Zoe Saldana plays Maya in a new Limited Series coming to Netflix called Maya and the Three. We sat down to talk about how representation matters and how much she loved playing this role and working with Jorge Gutieìrrez (The Book of Life) again.
What similarities do you have to your character, and what would you like your audience goers to take away?
Zoe Saldana: I do remember what it was like to know who I was and know what I wanted to do. And I remember my mom, my dad, and my grandma always wanting me to be what they thought that I should do. It’s such a universal thing, and me being really radical and very rebellious about that. I remember being 15 and thinking that, ‘oh, my God, it’s the end of the world.’ It was just refreshing to sort of get to revisit those emotions.
I feel like the biggest takeaway are: To have a female heroine at the helm of a beautiful, adventurous, aesthetically amazing epic story, it’s “More, please.” That representation does matter. It is primordial. It is essential to the building of a person’s identity, to the building of someone’s character, not just of one singular person but also of a community and then eventually of a nation. I think that’s so important now.
What I like about the way that Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra do it is that they come from a place of love and celebration rather than from a place of social justice. So, all of these nuances of Mesoamerican cultures and Caribbean sort of cultural tones are just icing on a cake that is all about family and love and loss and action and friendship and identity, not just of cultural identity but also, gender identity. But it’s done in a very subtle but also very mature way, and his main audience is young people.
What drew you to this role and why did you want to be a part of the series?
Zoe Saldana: Jorge Gutierrez. When I worked with him on Book of Life, I had such a wonderful experience. I was in awe of him. I was starving for creatives like him where we share our Latinx heritage. I like the fact that his animation is very authentic, very original. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. Everything about it is wonderful. He did, on the red carpet of Book of Life, ask me that, if he invited me to another adventure, would I join him, and I said ‘absolutely yes.’ I didn’t think he was going to keep his promise, and he did. And so, of course I kept mine and I willingly, with my open heart, did it, and I was really honored and excited.
It is exhausting because you can’t, no matter how much you try and match Jorge’s energy when you’re in a session with him, because he gives 110% on everything. He’s all in at all times, by the time you finish your session, you’re exhausted.
You’ll get to see it because Maya is loud and she’s proud and she’s feisty and she’s in your face. And she makes these mistakes out loud. And I feel like everything about Maya is undeniably female and all woman. And I really feel that Jorge captured what a woman is, in a girl’s form because he really wanted to celebrate the women in his life that mean so much to him, that raised him every day. And so, obviously I wanted to make him proud.
Do you actively seek roles that inspire girls and women?
Zoe Saldana: You know, I didn’t before. Before I became a mom, I looked for roles that, ever since I was a child, I was just curious and really passionate about. Like, my idols were Whoopi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hamilton, and I would watch their movies over and over again. I did not want to be the princess. I wanted to be the queen. I wanted to be the warrior, but I want to do it in space and I wanted to fight aliens. Becoming an actor, I was always leading with my heart. I was raised to just lead life with my heart.
So, when films like Star Trek and filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and James Cameron for Avatar approach me and they invite me to be a part of their world, like, their world is the funnest world in the world. I worked with Steven Spielberg, with all these people that gave themselves the permission to imagine the unimaginable. And here they were, looking at this little girl from Queens, and I fit in that world for them.
That is what gave me that affirmation that who I am and what I like in life means something. And it means–and in others–people of my likeness will see it. I guess now that I’m a mother, my goal is to continue doing that, but to add representation to that, because I also know what it was like to be invisible, not just by gender but also culturally invisible in a land where my Pledge of Allegiance was inclusive, but I’ve felt excluded many, many times.
And I felt like I always had to work twice as hard to just get the okay from something sometimes. And you sort of go, “I don’t want my kids to be exhausted by the time they’re teenagers because they always have to work twice as hard to be seen and heard.” So, I guess that I can be a part of change, like singular little me, by just knowing and curating the art that I’m a part of and the stories that I get to tell so that when they look at them, they kind of go, ‘my mom did really lived by that word, and that craft and that path, and I am somebody because my mom told me to be.’
The story is rooted in a lot of Mayan culture and Mesoamerican culture. So, do you recall any stories or myths growing up that were passed down and shared within your family?
Zoe Saldana: Oh, my God, yes, but my folklore is more Caribbean indigenous and Caribbean–African Caribbean. It’s mainly Dominican Republic; Quisqueya, which is the indigenous name for our island, the island that we share with Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And there was this mythology of this woman, this indigenous woman called La Ciguapa, and where her feet were backwards and her hair was super long, covering her naked body. And she would come out at night, and she had a true sense of justice for the voiceless. And I remember being little and my great-grandpa telling me the story of La Ciguapa, and I was just like, “What?”
If it is to be, it is up to me. – Maya and the Three
When you read the script originally, what did this quote mean to you when you first read it? And did the meaning change for you as you filmed?
Zoe Saldana: I found myself getting emotional as we kept going through episode after episode and I was witnessing her journey. This show is not–it’s not light. It’s going to go there on all these emotions and all these peaks and valleys of life. At first, you’re seeing–and I felt like I was living a parallel life with Maya where she’s just saying it and not believing in it., but challenge after challenge, after she survives that challenge and now she’s faced with another one, and how that phrase just would take a deeper and deeper meaning for her, it was also becoming very deep for me.
And there were moments in which Jorge and I were getting choked up. And I know it’s hard to say that. ‘Oh, my God, really? You got choked up, just voicing an animation,’ but you really do. You get involved, and especially when a story is so well written, so well fleshed out, when it comes to a human being’s emotional journey, not just finding themselves, but also accepting so many things of themselves. Yes, it’s a very powerful phrase.
Considering indigenous characters only make up to 0.4 percent of characters portrayed in film and television, what do you hope indigenous children will take away from your character, Maya?
Zoe Saldana: That they are beautiful and that they are meant to be. I get emotional because this is something that’s just so important for children of color. That they matter, that their stories matter, that their history matters and that nobody has to give you that anymore. It’s yours. It’s always been yours.
And I think it’s up to us–we also have a lot of power. I feel like a lot of time is spent sometimes pointing the finger and not enough time is spent investing on our communities ourselves, like on our education, uplifting each other so that, once we rise to these positions of leadership, then we become those gatekeepers. And we are in that journey. America is about to witness a beautiful renaissance, and obviously that takes time, unfortunately. But we’re on it already. We’re on it and we just have to stay the course.
Your job as journalists and mothers as well is to hold everybody accountable. You all have to watch this. It is on us. We have to. We can’t just–your time and your money is the power and the validation that we give to all the content that blatantly omits us from their narrative. We are the ones that have perpetuated this. Please understand that when it comes to studios, they’re not just the bad cops. We have been the bad cops as well.
But when you say you will no longer take my time, you will no longer take my money, I don’t have to watch you ’cause I’m going to spend all of who I am promoting and amplifying and, you know, growing this community, this visibility, that’s when all the studios and all those executives are going to be like, ‘Oh, we gotta chase the money where it’s going.’ It’s–you–we have to be pragmatic about this.
They’re just giving us what we’re giving back to them. Take it away, and you’ll see how the narrative immediately in America changes. We are a nation of capitalism. You don’t hit them in the heart. You hit them in the pocket. That’s all I’m going to say. Come on now. We gotta be pragmatic about this.
What is one thing you walked away with playing this role and being Maya, ’cause it seems that you’re very emotionally tied to it? So, is there just one thing or multiple things?
Zoe Saldana: We’re all moms. I allow myself to cry over anything that moves me and everything that moves me. That said, I will not take away the value and the impact that working with Jorge has had on me once again, but also us being able to, in a very beautiful way, have the opportunity by–with a platform like Netflix to share our heritage is fun. It’s exciting.
It’s like once you remove all the heaviness of social justice as well that–I know that we all wake up so responsible and so charged every day because our children depend on it. But also, it’s our culture it’s beautiful. Our culture is rich and it is old as F. It is thousands of years old. So, for us to unearth it, all of our mythologies and our folklore, and just do it in a way that we’re just dressing it. Our history, we’re just dressing our history. We’re dressing these universal themes of life and love and loss and friendship. But in reality, this is universal.
What I want is for everybody to feel happy, to and to share. Please share who you are, even if it’s just one person that’s listening. That’s enough. Share who you are. Be proud of who you are.
How you would describe Maya?
Zoe Saldana: She is sassy. She is independent. She is very wholesome. Even at 15, she knows who she is. And I just love that about people. Every now and then you meet people at whatever age, even when they’re, like, six months old and you’re like, ‘You know who you are. You know exactly who you are.’ And that’s exactly how Jorge wanted her, and I think that she is a combination of all these women, these female heroines in Jorge’s life, from his mom and his wife and his sister. And he definitely wanted me to make her be bold and beautiful and just rebellious.
But I remember that wasn’t the way that he described it. He was just like, ‘I want you to be her.’ You know, I’m like, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ Like, ‘Do you want this?”‘Like, “Yes, I want Zoe.” Like I want–I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ But that made me think. It was like, ‘Oh, how am I?’ Like, how do people really see me? Maybe it’s a cultural thing, we Latinas, we always come super hard. And I feel like Maya is going to be that person.
But what I love the most about Maya, the way that Jorge really wanted her to be when she was wrong. There’s something really wholesome about her. And when I say wholesome, I don’t mean just I think that makes her perfectly her. It’s also everything that makes her just perfectly flawed. She needs rescuing from her friends. She needs to be told from her friends how she needs to be a better person. And I love the fact that he gave her so much humility of character to acknowledge when she was wrong.
You talked about being sassy and really just essentially being yourself, and Maya does have so much life and energy. So, I’m curious to know how you kind of prep yourself going into a booth for a session like that versus a sad session.
Zoe Saldana: To be quite honest, Working with Jorge for the second time, you don’t really have to prep that much. We had already discussed who Maya was and what the world was in the beginning. Walking into sessions, it’s also sometimes a good thing when you come in and you’re super fresh because Jorge may want to give you something to work with. And if you come with this pretense, sort of like decisions that, ‘This is what I’m going to be,’ then you’re unable to kind of absorb what or where your director wants to take you. What I’ve learned from working the Jorge is, whatever I came prepared with, he is going to intensify it times 50. So, he’s like, ‘Oh, no, you’re going to scream, but I want you to scream.’ And you’re like, ‘Okay!
He’s always there and he never lets you down. And he’ll always tell you. It’s like, ‘I think I want you to push a little further.’ I’m like, ‘Do you really want to go there?’ And he’s like, ‘Yes, these are emotions that we go through as people.’ And we can’t censor this from children. They’re going to go through it regardless. If a child loses a parent and your child is there and they lose a grandma, they lost their grandma. You can’t sugarcoat that. You can’t lie about that. You can’t act like it’s not there. You gotta walk through it with them. I was just like, ‘Wow, he’s going to go there.’ This is such a mature approach for animation. It’s so necessary.
Maya and the Three premieres on Netflix October 22!