Saldana leaves her native New Jersey for the Dominican Republic with her mother and two sisters. "It takes a lot of courage to start over, especially when you're a kid," Saldana later tells Women's Health of relocating to the Caribbean island, where she trained as a dancer. "Ballet has always been my first passion, but I simply didn't have the feet," she admits to Vanity Fair. "I have way too much pride and ambition to just be in the corps."
For her last two years of high school, Saldana moves back to New York City and throws herself into after-school acting classes. "I became an actress to be in great movies, to work with amazing filmmakers," she tells PEOPLE. "And I think that's how I want to leave a mark if I'm ever granted that opportunity." Showing off both her acting and dancing skills, Saldana makes her movie debut as an aspiring ballet dancer in the 2000 film Center Stage.
Saldana follows up her film debut with the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads and stars opposite Nick Cannon in Drumline. But it's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, alongside Johnny Depp, where she gets her first taste of box-office success. "You really felt the immensity of it," she says of being part of the 2003 blockbuster.
Saldana tests her comedy chops in Guess Who, in which her character brings Ashton Kutcher home to her racially charged father, played by the late Bernie Mac. Coming from a multicultural family (Saldana is half-Puerto Rican, half-Dominican), the movie allows the actress to explore issues foreign to her. "My family is very, very diverse and very mixed, and it is not an issue in my house," she explains of interracial dating.
The self-professed geek plays the sultry Lt. Nyota Uhura in the 2009 Star Trek remake. The film, costarring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, earns $72.5 million in its opening weekend. "Zoë's definitely fiery," director J.J. Abrams gushed to Details. "She has the fortitude for you to put her in control. She could really do the job – not just look good in a ridiculously short dress."
Saldana stars in James Cameron's imaginative 3-D adventure Avatar, playing warrior princess Neytiri. The film, which costars newcomer Sam Worthington, earns three Academy Awards and becomes the highest-grossing movie of all time. Of the megahit success, Saldana says, "It definitely gave me the exposure and the respect of all the people I'd grown up admiring."
Saldana becomes the face of Avon's Eternal Magic perfume and Calvin Klein Underwear. "It means so much to me to be associated with a company that shares my values and believes in empowering women," she says of being an Avon spokesmodel.
Saldana and her longtime boyfriend, fashion website CEO Keith Britton, get engaged. "We've still managed to sustain a relationship in a world where half of the people we know are divorcing or going through problems," she tells Latina magazine. "It's like that song we both love by Frank Sinatra – we did it our way!" In November 2011, after 11 years together, the couple calls it quits.
Saldana breaks out from supporting roles to headline Colombiana, playing a kick-ass assassin out to avenge her parents' murders. "I just love strong women that are in tune with their bodies – that don't just use their bodies as sex tools," she tells Details magazine of the film, which opens No. 2 at the box office. "I'm very dominant – feisty. I'm not a man-hater, just a very proud woman."
After meeting on the set of The Words, a newly single Saldana is linked to costar Bradley Cooper when the two are spotted sneaking kisses at a Sundance Film Festival party for their movie. "They were like two seventh-graders," an onlooker tells PEOPLE. The couple cools down soon after, but briefly reunites in the fall before ultimately calling it quits again just before 2013.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Everett; Everett; Industrial Light and Magic/Paramount Pictures; AP; Brian Ach; Todd Williamson/WireImage; Magali Bragard/Columbia Pictures; GSI Media