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At Atlanta screening, Zoe Saldana explains why she took 'Nina' role


Actress Zoe Saldana almost didn’t take the role of legendary performer Nina Simone. The “Avatar” and “Colombiana” actress  didn’t think she was the right age to play the older Simone.

In the end though, she asked herself  that as a result of personal fear “do I sit on the side and just pass this project from my hands to the next hands and just wash my hands and be done with it, or do I make the decision to be a part of the telling of the story of an iconic figure...that happens to be a woman and that happens to be black? I guess the good outweighed the fear.”

Saldana, in town to film “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”, was part of a panel discussion for an Atlanta screening of “Nina,” which opens Friday.

Related: Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Kurt Russell spotted in Atlanta

The panel also included Al Schackman, Simone’s music director, guitarist and longtime friend, and Stuart Parr, the film’s producer.

The film was shown to about two dozen people at Cinevision Corp.’s private screening facilities in Chamblee and hosted by RLJ Entertainment and the African-American Film Critics Association.

The film has been rife with controversy almost from the beginning with the casting of Saldana as the iconic singer. David Oyelowo plays Simone's manager, Clifton Henderson.

The criticism intensified when the studio released the trailer of  the film with Saldana in dark makeup .

Last night, organizers asked the audience, who applauded at the end, to judge for themselves. Schackman, Simone’s music director, longtime friend and guitarist for 46 years, advised people to do the same.

On the film, he said he felt “too close to Nina to really try to critique it in it’s entirety. It’s best left to the individual to see and hopefully watch the movie without prejudice.”

The film, an interpretation of events, “really addressed one particular part of her personality,” he said. “It would be impossible to have one movie try to portray every part of Nina’s personality. She was so deep. It portrays her anger and violence. To show other aspects of her you would have to have 10 films.”

He praised Saldana, who sang in the film, for the sensitivity she brought to the role and for her chops, particularly  in “Wild is the Wind.”  He spent a lot of time with Saldana talking and sharing stories about Simone.

Parr said the directors wanted to go with that period of Simone’s life, which was enormous.  He liked the idea of  focusing on a slice of her life. “Nina could sing a song 20 different way and it still cuts you like a razor in the stomach for me and I wanted to just show a slice of her life. Anything more would be too big and not possible,” said Parr.

Questions from the moderator didn’t address the controversy of Saldana being selected for the role or the use of makeup to make her appear darker.

To prepare for the role, Saldana  moved out of her home and away from family so she could totally immerse herself in the role. She read some of Simone's journals and letters. “I wanted to be haunted by her,” said the actress.

She said Simone was a woman who wanted love and acceptance. “She was hormonal at times and super territorial with her music and she loved her daughter and she did the best that she could.”

No matter the racism and abuse she experienced, she refused to be a victim.

In the end, Saldana, who teared up, said she hoped the film would inspire more people to discover Simone.

“Don’t let this be the only story of Nina,” she said. “Let it be the first.”

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.