The talented actress talks about her role in the new film Infinitely Polar Bear.
Actress Zoë Saldana
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Zoë Saldana to this program, star of the new film, “Infinitely Polar Bear”. In the film, she plays Maggie, the mother of two young daughters, Amelia and Faith, who were forced to leave their house in the country and move into a cramped apartment in Cambridge.
There Maggie tries to find a decent job with not much luck after her husband, Cam, played by the brilliant actor, Mark Ruffalo, has a manic breakdown that lands him in a mental hospital. Before we start our conversation with Zoë, a look at a clip from “Infinitely Polar Bear”.
Tavis: I saw you glancing at the clip. Are you one of those thespians who likes to see their work or refuses to see their work?
Zoë Saldana: No. I mean, sometimes. It depends on which film and what kind of experience I had shooting it and how attached I still am to the story, you know. But I became an actor because I love storytelling, so I get lost in stories. I kind of forget that I was in it and then I just get involved in the story and I feel it all over again.
Tavis: So, obviously, your fans love you in all these various sci-fi projects that you have done. This is quite different. When you see something like this as an actress, what draws you to it?
Saldana: To me, what draws me to what I do is definitely the story and my character. I think it’s important for me as a woman to not be a part of the over-saturated depiction of serviceable characters for women. And, unfortunately, those are a lot of the scripts that are circulating that also unfortunately get green-lend quicker, get financing quicker. So, you know, it’s unnatural for me to be a part of that. I wouldn’t even know how to play it, so every now and then when characters like this come my way, I fight for them.
I really fight and I had to fight to convince Maya to make me be able to play her mother, you know, to play Maggie Stewart because Maya thought, one, that I was too young so I was not going to be able to play the counterpart to Mark’s character.
And, two, I wasn’t a mother yet and she wanted somebody that had more experience, but I felt so deeply, so quickly, when I read the script. Every page as I kept flipping, I was able to identify because I am a sucker for father-daughter relationships. I lost my dad when I was nine, so any kind of ability to live vicariously through other people, I jump at the opportunity.
We were also dealing with the subject of bipolar disorder. That’s something that effects many more people than we know and they’re not diagnosed, they sometimes self-medicate, and we should be knowing more about this condition.
So I wanted to be a part of the telling of it, but from a point of view of what if the person that is suffering from this is a father, is a husband and he’s trying to do the best that he can and he always falls short? Also, it was very important for me to play this character of an African American woman trying to provide for her children by giving them the example of a great education.
Tavis: An African American in a biracial relationship in the 70s.
Tavis: Tell me more, yeah. Maggie.
Saldana: You know, she–Peggy was my…
Tavis: In Boston.
Saldana: In Boston, exactly.
Tavis: That’s critical, yeah.
Saldana: But let me tell you something. Better Boston than many other states at the time, I believe. And it was a bit progressive once you compare it to, you know, [inaudible].
Tavis: Some parts of it.
Saldana: Some parts, exactly, not to generalize, of course. But, you know, I thought that that was the first subject that Peggy was going to discuss with me. Peggy Forbes is Maya Forbes’ mother and that’s the character that I play in the movie.
And it was with them between Cam and Peggy and their families, it was never about race. It was more about gender and the possibilities that were not there for Peggy and they were very supportive of Peggy’s decision as much as they could be, you know, at the time, more than her environment.
She was judged a lot when she was going to school at Columbia and New York. I mean, all the time people were asking her like how are you dealing with it? Like your kids, they just always looked at her with such disdain and it was hard for her to keep her chin up.
She always kept remembering that the message that she was going to be providing for her daughters was bigger and she needed to survive all of that for the sake of her daughters. So I wanted to always hear every little anecdote that she was willing to share with me in order for me to put myself in her shoes, and it wasn’t difficult.
I think that, if you’re a woman, if you’re a woman of color, it doesn’t matter if you were an adult in the 70s or now, you will encounter some kind of limitation in your life and I need to hold onto the women that have done it and that are still doing it regardless of what age, regardless of what era, provided those obstacles for them because it’s truly inspiring for me.
Tavis: What was your takeaway specifically about bipolar when you had a chance to do this?
Saldana: Tolerance. I can never allow myself to overflow my cup of patience. That for any bad moment that you’re having, there’s always somebody around you that’s having a worse day, especially somebody suffering with an impediment that they cannot control and they cannot change.
Like I said, bipolar is a condition that we do not know as much as we should about it. And it affects many more people than we know because they are not diagnosed. They’re not medicated.
Especially if you’re an artist, you know, Cameron Forbes was a very artistic man. He was a photographer, he was a painter, he was a poet, a writer, and he was eccentric.
So being an artist, I encounter a lot of people with eccentric personalities and I regret my loss of patience at times with them. And I feel like if I had provided some compassion, it will give us a deeper understanding when it comes to human behavior.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier that you had to fight for this role. Does that happen more often than we know? That you have to fight for stuff?
Saldana: Every day, of course. I mean, when it comes to that, I don’t think, you know, you would need to be Tom Cruise at his prime to have been given every single role that you wanted. If it wasn’t there, then you would create it, you know. And it’s difficult for an artist because for every one of you, there’s 10 more talented…
Tavis: But you’re like the “it” girl. You’re on that short list.
Saldana: But what is it? I meant for…
Tavis: This. This is it. All this is it [laugh]. That’s what it is.
Saldana: But, you know, you’re going to be it for some people and then not for others. And then, unfortunately, the things that you want, you may not get. So I like fighting for my bread, you know, because when I get it, it’s very rewarding.
I wake up every day feeling very grateful and respectful of where I’m at and know that it’s not something that I should ever become entitled with. It’s privileged for an actor to be getting paid to work.
Tavis: Do you specifically look for parts where you aren’t playing the ingénue? I suspect that comes to you all the time.
Saldana: Oh, yeah, to every woman [laugh]. Especially if you’re considered attractive, that’s all that they want you for. It’s like I was told by a producer one time, “I hired you to look good wearing…” What is it? “I hired you to look sexy with a gun in your underwear. I didn’t hire you to give me your opinions on the script or your character.”
Tavis: Somebody told you that one time?
Saldana: Absolutely. And I remember that, had it been a younger me, that would have completely affected me in a very paramount way, and it didn’t because, at the end of the day, it’s something that I know that I’m going to be up against. So I can either fight or I can either educate.
I joke about this with my friends, I mean, some of my female colleagues, that it almost feels as if like the writers that are getting their projects made are mainly geeks [laughs] that had posters of their fantasy girls in their room and saying, “One day when I’m a writer, I’m going to write great stories” and they do.
They write beautiful women in it, but they’re void of substance. You just have to get–you have to invest a little more time in that female character and I just always encourage writers when I’m working with them to just dig deeper for women.
Tavis: I’m laughing at that analogy. I don’t think geeks want substance. I think they just want…
Tavis: Exactly. They got the stuff. That’s why they’re geeks [laugh]. They want something else. Before I let you go, though, let me come full circle. I am curious and I don’t want to color this question in any way. You started out this conversation by saying that, at the time that you read for “Infinitely Polar Bear”, you were not a mother.
You are now, two times over. Got a set of twins, as we all famously know. How is that changing things for you? Your view of the world? The way you think when you wake up every morning? What’s it done to you so far?
Saldana: Oh, wow. It’s done something really marvelous and it is teaching me to look at men every day with new eyes. I felt that I always had to be hard on the men around me because of the experiences that I had growing up, because of the culture where I’d come from, because of everything that my mother and my grandmother, my great-grandmother, went through.
I had inherited their, you know, their struggles. And how ironic that I’m so pro women. I grew up in a household filled with women and God sends me boys to raise.
I accept this mission and I am excited about it. I’m scared because I don’t ever want to hurt these men. My sons are Black men. They’re going to be Black men. And I want to create a world that is limitless for them, but I also want them to be better men. So I accept, I just accept.
Tavis: They’re fortunate to have you.
Saldana: Thank you [laugh].
Tavis: As are we on this program tonight. Zoë stars in the new film, “Infinitely Polar Bear”, alongside Mark Ruffalo. It’s a good one. You’ll want to check it out. Zoë, good to have you on, and I hope when the “Simone” project comes out, you’ll come back and see us again.
Saldana: Yes. Invite me back. I’ll come [laugh].
Tavis: Is that on tape?
Saldana: Yes [laugh]!
Tavis: Got it. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.