The Good Life

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Star to Watch: ZOE SALDANA

By R. Kurt Osenlund, The Good Life film critic

Zoe Saldana in last year's "Star Trek."

As the 2009 Oscar race was hitting its peak, and "Avatar" was emerging as not just a Best Picture frontrunner, but also the all-time box office champ it ultimately became, word began to spread that Zoe Saldana, the smooth-skinned, cat-eyed American beauty who portrayed the blue-skinned, cat-eyed Pandoran princess Neytiri in the sci-fi saga, had a legitimate shot of landing a Best Actress nomination. Many dismissed such a notion as mere talk -- just another strand of the "Avatar" mania that was sweeping the world -- and that the Academy would never (or, at least, not yet) go for a performance that was essentially born out of a computer.

And, as it turns out, they didn't. But that talk came from a real place, as did Saldana's surprisingly dimensional turn in James Cameron's gargantuan epic. What we saw on screen may have been finalized by a tireless team of animators, but what we felt, such as the sense that the passionate Neytiri was very much a part of the lush, distant moon she called home, was largely Saldana's doing. The essentials of it called to mind many things, but a computer wasn't one of them.

It says a lot when an actor's presence on screen is so captivating that even millions of dollars of spectacle and CGI can't get in its way. It also proves Saldana, 31, is more than just an (extraordinarily) pretty face. Breaking through in teen-friendly, early 2000s hits like "Center Stage" and "Drumline," Saldana could have easily vanished into the homogeneous mix of young, indistinguishable stars. But in choosing the right projects and the right collaborators, she's inched her way ever closer to household-name status, something she may finally achieve this year if she hasn't already.

Following up 2009's mega-hits "Avatar" and "Star Trek" (both of which have sequels in the works), Saldana will be appearing in two films this month: the comedy-remake "Death at a Funeral," which casts her as part of a dysfunctional family and the girlfriend of a tripped-out James Marsden, and "The Losers," a comic-book adaptation that returns her to the action genre as part of an elite Special Forces team. In August, she'll appear in "Takers," a crime thriller in which she'll star alongside Matt Dillon, Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen, Michael Ealy and Jay Hernandez.

Though she gravitates toward more popular, popcorn fare, Saldana shows the tenacity and talent of an actress capable of tackling a variety of genres and characters. With her career still taking off, she has the potential to dig in to some really juicy roles and grow even more as a performer. Assuming she does, it's quite possible she'll find herself in the Oscar conversation once more, and, next time, chances are few will see it as just talk.


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