Avatar - Zoë Saldana
Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), a fearless and beautiful warrior, and a member of Pandora’s royal clan of Na’vi © 20th Century Fox

Zoe Saldana has the distinction of starring in two blockbusters this year, Star Trek, in which she portrayed Nyota Uhura and Avatar as Neytiri, a member of the Omaticaya Clan who lives on Pandora.

The movie, written/produced/edited and directed by James Cameron, tells the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who has come to Pandora to assist a corporation infiltrate the natives of the planet, the Na’vi, in order to persuade them to move from their land so that a rare mineral can be mined that is the key to solving Earth’s energy crisis.

As the atmosphere on the planet is poisonous to humans, they have created the Avatar Program, in which humans have their consciousness linked to an avatar, a genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora.
Everything goes as planned until Jake meets Neytiri, and as their relationship grows he soon has to decide whose side he’s really on. Saldana’s entire performance is done through cutting-edge CGI, but one has to wonder whether the fact that she’s never seen as herself ever bothered her.

Actresses have vanity and you’re the only one of the major players whose real face is never seen during this movie, can you talk about what that was like?

Avatar - poster artwork
Poster artwork © 20th Century Fox

I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that it didn’t cross my mind. I did entertain it for 2 seconds because it is a human condition for us to be prone to vanity, especially actors. I feel that this role has been the best role that has ever crossed my path and it gave me the opportunity to find not only myself, but to give everybody, Jim and the rest of the team, a hundred and fifty percent of myself every day. So when I see Neytiri I actually see me in its entirety and that’s a very emotional feeling for me to have.

You had to prepare for this role emotionally, physically and mentally – how did it all come together for you?

When it came to the physical training I wanted to put myself in a position where I could take it as far as I was capable of going, so that the amazing stunt team could take it from there, and just complement what the Na’vi were supposed to be. When it came to the spiritual and mental research I really wanted to capture their characteristics, and I wanted them to be very, very unique from the humans, so by the time the audience sat down they would say, ‘They’re so different, I get it, they’re there, we’re here,’ and it was so much fun doing the process.

What did you think when you saw yourself as Neytiri?

I was excited and elated. She was so beautiful, and we saw everything that we were training for, once it was all put together in one body it really stood out, and it encouraged us to keep going.

None of the technology seemed to get in the way of the emotional story of Neytiri and Jake’s growing relationship.

Avatar - Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana
Jake (Sam Worthington) in taught by Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) the skills he’ll need to survive on Pandora © 20th Century Fox

We did that by always keeping the story first, never sacrificing these characters or the story for anything else that was around us or that wasn’t around us. We really had to bring this to life in order for it to feel believable, to be believable and to do justice to the story.

With Avatar and Star Trek do you feel like you’re going to be in a sci fi groove for the rest of your career?

I wouldn’t mind actually. Look at Sigourney Weaver’s career, that’s a really great career to follow and a really good role model to have. I do feel like there are more genres in which women can have more opportunities to be presented as what we are, we’re complex creatures and we’re very intricate and we also have journeys and we can be the hero. We can also be vulnerable, and we can be saved as well, all in one person. I wouldn’t mind being in that category.

When you first saw the finished film what did you think?

Avatar - battle
The human forces on Pandora unleash tremendous firepower in an epic battle against the Na’vi, the indigenous population of Pandora © 20th Century Fox

I’m still trying to find the words, last night was the second time that I’ve seen the finished movie but it was the first time that I’d seen it with an audience. It takes me a couple of days, or sometimes a couple of weeks, to find the kind of words or phrases that I would want to say that would best describe how it makes me feel. I’m so overwhelmed, excited and proud of the work that Jim and his team, and also the cast, did because every frame I saw the entire collaboration. I also saw the vision that Jim had. It was absolutely outstanding and it only complemented the story. These characters are so real and marvelous you’ll be affected by them.

What do you want audiences to take away from this?

I’m so happy that these butterflies that were in my tummy since 2006 are finally flying away. And I’m so proud of Jim and amazed, it’s a testament that if you build it they will come. That’s always been my one of my favorite sayings, and Jim built it and everybody’s coming.

Click on the Zoe Saldana link below to see her comments on the Star Trek film made back in May 2009

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.

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