Why It Was Terrifying For Zoe Saldaña To Return To Neytiri In Avatar: The Way Of Water

This month, audiences are making their return to the world of Pandora with the long-awaited sequel to James Cameron's ambitious, cutting-edge blockbuster, "Avatar: The Way of Water." For all of us at home, it has been a long 13 years since the original took over the world — long enough that some of us can't even seem to remember the first film's significant cultural impact. But, for Zoe Saldaña, who is returning to reprise her role as the Na'vi princess Neytiri in the "Avatar" sequel, shooting for not just the second movie but also the next two consecutive sequels started way back in 2017.

We've only seen one part of Neytiri's journey, but Saldaña has stayed emotionally connected to her Na'vi character for a significant amount of time, keeping her alive through advanced motion-capture technology, which has been even more enhanced to capture the nuances of swimming underwater. Through Neytiri and her role as Gamora in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Saldaña has found herself to be involved in some of the most profitable films of all time, making her a science-fiction icon.

Though you'd assume this kind of thing comes naturally to Saldaña, returning to embody Neytiri in "Avatar: The Way of Water" was actually a "terrifying" experience for the actress. This week, in a press conference for the "Avatar" sequel, Saldaña shared that re-discovering Neytiri's place in the world was a much more complicated process.

'Neytiri and I have lived parallel lives'

When asked what it felt like to reprise Neytiri, Saldaña began her answer by explaining her deep, unexpected connection to the Na'vi princess and her journey that we've seen so far in 2009's "Avatar":

"It's so funny because when something is very similar to you, you can't see it ... Neytiri and I ... have lived parallel lives. There's a level of fearlessness and rebellion that I have as a person that Neytiri had as herself, and we were able to find kindred in that. 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. To surrender to that, and then to bring forward you know, fruits of that love ... that presents the challenge for her. It's forcing her to grow, it's forcing her to love something that she was taught to hate."

In the gap between filming the two "Avatar" films, Saldaña experienced something that brought her even closer to Neytiri: motherhood. In 2014, she had two twin boys, and in 2016, one more son. In "Avatar: The Way of Water," we are reintroduced to Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri, now with a large family of five children of their own. "You may be fearless when you don't have kids. But, you learn fear when you have kids," James Cameron interjected, "when you have something greater than yourself that you can lose."

Motherhood added a new layer to Neytiri

Though Saldaña already felt a kinship with Neytiri, stepping back into her shoes with a new shared experience and something so instinctual as parenthood gave the role a new sense of urgency in the sequel. Neytiri was always a natural fighter, so for her to be in a position where she is letting her walls down and allowing herself to love is a scary amount of vulnerability for her. Saldaña elaborated on the dynamics of how love is often paired with fear:

"In my personal life when I became a parent, fear entered my realm. The fear of losing someone that you love so much. ... You spend a great amount of your time creating hypothetical scenarios that are just unimaginable. When I read ... the second script, that was her. That was Neytiri. But I didn't see it then, I see it now. Because my job wasn't to see it, my job was to be it."

It's somewhat fitting how Saldaña describes playing the character of Neytiri as something instinctual and something she needs to feel in tune with. "Avatar" has a unique brand of sci-fi with unconventional themes for the genre: spirituality, a deep appreciation and connection to nature, and reverence for ancient ways of living. Saldaña's ability to adapt to those is a testament to her flexibility as an actress.

We're excited to see how she evolves Neytiri when "Avatar: The Way of Water" opens in theaters on December 16, 2022.