By Carolyn Todd
Updated October 25, 2014 at 04:00 PM EDT
Credit: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Zoe Saldana knows how to play ass-kicking, universe-saving, unusually colorful heroes like Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, Neytiri in Avatar, and Uhura in Star Trek. But for her new AOL web series, Saldana turned the camera on everyday people who play the role of the hero.

In My Hero, which debuted yesterday, Saldana and some of her fellow celebrities—including Julianne Hough, Nick Cannon and Maria Menounos—pay tribute to the people they cherish via short, touching vignettes. “People are generally very grateful to the people around them that keep them together, that supported them, that encouraged them to become what they are as artists,” the actress says. “So we thought, what a great opportunity to do a show about this and send a very positive message out there. Because I find it hard to believe that anybody makes it on their own. There’s always somebody that helped you in some way.”

In the interview below, Saldana tells EW about how her hero (spoiler: it’s her mom) inspired her to make a habit of playing rather… ethereal characters. The actress also talks about balancing the upcoming sequels to her three big franchises with motherhood (she’s pregnant with twins!), why movies need more real women—not strong ones—and why we should stop saying the word “ethnic.”

My Hero‘s first episode is about your hero, your mom. Is she the first person that comes to mind when you think about what makes a hero?

Automatically. For me, it goes on autopilot—I just go, “my mom.” As a parent, she put us first—and we lost a parent, so she had to become those two anchors in our lives. She’s not perfect, but she always did her best and that’s something that’s worth recognizing. And [she] really let us find our own voice. My mom never manipulated us to become something that she wanted us to become because it was better for her. She always just told us the best advice—”I just want you happy.” That’s also very hard to find.

Has she had an influence on your career, on the roles and projects you choose?

Yes. I have to say, the sci-fi inclination that I have unconsciously came from her. My mom used to love reading about 2001: A Space Odyssey, and [was] just always curious about the unknown—not questioning, but wondering. And she gave my sisters and I that.

I never purposely intended to do a lot of roles that are set in space, but spiritually I did gravitate towards them, because I felt more free. I felt more able to create and become something from absolutely nothing, you know? So therefore it’s a sort of very blank canvass. It’s a clean palate to start from. And I think I get it from my mom.

You play a lot of badass women. Do you seek those stronger roles out?

No. I don’t choose strong over—I choose real women, in my mind. I feel like that’s different way of looking at it. In order for me to choose strong roles for women, that means that I’m noticing weakness—and it’s not the weakness that I’m noticing. It’s an inaccurate interpretation, [a] portrayal of female characters in stories that I’m naturally against. I have, like, an allergic reaction to it.

The moment I read a story and I go, “Oh okay, well, she’s serviceable. There’s nothing special that she’s contributing to the story besides just being there to make the man comfortable, soothe him, fight for him, die for him—and he clearly doesn’t give a f–k about her, because he’s trying to find his own self.” You kind of go, “Eh, no I don’t want to promote that anymore.” I want to be a part of stories where women are important. It doesn’t have to be bigger roles; it doesn’t have to be action-driven.

That is a desire of mine, because I’m a very active, athletic person, and that is something I purposely go after because I enjoy it. And I also know that there’s a strong message for young females… Don’t just think of yourself as a delicate petal. You can jump, you can climb, you can punch, you can throw balls. Just think of yourself as all these other things as well.

But it when it comes to strong versus weak? I just like to play real women.

Real—because playing totally perfect women doesn’t help girls either, does it?

It doesn’t. It really raises an unrealistic standard that sets everybody up for disappointment.

Do you think there are enough of those kind of roles in Hollywood today?

I think there can always be more. We’re evolving, and we’re moving in the right direction. Sometimes I wish the pace was quicker. But I can’t—I don’t want to complain, because if I do, that means I’m disregarding all of the amazing efforts that the women around us today are doing. Directors like Kathryn Bigelow, Maya Forbes, Cynthia Mort, Penny Marshall for the love of God. Sofia Coppola. That means I’m disregarding their efforts and their existence right now.

We are doing it, we’re paving the way. As soon as we continue to realize that coming together is much better than being apart, we will move faster… If you’ve had a female hero, I think it’s important to shed light on that. To make the world know that women are strong and resilient. That we can move mountains if we come together and we believe—in ourselves, in each other.

In Guardians, we saw you as the female hero and your sister/enemy Nebula as the anti-hero. Are we going to see more of their relationship in the sequel?

Oh God, yes! I am pretty certain that [director] James Gunn is going to do that. I know that Karen [Gillan, who plays Nebula] and I will make sure of it! It is important—it is imperative. I think that I was more excited by having a female villain than having a female hero. Of course I’m excited about being Gamora, and that’s great. But to have a female villain in any of the Marvel Comics is amazing. And to have her be as fierce as Nebula, I think it’s wonderful. So we’re definitely moving in the right direction when it comes to the comic world.

And she’s ruthless! Like, she doesn’t give a f–k—there’s no heart there. Gamora checked! Gamora’s like, “No, there’s nothing there. Nothing beats inside that chest.” [Laughs]

How are you going to balance filming that with the Avatar and Star Trek sequels?

I don’t know! I’ll tell you when I’m there… I know that we will work everything out. I have to say, I’m very lucky. The great thing is that all the producers and creators involved in the projects that I’ve done—Avatar, Star Trek, and Guardians—they’re very good people. So they’ve been very understanding, especially with what’s happening in my personal life. I’ve gotten nothing but support. To know that we are getting to that place where women can have that support from male driven workforces is—I have to say, it’s very inspiring.

And also, they don’t have a choice! I’m not going to rip my child off my tit to go work. And if I do that, then maybe you shouldn’t hire me because I am willing to sell anything. [Laughs] It’s nature! Like, you just cannot do it. What kind of mother would I be? There’s no choice. It’s like, “What, you want me to leave my newborn so that I can work 16 hours on your set? He’s only a month old, are you out of your mind?”

And the good thing is that half of the people you work with are all parents, and they get it. They probably have strong wives at home that are probably going to look at them going, “Are you out of your mind?!” See, it’s having strong women around you! Once we all come together, it’s perfect.

You were on Queen Latifah’s talk show this week. I love the part where you talk about how we should stop using the word “ethnic.” Is that something else you got from your mother?

Absolutely. I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a house where you heard words like “black,” “white,” “ethnic.” You know what I’m saying? Where everything is just a “cultural this” and a “cultural that.” My mother knew people by name, and that was it. A person could’ve walked into the house, and we never even knew what that person was going to be like. That person could’ve been transsexual, black, white, Chinese, a woman with a man’s name. And my mom would just be like, “Here’s so and so.”

We had that fear when we started becoming parents, my sisters and I, that we were going to cave in and always label. It always freaks me out when I see people that don’t consider themselves ethnic just use the word “ethnic.” It’s going “oh, because ethnic people…” What are you trying to say? You mean people not like you? What are you, then? It just doesn’t, I don’t… f–k off. F–k you. Like, it’s 2014, America. We’re all ethnic here in America; let’s be f–king real. None of us are aboriginal people, okay? Did you attend your history classes in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, you bigot? There’s a big elephant in the room, and it’s crowding my space now. And I’m done with it.

Guardians of the Galaxy

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 122 minutes
  • James Gunn