Actress Zoe Saldana. (Photo/Getty Images)

Zoe Saldana talks about her intense role in “Out of the Furnace”

Zoe Saldana is known for her ability to transform herself for roles – a willowy ballerina in “Center Stage” or a cold-hearted assassin in “Colombiana” – but in her latest film the Dominican actress shows off a softer side as a teacher torn between love and duty.

“At first, I thought she was just another character in this story with an unfortunate life – forced to make decisions that were painful,” says Zaldana, who plays character Lena Warren in “Out of the Furnace” opposite leading man Christian Bale. “But shooting was actually very intense. I lived as this character; it was a very exhausting process to hold onto so much feeling and emotion.”

“Out of the Furnace” is a touching film about one Russell Baze (Bale), whose life and identity revolves around his work at a steel mill in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt. But when a cruel twist in events changes Baze’s life as he knows it, his family and love (Saldana) are impacted forever. The movie opens with a troubling depiction of domestic violence; a scene which sets the stage for a movie with themes across love, loyalty, the decline of America’s blue collar tradition and the pressure to forge one’s future – all themes which Saldana explains she finds particularly suited for the big screen.

“I don’t shy away from seeing ugly things,” explains Saldana. “When someone is broken, they will break things. Art is supposed to imitate life and when you show how intense life is, you give power to the art.”

And Saldana is quick to reject any suggestion that the film’s violent scenes offend her sensibility as a feminist, explaining that she “has the same amount of respect for others as I do myself.”

“I’m not a feminist – I always try to correct people when they label me as a feminist,” says Saldana. “I don’t have to be a feminist to know that I am an equal creature to a tree, or to men.”

With that sentiment in mind, Saldana felt free to go without makeup as Lena, a school teacher in the humble town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Saldana – who has famously undergone scrutiny about her weight – said that daring to go bare on camera was actually part of a larger statement regarding her commitment to staying in character.

(Right to left.) Zoe Saldana and Christian Bale star in "Out of the Furnace."

(Right to left.) Zoe Saldana and Christian Bale star in “Out of the Furnace.” (© 2012 Relativity Media, All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes)

“I saw my character as a girl who didn’t wear makeup – she was probably the type to wear makeup once every two months if she ever went out to dinner,” explains Saldana. “So if I wore makeup, I wouldn’t have been in character. I had to accept myself first before making that decision, but I wasn’t worried about how I looked on camera without it.”

And if there’s one thing that ultimately attracted Saldana to join the cast of “Out of the Furnace,” — which opens in theaters nationwide on Dec. 7 — it was the way that the small-town living is depicted in the film. Saldana herself spent part of her childhood in the Dominican Republic; an experience she credits for shaping her as an actress and woman.

“That’s where everything that I am today in terms of my personality and character in my life comes from,” says Saldana. “I am who I am because I was raised by parents that come from those small towns. I lived there [in the Dominican Republic] for seven years, and I’ve never met people with as little money and as much class as Latinos.”

That’s why Saldana has set her eye on creating films aimed at Latinos, explaining that she wants to “make great films that people can enjoy and see themselves in.” The actress – who owns the production company Saldana Studios with her two sisters – recently announced a partnership with Pantelion Films, a major film studio with whom she intends to develop TV and movie projects aimed at Hispanic audiences.

“My sisters have exquisite taste and they know good material, the same way they know a good purse or pair of shoes,” explains Saldana of working with her sisters. “We are going to be that way when it comes to movies that appeal to Latinos and depict them as a part of America.” And while Saldana isn’t shrugging off the possibility of starring in one of the upcoming films, she says she’s in no rush to exchange acting for any other job.

“I think if I wasn’t an actress, I would have done something with the betterment and protection of kids, women and animals. Something with psychology, where I could help provide comfort for children who have been through traumas. But I’m very militant and very strict. Kids find me cute because I’m loud and funny but they don’t stick by me. I don’t provide the amount of levity they need.”

“That being said, I think I’ll stick with movies.”

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