Prey Star Amber Midthunder Talks Avatar: The Last Airbender and Creating Space for Herself

“There's nothing that you can do to make yourself immune from your humanness and that is totally okay,” Midthunder says.

Amber Midthunder likens herself to a turtle — a creature with her home on her back, carrying her own comfort in a space just big enough for her to crawl inside at a moment’s notice. “I am a huge homebody,” she tells Teen Vogue with a grin. “I love to be home, I love being in one place.”

The 25-year-old finds it ironic that she ended up choosing a career that requires so much travel and temporary displacement, whether it’s for premieres and press tours or spending months on set in a brand new city. Ahead of her six-month stay in Canada to star in Hulu’s hit 2022 summer release, Prey, she was apprehensive about being away from home, and away from family, for so long. And since they’d be shooting during the COVID-19 pandemic, no one would be permitted to visit. Midthunder turned to her Roswell costar Jeanine Mason for advice (which Mason originally got from Christine Baranski, the mom of Roswell costar Lily Cowles): make whatever new space you’re in feel like home as soon as you get there.  

So Midthunder brought a few things — candles, a blanket, her skincare — all items that activate her senses and remind her of the family, friends, and places she holds close. The routine nature of her skincare regimen feels grounding, she says, but it’s the mixture of aromas, especially, that makes her feel at home. She feels similarly about her candles; pleasant, familiar fragrances make her feel rooted in something real, no matter where she is.

“I think that as a woman, as a young person, as somebody of color, learning that stuff and holding onto those things has been really important for me,” says Midthunder. “Just for self-preservation, I think that finding what makes you feel grounded and what makes you feel rooted, whether that's routine or it's a person or it's a book or whatever that is. Making sure that you have that thing that makes you feel like you, whether it's being inside your home and making sure some things don't enter your space. Or if you have to leave your home and you bring them with you.” 

Amber Midthunder wears an Alexandre Vauthier top and pants, Kalda boots, and Mounser earrings.Jingyu Lin

Midthunder is bubbly and relaxed through the computer screen, tucking her long, black hair behind her ears from time to time. If any Zoom fatigue has hit the young actor, it doesn’t show. She’s still soaking up the post-Prey glow right now, but she tells Teen Vogue that before she’d even officially landed the starring role as Naru, she was in tears at the possibility. Finding out that Prey would be part of the Predator franchise’s more than 30-year-long legacy was overwhelming.

“They were not excited tears, they were scared, anxiety tears,” she says. “I had no idea why. I just started crying and I was like, I don't think I want this because it felt so big that I was like, I don't want to do it. I just want to stay home and let somebody else do it. Please let someone else do this movie.”

At first glance, this version of Midthunder feels unexpectedly at odds with what the public has seen of the 25-year-old’s post-Prey Hollywood footprint. Onscreen, Midthunder is as independent and gutsy as she is youthfully stubborn as the film’s shining protagonist Naru. After watching a battle-tested Naru cross the open field back toward her Comanche village sporting the fluorescent-green blood of her foe, clutching his beheaded skull in one hand, it’s hard to picture Midthunder afraid. 

“It's funny because I really most often am scared of everything,” she says. “It's terrifying to go out into the world and do things. I think what I've learned is that every single time I've done something that has scared me, I've walked out with a huge set of skills for myself that I did not know that I could have. I've walked away with qualities that I didn't think were possible for me.”

Her boyfriend told her that schools on the Native reservation where he lives have started showing Prey to kids in class. In another instance while attending the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico, an Indigenous woman approached her about the movie. She told Midthunder that she had watched Prey with her sister and their daughters and that it meant a lot to them. The woman started tearing up, thanking her. The two of them held hands in the market, crying together. 

Midthunder, who is a member of the Fort Peck Sioux tribe, with a heritage that includes Sahiya Nakoda, Hunkpapa Lakota, and Sisseton Dakota, says that the film’s successful indigenous representation is the thing she’s most proud of about the movie. Under the guidance of director Dan Trachtenberg and producer Jhane Myers, who is Comanche and Blackfeet, Prey set out to offer a standard-setting level of historical accuracy and North American Indigenous authenticity onscreen for the movie’s Comanche characters. When an early version was screened in Indian Country and for Indigenous viewers and was received warmly, Midthunder tells Teen Vogue the moment was “so emotional” and her “first sigh of relief.”

Amber Midthunder wears Marques Almeida top and pants, a Jenny Bird necklace, and Sophie Buhai earrings.Jingyu Lin

“Having people feel that kind of depth or that kind of meaning inside of a movie like this has been just the most meaningful and rewarding part,” she says. Her parents — both of whom have careers in the industry — taught her early that building a career in Hollywood meant that she’d often be the only, if not the first Indigenous person in the rooms she’d be walking into. “I think that it also shows how much value we have as a people, how much value we have as storytellers inside of this medium, that this is only the beginning of what we're capable of.”

That the movie’s hero is Native, a Native girl, and a Native girl without a love interest, are all notable victories, too. Midthunder’s Naru doesn’t have a love interest in Prey. Instead, the character enjoys plenty of solo screen time in the wilderness, occupying the kind of visual breathing room more commonly given to male actors. Rather than a cinematic kiss after some will-they-won’t-they tension threads through the movie, Naru's reward is the knowledge that she can, in fact, protect herself and her community and she brings home the decapitated head to prove it.

“Especially as an Indigenous woman,” says Midthunder, “there's so much sexualizing and there's so much turning into an item or turning into a figure or turning into a [caricature].” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a female star having a male love interest, she adds, but the point is, a love interest doesn’t need to be present every single time.

Amber Midthunder wears Marques Almeida top and pants, Moschino heels, a Jenny Bird necklace, and Sophie Buhai earrings.Jingyu Lin

Midthunder is well aware of the ways Hollywood has routinely failed and dehumanized Native communities, turning Native women into flattened, exoticized ideals. Still, the young actor tells Teen Vogue that she knew when she was a teenager that she wanted to “devote her life” to acting. Her first role was at four years old in a movie her father starred in. And growing up, she spent plenty of time on sets and around filmmaking alongside her parents. She became the first person in her home state of New Mexico to be granted a Legal 18 Work Status, allowing her to work professionally as an adult and gain experience. She was homeschooled for the last three years of high school and, at 17, moved to Los Angeles to focus on her career.

Now, being able to offer her own powerful cultural corrective through Prey is a source of pride for her and her parents. They’re charmingly close, talk frequently, and are a huge part of her support system, Midthunder says. She asks her parents for advice often, both on work-related and non-work-related things. Her father, David Midthunder, is an actor who has been in the industry for decades, landing roles on television shows like Comanche MoonLongmire, and Westworld, and the movie Hidalgo. Her mother, Angelique Midthunder, is the engine behind Midthunder Casting, LLC, and the Emmy-nominated casting director behind the hit television series, Reservation Dogs. 

And yet, Midthunder says she grapples with the tension that lives within an actor of color who is both vocally proud of and grateful for the opportunity to represent Native communities on screen, and who also hungers for the kinds of roles and creative expressions that prioritize artistic freedom. Every role doesn’t need to lead with social or political commentary and, Midthunder says, representation — especially for Native people in Hollywood — is so scarce that seeing actors with marginalized identities in the roles that don’t become narrowly identity-focused is its own commentary too.

Amber Midthunder wears an Alexandre Vauthier top and pants, Kalda boots, and Mounser earrings.Jingyu Lin

"We are all just people with a bunch of characteristics and, I don't know… I think that to be able to have a variety of different characters and stories and not always have to talk about [identity] or to really emphasize it, I think is really where the real power is,” Midthunder says.”It's when you start seeing these faces and they just are. [I’m] grappling with that idea of, well, every time are you making a social commentary? No, I don't think so. But at the same time, you kind of are just by existing." 

She mentions her latest role as Princess Yue in Netflix’s upcoming live-action adaption of the beloved animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, as another win for representation that also happens to be a fun, lighthearted, adventure. The series is set to feature a variety of Indigenous and Asian actors, but their identities aren’t made into a plot point. Like Comanche representation in Prey, it’s clear and present without being tokenized. In a balancing act that isn’t entirely new, but still feels uniquely dropped into the laps of today’s increasingly more diverse generation of young talent, Midthunder carries her indigeneity with pride while ultimately refusing to be entirely reducible to it. Being only one thing feels unnatural, she says. The pressures to conform into an easily brand-able version of herself are real, but “your relationship with yourself is so much more important,” she says. 

That relationship with herself — and with her home — is an aspect of her life that she’s becoming increasingly more protective of. Midthunder enjoys keeping her private life private and welcomes the casual activities of homemaking. She’s careful and cautious about sacrificing that public-private boundary. When she feels like sharing details, she does, but she refuses to let outside pressures make her feel obligated.

“There's nothing that you can do to make yourself immune from your humanness and that is totally okay,” Midthunder says. “Embracing that has been a huge thing for me and has made everything a lot better. You see things and they come off as very perfect or very elegant or very easy for people. Being around in this industry and in this job, I've seen so many different kinds of people and artists and celebrities and whatever. And the thing is that it's not easy for anybody. So if it's not easy for the readers and the audience of Teen Vogue, whatever, that's okay. That's fine. That's normal. It is not easy for anyone, no matter how easy it looks.”

So, is Amber Midthunder’s Naru independent and gutsy? Sure. But was she fearless? Not at all. She was plainly terrified, wide-eyed, and sprinting through the forest for her life. But she still faced an alien that would eventually be known for utterly decimating many a muscled man. She hunted it, afraid, through terrain she knew. And she won.