Nobody owns the franchise market quite like Zoe Saldana. The actor, 38, has a prolific track record playing otherworldly women in three of the biggest blockbuster sci-fi series: Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Trek. Yet Saldana does not fear being pigeonholed. “I feel I have a greater chance of setting an example for young women when I do movies [that take place] in the future because I’m less likely to be boxed in,” she says. “I’m not playing someone’s girlfriend. I can be tougher. The future represents hope.”
The past is trickier. “I look at the films I love so much, like the beautiful Jane Austen adaptations, but someone like me doesn’t exist in those narratives–at least not in a way that I would want to be a part of,” she says. “Honestly, it makes me sad. I think about how someone like me would have been treated.”
Saldana’s mother is Puerto Rican and her father is Dominican, which the actor says makes her either “too dark or too light” to star in most of Hollywood’s historical dramas. She suffered blowback last year for wearing dark makeup to play singer Nina Simone in the biopic Nina–after initially passing on the role–but feels that many popcorn films dealing with race lack nuance. “I’ve been disappointed before,” she says. “Racism is often used as a plot device. Sometimes it’s glamorized.”
That’s why Ben Affleck had to work hard to convince her to star in Live by Night, out widely on Jan. 13. Affleck, who also directed the film, plays a Prohibition-era gangster who builds a small bootlegging empire in Tampa when he joins forces (and becomes romantically involved) with Saldana’s Graciella, a Cuban woman who imports rum with her brother. Their partnership puts them in the path of the Ku Klux Klan. The director employs this worn plotline to make an extended comment on race in America today.
Saldana grew up in Queens until she was 9. After her father died in a car accident, her mother sent her and her two sisters to live with relatives in the Dominican Republic. There, Saldana fell in love with dance, and when she returned to New York as a high schooler, she set out to become a ballerina. She realized she’d never be good enough to be prima ballerina, but she did land a role in her first feature film, Center Stage, in 2000. She played a rebel dancer, the type of girl who extinguishes a cigarette with her pink satin slipper. As a young actor, she dreamed of getting roles like Alien‘s Ellen Ripley and Terminator‘s Sarah Connor–lone female warriors. “Like all other young actresses, I saw other women as competition. If there were 50,000 of us going out for the role, and if I got it, I must be the best,” she says.
Now a star, Saldana is tired of being the sole woman surrounded by men. “I feel lonely on set. And it’s not just that you’re the only woman in the cast. There are very few women on the crew. You hardly ever get to work with a female director. Some female producers try to blend in with their male colleagues and won’t stand up to them. You’re completely outnumbered. And you take a hit in your paycheck as a woman too. I’m so f-cking tired of it.”
So Saldana started a production company, Cinestar Pictures, with her two sisters, Mariel and Cisely, aiming to create content for female and Latino audiences. Saldana says she was compelled, in part, by the realization that her twin sons, age 2, would encounter so many Latino stereotypes in the media. “In 2060, Hispanics will be 30% of the population,” she says. “We have to show the next generation that they can be the face of America as much as anyone else.”
Being her own boss comes with other perks. “Behind the scenes, the actors are the ones with the least power. You’re told what to do, what to wear, where to stand. Your creative inputs are ignored,” she says. Through Cinestar, she produced and starred in a TV version of Rosemary’s Baby and backed an upcoming documentary on the epidemic of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada. Saldana hopes to continue creating space for stories about women and people of color who can’t always advocate for themselves. “We keep our heads down because we’re afraid of losing our jobs,” she says. “But we can’t just complain anymore. We have to band together with love and respect and do something about it.”
This appears in the January 16, 2017 issue of TIME.