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How Zoe Saldana Transformed Into Gamora

Zoe Saldana's convincing turn as the green-skinned alien assassin Gamora made her an immediate fan favorite in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Just as quick to put Peter Quill in his place as she is to mercilessly dispatch her foes, the adopted daughter of the Mad Titan Thanos quickly claimed her place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing a key role as her big bad old man traveled across the galaxy on his bloody quest to achieve ownership of all of the Infinity Stones and wipe out half of all life in the universe. We won't spoil the ending of Avengers: Infinity War for you here, but suffice it to say Gamora is present and accounted for when Thanos makes his move—and it all took a lot of work to transform Saldana from All-American actress to otherworldly badass, which began well before she ever sits down in the makeup chair.

The Gamora regimen

There's always a certain amount of physical preparation involved for a major role in a Marvel film, but to reprise her role as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Zoe Saldana had to go a little above and beyond. In November 2014, the actress gave birth to twins—and subsequently embarked on an exercise regimen that would make Drax cry, shedding 70 pounds before suiting up for the second Guardians installment.

She had difficulty bouncing back at first, starting off with simply taking walks, and eventually working up to a brutal routine of squats, planks, lunges and Pilates combined with regular cardio. Although she's 80% gluten-free and leans heavily on eggs, vegetables and greens, she insists that she doesn't follow a strict diet; as she put it, "I am going to remove the word 'diet' from my life. I am going to remind myself that it is not about losing weight, it is about being healthy, feeling healthy, for the rest of my life."

The philosophy certainly seems to have paid off—but to actually get into character, mental rather than physical preparation is key, because the process is way more laborious than you might think.

It starts with a full head cast

Saldana famously played another colorful-skinned alien in 2009's Avatar, but in that case, she got off easy. Her entire character was digitally rendered, so it may have come as a bit of a surprise the first time Guardians' makeup department told her that a full cast of her head would be required. During the filming of Guardians 2, she posted pictures of the process to her Instagram—and while it looks like she's gotten pretty used to the whole thing, the procedure looks gooey and claustrophobic enough to make us cringe just thinking about it.

Tacky green paste is applied to every inch of her head, neck and shoulders; by the time effects artists are finished, the only thing left uncovered are her nostrils. The cast will be used to make a model for designing facial prosthetics, and for makeup artists to use as a guide. While it's not clear how many times this must be done for each shoot, the fact that Saldana is willing to sit through it even once makes her braver than us.

No CGI required

The model lets effects artists exercise great attention to detail when designing appliances and makeup. This is necessary because, in contrast with her Avatar role, there are exactly no computer generated elements to Gamora. According to Guardians 2 makeup designer David White, prosthetics made from silicone are sculpted for her cheeks and forehead, the latter of which gives her a new brow line. The pieces take two to three hours to apply, and about 30-45 minutes to remove.

Her prosthetic forehead actually has a "scalp" piece that runs underneath her wig—that's right, she also has to wear a wig—so that even the edge of her hairline and her part line are green. Of course, the prosthetics are only the beginning. Once they're applied and have had time to dry, the most fun part of Saldana's day begins.

The makeup takes five hours to apply

As with any paint job, Saldana gets multiple complete coats of primer before makeup artists get down to the business of greening her up completely. A green base comes after the primer, followed by three more layers which are airbrushed on. This is done to get as close possible to a natural tone. White says: "We didn't want to put people off with the color, and we wanted it to have vibrancy and life, which meant lots of different layers of highlight and shadow and a reflective base to give her skin tone depth and substance."

It all means a grueling five hours in the makeup chair every day, getting covered from head to toe in layers of green makeup. Just think—if you have the patience, plus the help of several skilled makeup technicians, you can pull this look off yourself!

Plenty of commercial makeup is used

You might expect Hollywood makeup artists to use some kind of super-secret trade brands when they need to turn someone totally green, but surprisingly, virtually all of the brands used to turn Saldana into Gamora are mainstream, commercially available products. White and his team seem to be particularly fond of M.A.C., a popular brand that's used for both the initial layer of primer and for the green base that's applied before the airbrushing begins.

Products from Skin Illustrator and Aqua are used for the airbrush job, and her eyeshadow—which we're betting you didn't notice before now—is a careful blend of several M.A.C. products. Her nail polish is from Sinful Colours, and even her green lipstick is from high-end brand Kryolan.

Not easy being green

Of course, it took a great deal of time and consideration to arrive at the right shade of green for a character that would necessarily be spending a lot of time in front of a green screen. White and his team needed tons of tests to nail down the right tone, and then were tasked with using their array of products to faithfully recreate that exact tone day after day for the duration of the shoot—one he describes as "multilayered" with at least three complimentary tones running through it, in addition to Saldana's natural skin tone.

If it all seems like a lot of trouble, well, it is—but if the Guardians franchise wants us to believe that a raccoon can talk (and curse), then it's certainly not about to cut corners to convince us that a stunning alien assassin can be green. After Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 arrived in theaters,  Saldana didn't get much of a break from the long days in the makeup chair: she suited up again along with her fellow Guardians for Avengers: Infinity War, as well as its sequel.