On the set of Guardians of the Galaxy at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England last September, we had the chance to meet one of Marvel’s most lethal characters, Gamora. We actually interviewed Zoe Saldana who plays Gamora, but since we spoke in between scene set-ups, she was fully decked out in Gamora’s green skin, reddish hair, facial markings and costume.
In our conversation with Saldana, we talk about designing Gamora to be both alien and attractive; crafting a deadly and stealthy fighting style with swords; Gamora’s role on the team as a moral compass; Gamora’s first impressions of the “douchey” Star-Lord; relationships with the other Guardians; Gamora’s history and similarities to the villainous Nebula and Thanos; Adding Guardians of the Galaxy to a sci-fi resume that includes Avatar and Star Trek; and leaving some character backstory for Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
We had seen during the day various concept renderings and makeup tests to find the right look for Gamora and her facial design when it came to the unique markings.
The treatments, did you try various versions on yourself or did they get to the final design before you came on board?
Zoe Saldana: No, I think we had maybe seven or eight camera tests we had to do, when it came to all the characters and for mine specifically it was, “How alien do we want Gamora to look like?” And what I was thinking was, “She just needs to be pretty.” And that’s usually a thing that I don’t think about with other characters that I play but for some reason because I was going to be green and I was going to be the lead girl, I just wanted teenage boys to find me attractive. I don’t know why I was stressing this a lot but I really was when we were testing. That’s where I was coming from, everybody else was just like, “Contacts? Do we dye the hair? Wig no wig? What color hair? How long is it?” I’m like, “Pretty. Teenage boys, please. We gotta get their vote.”
You’ve done other properties too that also appeal to that demographic. It’s interesting that that would come up on this one.
Zoe Saldana: Maybe because I’m older and you kind of go, “Am I losing my sex appeal or something?” When you’re green for four months, it definitely moves you a bit and you do kind of wobble going, “Okay, what is beautiful?” And then you start to find your character really appealing and very beautiful in how different she looks because you get used to it.
Was there any hesitation for you, having done Avatar, which is such a complete physical immersion role, to then step over and play another alien role? Or was that really ever a consideration?
Zoe Saldana: To me, it would be no different of a concern than Cate Blanchett, Keira Knightley need to have because they just do primarily period pieces. I just feel like, just because I’ve done a film that is considered amongst the masses that like to categorize things as science fiction, then so be it, I guess. As an artist, I like working with filmmakers that have the balls to kind of imagine the unimaginable. Those are kind of the radicals that I identify with and I grew up in a household where there was a lot of stories that were placed in unconventional places. I found the escape to be much more rewarding, at least for me. And then on the basis of being a woman, by playing an alien, I avoid playing someone’s girlfriend here on Earth because that’s a bit of a canker sore.
Chris [Pratt] said that he was told by James Gunn not to look back at the comics and to not do any research. Did you have the same experience with him or did you get a chance to look at some stuff?
Zoe Saldana: No, no. I didn’t do it for Star Trek. As actors you have this trait to imitate very easily. I don’t want to imitate anything or limit myself of finding this creature, this woman because I’m looking at magazines and I’m reading comics, and I’m asking people that are avid readers of The Guardians. She only exists in paper up until now, so whatever I decide to do to give her kind of air—If I read the comics, I would be cheating myself out of the adventure that I find so beautiful, which is conceiving a character and doing all my research. That’s the part that belongs to me that I don’t really have to share. That’s the part that I remember the most about what I do and I like the most.
This is the first time you’ve been a different color while physically on set. How is putting make up on and being fully green on set change the way you perform, act, and move?
Zoe Saldana: It’s so funny. For this one, when it came to Gamora, it was very different. My approach was very different than the one I had with Neytiri. I understood that for Neytiri the dehumanization of myself was absolutely crucial because these creatures, the species came with very specific requirements by James [Cameron]. In this one because it’s sort of like a dark comedy, we’re kind of like The Rolling Stones of the whole Marvel Comics that I find so fucking appealing, we’re like the ones who always fail in class but for some reason we can burn the house down, and I like that.
There was a sense of contemporariness that I didn’t want to tamper with and I liked it. So, I didn’t focus that much on making her a very distinguished alien. I feel like, you’re going to kind of lose a lot of other things and this movie runs really fast and it’s an action movie. And for the demographic that it’s geared more towards, if I get to intricate they’re gonna be like, “What? She’s kind of weird.” Part of doing this and aging, now that I’m 35, is that you do take all those things into consideration—not a great deal but you do kind of factor them in when you’re bringing a character together.
Gamora has a very interesting and detailed past and a lot of interesting personality traits. What was the most appealing thing to you when you signing on to play her? And what’s the most appealing thing now, looking back at the last four months of filming?
Zoe Saldana: My nephew’s 11, he’s the only person that I know that reads the Guardians [of the Galaxy], everybody else I’ve met, they read comics but my nephew was the closest one. I would ask him on his little [instant messenger]—so funny—and he asked me, “Who do you think Gamora is?” And I said, “She’s a warrior.” He goes, “Yeah. But not only is she a warrior, she’s an assassin and she’s very lethal but what saves her is the same thing that can doom her. She has a sense of righteousness. She’s a very righteous individual.” And that was coming from an 11-year-old boy. I was just like, “That’s it! That’s gonna be like the overall mojo of Gamora; her sense of always wanting to do the right thing.”
It’s why she compels, I guess, the Guardians to not sell the orb or she’s trying to ask them not to sell their souls for money. Because if it means that a lot of people will lose their lives then it’s not really worth it. She’s sort of the one who kind of starts going in that direction and then everybody else kind of follows. What I like the most about this movie is that we’re all starting like inmates, we’re all like lost kids. And by running away because we wanted to run away from the families that we were brought into, we end up creating a very beautiful family unit and becoming good, decent people sometimes.
We saw some of the weapons, which seemed pretty beautiful as well. In past films, you’re a good weapon wielder. What’s different and fun about the weapons in hand?
Zoe Saldana: This time around it was a sword. The sword’s heavy, my wrists are very thin, so I have this insecurity that I look wimpy with the sword. It’s so much better to have a gun. I’m more prepared, I’ve trained with SEALS, it’s fine. But the moment I’m with a knife, I’m just like, “Oh God! Take it, it’s too heavy! Moving on, roll sound.” But you rely on really good stunt people. I’m working with a woman, her name is Chloe, and she’s sort of the stealth Gamora and I’m the stealth-ish Gamora, and we’re definitely building a character that’s very good.
For me, it’s very important if I do action movies and I have a stunt person, to work with them. Not only by memorizing the choreography but also it’s important to study that individual and it’s imperative for that individual to study you because you’re not playing two different people, you’re playing the same person. Also, in order for the actor’s wishes to be respected in terms of characteristics that your character’s gonna have, you have to work with good and intelligent and talented stunt people that not only can carry weapons well but can also carry a personality. For Gamora, I guess it’s so easy to just not invest in the action part of it and sort of not aide the stunt team to going, “You know, that’s great. She can jump, she can land, she can definitely fight with the sword.”
But instead of looking like Jackie Chan, why don’t we give her an air of Jet Li because it’s this form of Wushu, which is his form of training. Jet Li is much more graceful than karate, which is what Jackie Chan has trained in. And I find that with women, you have to maintain some kind of grace, at least that’s my personal opinion. I was very adamant with Chloe and Steve and Thomas—the choreographers—to study the bullfighters. Because I kind of find it very seductive, the way a bullfighter can seduce a bull into surrendering to its own death without touching him at all. Just with the red, it’s a dance, it’s a very sensual dance that eventually the bull caves in, and basically runs towards this red thing and then there’s a sword meeting him behind it. He’s basically running to his own death. I thought that was very interesting for Gamora to have, she’s a woman, I’m pretty sure she knows how to use her charms to get what she needs. So, there might be a bullfighting kind of method into how she approaches an opponent.
Can you talk about Gamora’s relationship and chemistry within the group and her relationship with Drax and Star-Lord?
Zoe Saldana: She finds Quill interesting but he’s such a douche at first, he’s very immature and it’s inconceivable for her, I guess, to even have a wet dream with him in it. I think she’s intrigued by Groot, at least I am, there’s something about this—he’s such a human and he’s the most inhumane physically. A character out of all of us but he has this compassion that really—as I was reading the script, I worked with James [Gunn] in terms of, “How can we get them to kind of interact?” I know Gamora interacts very little with Groot or Rocket but there was something very interesting about Groot that what she needs is to soften herself, then Groot is definitely a subject to study. I think Drax is such a drama queen—can’t shut up. But at the end of the day, I learned to understand that I’m not the only victim. I’m not the only one that’s had it really hard. Drax has lost his family and probably in front of him like I did. There’s something, we are kindred spirits in that sense. Rocket had a lot of alterations done to his body and so did Gamora, and Quill lost his mom and he was basically taken from Terra. So, there’s a lot of things that they all have in common.
How about Nebula?
Zoe Saldana: Nebula. Oh that’s I—it’s complicated. I think to me, that’s the biggest heartbreak for Gamora. It’s the fact that she wasn’t able to save her sister—Fuck! Should I not be saying this? I’ll take it just that far and then I’ll pull back. I’m pulling back. Gamora and Nebula have a very, very similar paths. They were abducted from their families, their parents probably killed in front of them, so we’re Ronan’s but Gamora wants to change. She’s just different, she’s never really had it in her.
I think that Nebula definitely was born with a sense of wanting to taste blood. For her, she doesn’t want to move and that’s something that’s very frustrating for Gamora because there’s this big responsibility that she feels to Nebula. And Nebula doesn’t see it that way, doesn’t love her back with the same regard. That to me, is a bit heartbreaking. I’m one of three sisters and I’m like, “Jesus Christ, if I could marry them, I’d be the happiest person. I’d be complete, I’d be wholesome.” When I’m playing characters where there’s sibling dysfunctions, it’s a little heartbreaking.
Who’s your favorite out of all this unique ensemble?
Zoe Saldana: I think Nebula’s costume. I think my sister’s really hot. She’s wonderful, the transformation is absolutely wonderful and the ball on her, man, to shave her head. I would’ve been like, “Dude. I don’t know. I gotta think about that. How much are you paying me? Nah, I can’t.” Nebula, her physicality, I think she’s very beautiful. And Groot, I’m very fascinated by Dave’s [Bautista] makeup, it’s just his Drax way. We saw the trailer they showed at Comic-Con and there’s that thing in slow motion where he’s like yesterday, and this man comes with it. He comes to set and he’s gonna bring it, and you just go, “Oh my God!” But when you meet him in real life, he’s so tender, so sensitive, very soft spoken, really kind but a kick ass actor, and intense.
He seemed very moved by having been cast in the role. It seems like the kind of thing when you give the actor that opportunity, they throw themselves a thousand percent into it.
Zoe Saldana: Yeah, that’s Dave but so is Chris as well. The transformation that Chris has done is not only physical—physical is the most apparent but he’s really devoted himself to this character, to this movie, and it’s wonderful to come to work and be surrounded by people who take their jobs very seriously. Because the day that you feel like slacking, you immediately correct yourself. It’s like, “Oh we’re on day 85 of green makeup.” By the time I get to set I’m just like, “Ugh. I’ve worked eight hours, I’ve been here for eight hours doing hair and makeup by the time I get to set.” And to come to set and see happy people and people that are in character, full costume inside and out, it lets you know that you have always bring your game. So, it’s good.
With Gamora’s direct connection to Thanos, she’s kind of the anchor to the greater Marvel cinematic universe that’s been established. Is that something that was part of your process or has informed your playing of this character at all?
Zoe Saldana: If I tell you “no” will you think ill of me? I don’t read comics and I don’t follow, so I don’t know. I’ve learned now as I’m doing the movie of the importance that Thanos has with all these characters in the Marvel universe. And I thought, “She definitely does have an upper hand with a lot of the characters because she was raised by this individual.” But in terms of how deep their blood ties are, that’ll probably be put into question in the next movie because it wasn’t really covered enough in this one.
More: Guardians of the Galaxy Set Report
Guardians of the Galaxy is directed by James Gunn and stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel as Groot, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, with John C. Reilly, Glenn Close as Nova Prime Rael and Benicio Del Toro as The Collector.
Guardians of the Galaxy opens August 1, 2014, The Avengers: Age of Ultron on May 1, 2015, Ant-Man on July 17, 2015, Captain America 3 on May 6 2016, and unannounced films for July 8 2016 and May 5 2017.
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