They say you should never meet your heroes. So when you're in the business of meeting famous people, it’s helpful not to have any. By the time I arrive at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to interview actress Zoe Saldana about her beauty routine, I’ve already conditioned myself to feel fairly lackadaisical about the whole thing. No matter how beautiful and fit the action star looks on-screen in movies like Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy, I tell myself there has to be some flaw that the camera just never picked up—a laugh line, maybe, or a tendency to slouch. Celebrities are only human, after all.
But the real-life Saldana tells a different story—one that throws my cool composure. The 38-year-old’s skin bears not the faintest whisper of a blemish; her svelte frame, currently swathed in a canary-yellow jumpsuit, reflects the years of ballet training she received growing up. I’m not proud to say that I spend the entire first minute of our conversation hunting for signs that she’s as normal and flawed as I’ve convinced myself she must be. I don’t find any, which would normally be infuriating. But with Saldana, it’s not. Because here’s the thing: The actress and mother of three is also kind—as in, kinder than you’d expect of someone so famous. In a suite full of publicists and stylists, she’s the only one to ask if I’d like some water before our interview. I decline, so distracted by her unforeseen elegance that the sensation of thirst doesn’t even register. We take a seat on a paisley couch, and she crosses her legs with the grace of a swan.
Soon I learn there’s more to Saldana than the ageless skin we see on-screen (and in real life, as it turns out). Having split her childhood between the Dominican Republic and New York City, the actress’s unique beauty identity was molded by more than the American standards that shaped so many of her contemporaries. Even the reason I’m interviewing her today is unconventional—instead of pairing up with a makeup or skincare brand, Saldana is at the Four Seasons doing press for her partnership with Japanese airline, All Nippon Airways. Down to her brand deals, a thirst for the exotic is built into Saldana’s DNA.
By the end of our encounter, my air of nonchalance is ruined. But I think you’ll agree, it was worth it. Keep scrolling to hear Saldana tell her intriguing beauty story in her own words.
Zoe Saldana: “Growing up in the Dominican Republic, I learned to be very organic with my beauty routine. Cooking products are not just for cooking; you can actually use them for beauty, for wellness. If you live in the islands, you get a coconut, and you use every part of that coconut. You drink the water, you make food with the meat, you can squeeze it and make coconut milk, and that milk you can put on your skin, on your hair. And then you can make coconut oil and coconut butter. I grew up using the environment to its full potential. And that just made me feel really, what’s the word, grounded. Because I was using everything around me in so many different ways, not just conventionally.
“In the islands, rum isn’t only for drinking. You can actually put rum on your hair. If you put it on your ends, you get sort of an ombré thing. Because with the sun, the rum bleaches your hair. That was sort of a natural way of getting highlights. I also grew up loving incense, and I still do today. It’s not just burning candles: We burn oils. We bring flowers into the house because we like natural fragrances, scents that come from real life—vanilla, roses. That’s what comes to mind when I think of beauty in the islands.
“There are so many advantages growing up in a multicultural home, but there are also disadvantages. I know that a lot of people who grow up in multicultural homes can sometimes feel a little divided, like they’re in between two different worlds, and they don’t know how to be. I think that you have to embrace where you’re at and take the best out of every world that you’re a part of. You can’t feel that you’re letting someone down or letting your community down. America is a melting pot of beautiful cultures, and I think it’s great to honor the people who come here and start their families. But I also think those people should honor the children that they’re having here and allow them to be American. My mom was great at doing that. After we moved back to America when I was a teenager, she never made us feel that we had to be Dominican in order for us to be okay; but she also never deprived us of her Dominican heritage in order for us to be ‘full Americans.’ She always let us know that there are bonuses to being multicultural because it just means that you have more ways of finding yourself.
“The beauty standards are so different. When I was in the Dominican Republic, I was too skinny. Because there, women are more accepted as full and curvaceous. I felt pressure to look that way. People would say, ‘Eat more; you’re too skinny,’ or they would pressure my mom and say, ‘She’s sick; she’s sick. Look how skinny she is.’ But my mom was always like, ‘Let her be. Let her be her own person.’ But I do like that I was exposed to that kind of beauty, because then coming back to New York, and choosing a career in ballet and then acting, those standards are drastically different. They’re also very imbalanced. But both of these standards shaped my approach to beauty. In the Dominican Republic, women were accepting of their curves and shapes and the color of their skin and the texture of their hair. So by the time I was a young adult in America and I was encouraged to modify myself in ways that I didn’t feel comfortable with, I had that to fall back on.
“Because we were an unconventional American Latino family, my mother was into organic food way before anybody else in her neighborhood. She also exposed us to culinary cuisines that were very different from our culture. So instead of going to brunch and having pancakes and waffles, we would go have dim sum or shabu-shabu. And from there grew my affinity for wanting to eat healthy while developing an international palate. So when I travel to places like Japan, where I just went with my family on All Nippon Airways, I’ve already been exposed to the culture because my mother allowed that for us.
“So, yes, nutrition is super important in my life. It always has been. These days, I’m really heavy into having a green juice in the morning because it’s hard for me to have a balanced meal sometimes as a working mom. I’m a professional; I’m working all the time. I want to make sure that I get my greens in, so I do that every day, and it helps me a great deal. But I try to be balanced. I don’t like hearing, ‘Oh, I’m doing this diet, or I’m doing that diet.’ I like when people use words like ‘my lifestyle.’ When we use the word ‘diet,’ we’re preparing ourselves for a big sacrifice that we know, the older we get, we’re going to be too weak to fulfill. We just end up crashing and defeating ourselves. So I like telling myself that I’m not doing a diet, that this is my lifestyle, and I’m choosing to have a balanced meal. I don’t like having zero carbs or all protein. I like getting all the nutrition that my body needs so that it can heal itself naturally.
“My skin isn’t always perfect. As women, because of our hormones, sometimes we have one week of radiant, glowy skin, and then another week of dullness. If I’m having a bad day or if I feel like my skin isn’t looking its best, a red lip is my go-to. It makes me feel beautiful and bold and in control of myself. A red lip was something that a lot of males in my life didn’t like because they didn’t like the attention it attracted, or they thought it was too loud or something. But I’m okay with wanting to be loud for all the right reasons. I’m all about empowering women and making bold decisions. I think that a red lip is that sign, saying, ‘I’m here—take me as I am.’”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Want more Byrdie exclusives? Don’t miss our interview Leighton Meester (if for no other reason than the gorgeous photos).