Zoe Saldana is one tough cookie

LOS ANGELES Tue Apr 20, 2010 12:28pm EDT

1 of 4. Actress Zoe Saldana, who stars in the movie 'The Losers', poses for a portrait in Beverly Hills, California April 9, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For Zoe Saldana, life has changed a lot since she played a tall, blue alien in the top-grossing film of all time, "Avatar," but one thing remains constant: she is one tough cookie.

In fact, her stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, who trained her for "Avatar" and upcoming action flick "The Losers," which kicks its way into theaters on Friday, has remained by the "Star Trek" star's side in her rise up Hollywood's A-list.

Before anyone thinks she is all action, no talk, the 31 year-old Saldana also currently stars in film comedy "Death at a Funeral," and the New Yorker who was raised in the Dominican Republic said family is what is near-and-dear to her heart.

Still, an old-fashioned butt-kicking can do good things for Saldana's psyche, and she wonders what's so bad about that.

"I've had bruises that would make any man cry, but he and I just find it really sexy," said Saldana, 31 "Because he's like, 'Oh, I love a girl with bruises,' and "I'm like, 'I do, too. Is that wrong?'"

On the set of "The Losers," Saldana earned her fair share of black-and-blue marks as Aisha, a mysterious operative who joins an elite U.S. Special Forces unit that has been betrayed and left for dead in the Bolivian jungle.

The unit returns to civilization under the cloak of being presumed deceased and begins to track down the man who framed them. Their problem is, however, that they argue so much among themselves they often get in their own way.

Aisha is a seductress who puts the smackdown on unit leader Clay, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. In addition to throwing kicks and punches at their enemies, the two hurl whatever else is handy -- a liquor bottle, a TV, each other -- across the room in one major brawl.

"I did like 85 percent of my stunts for that scene," Saldana said. "When I'm preparing for a role, I will immediately create a diet and training. It's part of the obsession; it's part of the passion."

Yet for director Neil LaBute's remake of the British comedy "Death at a Funeral," Saldana had only to roll with the punchlines. Still she insists that her character "was kind of tough. Her boyfriend's like tripping everywhere, so there has to be some damage control."

THICK SKIN, SOFT SOUL

Saldana developed her thick skin as a kid growing up in Queens, New York. When she was nine years-old, her father, who was from the Dominican Republic, passed away and her mother moved the family back to that Caribbean nation.

"My mom found herself living in a city that was becoming increasingly dangerous, especially for a widow and three young girls," said Saldana. "She didn't want to take the risk of losing us to the streets. So she did what she thought was the best thing for us, and she packed us all up."

Saldana and her two sisters found themselves hitting the books in Spanish, and she took up classical dance, which served her well in her breakout role as Eva, the headstrong ballet dancer in 2000's "Center Stage."

She went on to films like "Drumline" and TV shows such as "Six Degrees," improving her resume until landing the plum role of Nyota Uhura in "Star Trek." And then came "Avatar."

Saldana has now crossed three big names off of her bucket list of directors -- Steven Spielberg, who directed her in 2004's "The Terminal"; J.J. Abrams for "Star Trek"; and James Cameron with "Avatar."

"The characters I wanted to be when I was growing up were Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley," said Saldana, about two key female roles in Cameron's "The Terminator" and "Aliens."

"It was not Cinderella. Trust me. And to get to work with the genius behind these characters, especially as a woman, made me feel so happy," she said.

Even though she's beat up a lot of men lately, legendary sci-fi directors like Cameron and a merciless stunt coordinator such as Warren aren't the only constants in her life.

Saldana decided to move to Los Angeles permanently after "Avatar," and her two sisters -- a nurse and a producer -- relocated from New York as well.

"I'm the middle. We're all a year apart, and we're all left-handed," said Saldana. "We just couldn't be away from each other. So my sisters found a way to leave everything behind and start over, here. I'm so grateful. I have two nephews and a niece from my siblings, and I am just in heaven with them."

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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