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Zoe Saldana's New Role: Galaxy Goddess

The actress opens up about her new movie and learning to listen to her body.

From the WebMD Archives

Zoe Saldana knows her priorities. "Please excuse me," she says politely, returning a moment later and explaining: "I had to finish blow-drying a friend's hair. I'm the stylist to everyone in my life," she laughs. "We are all fabulous women, and I'm so against anyone walking out the door not looking her hottest and best. Every woman should feel great about herself, no matter what, and we have to lead by example."

The actor, 36, certainly does her part. Known for her sophisticated red carpet style, Saldana plays strong women onscreen, including Lt. Uhura in Star Trek, the warrior princess Neytiri in Avatar, and the mysterious Gamora in the adaptation of Marvel Comics' Guardians of the Galaxy, opening nationwide in August. 

"That kind of character feels natural to me," says Saldana, who lives in Los Angeles with her artist husband, Marco Perego, who she married last year. "I've played women who are confused and struggle, but that damsel in distress, the one who can't do anything or unconditionally loves a man who doesn't care about her, that character is dead to me. I don't see it as a fantasy or appealing, and it's not an accurate portrayal of women."

Saldana's Childhood in the Dominican Republic

Saldana comes by her confidence naturally. The child of a Puerto Rican mother and Dominican father, Saldana and her two sisters, all born a year apart -- "we are spiritual triplets" -- lived first in New York City and then in the Dominican Republic, where they moved when she was 9 after her father died in a car accident. Her house was one of strong female role models.

"It is normal for me to fight for what I believe in, normal for me to be opinionated," she says. "My sisters and I are very strong-minded. We come from a very conservative Caribbean Latin culture, and we were raised by my great-grandmother and grandmother when my mother was away because she was working to support us. But the minute they would say something about how we had to learn to please a man, all we had to do was call my mother and she would get on the phone with them. She raised us to be comfortable saying no."

"No" is not a word she's heard very often. After studying ballet in the Dominican Republic, she moved back to the United States at age 17 with an acting career in mind, quickly winning the role of an aspiring ballet dancer in 2000's teen drama film Center Stage. Parts followed in movies such as the box-office smash Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and Steven Spielberg's The Terminal. By 2009, Saldana's name was engraved on the A-list, thanks to her role in Star Trek (which she reprised in the 2013 sequel) and her unforgettable turn in James Cameron's Oscar-winning Avatar.

Saldana's Exercise Regimen

Starring in Avatar was a part Saldana went to the mat for -- literally. To prepare for the film, she endured a grueling 6-days-a-week, 4-month period of physical training, including martial arts, archery, and horseback riding. Working out daily with a personal trainer became a discipline Saldana maintained for almost 5 years, concentrating on Pilates, muscle-elongating exercises that built on her ballet background, weight lifting, and cardio on the treadmill, bike, or stair climber. 

Regardless of the activity, Saldana prefers to exercise solo and at her own pace. "Cycling classes are definitely not for me," she says. But in the last year, the actor-- who says she has always been naturally thin -- has begun to embrace moderation.

"I think athletes have a perfectionism, and it is very hard to let go of that," Saldana says. "Since I was 5, I have pushed myself too hard, with ballet, martial arts, a whole bunch of stuff." Now, she says she chooses to stay active in more organic ways, dancing around her house for the fun of it, taking her dog on long walks, and going to the gym when inspiration strikes.

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"Sometimes I'll want to work out every other day, or every day Monday through Friday, or just on the weekends," she says. While she still generally exercises with a personal trainer doing strength training twice a week, she skips hard cardio work. "I miss that because I love the adrenaline rush, but I am also listening to my body. Sometimes, my joints hurt."

Easing up is a smart move, says Cris Slentz, PhD, an exercise physiologist and researcher at Duke Medicine. "Causing pain is never about health," he says. To maintain physical health and cardio ability, Slentz suggests vigorous exercise that causes you to sweat for 20 to 30 minutes 2 days a week, added to 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise such as walking.

"The point is to move your body every single day," he says.

Learning to listen to her body has taken time, Saldana says. She credits maturity with her new healthy attitude. "When I was in my 20s, everyone said, 'In your 30s, you'll relax,' and something fabulous does happen when you hit 30!" she says with a laugh. "Now, I feel happy with what I can work with. I don't want to pressure myself to go to the gym. I'm in love," she says sweetly, "and if on a Sunday I want to order Chinese food and stay in bed, I will. Then the next day I'll get up and go for a walk with my dog.

"My goal is to be able to do yoga in the future," she continues. "My husband meditates, and my older sister meditates with my niece. But I still like a trainer who will beat me up and say, 'Is this all you've got?'"

Charitable Work

Practicing kindness toward herself and others is now where she focuses her attention. Despite her busy work schedule -- she's signed on for both Star Trek and Avatar sequels -- Saldana is involved with FINCA, which provides micro loans to small businesses. She has publicly supported its work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

She's also dedicated to raising awareness of autism, whether posting about the condition on her Twitter account or lending her name to organizations such as Actors for Autism. In 2011, she directed a short film for Glamour magazine's "Reel Moments" video series called "Kaylien," about a young girl who feels like an alien because she has autism.

"We have some family members who have forms of autism, and I have been intrigued by it since I was very young. As an artist, you realize that people with autism can respond very well to the arts, whether it's music, painting, or acting, because it's a vehicle to express themselves," she explains.

With a brief break between projects, Saldana hopes to participate more. "Now that I have more time, I want to raise money, because by raising money you raise awareness, because that compels people to want to do more research. A lot more children are being diagnosed with autism now, and doctors don't know if it's because they are finally diagnosing it better or because it's affecting more people. But it's happening."

Increasing Diagnoses of Autism

A new CDC estimate indicates that among 8-year-olds in the U.S., 1 in 68 children is identified with autism spectrum disorder. That's a 30% increase between 2008 and 2010. ASD is defined as a group of developmental disorders that cause significant behavior challenges.

"There is no question that more children are being diagnosed," says Alexander Kolevzon, MD, clinical director of the Seaver Autism Center.

"We are much better at recognizing early signs of autism, and there are mandates now to systematically screen children at 18 months and 24 months," Kolevzon says. "There is also increased awareness in our culture, and parents are more likely to bring children to their pediatrician out of concern for developmental delays."

Saldana's Autism Actions

As Saldana devotes time to such organizations as Actors for Autism, which provides arts-related programs for children with disabilities and works to raise public awareness about the condition, scientists work to uncover new information about autism and how it might be cured.

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Research makes strides. Studies done on mice with Rett syndrome and Phelan-McDermid syndrome -- both known underlying genetic causes of autism -- showed brain cell improvement when treated with a protein called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).

Human clinical trials using IGF-1 in patients with Phelan-McDermid syndrome show promise treating social withdrawal and repetitive behaviors. For Rett syndrome patients, a recent clinical trial showed improvement in behavior and breathing issues. Less respiration is a hallmark of the syndrome.

Risks are not causes. The cause seems to be mainly genetic. Environmental factors like advanced parent age at conception have been linked to greater risk, but risk factors don't necessarily suggest cause and effect, Kolevzon says. Because of autism's genetic factor, "if you have one sibling with autism, there is a 15% to 20% risk that the other sibling will also be affected."

Vaccines play no part in autism. "In the scientific community there is no debate," says Kolevzon, who thinks the connection was made because concern about behavior can happen around the age when a child receives multiple vaccinations.

Early diagnosis matters. Time can be crucial when it comes to helping a child with autism. "Autism can be reliably diagnosed as early as 18 months, when the brain is more amenable to change and the impact of treatment may be most profound," he says.

Saladana: A New Focus on Self Care

While she dedicates more time to causes such as autism, Saldana says she is also more and more mindful of her own needs. "I'm a very anxiety-driven creature, so I make a point of talking to someone, whether it's a friend or my sisters or a therapist," she says. "When I feel off -- if it's been too long since I have caught up with life and my family and I am working too much -- it affects me spiritually," she says.

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After playing singer Nina Simone in an as-yet unreleased biopic, "I was mentally and physically exhausted, and I heard a voice in my head saying, 'You need to slow down. You need more empty, unscheduled days.' Now, if I want to go to the Dominican Republic, I will. And over spring break, I took a trip to Paris with my sisters and niece."

Saldana has become more of a homebody when she's in L.A., sharing family meals with her sisters and her husband. And she's learned that she needs to go to sleep, even if that means cutting out early on her night-owl husband and family. "As soon as the sun sets, I am looking for any flat surface to lie down on. I have to obey my body clock."

That doesn't mean she's missing out on good times. "Five or six years ago, it was all work and a struggle, and I don't believe in settling for anything. But it gets easier. I got myself a beautiful dog, I got married. I go on vacations with my family. These are the things that are important to me," she says firmly, before adding with a giggle, "You have to have fun, and you have to laugh, a lot."

Zoe's Top 5

Saldana says she never leaves home without her red lipstick, mascara, and a water bottle. To feel her best, she also swears by these tips:

Carry a good handbag.
"I am crazy about my big hobo bag. When I have my bag, I can be dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and look good."

Flip the script.
"Do the opposite of how you feel when you're down. Put on a little makeup. Take 30 minutes at lunch to go to the salon for a blowout."

Indulge a little.
"A glass of red wine or rosé Champagne is just divine. We shot Guardians in England, and you can't be there for 5 months and not eat fish and chips. But too much sugar makes me feel off."

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Eat what you love.
Married to an Italian, she says "there's always a big piece of Parmesan and tomato sauce in our refrigerator, and I'm obsessed with sea urchin pasta."

Get enough sleep.
"I need 7 to 8 hours of sleep. You have to obey your body clock."

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Sources

SOURCES:

Zoe Saldana, actress.

Baio, J. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 28, 2014.

Alexander Kolevzon, clinical director, Seaver Autism Center; associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, Icahn School of Medicine, New York. 

Cris Slentz, PhD, exercise physiologist; assistant professor of medicine, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, N.C.

Actors for Autism.

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