‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Star Dallas Liu on Trial by Fire, Making a Beloved Character His Own

Liem Soeng

‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Star Dallas Liu on Trial by Fire, Making a Beloved Character His Own
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Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for Netflix‘s “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” including the finale.

At the start of my Zoom interview with “Avatar: The Last Airbender” star Dallas Liu, I can’t help showing off a mug that pictures his character Zuko, voiced by Dante Basco in the original animated series. I expect a polite laugh or other acknowledgement of his cartoon namesake, but Liu surprises me:

“Lee from the tea shop!” he says without missing a beat.

Like “Avatar” showrunner Albert Kim, Liu knows Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Nickelodeon series inside and out. “Lee from the tea shop” is a Season 2 reference — even this superfan had to think for a beat before remembering Zuko’s go-to fugitive alias — and just one example of how much care has gone into bringing the beloved series to life.

“I really wanted to make sure that I wasn’t doing an impersonation of this character and that I was making him a relatable,” Liu said. “I would love for them to hate him, but deep down I would want them to be rooting for him.”

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Zuko is the de facto antagonist at the start of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a Fire Nation prince banished and determined to regain his father’s favor by capturing the Avatar, the master of all four elements. Liu got to speak with Basco several times before the series debuted (and recreate an iconic line at the premiere), who he said was fully supportive of a new take on the character.

“He said ‘I’m handing you the torch,’” Liu recalled. “I was like, ‘Dude, you’re gonna make me cry!’ Because I love Zuko and like the fans and Dante and everyone who loves the character, I just want the best for his arc as a whole.”

But even when he’s playing for the bad guys, Zuko can be sympathetic — especially next to characters like Commander Zhao (Ken Leung), Firelord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) and Princess Azula (Elizabeth Yu).

“He’s a good guy trying to be a bad guy,” Liu said, a refrain that helped him guide the character. “He’s someone that thinks he’s always doing the right thing, but is so completely unaware that he’s not doing that.”

“Avatar” fans (and the original writers) also know that Zuko can be a tad dramatic, whether he’s ordering around the crew on his ship or rolling his eyes at Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee). In live action, Liu was tasked with bringing that energy to the character while keeping him believable; a misguided, emotional teen as well as a skilled fighter on a treacherous mission.

“The script they had put together had really allowed for me to not make Zuko different, but make him a real person,” Liu emphasized. “Zuko is serious, but in his heart, he’s still a 16/17 year old kid…. this guy is fighting for his life, but he is a teenager who is also unaware of the trauma that he experienced. They let me play him as someone that truly has experienced trauma and banishment versus going over-the-top with his classic anger and hotheadedness.”

It helped that Liu was surrounded by seasoned actors. He recalled Leung’s intensity in particular, an actor “that’s always busy in every scene, whether it’s his eyes moving or you see something that’s going on in his mind or tapping something,” which gave Zuko extra stimuli to respond to in their scenes. Liu shares the most screen time with Lee, who he says welcomed him with open arms.

“He was a real life Uncle Iroh to me off-set,” Liu said. “I really did rely on him when I was stressed or I was nervous about specific scenes or our show as a whole. “Knowing that I would have to match up with his level was a little scary at the start, but once we both got in costume and we did our first scene, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be rolling through these days, man. This is not even going to feel like work.’”

One of the most striking scenes of the series happens to be between the two of them, one that wasn’t in the original anime; a poignant flashback scene at Iroh’s son’s funeral. The actors had spent enough time together to tap into their existing comfort and chemistry (it was Liu’s first day with Kim, who appears briefly at the start of the scene). At first, Zuko tells Iroh that his son’s death is an honor for the family, that he died serving the Fire Nation, but after taking a few steps away, he doubles back and relates a sincere memory of his cousin.

“When Zuko initially walks up to Iroh, he is trying to be like his dad,” Liu said. “We spend a lot more time with Zuko as this innocent 14-year-old in our show than we do in the animated series in Season 1, so that just gave me full creativity to be this real-life young kid who’s trying to console his uncle. I was like, ‘Ah, this is breaking my heart!’ With Paul, in that scene specifically, we were just in the moment more than anything.”

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. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
Dallas Liu and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in “Avatar: The Last Airbender”COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Liu got to bring more of himself to the character in other ways, including his martial arts training. Though he still attended a pre-shoot boot camp with costars Gordon Cormier, Kiawentiio, and Ian Ousley, his comfort with the movement meant that he could improvise and give choreography input to the stunt team.

“They were really open to it,” he recalled. “I added my own flair, which was Zuko’s own personal style, because if you look at the moves that he does, they’re actually not very similar to what we see in Azula and Ozai’s fight scenes, from their traditional blasts to their more active movements. Because [Zuko] and Uncle Iroh have been traveling around, probably fighting, I think he moves differently than the traditional firebender. I just got to play around with it and really make Zuko a personal character for me.”

That comes to a head in the finale, where Zuko’s frustration and fight style manifest in an altercation with Zhao (“I don’t even need firebending, I’m gonna just let this dude eat my fists!”). That and a powerful comet tee up future seasons, though Netflix has yet to confirm anything. Liu wants to sink his teeth even more into one of television’s all-time character arcs, with everything from Lee in the tea shop to the standalone episode “Zuko Alone.” He’s also hoping for a larger episode order so that the cast and audience can spend more time with characters, maybe even allowing for some more quips between Zuko and Iroh.

“I think our show really captures the true essence of each character without making them one for one line for line,” Liu said. “There’s a full three seasons of the show to watch animated, but for us, Season 2 and Season 3 have never been guaranteed. So this was my one chance to work with what I had.”

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is now streaming on Netflix.

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