake Sully, the character played by Sam Worthington, who comes to the troubled moon of Pandora on a military mission and inside a lab-created alien body. He meets your character, Neytiri, and finds himself questioning that mission. What can you tell us about her? 

ZS: She grew up as a rebellious little girl. She’s a warrior, she wants to be off hunting and training for a warrior life. She doesn’t want to be a princess and marry a prince.

GB: This has been quite the year for you after your duty aboard the USS Enterprise and now your major role in “Avatar. ” You’re going to a queen of the Comic-Con tribe…

ZS: I’m very happy about that! I can’t think of better fans. These are people with a passion, and I love that. And science fiction is wonderful. We can’t limit our imagination and that’s what science fiction never wants us to do.

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GB: Sometimes the genre can slip into hardware movies, but that was certainly not the case with “Star Trek.” It doesn’t seem to be the case with “Avatar,” judging by the footage I’ve seen…

ZS: You look at some films and sometimes there is little that is human right now. All of the technology in this pioneering film is used in a story about the human heart. This is not an insensitive movie, it has very soulful messages, simple messages, the film is very soulful.

GB: The technology of the film includes what producer Jon Landau has been describing as emotion-capture instead of motion-capture. It’s to get rid of the “dead face” problem with CG characters. Did it work?

ZS: Yes. Robert Zemeckis [director of landmark motion-capture film efforts such as "A Christmas Carol" and "Polar Express"] was unable to maintain that intimacy with actors. He was in a different room and the technology wasn’t there. For “Avatar,” they created these [miniature cameras mounted near the actor's jawline on] head rigs that captured all of our [facial] motions. And Jim was there, 3 feet away, and the technology never interrupted with performance or story or imagination. It was Jim, Sam and me there in our forest and it was like our workshop, our sandbox to play in every day, and we weren’t interrupted by anything coming into our environment.

GB: Sam seems like he could be on the verge of major stardom, although no one can predict those things. Tell me what you found in him during your time in the sandbox.

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ZS: He owns the same pair of boots he’s had for years. He is so not into appearances or superficial things. He is a true artist. He is a selfless artist, willing to do anything to get to what’s important in  the art. Jim and Sam and I were intimately connected for two years off and on, at such close range, and they are both so committed and talented. It wasn’t always smooth. Sam and I would fight head to head when we saw things differently, but even then it was amazing. It was always for the film. And now finally we get to share this film with the world after 2 1/2 years. The anticipation is amazing.

GB: Don’t take this the wrong way, but what if the film falls short of all that anticipation, either commercially or critically? It’s a possibility considering the way the hype is ramping  up.

ZS: I remember watching “Star Trek” in Japan. … Audiences everywhere are different, and in Japan they’re very reserved, discreet and respectful. They watched “Trek” and they’re just sitting there. And the movie did great. Then when 25 minutes of “Avatar” was shown there, there was clapping and cheering, which is unheard of. This is big.

– Geoff Boucher

Photos, from top: Zoe Saldaña. Credit: Associated Press. With computer effects, Sam Worthington, left, and Saldaña become aliens in “Avatar.” Credit: Fox / MCT. J.J. Abrams counsels Saldaña as Uhura on “Star Trek.” Credit: Paramount Pictures. Saldaña and Sam Worthington in Tokyo for an “Avatar” press conference. Credit: Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP/Getty Images

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