Star Trek's Zoe Saldana reveals what's at the heart of Uhura

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Zoe Zaldana, who plays Uhura in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek, told SCI FI Wire that she'd previously played a Trekkie in a film called The Terminal.

During an exclusive telephone conversation conducted with the actress several weeks ago, Saldana discussed several facets of her Star Trek experience. Following are edited excerpts from that interview. Star Trek opens nationwide on May 8. (Possible spoilers ahead!)

What did you know about Star Trek and its history before signing on to play Uhura?

Saldana: The only knowledge that I had was [from] my mom, who's a huge sci-fi fan. So I was aware of the series, but I'd never really followed it. My initiation, when I started doing some research into Star Trek, was when I did The Terminal four years ago, or five years ago. I played a character that was a Trekkie, and that was my first introduction into the Trekkie world, and not only Star Trek, but also the fans.

You seem like ideal casting for Uhura, but did J.J. ever actually reveal what he saw in you that prompted him cast you for the role?

Saldana: Not directly. I had auditioned for J.J. for a couple of projects before, and he had expressed to my team that he really liked my approach to acting and my decisions that I'd played and that he'd love to work with me in the future. So when Star Trek came around, he very much expressed that he wanted to meet me for it. And when I did walk in the room, he was very vocal, like, "I'm so happy you came in. Thank you very much for reading for us." Little by little, that same afternoon, after I saw him, they made the offer. They were like, "We want you, and you've been the first choice since a while back. Please do it." I was so humbled by it.

After you landed the part, did you reach out to Nichelle Nichols, who originated the character in the original TV series?

Saldana: Actually, she went to set, and I had the opportunity to meet her. I was bonkers, it was just so amazing.

How does Uhura fit into what's going on in the film?

Saldana: Even though this is very much about Spock [Zachary Quinto] and Kirk [Chris Pine]—though it's about these two leaders and their relationship and friendship—all of the people who are on the Enterprise ... are people who are needed on that ship. And we all get to find our place within the Enterprise and fulfill our purpose and then understand why we are there. That was pretty great. Fans have expressed this. ... They've always wondered about certain characters, their backgrounds and who were they and where did they come from? And in this film, you get to see more of Uhura's character, what kind of personality she has and what she wants for herself and what her place is within the crew.

The character in the film seems very active and appears to get some romance, too. So, really, how different is this Uhura from your mother's Uhura?

Saldana: I did want to keep that initial impression that Nichelle's Uhura had, because that is Uhura. But they are younger, and that took a lot of pressure off. It doesn't matter what they did as kids; they're still going to end up being the original cast. And in your psychological feeling, that's the intention of it. That gave us a lot of space to play in, and I took all the solid things about her character and sort of just gave it a little depth. She's so good at what she does, and the only way she could have gotten there is by being an overachiever. She was like a teacher's pet, a goody two-shoes and always studying, always paying attention. There's barely any sense of humor. "There's no time to joke around. I have so much to do, and people look up to me. I want to be this kind of person." I thought those were qualities that were a must for Uhura's personality.

There are a lot of reboots, remakes and/or re-imaginings being done these days, and most of them aren't all that good. To your thinking, what makes Star Trek work?

Saldana: I think it's the Enterprise. We're on this ship, and we're on this mission, and that's what unites everybody and will link the original Star Trek to this one. It's that the main thing, the most important thing in everyone's life is the Enterprise.