They say being a parent changes you, and for actress Zoe Saldaña, being a parent brought a new emotion into her sphere: fear.
The then 21-year-old Saldaña first joined the Avatar franchise as Ney’tiri, the fearless heroine and daughter of the leader of the Omaticaya, and audiences followed her quest to protect her people from alien invaders aka humans. Subsequently, Ney’tiri falls in love with human soldier turned Na’vi proector Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and embarks on a journey that includes embracing those who are different from her.
When we finally meet Ney’tiri after 13 years, she is a mother who protects her children far more fiercely than she did her people in the first movie, and in many ways, Saldaña feels she and Ney’tiri are not that different, though it took her a while to notice it.
“It’s terrifying and so funny because when something is very similar to you, you can’t see it. Ney’tiri and I, in a way, we’ve lived parallel lives. There’s a level of fearlessness and rebellion that I have as a person, that Ney’tiri had as herself and we were able to sort of find kindred in that,” said Saldaña at a press conference that Geek Culture attended.
“The leap of falling in love with something outside of you that challenges you to see something that you’ve never seen before, that has always been her dilemma. That presents a challenge for her because it’s forcing her to grow, it’s forcing her to love something that she has been taught to hate and it’s really, really hard.”
“Also fear in my personal life. When I became a parent, fear entered my realm. The fear of losing something that you love so much and you just spend a great deal of your time creating these hypothetical scenarios that are just unimaginable. When I read the second script, that was her! That was Ney’tiri, but I didn’t see it then. I see it now. My job wasn’t to see it. My job was to be it.”
Director James Cameron couldn’t agree more.
“You’re on to it! You may be fearless when you don’t have kids. You learn fear when you have kids, when you have something greater than yourself that you could lose. And that’s what both of your characters are dealing with,” chimed in the award-winning director.
“Sam plays a character that would leap off a Leonopteryx, go flying through the air with no parachute to land on the biggest, meanest predator on the planet to solve his problem. Would he do that as a father of four? I’m thinking probably not.”
Although Avatar: The Way of Water sees similar themes of imperialism and humans vs mother nature, a big part of the film is anchored in family. In the sequel, Jake and Ney’tiri have formed a family and are doing everything to stay together. However, they must leave their home and explore the regions of Pandora when an old threat resurfaces.
When writing Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron took inspiration from his own personal life as a parent. From giving Jake and Ney’tiri children of their own, to that of 14-year-old Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), daughter to Dr. Grace Augustine Avatar (played by Weaver in the first film), family is something close to Cameron’s heart – and likely, the heart of viewers too – and it was something he really wanted to explore.
“I think it’s important for a sequel to honour what the audience loved about the experience the first time, but also to get them off balance, do things that they don’t expect. There are a lot of surprises in terms of where the story goes but it also goes a lot deeper in terms of the heart and the emotions,” shared Cameron.
“[Avatar] was a much simpler story and the characters were simpler the first time. And now, I’m a parent of five and so we wanted to get into the family dynamics and the responsibilities of having kids and also what that’s all like from the kids’ perspective.”
For Ney’tiri, the responsibility of having kids is wrangling fear, and learning to let her kids go.
“Fear was such a sensation that was paralyzing to me – it still is sometimes – and now that I’m living in it, I’ve been a mother now for eight years and I’m learning to sort of manage that sensation enough so that I can let go because there’s nothing greater and more heartbreaking than when your child looks at you and goes ‘Mama let me go. I can do this,’” shared a heartfelt Saldaña.
“That’s what the Sullys are telling Jake all the time, and Ney’tiri too. Fearlessness and fear are two very humbling sensations to experience for sure.”
Catch Zoe Saldaña as Ney’tiri in Avatar: The Way of Water when it premieres on 15 December 2022.