You know the moment. The one when suddenly everything in your closet seems so dreary that crawling back under your covers is the only reasonable thing to do. Well, apparently stardom—and having a closet stocked with Lanvin, Alexander McQueen and Chanel pieces—does not inoculate you from this experience. Zoe Saldana has been there too. “Remember that scene in This Is 40 where the eldest daughter is yelling, ‘Nothing fits!’ ” the star says with a laugh. “My poor dog will be hiding under the bed and I’m just looking at myself in the mirror going, ‘What am I going to wear?’ ”
But if Saldana fell into a fashion funk this morning, there is no evidence of it when I meet her at Little Dom’s, a cozy Italian restaurant in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Dressed in Diesel boyfriend jeans (“I like that they’re so baggy,” she says), a fluttery white blouse and sunny yellow Chloé flats—her shiny hair tossed up into a makeshift bun—she’s part girly-girl, part tomboy … and easily the coolest woman in the room. Her ensembles, though polished, are never precious. “I like looking strong,” says Saldana. “I don’t need someone to open the door for me. I can open a jar! For some reason, dressing very delicately brings out a fragility that compels people to help you and”—here she gets fiery—“I don’t like it.”
But don’t expect Saldana to trade her Louboutins for Dr. Martens. “I like to be sexy, too,” she says, and as she’s gotten more comfortable in her skin (she’s 35), it’s important for her to not lose that side of herself. “I idolize Sophia Loren,” she says. “I want to be a Neapolitan woman, like, she’s got it, you know?
“You always want what you don’t have,” Saldana continues, noting her lack of Loren-esque curves. “My whole life I’ve been obsessed with breasts. I love them. I don’t like fake things, but I wouldn’t mind buying myself a pair one day before I die.” She goes on. “When I hear men saying, ‘I don’t want droopy breasts, I think, I’m sorry, you’re not really a man. A man likes a woman as she is. You know when you meet a real man from the way he talks about a woman. You just go, ‘Wow, you’re a man.’ ”
If recent reports are to be trusted, it seems Saldana has found her man. The actress, who not long ago said she was looking for a “badass renegade,” reportedly wed Italian artist Marco Perego this summer in London, and he appears to be the living, breathing manifestation of her wish. The tattooed, man-bun-rocking Perego is known for his provocative work—like a sculpture of twisted, writhing naked bodies and a headline-grabbing piece called The Only Good Rock Star Is a Dead Rock Star, featuring a synthetic Amy Winehouse. When he dropped Saldana off at our shoot—a kiss goodbye and he was gone—the couple beamed like newlyweds. So it’s fascinating to watch the outspoken actress clam up when asked if she can confirm that they’re married. “Nope, no, nope,” she says, waving her hands across her face, not angrily, but adamantly. Can she say anything about him at all? “Never, no, never.” That the world will have to live without seeing pictures of Saldana’s wedding dress splashed across the tabloids is something of a fashion tragedy, but one we will have to live with.
Before audiences came to know Saldana as Neytiri, Avatar’s blue alien princess, or Cataleya, Colombiana’s gun-toting assassin, or Uhura, Star Trek’s strong-willed communications officer, she was just a Dominican–Puerto Rican–Irish-Lebanese-and-lots-more girl from Queens, New York, who loved to act and dance. Her mother worked whatever jobs she could—a courthouse translator, a cleaning lady—traveling back and forth from her native Dominican Republic to New York to make ends meet for her family. (Saldana’s father died in a car accident when she was nine.)
“Class is not defined by money,” Saldana says. “I come from a very classy line of women. Ladies from head to toe, chin up always.” She credits her great-grandmother and grandmother, who worked as seamstresses and favored pearls, for her love of fashion. Saldana’s mom had more edge. “She was always a rebel,” says Saldana. “My sisters and I have a deep appreciation of Ray-Bans from her. There’s something about that aviator look—my mom rocked it so well.”
The elder Saldana women instilled in the future star a sense of value. Even now—with paychecks rolling in from Out of the Furnace, the current gritty drama she stars in alongside Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, and the upcoming Marvel Comics juggernaut, Guardians of the Galaxy, for which she spent five hours a day in the makeup chair being painted green—she makes sure that if she’s going to splurge, it’s a sound investment. “If you buy a beautiful Chanel bag you know you can wear it, and then put it away, and pick it up again. And eventually you can pass it down to somebody who’s really special to you. I believe in that,” says Saldana. And while the star is no stranger to wearing designers on the red carpet (Louis Vuitton! Valentino!), she happily sings the praises of a white cotton shirt from the Gap or a pair of J.Crew khakis (“So American,” she says with a happy sigh). She loves Michelle Obama’s high-low approach to dressing. “The First Lady, thank God for her!” says Saldana. “She wears Alaïa and she wears J.Crew. She’s colorful, she’s young, she’s raw, she’s natural. When you see her wearing something, you want to run out and get it.”
Many women feel the same way about Saldana’s outfits. And while it wasn’t part of her master plan to be anyone’s fashion role model, the star does take style seriously. “Fashion is art— it’s absolute art,” she says. “It’s telling a story. So if I wear something, it will be because it reminds me of Grace Jones or a flower petal or water. I create all these worlds in my head. I live in this constant imaginative state.”
Saldana is one of a handful of Hollywood stars whose off-duty looks and red-carpet choices receive equal praise. Fashion blogs regularly applaud her street style, and Pinterest is a treasure trove of her best looks. Designers relish the opportunity to dress her for events, and a steady stream of breathtaking looks from Calvin Klein, Givenchy and Prabal Gurung (among others) have solidified her slot in the style stratosphere. “I love to dress Zoe because she’s not afraid to take chances,” says Francisco Costa, Calvin Klein Collection Women’s creative director. “No matter what the occasion, she always looks elegant but with a modern twist.”
When it comes to those red-carpet appearances, Saldana works closely with her stylist, Petra Flannery (whose client list also includes Emma Stone and Mila Kunis), to put together a story worthy of the moment. They’ll often go back and forth via e-mail sharing their favorite runway looks from style.com, eventually coming to a consensus. “When I see a dress, I don’t think, ‘Oh my God, everybody is wearing it and this is the style that’s in.’ That, to me, is superficial,” she says. “Every choice needs to have depth. I like to know the history of things. If I ask Roland Mouret why he cuts in squares and discover he comes from a family of butchers in France, that’s exhilarating information.”
Gurung, another designer fan (and friend) of Saldana’s, has seen her process firsthand. “I remember her first coming in for a fitting; she wanted to know everything about the clothes, the fabric details, the cut,” he says. “Her interest in fashion lies beyond just looking pretty. She’s someone who is completely 100 percent committed to life, and it’s reflected in all the choices she makes. She pushes the boundaries and is one of the boldest dressers of our time—without ever looking ridiculous.”
I ask if there’s a look she regrets, a time when the story didn’t have a happily-ever-after ending, but it’s not in Saldana’s DNA to second-guess herself. “I can give two shits about what somebody thought I looked like,” she says. “At the moment I conceived wearing an outfit, I had a thousand reasons. And now that it’s done, and I’m getting feedback that’s not positive, I’m going to regret it? I take responsibility for my actions, whether the outcome is positive or negative.”
And while she may not stress over other people’s opinions, she does have her own firm limits. Is there anything she’d never, ever wear? “I don’t believe in hopping on a flight in your sweatpants,” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t care what your line of work is. I don’t care where you came from. I don’t care if you pulled an all-nighter and went straight from work to the airport—do not wear a sweatsuit on an airplane. That could be your last flight. I do not want to go down in sweatpants, hugging my pillow. If I’m going down, literally, let me go down in style.”