LONDON — Zoe Saldana is having a Neytiri moment.
Like the warrior princess she plays in “Avatar,” the sci-fi epic hitting theaters today, Saldana becomes visibly agitated when she doesn’t like something. She’s tired of being asked whether people will recognize her as Neytiri, a 10-foot-tall alien with radiant blue skin, flirtatious feline ears and a level of cinematic detail unseen in previous computer-generated characters.
“It’s me,” Saldana said, with more than a hint of annoyance. “I don’t know how else to answer that. I put everything in there.”
If Neytiri is Saldana, she’s also a lot more — an extreme specimen of computer animation distilled from a live-action performance. To create the aliens in “Avatar,” the cast acted on a bare stage while wired into performance-capture suits and headgear. Prior performance-capture films have left audiences underwhelmed, as with “Beowulf” or the much-panned “Disney’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ” But “Avatar” represents a great leap forward for the technology and the viewer’s experience, enhanced by jaw-dropping 3-D visuals. The idea of pushing the envelope, Saldana says, is part of what made filming “Avatar” worth the extra effort.
“It was hard at first,” she said of the suits and helmets, “but once we understood the technology and got used to the physicality of it, it was the most liberating thing. I almost feel like this technology is going to challenge the way we view films and the way we view actors.”
Indeed, director James Cameron first conceived of “Avatar” 15 years ago but waited until filmmaking technology could catch up with his imagination. The final product cost more than $250 million and involved creating a new system of cameras and motion-capture systems.
In the film, Cameron remixes several ideas from his own canon: lifelike extraterrestrials (“Aliens”), heavy artillery (“Terminator”) and a pair of star-crossed lovers (“Titanic”), all set in an environment that’s exotic and deadly. The action takes place in 2154 on Pandora, a jungle-covered moon in the Alpha Centauri system, where human negotiations with the aboriginal aliens have turned violent. In a stroke of public relations genius, the Earthlings interact with the locals using genetically engineered “avatars,” bodies identical to the alien Na’vi but controlled by the consciousness of a human.
Saldana’s Neytiri plays a sort of Pocahontas for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former Marine new to the avatar program. It falls on Neytiri to teach Jake the Na’vi customs and language, which Cameron created with the help of a linguistics professor.
“Zoe was the first one to really have to learn the language,” the director said. “As she owned the language, then everyone else had to match her accent and her pronunciation.”
Saldana, whose parents are native Spanish speakers, says she picked up the Na’vi tongue easily but found English with a Na’vi accent difficult.
“It was harder than anything,” she said. “The martial arts, the kicking, the archery, the riding the horse without a saddle — that was all a piece of cake!”
Preparing for the role required months of physical training, including an intensive course in wushu, a martial arts discipline Jet Li is known for. Saldana says it helped define the grace and agility of the Na’vi, who navigate the tangled forests of Pandora with catlike ease. Even though Neytiri is the daughter of the tribal chief, she’s also a skilled hunter and ferocious fighter. Then again, Cameron is known for featuring tough, buffed women in his films.
“I saw ‘Terminator,’ I think, when I was 6 years old,” Saldana said. “I wanted to be Sarah Conner. I wanted to be Ellen Ripley [in ‘Aliens’] more than any fairy tale princess.”
Working alongside the real Ripley, Sigourney Weaver, was a dream come true. Weaver plays no-nonsense scientist Grace Augustine, the head of Pandora’s avatar program. Though “Avatar” features several female characters who function beyond the clichés of Hollywood, Saldana bemoans the lack of roles written for powerful women today. Science fiction, she says, is a notable exception.
“I wish there were more genres in which women could have more opportunities to be presented as what we are,” she said. “We’re complex creatures, we’re very intricate, we also have journeys. We can be the heroes and we can save everyone. We can also be vulnerable, and we can be saved as well, all in one person.”
The 31-year-old actress got her break in 2002’s “Drumline” (partially filmed in Atlanta) and starred as Lt. Uhura in J.J. Abrams’ blockbuster “Star Trek” this year. A “Star Trek” sequel is already in the works. Saldana says that next time around, she’s hoping for a more physical Uhura, one who gets to throw some punches.
Cameron says he envisions “Avatar” to be the first chapter in an ongoing saga, determined, of course, by how well the film performs. With any luck, Saldana may find herself starring in science-fiction franchises for several years to come. That thought doesn’t bother her in the least.
“Just look at what [science fiction] did for Sigourney,” she said.
But unlike Neytiri, Ripley was not a CG animation. Saldana admits that the idea of her own face and body never appearing in “Avatar” did bother her, but only for “about two nanoseconds.”
“It is a human condition for us to be prone to vanity — especially actors,” she said. “But I feel this role has been the best role ever to cross my path. … When I see Neytiri, I actually see me, in its entirety.”