Marvel movie star Zoe Saldana has apologised for playing revered singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone in a much-maligned 2016 biopic.

Saldana, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican decent, was criticised at the time for taking the lead role in Nina, which involved darkening her skin and wearing a prosthetic nose to look more like Simone.

Simone's daughter was among those questioning the casting decision, while the late singer's estate refused to endorse the film.

"I should have never played Nina," Saldana said during an interview on Instagram with Pose creator Steven Canals.

The 42-year-old actress, who plays Gamora in Marvel films, added: "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 done everything in my power to cast a black woman to play an exceptionally perfect black woman."

Saldana, also known for appearing in Avatar, said Simone, who died in 2003 at the age of 70, "deserved better".

"I thought back then that I had the permission (to play her) because I was a black woman," Saldana said.

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"And I am. But it was Nina Simone. And Nina had a life and she had a journey that should have been - and should be - honoured to the most specific detail because she was a specifically detailed individual."

Breaking down in tears, Saldana added: "With that said: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I know better today and I'm never going to do that again."

Saldana's regret at the role marks a departure from her previous comments defending her part in the film.

Speaking to Allure in 2016, the mother of three said: "There's no one way to be black. You have no idea who I am. I am black. I'm raising black men. Don't you ever think you can look at me and address me with such disdain."