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Zoe Saldana, 'Infinitely Polar Bear' Star, On Losing Her Father At Age 9

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INFINITELY POLAR BEAR
Zoe Saldana stars in "Infinitely Polar Bear" at Sundance. | Infinitely Polar Bear

Zoe Saldana is an international movie star, having played lead roles in "Avatar," the "Star Trek" reboot and countless other films. But it's her role as a mother struggling with two young daughters and a bipolar husband, played by the fantastic Mark Ruffalo, that perhaps reflects the most emotion from Saldana's heart. Having lost her father at a young age, she connects deeply to the material in first-time filmmaker Maya Forbes' "Infinitely Polar Bear." The title of the film, by the way, is taken from a line from the youngest daughter in the movie. She says "dad is a polar bear," and her older sister corrects her stating, "he's bipolar."

The Huffington Post sat down with Saldana at a lodge in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival to hear about why this film is so incredibly close to her heart.

Highlights from our conversation below (warning: spoilers about "Infinitely Polar Bear" are sprinkled throughout):

How did you become involved in this film? What was the casting process like?
Mark Ruffalo’s manager, who was my manager at the time, went to school with [writer/director] Maya Forbes. It was all very incestuous, conveniently. But it was so beautiful that we were all just three degrees of separation from each other. So that’s how I read the script. There’s something about fathers and daughters that really lives in a very special and sacred place for me. I was deeply moved by the script.

What was it like playing the role of a mother?
It was great. The girls are beautiful and so wonderful. Everything felt effortless. Maya is a very good director. We had had so many conversations throughout the years before making this movie and I had met Peggy, her mom, and saw pictures and videos. So I almost felt by the time we got to set, that I had grown up right next door to them. I was very familiar with their story, and who wouldn’t be moved by it? I had a lot of compassion for how they grew up, but so much admiration that they never lost their resilience.

Mark Ruffalo's character suffers from bipolar disorder, and we are so drawn to him. He has such love for his daughters. What do you think this film adds to the larger conversation about mental illness?
There’s one scene that always choked me up and it’s when he calls my character in the middle of the night. He’s obviously restless and hasn’t slept and hasn’t taken his medication. But he calls his wife when he’s sewing the skirt for his daughter. In that moment, everything that takes place between these two individuals, you understand both sides. You understand her being a little scared because this is a repetitive cycle of his; they’ve been there before. It’s not the first breakdown he’s had. It always starts like that -- he becomes restless, doesn’t sleep, drinks a lot, and then ends up having a breakdown and is hospitalized. How do you remove yourself from that emotionally and still get what you need done without harming the person and still take care of your children? But at the same time, you put yourself in his shoes and you go he’s trying the best he can with the resources that god has given him.

In that scene, Mark’s character says to you, “How many fathers are up right now at 5 a.m. sewing a skirt for his daughter?” And he’s right.
In society we are very hard on men when it comes to fatherhood. It’s either you’re in or you’re out. And he was there. That’s the message that resonated most with me when I met Maya. They lived as hoarders and their outfits weren’t always all sewn together, but they were loved.

That last scene with the daughters walking away and looking back at their father was so emotional and beautiful.
Are you kidding me? I couldn’t go up on stage today right when the film ended. I saw it for the first time two months ago. My sister and my assistant and some family members were with me and we went afterwards to dinner and everybody’s lower lip was just trembling because we were so moved. Especially for my sisters and me, because we lost our father when we were very young. It hits home. You feel that you were wronged.

Do you remember your father?
Oh my god, absolutely. I was 9. Now that I’m 35, throughout the years, I’ve probably embellished the only nine years that I had with him. I fantasize -- is that the right word? Fantasía -- I go directly to Spanish! Now he’s this big, larger than life character. His laugh was louder, his smell was sweeter. But I get to live vicariously through someone else’s experience and kind of imagine what it could have been like. It allows you to feel. We’re always so tense about feeling. It’s like “Oh! We shouldn’t, we have makeup on.” But for me, it’s like –- fucking cry. Feel. Be in her shoes. And yes, if it’s a good movie, applaud it and embrace it.

Also on HuffPost:

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