Zoe Saldana has become a go-to actress to play strong female characters in movies. Case in point: “Colombiana,” an action thriller in which she plays the title character: a Colombian woman named Cataleya, who is an assassin out to get revenge on the people responsible for murdering her parents when she was a child.
“Colombiana” also stars Cliff Curtis as Emilio Restrepo (Cataleya’s uncle who trains her to be an assassin) and Michael Vartan as Danny Delanay, Cataleya’s on-again/off-again lover. At the Los Angeles press conference for “Colombiana,” Saldana opened up about how she balances strength with vulnerability in tough action scenes — and why she has a need to be very disciplined when it comes to her work, no matter what kind of film she does.
Did you have a lot of offers to play tough action heroines after doing “Avatar”?
Actually, this one came in the Luc Besson package. If there’s anything that I’ve always said about myself is that to me, it’s much more important for me to get to work with filmmakers that I’ve grown up loving and admiring.
Luc Besson [one of the writers and producers of “Colombiana”] is definitely one of the names that was in my bucket list, especially for the iconic femme fatale characters that he’s created, because they’re strong on the exterior but they’re so fragile and broken on the inside. I just thought that was such a beautiful comparison of someone that lives in complete turmoil and conflict. There were offers, but Luc Besson took priority.
How does it feel to be top-billed star of an action movie?
It feels good, but for some reason I have a chip that — maybe I work this way so that I can protect myself — I don’t really think about things that way. I just want to be a part of great stories, whether I’m part of an amazing ensemble cast or I’m leading it or the antagonist or whatever.
I just want to be part of great stories that are told and for them to be relevant. So this one definitely would have a lot of pressure. I feel like everybody that is a “number one” on the call sheet feels a pressure, but you can’t let that be the force that guides you.
What was your favorite weapon that you used in “Colombiana”? And how long did it take you to learn it?
I’m a .45 myself. [She laughs.] A .22 is too wimpy for me. I like the .9. It’s something that I can maneuver and because I have very small wrists, it’s a weight that I can sustain and the impact won’t hurt me in my joints. I don’t do this every day, but I’ve learned a little bit.
Were there any roles you looked to for inspiration on “Colombiana,” either from Luc Besson or from other filmmakers?
Besides his films that I knew by heart — I didn’t even need to see those — I re-read the “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” so that I could understand what it’s like to have undergone such traumatic experiences in your life, and fall in this spell where you create an alternate personality where you’re like this warrior or this punisher. I was watching a lot of animal behavior because, to me, whenever she wasn’t playing any of her roles to kill her targets, whenever she was in the comforts of her house, she was such an omega wolf, such an outcast. But when she was killing, she was such a snake that you wouldn’t even want her around you. There were so many things that I needed to sort of take into consideration in order to create Cataleya and to feel like I was capturing her, not only physically but mentally.
And there was a film that Olivier [Megaton, director of “Colombia”] told me to watch that he’s obsessed about and so many filmmakers are obsessed with. I don’t know if it a [Akira] Kurosawa movie, but it’s “Lone Wolf and Cub.” That scene when he takes his child out and he puts out food and a sword, and he’s just about to grab his sword because if his son chooses food, he was going to kill his son, I was weeping with my niece. And she was 7 at the time. I don’t know why I let her watch that. I was like, “Oh my God, this is Cataleya. This is all or nothing.”
In the action scenes, how much of a balance was it to give her believability since Cataleya would be squaring off against men who have more weight or more physical leverage?
I’ve done enough research, and I know enough women that whether they weigh like I do or they’re just a couple pounds either lighter or heavier than I am, you just need to not blink when they’re around because they can kill you. So I don’t believe that was something we should always consider. I think that we’re having a hard time distinguishing the fact that as men, because we have mothers, because we have sisters, men can not deal with the reality of a woman getting hurt.
[We] as women, we know that we have the capability of hurting anything. So that, to me, that’s the difference. So fighting, I didn’t want Luc Besson and Olivier to make her look badass. I wanted her to be what she is: She’s an assassin.
I’ve been trained by people who were in the military — Marines — from “Avatar” to “The Losers” to now “Colombiana,” and they don’t see gender when they see a threat across from them that could possibly kill them. They see a threat. And if they have to kill this woman, this man, or even a person that appears to be much, much younger than them, they have to do it. So I would say watch out whenever you see a skinny girl and she’s had any kind of military training, don’t blink, because they can f*cking kill you.
How often did you do your own stunts?
We did have stunt doubles. There were scenes in Mexico we had to shoot outside of the building, because it’s a liability — even if I was wired — they were not going to have me jump off the building. I would have wanted to, trust me, but it can’t be possible.
When did you start training for “Colombiana”?
I think it had been a year since I wrapped “The Losers” when I started training for “Colombiana.” I took the training for “Avatar” from 2006 to 2008. I was in constant training while we were shooting the movie. And then I shot “The Losers” in 2009. And then “Colombiana” was shot just last summer in 2010.
So there is a long time that goes by when I’m not getting any training. However, I’m able to sustain the mental recognition of them because I was a classical dancer. It’s only because of my athletic background that I can do these films. If I didn’t have an athletic background, it wouldn’t be impossible, but I feel like it would be much more difficult than it has been.
And all of these three different characters have demanded different forms of techniques, because Neytiri [in “Avatar”] was more animal-and-feline-like; Aisha [in “The Losers”], even though she knew her guns, she was very much a martial artist and she was all about the graceful kicks and the jumps in the air and everything; and Colombiana, she was ghetto! She was raised and trained by her uncle and in the streets of Chicago. She didn’t know Isosceles or all these terminologies that people in the military or the cop world use. Even though I was trained by people who had military training, it was about an understanding.
Alain Figlarz, who was the [“Colombiana” fight choreographer], designed all the fights in Paris. He’s this amazing French stunt coordinator. He trained Matt Damon for “The Bourne Identity.” He’s one of the pioneers who created that martial-arts mixture with Krav Maga that we see in all these action French movies …
He and Olivier were very adamant that that’s the style of fight they wanted Cataleya to have because it was street, it was witty, and it was reflective. It was all about reflecting. And Lord, it was difficult! But it was exactly what she needed, and it was fun in the end.
How much fun did you have filming “Colombiana” around the world?
It was fun the first day when you’re shooting. Like “Oh my God! I’m in Chicago. I was just in Paris for a month.” But then when you have to go to work, and you’re shooting out of sequence the same scene that we shot a month ago in Paris — me running down a hallway. And then a month later, we’re in Mexico, and now I have to open the knob and walk in, it was a little bit of a canker sore. I would do it when I have to, but it’s not something I would especially request when I do a movie.
How important is levity/humor in an action film?
Oh God, it’s the intermission. It’s the potty break. [She laughs.] You can’t just be at that level of suspense and anxiety for more than an hour. Human beings grow restless. You need those [lighter] moments. And whether they’re moments of relief through sadness or through happiness, you still have to have them. So yeah, levity is important.
How important were Cataleya’s motivations to you?
It was everything. It just made her existence meaningful. Even if it was just in her mind, it was meaningful. And that’s how you have a story. If she was just a killer because she had nothing else to do when she didn’t make it the cheerleading squad, then I say, “By all means, go watch the other movie across the hall.”
But what she had witnessed when she was 9, what was taken from her was so traumatic that whether you saw it physically or you just saw it through Amandla Stenberg [who played a Cataleya as a child] — how amazing was she, by the way — just to see it through her eyes. We’re adults. Half of us are parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters. You just immediately side with her. You just want her to get whatever it is that she thinks that she needs.
And somewhere throughout that journey, once she kind of starts to lose track through Emilio her uncle, [we] as an audience, we’re starting to lose that meaning again. And then it’s reinforced when something more is taken from her. Now it’s not something more. It’s everything. So that’s what I loved the most about this script: It was a crescendo. It was like listening to “Salome,” that opera thing. It just keeps growing and growing, and you just want that release … It has to happen.
Can you talk about the Danny Delanay character, played by Michael Vartan?
He was one of the most relevant characters that I saw in the script. He made her human. The love that he was offering and his yearning for her made her tangible. It took away that essence of “the action person of steel that never feels, that never does anything.” And he presented the possibility of the life that maybe she could have.
When you see [Cataleya] as an adult, you get a sense that she’s willing to die, as long as she gets what she wants. So she cares about nothing. She doesn’t even care about her own family. And Danny (Michael’s character), the more she goes to see him, the more he keeps melting that ice and exposing her to the possibility that one day life could get to be possibly normal.
And I feel like you really needed that because if you didn’t have that, you make your own judgment about revenge halfway through beginning of the second act: “This girl needs to get a f*cking massage, and just deal with it and get a therapist.” And thank God you had that moment of weakness that allowed you to see through her. And her walls just kind of start shaking.
And [Michael Vartan] was phenomenal. I think you also needed to have an actor that was graceful enough to understand the lovemaking aspect of these characters and this story and not let ego get in the way. As males, it’s very hard to be the stay-at-home guy. If only you guys knew it’s so sexy.
How was it working with Jordi Molla, who plays Marco, a chief lieutenant of mob boss Don Luis?
Excellent! There’s something about Spanish actors. They’re like little English thespian actors. It’s their swagger and their accent and the fact that they’re so talented.
Working with Jordi was a humbling experience. He’s the most sensitive human being I’ve ever met. But the moment the camera, that lens captures his bright blue eyes and his dark skin, this man goes dark in a second. And that was so amazing to watch.
As soon as the cameras were off, he was like, “Zoe, are we going for sushi today?” And you’re like, “Oh my God! He’s so awesome!”
How do you respond to criticism that “Colombiana” has negative stereotypes of Colombian people?
The movie does deal with Colombia. She is from Colombia. She’s a little girl that was born and raised in Colombia and then has to flee Colombia because of the experience that she encounters. But we’ve been addressing firmly the controversy and the concerns that the Colombian community has been having about being misrepresented once again through art. And I don’t think this film will do that.
We need to give ourselves the opportunity to watch it because it doesn’t deal with any cartelas. It doesn’t deal with any drugs. It just deals with bad guys. And bad guys? Every country, every neighborhood, every block has them all. So that said, I don’t think we were being stereotypical.
And if anything, towards the end, there is something to take pride in. She becomes a dark knight, in a way. She becomes this heroine that feels the need to rid the world of evil people. I don’t know. I would be proud if I was Colombian.
If anything, I wanted Don Luis to be Dominican, because that where my heritage is from. But he has an affinity with Colombia. He’s been there. He loves the people. He thinks Colombian women, besides being beautiful, are fighters and are women of great strive. And he just wanted to it to be about Colombia.
[Says jokingly] If anyone writes anything bad about “Colombia,” will you kick their butt?
[She laughs.] No. If they do, they’re entitled to their own opinion.
Was the dance you do when Cataleya comes home to her apartment in the script, or did you do that on your own?
That dance moment, it was Olivier and I that really wanted to incorporate that. When someone’s alone in the privacy of their home, you’re raw. You’re being yourself, and to see her throughout the first [part of “Colombia”], she barely speaks as a little girl.
Then she barely speaks the first time you see her in that car scene and then she goes to jail, just very little words here and there. She’s playing a character, so once you see her come home and she knows that everything is fine, she’s checked every single corner. She unwinds.
There was a mandala. That was what we wanted to create near that wall. She goes up to that mandala thing. It’s sort of like a map that she’s had but she doesn’t want to write a map because if anybody were to break in, they’d immediately know what her next step is.
So she just creates it into a mandala, something that keeps going ‘round and ‘round and hopefully she’ll get to the center one day. So those were all things that Olivier and I just did it. Whether people catch it or not, we still did it for us.
Did Amandla Stenberg film her scenes before you did? Did you have to see her performance first before you did your scenes?
It really wasn’t necessary. We met a couple of times in L.A. when she was cast. Olivier was looking personally, and he saw many, many little girls. And the moment he saw Amandla, there was something about her. And he has a very good eye for that.
We sat down and had a couple of meetings where he recorded us [Amandla Stenberg and I] together. And there’s a maturity and an “old soul-ness” inside that little girl that will blow you away. But she’s still a little girl. And she’s so in tune with her emotions.
And she read the script. And to the best of her abilities, she understood the overall melancholy that this character lives with, and understood exactly what Olivier wanted both of us to do, which is he wanted Cataleya’s silence to be absolutely deafening when she didn’t need to speak.
I started shooting a lot of the interior shots in Paris first. By the time we got to Chicago, Amandla met us there and then in New Orleans and then obviously in Mexico. And whenever I was shooting, she was on set, sitting in a little chair, just watching little things here and there. And whenever she was working, I was sitting in a chair watching her. And it wasn’t even about observing what she would do in front of the camera.
It was when we were sitting down at a restaurant — all of us — her with her family and me with my family and Olivier, all of a sudden, I would catch her looking at what I was doing with my hands. And the way she listens, she just pierces right through you. I don’t know how Olivier did it, but he found little clones. It blew us away …
What do you say to people who think Cataleya is too glamorous-looking to be a dangerous assassin?
It was a decision with Olivier and myself that she would get done-up if she was playing that character to get into that jail or to go and kill this target, but whenever she was by herself, she was just raw.
“Colombiana” was an intense movie to make. What did you do to unwind while making “Colombiana”?
Wine is perfect to unwind. Just a glass of wine and a bath. I wish I could sugarcoat it, but when I’m working, I’m working. Yeah, I’ll have a glass of wine and have some dinner with the cast and the crew, but before I go to bed, I’m reading those lines for the next day. I’m up 30 minutes before I have to get picked up, even if it’s at 4 o’clock in the morning, I’m on that treadmill because want to make sure that I’m healthy and aware naturally. I don’t drink caffeine.
I know the responsibility that entails from telling a story. The one thing I despise the most is when I go to a movie and I see a whole bunch of lazy actors making me waste my time and money. We work in a very privileged industry. And the least that we can do as the artist and the filmmakers is do our work and do it well. So that by the time it lands in your hands, you guys are taken for a ride.
We all leave our lives for an hour-and-a-half s that we can laugh, we can cry, we can imagine, we can go somewhere. So you want to do it well. So I do unwind, but I also continue working — always.
Do you think playing a badass woman in action films is your niche as an actress?
If people go watch the movie, it would mean the world that every now and then, if a good script comes along and an amazing filmmaker comes along, why not? Why wouldn’t I do it? But it’s not just something I want to do. It’s not the only genre film that I want to go into. I just like making films.
Let’s say Tom Cruise, for example. The reason why I love watching this man in action movies: This man works so hard! And Matt Damon. They will practice to no end …
I do know that having a classical ballet background, it gave me the ability to be more in sync with my body. Had I not done a great job when I did “Avatar,” I would’ve been, “Oh my God, I look kind of weird!”
I would not be doing “The Losers.” I would not have done “Colombiana.” I know that I have a knack for [action scenes] because of my background. It would be wonderful to every now and then to do a story with action and to do it well.
Do you think there will be a sequel to “Colombiana”?
That’s what Mr. Besson said. We were in Cannes doing some press earlier this year. And I go to meet them for dinner, and Olivier and Luc were in a little corner, [speaking] French. And I was like, “Hello, what’s going on?”
And they’re like, “Well, if the movie does well … a sequel?” And I’m like, “Hell yes!” Of course I would love to do it. Why not? If it’s well-received, of course.
In physical fight scenes, how do you balance strength and vulnerability in a movie like “Colombiana”?
I just think you have to study the character’s journey and the character’s conflict — who she was, what’s she’s been through, and where she’s going — and let that dictate how she’s going to react to anything — not just a physical blow but an internal blow …
In the end of the second act, she loses everything. Up until then, you just saw this stone-cold stealth killer that had no conscience. And she was fine; she was emotionally removed. She had to be that way. Except when she was home, and that’s when you got to see how lonely she was.
But then when she’s really compromised in the middle of the movie, she’s going to feel a blow harder. She’s going to hit harder, and she’s not going to care whether or not she’s going to come out of this alive. She’s just going to make sure that everybody dies.
So that really affects how she’s going to react and feel and receive something and also give it back. So you’re always in a constant study of your character from the beginning, the middle and the end, because they have to evolve, whether they’re ascending or descending. And Cataleya is ascending, because she’s just falling down, little by little.
For more info: “Colombiana” website
RELATED LINKS ON joltleft.com:
Interview with Zoe Saldana for “Star Trek”
Interview with Zoe Saldana for “Avatar” (Comic-Con panel)
Interview with Zoe Saldana for “Avatar” (London press conference)
Interview with Zoe Saldana for “Death at a Funeral”
Interview with Zoe Saldana for “The Losers” (WonderCon panel)
Interview with Zoe Saldana for “The Losers” (Los Angeles press junket)
Interview with Zoe Saldana for “The Losers” (Los Angeles roundtable interview)
“Colombiana” news and reviews