GOING WITH THE ZOE: "That's what it felt like," Saldana… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
This is how it is for Zoë Saldaña these days: After making "Star Trek," "Avatar" and the soon-to-be-released comic-book actioner "The Losers," her version of a down-scale project is the remake of the modest British comedy "Death at a Funeral," starring some of the biggest names in comedy — Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Columbus Short, James Marsden and Danny Glover, and directed by Neil LaBute.
"I'd be shooting a scene with Columbus and Tracy would be by craft service, like," she says in a pretty solid Morgan bellow, " ‘Yo!' Chris would be just relaxing. You know what it felt like, is at Thanksgiving when everybody's traveling from various places. … People arriving, baking the cookies, ‘Don't touch the … turkey!' ‘Oh, my God, it's 2 o'clock already, can I have a drink?' That's what it felt like, one big Thanksgiving Day and everyone was just arriving, unpacking and cracking jokes and they'll get to you eventually. Eventually, we're going to sit down and have a turkey."
In an elegant cornflower-blue dress, Saldaña fairly floats to the table in a Four Seasons suite, despite being at the end of a long junket weekend for her two upcoming movies. Her dance training shows in her lithe grace. The backlight through the window on this overcast day gives the remarkably beautiful actress an unfair halo. Then she drops the occasional F-bomb and does dead-on vocal and physical impersonations of her cast mates.
"When Chris gets up to say the eulogy," she says, turning solemn: " ‘My father was born in 1938, 1938. That year, Time magazine named Hitler man of the year.' And we're all sitting there — mind you, we've all read the script, but when he's doing it, it sounds like standup. He's trying to be serious. We were laughing like you wouldn't believe."
She exaggerates the declamatory voice Rock uses for that moment: " ‘My fah-thah …' And you know he has those big teeth …" Still impersonating Rock, she turns away to hide a laugh, teeth bared like his zebra character in ‘Madagascar': " ‘My f … My fah-thah …' We were laughing so hard when he did that. Even Jimmy [Marsden], who was supposed to be high on acid or whatever. That day was so funny, to see Tracy Morgan, like, crying and Danny Glover fast asleep."
The new "Death at a Funeral" is transplanted to U.S. soil and recast as an African American family, an adjustment necessary to build around Rock, the production's driving force. Otherwise, the actress sees little difference from the original.
"I think it's just the passport. Everything else felt completely the same to me," she says. "Whether it's an Asian family, an African family, Latino, whatever, you're going to have a crazy uncle, one who falls asleep, whether it's at a funeral or a wedding, you're going to have one who's always in a bad mood, one that drinks too much, one that only came for the food."
Her "Death" character accidentally drugs the boyfriend she desperately wants her father to like. It wasn't hard to relate: The actress has cared for stoned friends ("I've had vomit in my pockets," she says), and her experience with beaus and familial approval gives a hint as to where her confidence comes from.
"I was packing to go away and meet the boyfriend's family for the first time. We're insecure creatures by nature," she says. "I'm going out the door, and my mother said, ‘Zoë,' something about her tone made me stop, and she said, ‘I hope you like them.'
"That reminded me that I am my mother's daughter, I know who I am. And they'll like me because of [these good qualities of mine], and they'd better have the same. Because we're interviewing each other."