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Zoe Saldana says Nina Simone 'deserved better' than her portrayal in 2016 biopic

The actress apologized for playing the renowned jazz singer in an interview with "Pose's" Steven Canals.
Zoe Saldana attends the "Guardians of the Galaxy" photo-call in London on July 25, 2014
Zoe Saldana attends the "Guardians of the Galaxy" photo-call in London on July 25, 2014Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Zoe Saldana apologized for portraying Nina Simone in a 2016 biopic and stated that the legendary jazz singer and civil rights activist "deserved better."

"I should have never played Nina," Saldana said during an interview with "Pose's" Steven Canals for the platform Bese. "I should have done everything in my power with the leverage that I had 10 years ago — which was a different leverage but it was leverage nonetheless — I should have tried everything in my power to cast a Black woman to play an exceptionally perfect Black woman."

Although Saldana is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent and is considered Afro-Latina, she was widely criticized for taking on the titular role in "Nina" and accused of taking an opportunity from an actress with darker skin — particularly because Saldana wore darker makeup, a prosthetic nose and fake teeth in an effort to better resemble Simone in the film.

Grammy-winning artist India Arie was among those who were critical of Saldana's casting, calling it a missed opportunity.

"When you think about the way that we as human beings can inspire each other by being able to be our authentic selves, to deny someone who looks like Nina Simone the opportunity to play her is sad,” Arie said in a now-deleted open letter to Simone's fan site, according to HuffPost. “It would have been important and impactful had they made a movie about Nina Simone where the actress really looked like her. It would have changed someone’s life, I think.”

Zoe Saldana in "Nina"
The poster art for "Nina"Courtesy Everett Collection

Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who is also a musician, as well as an actress, was also critical of Saldana's casting.

"My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark," Simone Kelly told The New York Times. "Appearance-wise this is not the best choice."

After Saldana received backlash for taking on the role, Simone's daughter said she does not blame the actress for the film's other inaccuracies (the biopic falsely depicts a romantic relationship between Simone and her manager, Clifton Henderson, the daughter said). She has urged people to watch "What Happened, Miss Simone?," a 2015 documentary directed by Liz Garbus, instead.

“It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies," Simone said of Saldana in a 2016 interview with Time. "The project has been tainted from the very beginning. Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life and everyone now knows that. This is not how you want your loved ones remembered.”

Singer Mary J. Blige was originally slated to play Simone in the movie, but dropped out after shooting was delayed, according to NPR. The director and writer of the film, Cynthia Mort, responded to the criticism of Saldana's casting in 2016, telling Entertainment Weekly that people should watch the film, because Simone "deserves to be known."

"I thought back then that I had the permission because I was a Black woman," Saldana told Canals of her decision to take on the role. "And I am. But, it's Nina. And Nina had a life and a journey that should be honored to the specific detail… she deserved better."

Simone initially aspired to be a concert pianist and launched her career at a nightclub in Atlantic City, where she began performing to fund her piano lessons. Before her death in 2003, she recorded more than 40 albums and performed at civil rights meetings, including the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March in 1965. Artists like Elton John, Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé have cited the genre-defying musician as one of their major influences.

"We've been appropriating ourselves with someone like Nina Simone for a very long time," Saldana said. "And I just want her story to be told and I want it to be right because she deserves it."

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