How James Cameron's Avatar Became Zoe Saldaña's Personal Acting School

Before she became the queen of modern sci-fi franchises, I knew Zoe Saldaña for her feature film debut in "Center Stage." Released in 2000, the movie takes place at the fictional American Ballet Academy, a place where the only thing more intense and over-the-top than the dance classes is the Drama™ percolating behind closed doors. It's a gloriously soapy, contrived film full of marvelous dance routines, some of which allow Saldaña to show off her real-life skills from training in ballet when she was younger.

Saldaña's background in dance would come to serve her well in her many action-heavy movie roles, not least of which was that of the Na'vi warrior Neytiri in "Avatar." James Cameron's 2009 mega-blockbuster came out the same year Saldaña played Nyota Uhura in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek," both of which combined to cement her as a star five years prior to her turn as Gamora in "Guardians of the Galaxy." But of those three sci-fi films, it's perhaps unsurprisingly Cameron's tentpole that really prepared Saldaña for her future as an actor.

In a virtual press conference timed to coincide with the upcoming theatrical re-release of "Avatar" attended by /Film's Bill Bria, Saldaña was asked how working on Cameron's film changed her as an actor. Besides making it possible for her to continue her career and support her family financially, Saldaña said it "instilled in me that discipline to dig deeper, to create a backstory for [my] character, because ... you need to know where your characters come from." But more than that, she said the movie gave her the education in acting she had never formally received.

Avatar was Saldaña's Juilliard

Motion-capture acting and performing opposite green screens and tennis balls is pretty standard for actors in big-budget movies these days, but in the aughts, it was still fairly new territory. One only need ask veterans of the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy for a first-hand account of just how tricky it was to adjust to CGI-driven filmmaking in its early days. With "Avatar," however, it wasn't just the settings but most of the main characters who were created in post-production.

Far from being overwhelmed, Saldaña said she enjoyed the extra room for experimenting that came with mo-cap acting in entirely digital environments on "Avatar." She even went so far as to liken the movie to her personal acting school:

"... I do feel that being a part of 'Avatar' was my Julliard, it was my NYU course, where I really got to play with people that were genuinely wishing me to succeed, and it was an environment that was very playground-like and therefore was very free, and I got to try so many things. I remember [James Cameron] saying so many times, 'There's no such thing as a mistake. Just try it, and if we don't like it, at least we tried it.'"

If that sounds a little too nice for notorious hard-ass James Cameron, Saldaña added:

"I would also hear [Cameron] say to other people, 'If I'm coming at you because something isn't working and you come at me with some bulls**t story, you better just tell me, I don't know what happened, sir.' And I ... remember going, 'Don't ever have everything to say.'"

Ah, there's the Cameron we know.

"Avatar" returns to theaters on September 23, 2022, followed by its long-awaited sequel, "Avatar: The Way of Water," on December 16, 2022.