Zoe Saldana didn’t want to do The Words. When first approached about the role in 2011, she didn’t even want to act.
After the film’s Hollywood premiere Tuesday, Saldana recalled feeling tired and burned out — she had starred in half a dozen movies when her career took off with the 2009 global smash Avatar.
“After Colombiana (in which she plays an assassin)I was a bit spent and really wanted to take a breath,” she recalls.
If she was going to act, Saldana wanted to do more big action roles. She certainly didn’t want to play someone’s wife in a low budget independent film. “I wanted to shoot guns,” she says. “I wanted to play strong roles.”
Then she read the script for The Words, a movie that had taken 13 years to reach the screen, and she fell in love with the words she read. “It was the kind of story that I would have loved to read as a book,” says Saldana. “I wasn’t looking for a role like Dora, but then I saw what she really was about. She was a very strong woman. She was very unconditional. She was very supportive.”
At the heart of the movie is Saldana’s combustive chemistry with Cooper. She says that made both of them better actors: “I’ve always said that when you watch movies and a love story falls short of what you wanted it to be, as an actor, as a person who works in films, you know that ninety percent of the time it didn’t work is because there was no chemistry, they didn’t work out a friendship, they didn’t feel safe around each other, they weren’t communicating properly.”
That wasn’t the case on this set, Saldana said.
“Bradley is a very dedicated and open professional. It’s really good when you can balance that with an actor as opposed to an actor that just comes prepared and just goes, ‘don’t fuck up my light’ and ‘this line is my close-up.’ We didn’t care where was the camera was,” she said. “It was just like we were both part of this extensive conversation.”
Rumors flew during and after the production that the sizzle on the screen had translated into a real life romance between Saldana and Cooper. When asked about those rumors, Saldana smiles and after a glance at her publicist, coyly replied, “No comment.”
Brian Klugman, who wrote and directed The Words with his childhood friend Lee Sternthal, feels Saldana came aboard initially because of the cast they had already assembled by the time she was sent the script. “People were fascinated by it at that point,” says Klugman. “They were like, ‘That’s a real cast.’ Obviously the draw of those two guys (Cooper and Jeremy Irons) brought in the other actors. Dennis (Quaid) came in, Olivia Wilde and then Zoe Saldana.”
So she met with the two first time director/writers, Klugman and Sternthal, both of whom had been friends of Cooper since they were all children growing up in Philadelphia. She liked that they felt like a kind of extended family.
“When I sat down with Brian and Lee I was very intrigued by them,” says Saldana., “how these two young men could get along so well and have amazing chemistry and a beautiful partnership professionally and as friends write something with such a sensitive touch, and as men have it be balanced. I felt that sort of that gear that kicks in when it comes to human emotion in terms of how one feels about one’s self – when you don’t feel good enough; when you want your voice in that world; and how you feel when you are in love and you want to give everything.”
She also felt that it would be an experience that would reward her in ways that mattered most to her, she recalls: “I just thought this might be this might be something where I might learn from these characters – a lot. I like that. I love growing and I love playing characters that are sort of estranged from me, because I end up learning a lot about them and about myself. “
So The Words became the only movie that Saldana made in 2011, and the experience was everything she hoped it would be.
“I like working in a family environment where I know that everyday you go to set and you’re not breaking the ice,” says Saldana. “You can be yourself. And your opinions and your ideas and whatever input you may have is highly regarded, considered and also implemented. It was a very interactive experience.”
“As an actor – as the very dominant creature that I am – I yearn for that,” continues Saldana, “and sometimes I will walk away from something when I feel that It might not be a good three months for me, because three months out of your life, means something. The older you get, the more you feel it’s your time . I become very overprotective with my time.”
Most of all Saldana reveled in being creative and collaborative, and made to feel a part of this family of actors, filmmakers and crew.
“I’m very opinionated and I just was expressing and everybody was too, but it was collaborative because it was all for the sake of the story,” adds Saldana. “We didn’t become to be a part of this project for the money, we all know that (the entire movie was shot for $6 million). When you do a film like this it’s real heart, so we all wanted to be there. It’s a real difference when you have to verses when you want to. “
It was a huge challenge to make a movie that deals with three different time periods and multiple locations on a very tight budget, all in one city – Montreal. “We were first time filmmakers, so it was like, ‘Why not?’” says Sternthal. “People would say, ‘You can’t do that.’ But then it was sort of like a game for us to see how far we could push it. Let’s see if we can do it?”
Once she was on the set, it all came together for Saldana: “You go to work, you’re alive and you’re very present and you leave work and you’re still thinking about the story and thinking about the characters. You’re not thinking about ‘how big is my trailer? Is the light focused on me?’ You’re thinking about, ‘Well maybe Dora (her character) and Rory (Cooper’s character) have to end up together,”’ or ‘No, this will break them up.” Because they have a true love and the lie (at the center of the movie) came between them. It’s like one of them bit the apple.”
The more she got involved, the more she wanted to be involved. She thought about her role, about the movie, about the characters day and night.
“I would email Brian in the middle of the night,” recalls Saldana, “and then the next morning even before I entered hair and makeup I would tell him, ‘I have a question for you. So what about this? Is it too much? Am I being too annoying?’ And he was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Come on!’ It was very good. “
Even when the workday ended, like any family they remained together; and the conversation about how to make the movie even better continued.
“Brian and Lee made it a homework every evening that after we would wrap we would always go and have dinner,” says Saldana. “All of us together: producers, the directors, the actors. It was still (about the movie) at dinner. That was the topic of the conversation. It was always the massaging, the story, thinking about your characters and how do we get this further. ‘Here’s what I think, but what about this?’”
“By the time you get to set, its such a living organism that all you have to do is just be in it and allow it to just be,” adds Saldana. “I love that. I’m not a professional, I didn’t go to school to learn all these techniques. I just know it from myself that I’m a very open person. I try to remain that way every time, every morning when I wake up. I get a stone thrown at me, I want to catch it properly and throw it back. When you get to work with people that are that way, you feel in really good hands and it just makes you work really hard. The story translates just how you imagined it and just how you were told it was going to be. “
Tatiana Kelly, who produced The Words with Jim Young, says that with the pressure of a low budget and short production schedule, it was that chemistry that became the glue that brought the picture together. “What’s so crazy is actually Bradley and Zoe knew each other before,” says Kelly. “Everybody was kind of thrown into this because it’s a 25-day shoot….It is such an intense pressurized situation. We were so thankful that everybody across the board was able to have that kind of chemistry. I think it’s so believable.”
Saldana says she is often the biggest critic of the movies she appears in, and it is rare that she doesn’t find fault. However, The Words is a movie she is happy to have made.
“I’m very proud of it.” Says Saldana. “Usually I’m not this way. I’m not completely happy all the time, because everybody has their own version of what they read. This time it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was, but it was great. It was beautiful.”