Dallas Liu

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Dallas Liu Thrives Under Pressure

Few franchises have captured the imaginations of a generation as wholly as Nickelodeon's iconic Avatar: The Last Airbender, which ran for three seasons during the mid-2000s. Fewer still have demonstrated the series' ability to cross generational divides and maintain a lasting impact on the cultural psyche while continuing to enthrall successive generations as a touchstone of youth-oriented animation. Often regarded as one of the greatest narratives in television history, the show has spawned a massive and dedicated fanbase whose ethical boundaries have been imprinted by the mature yet sensitively portrayed moral quandaries presented therein. The world of Avatar draws upon Asian and Indigenous spiritual practices and traditional martial arts to construct an alternate reality where four nations, each attuned to one of the four elements (water, earth, fire, air), are home to different “bending” abilities—portions of their respective populations are connected to and able to control the element of their nation. The Avatar, capable of bending all four elements and serving as the human manifestation of spiritual light and peace, is tasked with maintaining balance between the nations and the spirit world as well as nurturing prosperity and peace. In its massive scope, the show touches upon a slew of issues including diplomacy, genocide, social responsibility, cultural conflict, ecology, and parental abuse—heavy material for a kids' show.

Given the entertainment industry’s recent streak of adaptations and reboots, it is no wonder that Netflix tuned in to the incredible demand for more Avatar. With the last attempt at live-action adaptation remembered as an unequivocal disappointment—the M. Night Shyamalan-directed 2010 film whiffed on its whitewashed casting and soulless direction—devoted fans followed the casting and production of the new miniseries closely in hopes for a vision truer to form. In the months leading up to the show’s release, conversation picked up immensely. The official trailer racked up over ten million views on YouTube and nearly two hundred thousand shares on Instagram alone, leaving the internet abuzz.

All CLOTHING by ,Steele + Edith,

All CLOTHING by Steele + Edith

Avatar: The Last Airbender notably features an ensemble of characters who span across generations and the live-action casting follows suit (Gordon Cormier, portraying lead protagonist Aang, is only fourteen). Until now, Dallas Liu—who portrays the banished Crown Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation—had been used to being one of the youngest on any project. His first role was in the 2009 martial arts film Tekken, released when he was only eight years old, and until now he was best known as Shuji, the older brother of Maya Erskine's seventh-grader in Pen15. “Most of the time when I'm going on set, I'm the most inexperienced person. I take the role of a student and try to pick everyone's brain and take in as much knowledge and wisdom as possible,” Liu points out. Now twenty-two years old, he found himself asking while filming Avatar, “‘How can I also be a leader [to the younger actors]?’ [I was] trying to mentor them to become professionals and how to handle themselves on set. I feel lucky enough for them to have let me into their hearts and allow me to take this role of an older sibling they can rely on.”

Although older than many of his fellow leads, Liu also had the opportunity to draw upon decades of experience through multiple seasoned actors in the ensemble, particularly scene partners Daniel Dae Kim (Zuko's father Ozai), Ken Leung (antagonist Commander Zhao) and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (Zuko's uncle Iroh). While filming, Liu found the older cast members to not only be sources of wisdom but also grounded peers. “Those guys had set the bar for me in terms of what kind of person I wanted to be on set,” he recalls. “It wasn't like people [had to look] up to them. [They] all created an interesting environment where everyone was equal. That's the way it should always be. I think the way people felt valued by them was something I really wanted. I want to be like that, that's a real leader.”

When the show's cast was announced, many viewers were particularly interested in Liu's selection as fan favorite Zuko, an embattled and exiled warrior prince hunting down the titular Avatar in hopes of reconciling with his cold-hearted, world-conquering father, the authoritarian imperialist monarch Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko's character development drives much of the plot of the story, tracing a redemption arc parallel to his coming-of-age in a high-pressure, war-torn environment. Liu's portrayal is pivotal in bringing the story to the franchise's new format and charting a course from brutal angst to principled compassion. The conjunction of the show's immense hype and Zuko's plot-driving character arc resulted in a unique strain of pressure for Liu, himself an avid follower of the original series, in assuming the role.

All vintage CLOTHING

All vintage CLOTHING

“The first thing that I ever remember seeing of The Last Airbender was Zuko training on his boat with Iroh. I fell in love with the show,” Liu recalls. “It was one of the reasons I ended up taking part in martial arts,” which he practiced competitively throughout his childhood and led to his acting career after he was referred to audition for Tekken by one of his instructors.

As he considered the scope of responsibility in portraying Zuko and how to apply his own idiosyncrasies to the character, Liu turned to Dante Basco, the original voice actor. Basco, aware Liu had been inspired by the initial show in his youth, encouraged his younger counterpart to embrace the differences between live-action and cartoon animation. “Dante had certainly set a high bar. Instead of trying to match him, try to surpass it, [we] talked about it,” Liu recalls. “He said, ‘What you're going to do is different. By all means, you have your own experience of Zuko from your childhood as well.’”

SHIRT by ,MM6 Maison Margiela

SHIRT by MM6 Maison Margiela

Liu's precise training and familiarity with action and combat have played a key role in his acting career, as he has joined franchises such as Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Marvel's Cinematic Universe in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Elemental bending is a central component of the world of Avatar, requiring the actors to study several different fighting styles. “They had us learn every single bending style to really differentiate,” Liu says. “We had an understanding so that on the day, they could make a certain shot work and we had to come up with something on our own.” The collaborative nature of the stunt work allowed Liu ample opportunity to impart his expertise to the other cast members. “We were in this boot camp,” he adds. “Helping the kids out, I was having a blast—just hanging out and kicking it because that stuff is like second nature to me.”

That blending of acting and martial arts in Avatar required Liu to reflect on the mortal nature of some of the circumstances in which Zuko finds himself. “You're going to do whatever it takes to come out of that situation,” he notes of some particularly perilous moments that he believes are more impactful in the live version. “I incorporated that into the fight scenes. Even the stunt team was willing to let me have some creative input.” At one point near the end of the season, for example, Commander Zhao tricks Zuko into boarding a boat rigged with explosives, causing Iroh and the rest of their naval forces to believe him dead. In the finale, their conflict comes to a head in a battle to the death; as Zuko is rocked by a revelation from Zhao, the commander goes for the kill. “In the animation, people forget,” Liu adds. “This is a life or death situation!”

If you ask Liu, he and Zuko share a proclivity for absorption in their endeavors. “It's almost two-and-a-half years since we started shooting the show. I've definitely grown more as a person, and when I was growing as a person, that also developed my acting,” the actor notes. “I was like, ‘I'm going to come into work, I'm going to stay focused.’ It wasn't because I didn't like anyone, it was because I was scared of getting distracted. I understood the responsibility and the pressure that came with doing this.”

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming on Netflix.

JACKET by ,Steele + Edith

JACKET by Steele + Edith

GROOMING by Sara Denman at Celestine Agency. .

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