Avatar: The Last Airbender – everyone wants to touch Appa

The cast of the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender series talk about living up to fans' expectations with the new Netflix remake.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (commonly referred to as ATLA) is one of the most popular, and critically acclaimed, animated series of all time. Adored by kids and adults alike, it’s a classic story of heroes triumphing over evil – and the main characters are able to manipulate the elements, which looks cool as hell.

With one botched attempt at a live-action adaptation behind us, I sat down with the cast of Netflix’s brand new Avatar: The Last Airbender series to talk bending, bisons, and living up to fans’ expectations.

First off the rank:

Uncle Iroh and Fire Lord Ozai (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Daniel Dae Kim)

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Daniel Dae Kim said their characters – the wise Uncle Iroh and the ruthless Fire Lord Ozai, respectively – are nothing like themselves. ‘That’s what makes playing them interesting,’ said Lee.

‘I’m not wise at all,’ he added, ‘but somehow I wind up playing wise characters on TV a lot.’ Lee is perhaps best known for playing the lovable Appa, a Korean immigrant, father and convenience store owner in Kim’s Convenience.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Daniel Dae Kim. Image: Netflix/screenshot by ScreenHub.

Lee also said he was a big fan of the original animated series, and that when watching it he ‘always gravitated towards Uncle Iroh’.

Read: Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action trailer released

‘I took it upon myself to do justice to the character,’ Lee said. ‘And I will admit I was a little bit nervous, because those are really big shoes to fill. There’s the weight of expectations from fans all around the world, so it’s a really daunting task – though one I believed I was up to.’

‘All you can control are the things you can control. I knew I had the ability and the craft to do it, so I didn’t want the fear of failure’ – i.e., disappointing fans – ‘to hold me back,’ he said.

Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh, Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2024

Daniel Dae Kim, last seen in TV series New Amsterdam (but you probably know him from Lost) said that he didn’t go to any dark places to play Ozai, the prime villain of the Last Airbender series: ‘I think about him more as a father, and as a brother,’ he said, referencing Ozai’s relationships with his children, Zuko and Azula, and his brother Iroh.

‘One of the things I had to do was imagine what it would have been like for Ozai as a kid,’ Kim said. ‘What seeds were sown in him that made him feel so inadequate that he needed to throw the world out of balance by dominating it?’

‘It’s the same question I ask of a lot of our leaders and our politicians,’ he continued. ‘What made them so narcissistic that they have to win at all costs, whether it’s at the expense of ethics, relationships, or any kind of harmony?’

‘It’s a desire that seems unnatural to me, and yet, there it is!’ he said. ‘There are examples of Ozai all around us.’

Admiral Zhao and Azula (Ken Leung and Lizzy Yu)

Avatar: The Last Airbender. Elizabeth Yu as Azula in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

Lizzy Yu agreed enthusiastically when I suggested to her that Azula, daughter of Ozai and younger sister of Zuko, is like ‘the Regina George (from Mean Girls) of the Avatar: The Last Airbender world’. She is a domineering teenager who gets around with a posse of two other girls, after all.

‘Sometimes being a teenager in high school and ruling the whole nation feels the same,’ Yu joked.

‘I actually looked to characters like Lady Macbeth,’ she revealed, perhaps referring to the Shakespeare character’s ambitious and manipulative qualities.

‘There is such a contrast between Zuko and Azula, having been brought up the same way but using different tactics to get what they want,’ she said. ‘I also thought a lot about their gender roles and how that sort of thing affects people in power.’

Ken Leung, who plays Admiral Zhao, admitted he didn’t know much about the original series when he was first cast. ‘It was suggested to me early on that I watch the film The Last Castle, because the James Gandolfini character had similar qualities to Zhao.’

‘The Zhao that exists in his mind is different from reality,’ Leung said. ‘He has this heightened idea of who he is.’

Read: Australian animation studio will work on new Avatar: The Last Airbender movie

Ken Leung and Lizzy Yu. Image: Netflix/Screenshot by ScreenHub

When asked what they were most looking forward to seeing ‘come to life’ in the live action, both Yu and Leung agreed that Appa, the gigantic, fluffy flying bison, would steal the show.

‘He’s just gonna be adorable,’ said Yu. ‘All I wanna do is touch his fur, feel how fluffy it is, and to cuddle him.’

Aang, Katara, Sokka and Prince Zuko (Gordon Cormier, Kiawentiio, Ian Ousley and Dallas Liu)

L-R: Ian Ousley, Gordon Cormier, Dallas Liu, Kiawentiio. Image: Netflix/screenshot by ScreenHub

Gordon Cormier (Aang), Kiawentiio (Katara), Ian Ousley (Sokka) and Dallas Liu (Zuko), heartily agreed that Appa’s appearance in the series was highly anticipated – but when it came to the person, place or thing that they each wanted to see, they gave some interesting answers.

‘I was super excited to see the Northern Water Tribe come together,’ said Kiawentiio, referring to the icy oasis where season one’s final showdown takes place.

Katara learns to master her waterbending by overcoming her fears – but Kiawentiio said the only thing holding her back on the ATLA set was nerves. ‘This was the biggest set I’d been on so far, and I was only fourteen when we started!’ she said. ‘Walking into that is definitely intimidating, but honestly these guys did such a good job of making me feel welcome.’

‘I just really wanted to see Zuko’s cute little boat,’ Liu said, making the others giggle. ‘Everyone else has a giant ship that just towers over him.’

Liu revealed that he ‘tapped into [his] younger self’ to play Zuko, ‘because I was very angsty – my mom can confirm that’.

‘I can also confirm that,’ added Ousley jokingly.

Avatar: The Last Airbender. (L to R) Kiawentiio as Katara, Gordon Cormier as Aang, Ian Ousley as Sokka in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix © 2023

‘I wanna see Wan Shi Tong,’ said Cormier, proving his status as a dedicated ATLA fan by talking about the owl spirit that guards an ancient library in the cartoon’s second series. He’s got this in the bag, folks.

Despite his enthusiasm, Cormier still felt the fans’ expectations when stepping up to play the lead role of Aang (the titular last airbender). ‘We have a very awesome, passionate fanbase and we’re really grateful for it,’ he said. ‘It’s quite motivating.’

‘I don’t think we’ve been too stressed, because we’re just hoping the fans are gonna love what we’ve done with the show. It’s gonna be awesome.’

Avatar: The Last Airbender comes to Netflix on 22 February 2024.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports