The risk of starring in an adaptation of a popular book is a high one — it’s nearly impossible to make every reader happy. With Tembi Locke’s “From Scratch,” a bestseller and one of Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club picks, the risk was even higher. The book was Locke’s own memoir, one about love, loss and family.
When Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine bought the rights and began adapting the story for Netflix’s limited series — one run by Tembi’s sister, Attica Locke — Zoe Saldaña was approached to play the leading role of Amy.
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While the Critics Choice nominations have not yet been announced, there is buzz around Saldaña.
“After Reese spoke with me about the book, I, obviously, was very curious and having experienced grief and loss, but from a child’s perspective — I was 9 when I lost a parent and that was very difficult,” says Saldaña. “I can revisit those sensations from my child mind’s eye, but I never knew what it must have been like for my mother, losing a partner, losing her ride or die and losing the love of her life — her lover, her best friend, her everything and then having to not just cater to her loss and her pain, but also then have to be this grown-up that had to still be joyful and be happy and be repurposeful for the sake of these three little souls that were just looking at her like, ‘What now? What do we do?’ That was quite painful to revisit.”
Still, her main focus was Tembi and Attica.
“There was a great deal of pressure, I’m not gonna lie. They were there, present every day, and no matter how much you want to take proprietorship of your own art and what you’re doing, when you’re telling someone else’s story, that takes precedent,” Saldaña says. “That was first and foremost, the thought every morning walking to work, knowing that we were just nothing but mere vessels lending ourselves to the telling of someone else’s story. So therefore, what they had to say, what they had to feel, was always the priority. We were holding space for that. It wasn’t easy at all times.”
The Locke sisters were drawn to Saldaña for many reasons. First, they found out that she is married to an Italian man and had experience with blending cultures. Then, they learned about the losses she had experienced with her own siblings.
“Watching Zoe on screen, there is this kind of sweet spot of tenderness and strength that felt like the character, Amy,” Attica Locke says. “There were some personal elements to the story too. She and her sisters lost their father when they were kids at about the same age as the little girl in the story. So they had another connection to the material, which is, their mother, in a way, had been Amy. They had watched that grief from a little girl’s perspective, and that was very meaningful for them. And the ways in which we wanted to make space in this series to honor childhood grief and what that looks like, and how you talk to children about the things that happen, they were really invested in that.”
While walking in Tembi Locke’s shoes, Saldaña was able “to see how painful it was for her” to go through loss as an adult while also being inspired by seeing another side — how gracious Tembi was as a wife, mother, partner, sister and leader.
Saldaña was moved by the way the Locke sisters worked together successfully — and felt lucky that the cast and crew all supported each other through the up and down journey.
“It had its set of challenges. If it wasn’t for the cast, I think it would have been a lot harder,” she says. “If it wasn’t for them, I think it would have been difficult for me to steal moments of joy, knowing that this subject was so delicate and so special. We managed to hold court first and foremost, for Tembi and the Locke family — [and] do our job really well, give 110%, but also save a little space for each other and keep each other safe and sound. That was quite amazing.”
While alterations were made for the show, none of those differences were “gamechangers,” says Saldaña.
“That love story was untouched — the sparks and the magic and the food and the Italy of it all was definitely there,” she says, noting that all the cast and crew were “skipping all the way to Italy” in order to really soak in the experience — and the bread and wine.
The name change — instead of Tembi, the lead was Amy — was important to the team behind the scenes, especially the author herself.
“One of the things that I knew I needed intuitively, early on, was to create a kind of psychic distance,” she says. “That’s why there’s a name change, so that I could always walk into a room and go, ‘OK, Tembi’s story will always live inside the spine of this book. That is there. That is my best recollection recounting, rendering love story on the page.’ This, Amy’s going to take this journey that’s going to be inspired by everything that happened.”
Ultimately, it was that courageous move that drew in Saldaña.
“She did it with so much grace and she did it with so much love. If there’s anything of that book has when you read it, it’s just love — love for her life, love for her journey, love for her love and just love for what’s ahead,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I saw such a such a lightful angle on grief.
“The thing about grief is just that we can trick ourselves into believing that we have healed completely and that’s not the case. Grief is not something that goes away. Grief is just something that you manage. So, it doesn’t go away, it just becomes manageable and that tricks you into believing that you’re fine.”
The series, which shot to No. 1 on Netflix’s Top 10, is just one of the many projects that Saldaña has recently chosen; this year, she also starred in David O’Russell’s “Amsterdam” and will lead one of the most anticipated films of the year, “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Next year, she’ll reprise Gamora in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”
Will that be her last Marvel movie?
“I can never say no to anything, but that green makeup? I wouldn’t be upset if it didn’t happen again,” Saldaña says with a laugh. “I miss Gamora but I don’t miss 3:30 a.m. calls and five-hour makeup sessions and trips to the dermatologist afterwards.”
What keeps her coming back, however, is the connection that the character makes with the audience. “Every time that you know that 8-year-old or that dad and mom or those generational fans that remind me that what I did was special to them, it makes me not be cynical about Marvel. It makes me understand that younger audiences should stop being overlooked,” she says. “They have feelings too and if something impacts them, just because we consider it stupid or immature or cheeky, doesn’t mean it’s not special.”
Overall, the actor is very specific in the roles she picks — and that works.
“I am picky in terms of the way I curate my life and art,” she says. “I know the artists that I like, I know the writers that I like, I know the music that I like, I know the intellectuals that I bond with and learn from, and I pick my material based on that curation. And maybe there is good business in that.”
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