Zoe Saldana steps into the shoes of Nichelle Nichols – read our interview with the first lady of Star Trek
Spending part of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, Zoe Saldana recalls watching the show VIAJE A LAS ESTRELLAS with her mother and great-grandmother. Devoted fans of the series, her relatives were not only emotionally involved with the characters, but immersed in all the stories. Little did they realize that the 10 year-old girl sitting next to them on the couch would one day get her chance to actually portray the most important woman on the show in a big screen adaptation of the series.
If the name VIJAE A LAS ESTRELLAS doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps the English version strikes a more familiar tone, STAR TREK. “My mom was a huge Trekkie,” Saldana now admits. “Needless to say, she was very happy when I got this part.” And not just any part. Saldana is portraying Lt. Nyota Uhura, the lead communications officer of the ship who is an expert in linguistics. As the USS Enterprise travels to different galaxies, she is the mediator between the commanders of two different ships from two different planets. If she gets the communication wrong, she can actually start a war.
STAR TREK, directed by JJ Abrams, is the latest incarnation birthed out of the landmark 1966 television series; however unlike the ten other films or five television adaptations, this version takes audiences back to the beginning. We witness the formation of the now infamous team of Captain Kirk, Sulu, Chekhov, Spock and Uhura; how these young Star Fleet cadets morphed into their leadership roles aboard the USS Enterprise.
When the show first premiered, it was revolutionary in that it not only promoted international peace and harmony but also featured prominent minority representation from Asian and African American actors. Nichelle Nichols, who originally portrayed Uhura, became a stalwart symbol for not only her race and gender but her fashion sense as well.
Q: For those people who have never seen Star Trek, introduce your character Uhura. Who is she and why is she on this ship?
SALDANA: Well, she’s a very important tool on the ship. She’s a translator. They’re traveling to all different kinds of galaxies and planets. So she’s an expert in linguistics. She’s able to translate and be sort of like the operator or the mediator between two commanders of two different ships from two different planets trying to meet in common so they can have safe passages. That’s a very important thing. If she gets it wrong, she can actually start a war between two nations or something. And she’s very stoic. She’s very strong. And loves what she does. And sort of takes herself a little too seriously sometimes.
Q: I don’t know how many of these other languages you are going to speak but were there challenges for you linguistically? Is there a romulan language that you had to learn?
SALDANA: No, no (laugh). For me, it was actually learning to speak as fast as JJ wanted us to speak because we’re saying a lot of important things. There are a lot of big words like: “The trajectory for the USS Enterprise…” And you’re just like “Brrrrrrrrrrrr”… And you’re talking so fast. And JJ is known to speak really, really fast. So he would always say in-between takes, “Zoe that was excellent, now, next take, ten times faster.” And you’re like, “I can’t believe it.” And you’re dialogue is like this long. So that was the linguistics challenge that I had (laughs).
Q:You think in the future that society would be a little more progressive and that there would be a lot more women on board or in positions of power. Was that something interesting to you or questioning? How far have we progressed in how many hundreds of years?
SALDANA: No, there were many women. I didn’t look at that issue though because for some reason I automatically assumed that in the future these things would not be an issue. Maybe there were just more men per capita then women, and that’s why they were there in the flight school. I don’t know.
Q:What about the mythology of Star Trek. In a lot of instances it really was pertaining to social and political themes of its time without coming out and saying we’re talking about this or that. They could use outer space metaphors, to make it easier for people to transition into it.
SALDANA: I think it was sort of like a poetic justice at that time. For these dreamers, which is what I believe that Gene Roddenberry was, he had this vision of what he wanted to see, as an artist, as an audience member. And he never backed down. I guess when he kept getting turned down and they said, “The only way we would do this is if it was many years into the future and in space,” he was like, OK, fine. So if that’s what I have to do in order for me to show the kind of world that I would like us to be in, then I’ll do that. And I thought it was so compassionate and so beautiful and so ahead of its time.
Q: Were you happy to immerse yourself in the culture of Star Trek after you got this part? What was that process like? Was there a Star Trek bible?
SALDANA: No. It was extensive conversations with JJ. And he had some advisors on the set that were ‘Star Trek’ advisors. I wanted to see as little as possible of the series. I was afraid of entering into a crack of mimicking the actors that were portraying these characters as opposed to just studying the characters. And as actors we’re mimics by nature. So I definitely took my time with that. After speaking to JJ and speaking to Nichelle Nichols and how they just basically said, these are the elements that we would like her to have. Under these guidelines, you can take and make Uhura however way, shape or form you want her. So I was able to kind of recreate her and picture her in school and picture her as a young person. I was always following the guidelines of the fact that she was very elegant and very sexy at times. But also it was because she was very strong and she was able to command herself in that presence and still hold court. With those guidelines, I was able to have that as a base and then just make her this and make her that. And it was a lot of fun.
Q: But you are playing a character, for TV fans who followed it, there’s something very specific about who these people are. So for you as an actor, how much do you need to study the history of it?
SALDANA: JJ wanted us to watch all the series and study the characters but he was very adamant about us not mimicking the first actors that portrayed these roles. It was not about that. Then we would have forgotten about Uhura and Spock and Kirk and everything and it would have been a William Shatner mimic. Once we had that, then there was this freedom that we could navigate. It didn’t matter what they did when they were young. They were still going to end up on the Enterprise as the original cast members, in our vision, psychologically.
Q:Were you a Trekie?
SALDANA: My mom is. My great-grandmother was a diehard Trekie. But I guess I knew more about it in Spanish. When I was living in the Caribbean, it was called differently; it was like, ‘Vijae a las Estrellas’. And sometimes when they do the subtitling it’s so much more dramatic. But my mom was a huge Trekie and she was very happy when I did it. And then when I did ‘The Terminal’, Mr. Spielberg sort of gave me the Trekie documentaries for me to watch and told me what episodes to see, so that I could just have a taste of what it’s like to be a Trekie. That was my introduction into ‘Star Trek’. But I became a fan of the fans.
Q: Have you been to a convention?
SALDANA: Just a little one. On Saturday, as we were flying back from Asia, we stopped in San Francisco and went to Wonder Con. And that was pretty awesome. Because, you know, back in Asia, the culture is very different. So obviously they’re all happy on the inside. Who knows what kind of buttons you push. And you’re like, “Anybody… Anybody, get that?” But then, as soon as you get off the plane in San Francisco, they’re very vocal about how they feel. I mean, there was a girl in her Trekie outfit. She looked really good too. You know, she was very expressive.
Q: From what we see of the first introduction of Uhura in the movie, there is definitely a sexual chemistry that plays off of her and Kirk. I don’t think that was in any of the previous incarnations. Can you talk a little bit about that? We don’t want to give too much way but what do you think that dynamic lent to the storyline?
SALDANA: What I love about what JJ and the writers did with ‘Star Trek’ is by recreating it they’re giving the audience an opportunity to the back-stories of who these people are before they encounter each other on the Enterprise. So they’re all meeting each other in this movie. And there’s a lot of curiosity that they have towards each other. Kirk definitely sparks a lot of intrigue, not only amongst people like Uhura, but around the entire school because he’s just so different. He takes everything just so lightly. Everybody wants to know what his deal is. And Uhura is not immune to that. If anything, the fact that he’s drawn to her bothers her. But she’s very intrigued at the same time.
Q: How familiar were you with the other cast members prior to making this movie because for the film to really succeed there has to be chemistry that is evocative of everybody? We have to really feel like these people are supposed to be together?
SALDANA: I had met Zach through mutual friends but it was years before. I was starting fresh with all the cast members. I was either a fan of their work or I was meeting them for the very first time. It was just amazing. It was perfect casting, almost, because we all got along so well. There was this synchronicity in the excitement that we all felt about this and how new it was. The fact that more than half of us were not ‘Star Trek fans’ meant we were learning together. We kind of created this energy that was growing at the same time, growing at the same pace. It was pretty cool.
Q: Can you talk about you and Chris Pine in this movie – you seem to have a very nice connection. How was it working with him?
SALDANA: It was wonderful. Chris, by far, just blew me away in terms of his confidence and how he was able to jump from one thing to another. He’s a very intense actor. And I love intensity in actors when I work with them. They kind of drive you and force you out of your shell. It’s a very good thing when you just have actors that go: “I’m out. You better keep up.” And you’re like: “I’m up! I’m up!” You know, it’s really great. And those blue eyes of his, for the love of God… Jesus! The chemistry was there. . There’s definitely this overall curiosity of all these characters. Because we are meeting for the first time and we’re getting assigned on the Enterprise for the first time, it makes it very interesting.
Q: I was wondering if you got the sense over the course of the film that people became more comfortable with their roles. I’m thinking especially of Zachary Quinto as Spock. Whether he became Spock straight away or you got the sense over time that he was becoming that? Was it a gradual transition rather than immediate?
SALDANA: First time I saw Zach it freaked me out. I mean, I knew Zach before because we have friends in common and everything. But not with those ears and it was amazing how similar he was to Spock, the original Spock. And then, what was worse is, to see Zachary and Leonard in the same vicinity. Freaks you out.
Q: The guys have talked about having to do to stunt camp to learn specific skills. Was there any extracurricular activity for you?
SALDANA: No, no… Thank God Uhura only had a talented tongue and that’s pretty much it (laughs). So that was pretty much all I had to do. But it was a lot of fun watching the guys train. Sometimes they would train in front of us with the stunt coordinators. And just to see those fights… I loved that.
Q:When you go on the set of a film like this, it looks artificial, nothing like what you see on film. But for you as an actor you need that reality because it is your home environment. How realistic was it for you? How much of your imagination had to be sparked?
SALDANA: That set was pretty awesome. In the Enterprise, the way they built it and how they thought it out, it was absolutely amazing. And yes, half of the gadgets were there just cosmetically, but half of them worked. We were just like… “Oh my God, touch that button… That button makes that sound.” It helps a lot because the more they can place you somewhere in that place where you need to be, your surroundings, the quicker it is for you to get there. And it was tons of fun. But definitely the moment you step outside we were shooting in a lot of huge green screens and it kills it for you the first two days. But once you learn to spark this, the imagination, we could make the world come to life.
Q: How much of your imagination did you have to spark yourself? What I mean by that was were there tennis balls that you had to focus on? How do they keep you focused knowing that stuff was going to be added in later?
SALDANA: We had extensive conversations with JJ and the creative team. They would sometimes show us pictures of what it is that we were looking at in order for us to have an idea. Because obviously it’s a different impression according to what it is that we’re looking at. And JJ always shared that very openly with us when it came to that. “How big is this?” “Is it monstrous? Is it oppressive? Is it abundant?” He would always stop any take to answer any question. And that’s very important. Because if you have three people that are looking at the same thing but all three of us have different reactions about it, that’s going to be off. So the more we talk as a team and meet in the middle, the better it is when you do see us looking at the same thing with the same intensity.
Q: A lot of times science fiction, for whatever reason, its kind of a geeky guy genre. At least people have that impression. It’s really been revolutionised in the past five to ten years. What do you think it gives women? From a female perspective, what do you think the science fiction genre offers?
SALDANA: When it’s well done, the quality. Stories like ‘Dune’ or ‘Alien’ or ‘Terminator’ – all these films that were ahead of their time offering women substantial roles that demanded more of their physical attention and were more relevant to the story than just: “I will find you!”
Q: They are usually not just the girlfriend.
SALDANA: No! They’re saviors. They’re missionaries. They’re going to deliver the child who is going to free the world. It’s pretty amazing.