In a moment of raw candor, actress Zoe Saldana opened up about one of the most controversial chapters of her career: her portrayal of legendary singer and activist Nina Simone in the 2016 biopic.
“I should have never accepted the part,” Saldana told CBS Sunday Morning in a recent interview where she was supposed to be talking about her new series “Special Ops: Lioness.” Instead, the conversation took an emotional turn. She admitted that despite her own Afro-Latino and African heritage, she failed to grasp how complex the role demanded the conversation around it to be.
Saldana, visibly emotional, spoke about the relentless bullying she faced following her casting. “I felt like she did sing to me,” she said, her eyes tearing up, “Because if I don’t fit in that world, what other world was I gonna fit in? Definitely not the white world.” Saldana went on to say that her decision to accept the role had even tainted her relationship with Simone’s music. “I felt I hurt her,” she said, a striking admission that seemed to weigh heavily on her.
This isn’t the first time the casting ignited controversy. When it was announced back in 2012, Simone’s own daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, raised eyebrows over the choice. “Appearance-wise, this is not the best choice,” she declared, highlighting the importance of casting someone who physically resembled her mother. At that time, Saldana had defended her role, citing that if Elizabeth Taylor could play Cleopatra, then she could embody Nina Simone.
But it wasn’t just about appearances. There was a larger debate about colorism within the Black community that this casting decision highlighted. Robert L. Johnson, the film’s black distributor, lamented in 2016 how the conversation was divisive, saying, “It’s unfortunate that African Americans are talking about this in a way that hearkens back to how we were treated when we were slaves.”
Years later, with the perspective of time and experience, Saldana has shifted her stance. “I thought back then that I had the permission because I was a black woman. And I am. But it was Nina Simone,” she said, adding that she “should have done everything” in her power to ensure a black woman played Simone.
Beyond the casting disputes, the film “Nina” faced a plethora of issues. Its writer-director, Cynthia Mort, even sued the producers over various disputes, from editing to financing. Although she later dropped the lawsuit, Mort still seemed conflicted, noting, “There are very different visions of what the movie could have been and should have been.”