The 34-year-old star of “Star Trek Into Darkness” came under scrutiny over the past year when it was announced she would portray the legendary Nina Simone in an upcoming big screen biopic. Critics blasted the casting decision, claiming Saldana was not “dark enough” to play the chanteuse nor could she sing, and even Simone’s own daughter seemed to agree.
No worry for Saldana, however, as she counters their criticism with bold candidacy, challenging her detractors to think with greater scope.
“It’s not natural to me to discriminate in any way shape or form,” the actress tells theGrio. “Either discriminate by victimizing myself, or discriminate by being a perpetrator of abuse. I don’t understand it. I wasn’t raised by that.”
Asked if she can acknowledge where those critics are coming from, she answers firmly and adamantly, “Not at all.”
Of this I’m sure
Saldana, an American of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, was born in New Jersey and raised both in the U.S. and Dominican Republic. She says she jumped on the opportunity to play Simone because no one else was “stepping up to the plate,” and describes the Civil Rights activist and singer as a “prophet” whose narrative deserved greater attention.
Mary J. Blige was originally cast in the part, but dropped out due to scheduling issues.
“Her story needs to be told, so if nobody’s going to do it, I’ll do it,” Saldana remarks.
Nevertheless, Saldana’s involvement in the film has drawn consistently negative attention, even provoking some to launch an online petition demanding the producers recast the part and threatening to boycott the project.
When a photo was released last October showing the actress as Simone in a darkened skin tone, further outrage spread.
But little, it seems, stressed Saldana’s stride.
“Well, I’m not made of steel,” Saldana comments. “But I held onto [writer-director] Cynthia Mort. Cynthia Mort being a white woman from Detroit and me being an American woman of Latin descent – the one thing that tied us together was our unconditional love for Nina Simone. So, I can only hope that people remain open enough to watch the movie and make their decision.”
Don’t let me be misunderstood
At the end of the day, Saldana adds, the judgment of cynics doesn’t matter in her book.
In fact, for the A-list talent, skin color has never been a defining factor to her understanding of the world; quite the opposite. Race was removed as a mechanism of evaluation throughout her life, thus, Saldana doesn’t believe in black or white. She feels shades of color do not express a person’s humanity, and she will not be circumscribed by such terminology.
“It’s completely unnatural to me,” she explains. “If I were to ever use words like that in front of my mother, she would not even know what to do…By us always talking about [race], we’re giving a lot of importance to a subject that should not even exist in the first place.”
She adds, “I don’t need to explain the obvious. I am equal to anything and everything that walks, breaths, or f***ing shines on this Earth. And I don’t need to explain myself. Or justify myself. Or announce myself. I just need to be. And that is who I am.”
The future begins
In “Star Trek Into Darkness,” a film adaptation of the 1960s television series, and sequel to J.J. Abram’s 2009 release, Saldana finds herself in a context where mankind has mixed with extraterrestrials, hundreds of years in the future. The actress plays the character of Nyota Uhura, a human lieutenant and communications officer, whose part in the TV series was one of the first characters of African descent to be featured in a non-menial role.
Saldana describes the latest installment of the movie franchise, hitting theaters Friday, as “bigger” and “louder” than the first, and accordingly, “funner.” Her character’s romantic relationship with Spock (Zachary Quinto), a mixed human-Vulcan ambassador, serves as a humorous and thought-provoking anecdote to the plot, as she forces him to accept his job as leader and lover.
“What I liked about how J.J. portrayed their relationship, it makes it so relatable,” Saldana points out. “If we were set in the future, when two people come together, when they love each other, we’re still going to be having the same problems, having the same argument whether we’re in a car, on a bike or in a spaceship. It’s still, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ ‘I did call you.’ ‘But you didn’t leave a message’…It doesn’t matter where you’re at, we’re still trying to find love.”
Loving without boundaries
It’s quite clear in conversation that Saldana keeps her family ties close, and says it was her mother, a “closeted Trekkie,” who helped her research the details of her part. She remembers glancing at “Star Trek” during her youth while her mom and grandmother were entranced, but didn’t discover the levels of devotion till more recently when she watched documentaries on the subject.
For whatever guard she may hold, Saldana manages to express herself with wise countenance and tenacious demeanor. She brings these attributes to her part in the film, and says that love, in a sense, is easy for those who want it.
“I believe whatever it is you set out to look for, you’re going to find, whether it’s love or problems or good things or happiness,” Saldana remarks. “We are the masters of our own universe. I do believe that because I believe in energy. We are alchemists, all of us, so we are searching for gold.”
The androgynous soul
Earlier this week, Saldana struck a new chord with fans when her revealing photo spread and interview for Allure went buzzing about the Internet. The actress posed in the nude with a smile, and was quoted as saying she could possibly “end up with a woman, raising my children” one day.
And that’s the truth of the matter, says the star. That was the real her – in her “real uniform” – speaking honestly.
“I do believe in androgyny,” Saldana says. “We are such a censored species that sometimes it baffles me how much we limit ourselves as human beings, as men, as women, as Americans, as Russians, as whatever. We have to label so many things in our lives in order to just get out of bed that it’s sickening.”
“Love needs to be completely free,” she continues. “As of now, my whole life, I’ve been attracted to the male species, but if one day I wake up and it’s the other way around, I will do that. And I will be loved, and supported by everybody I know because that’s the world that I live in.”