Dressed for the Côte d'Azur heat in an airy summer dress, Zoe Saldana strolls into a seafront suite at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes and reacts to the room's muggy temperature by fanning her face and declaring in a mix of her two native tongues, "Oh my God, esta muy caliente, right?"
The daughter of a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother, Saldana was raised speaking Spanish and English but restricts use of the former in interviews for emphasis. Depending on which language she's speaking, there are two Zoe Saldanas - the slightly demure, well-mannered English speaker and the fiery, physically expressive Hispanic who snakes her arms and upper body to make her points. It might appear she's playing up to stereotypes, but that's just how Saldana rolls. And her latest role in the revenge thriller Colombiana gives the actress the chance to show off both sides of Zoe.
Esta muy caliente (it's very hot) could also apply to a film career that, on the back of roles in two blockbusters, is humming along nicely these days. As the warrior-princess Neytiri in James Cameron's Avatar, she was feisty, defiant and sexy, insofar as nine-feet-tall, cerulean-skinned aliens go. As the outer-space linguist Uhura in JJ Abrams' Star Trek, she brought sultry elegance to the cosmos. On the back of these two box-office behemoths, Saldana morphed from maybe-star into Hollywood supernova. Which comes as belated relief to an actress who's often struggled to find traction in an industry that's anything but colour blind.
"I feel that art imitates life," she observes. "Sixty years ago, in the years of Ricardo Montalban and Rita Hayworth, they had to do what they had to do. But now because there are so many more Latinos in the States, we're becoming more integrated and the art has been evolving along with it. We have learnt from our past and we are fighting to see ourselves represented. The stereotypical roles are always going to be there. But I will never be a part of them, of anything that makes me feel it's only representing one aspect of our culture."
Before landing Avatar, Saldana admits she was sick of portraying women "who just cried all the time". Wanting to use the physicality that years of serious dance training have given her, she's in the full throes of her action heroine phase, which has brought her to the very first film she's carrying on her own, Colombiana. Springing from the same adrenalin-heavy-hit factory that yielded the Liam Neeson thriller Taken and following much the same revenge formula, the film casts Saldana as Cataleya, a girl whose parents are brutally murdered in front of her by a Colombian drug cartel and who trains to be a lethal assassin with the express purpose of delivering payback to the perpetrators.
"The fact that she's an assassin wasn't the first thing that popped up when I read the script," insists Saldana. "It was that she was so vulnerable and broken. Cataleya lives at extremes - when she's physical, she's lethal, and when she's emotional, she's profoundly in agony. But yeah," she adds with a grin, "to be able to play a character where you get to do what men are predominantly known to do is awesome. Doing Avatar and The Losers, I got my feet wet. Colombiana pushes the envelope that much further - and it felt great."
The intensive training that goes into headlining an action-thriller and the physical demands of bashing villains all day do, however, take their toll. And the 33-year-old actress is feeling it more and more these days. "My mom tells me I look like a map when I come home because I'm black and blue all over the place," she laughs ruefully. "I'm addicted to the adrenalin of being a very physical person but I'm finally entering the consciousness of mortality. With Avatar I was fine: I would get hurt, get up, brush it off and take an Epsom salts bath when I got home. But that was four years ago and four years definitely make a difference. My body feels like it's aged 10 years since then. It can't reboot itself as quickly."
Colombiana also sees Saldana display an almost organic facility for handling guns, with the actress disclosing where her level of comfort comes from. "Latinos hunt! My dad and his brothers were countrymen from the Dominican Republic so I grew up always seeing a rifle around," she says. "Now that I'm an adult and I know what weapons represent, I would have wanted my father to have a little more precaution keeping weapons away from us. But my stepfather's also a hunter, and my partner in life [actor-businessman Keith Britton] comes from a family of hunters, so I'm comfortable having guns around."
Next year, Saldana is due to return to Pandora, the fictitious Avatar planet that made her famous, for back-to-back shoots on two sequels. With its billion-dollar-grossing success and what it's meant for her career, Saldana is excited at the prospect, even though it will take her off the market for 18 months during what are likely to be the peak years of her career. "Are you kidding? Do you know what that means for an actor?" she laughs. "It means that I'll be employed for over a year in a business that's so unpredictable!"
Her pragmatism is a sign of a tough New Yorker work ethic and being raised always to take responsibility for her life. Saldana grew up in Queens until her "hippie" mother moved the family to the Dominican Republic after Zoe's father died when she was 10. It was there that she discovered dance, studying ballet at a top academy before moving back to New York at 17, joining a youth theatre group and landing her debut film role as a stroppy dance diva in Nicholas Hytner's Center Stage. Along the way, she has worked with such high-profile industry titans as Steven Spielberg and Jerry Bruckheimer, in The Terminal and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, respectively, but it took the double-whammy of Avatar and Star Trek to drive her career to the next level.
In preparation for the further adventures of Neytiri and Uhura (Star Trek 2 shoots this autumn), Saldana opted to take a significant chunk of 2011 off and has been delighting in the freedoms that come with stepping off the Hollywood treadmill. "I eat what I want, I've stopped exercising and I have a life as opposed to just waking up and running around, hopping on a plane, doing this, doing that, exercising, going to bed early," she muses. "I've been spending a lot of time with family, I've been travelling and I've been having fun … staying out really late."
She beams with pleasure. "I love love love going out! There's nothing better than dressing up, putting on make-up, putting on some heels and going dancing. I love it, and why not? I'm human and I'm young - and I'll be telling you the same thing when I'm 70 years old: 'I'm still young and I'm still rocking!'"