Geek Interview – Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Cast Had A Blast Bringing Beloved Characters & Their Dynamics To Life

Mention a story for the ages, and chances are, there will be mainstay elements that leave their mark behind. Highlight their characters, and fans will also have a lot to say about casting, especially if the story is as iconic and important as Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Geek Interview – Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (2)

But whatever the initial feedback is, the collection of actors for this live-action series want audiences to know that they all had fun bringing the characters to life.

The three-season, 61-episode animated series about a young boy who could control the four elements struck a chord with audiences when it debuted in 2005, and is now considered one of the most influential and beloved animated series around the world. The premise finds intricacy in simplicity and familiarity, weaving a tale about a group of teenagers saving a world besieged by the Fire Nation. In each nation – with the other three being the Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom, and Air Nomads – are gifted individuals called benders, who can manipulate their nation’s corresponding elements.

The titular Avatar is the only one capable of bending and mastering all four elements, so they have to shoulder the responsibility of being everyone’s saviour. Saving the world, however, is never a solo affair, with various allies, friends, and comrades joining in on the quest. In the case of the show, there are four constant companions: waterbender Katara, her brother and non-bender Sokka, earthbender Toph, and later, firebender Zuko. 

It’s only natural that Avatar: The Last Airbender dedicated a lot of time and effort in fleshing out the dynamics between the characters. With Netflix’s live-action adaptation looking to honour the original, the pressure to recreate the same magic is certainly felt and the relatively young cast makes it appear effortless, epecially with the easy camaraderie bleeding into both reel life and real life. 

“I gotta say this guy right here is a one-for-one remake,” says Dallas Liu, who plays Zuko in the show, immediately of Ian Ousley (Sokka) in an interview with regional media. Taking the chance to rib his co-star further, he adds, “You know Sokka, he gets all the girls. He’s the most handsome one, one would call him the rizz-ler (Internet slang for someone with a lot of charisma).” 

“Also cracking jokes, like your personality? Dude, you are him,” Kiawentiio, portraying a live-action Katara, cuts in. Ousley agrees, playing along with the teasing. “I like to be sarcastic, that’s for sure,” he nods, only to have Gordon Cormier (Aang) mutter, “Oh, that’s for sure,” drawing hearty laughter from everyone in attendance.

This energetic and lively exchange is representative of the Gaang, a portmanteau of ‘Aang’, the Avatar, and ‘gang’, whose striking, different personalities play perfectly into the found family trope. Here, familial ties continue to be a core part of the Avatar world, with Liu highlighting the nuances of its thematic nature.

“I certainly hope families don’t pull anything from the relationship Ozai has with his kids,” he quips to knowing chuckles from the cast. “However, I do think they should pull from the relationship between Zuko and Iroh, who are ride-or-die for each other, quite literally. I think another part of our series is the family between Aang, Katara, and Sokka. You know, blood isn’t what determines a family, right? It’s the bond between you guys and what you guys have experienced in life together or struggled.”

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko shares a rocky, destructive relationship with both his father Fire Lord Ozai, and his younger sister Azula (played by Elizabeth Yu in the live-action). Iroh is the banished prince’s uncle, acting as a mentor figure and surrogate father to him. 

Geek Interview – Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (4)

In stark contrast, Katara and Sokka are about as close as typical siblings can get – argumentative, protective, caring, and all. Aang starts out as a tagalong, but eventually becomes inseparable from the pair, despite not being family in the traditional sense of the word. Like the animated show, his growth as a member of the team will be charted over the course of the eight-episode season, featuring some small tweaks from his original characterisation.

“The one minor thing we changed is that we got to delve deeper into Aang’s feelings, because in the cartoon, you couldn’t really see what he was going through,” shares Cormier, who watched the cartoon a whooping 26 times to get into his role. “But here, we got to dig deep into what Aang’s going through, but also keeping the fun-spirited, awesome character that he is.” 

To prepare for filming, the quartet went through a six-week boot camp, where they trained in martial arts and the movements for each bending craft. It’s familiar territory for Liu and Ousley, who are both skilled martial artists on a competitive level, with Kiawentiio welcoming the experience and sharing the highlights of being part of the action.  

Geek Interview – Avatar: The Last Airbender Cast (2)

“Some of my favourite fight scenes are with Dallas. Dallas is just an incredible martial artist with that stuff, and he got to do a lot of his own stunts. I didn’t really get to see those a lot on the day, so being able to just watch it for the first time with everyone else, with special effects done, all the cuts and everything – it took my breath away,” the 17-year-old enthuses. 

Funnily enough, Ousley had to play down his martial arts proficiency to appear convincing as Sokka. 

“I think that it’s fun to breathe in the real-life portrayal of Sokka. Obviously, he goes through so much stuff that I’ve never gone through before, and he has many differences from me as well, says the 13 Reasons Why star. 

“But it was cool to be able to have a base, because whenever you’re an actor and you’re portraying a character, you’re gonna be living in all of these imaginary circumstances, no matter what. And you will shine through because you’re living through them.”

Geek Interview – Avatar: The Last Airbender Cast

And shine is what the Netflix production teases with its blend of new and old story beats, as well as diverse cultural influences. As the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender continues to teem with life, it’s important to celebrate the beating heart that is its characters. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender premieres 22 February on Netflix.