How ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Star Dallas Liu Took Prince Zuko From Cartoon to Live-Action

“Because of my martial arts background, the stunt team let me incorporate my own personal style and collaborate with them on the choreography,” Liu tells TheWrap

Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) in Netflix's live-action "Avatar: The Last Airbender"
Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko in "Avatar: The Last Airbender' (Netflix)

Whether it’s the original cartoon or the new live-action adaptation, Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) stands out in the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” in part due to the large scar that covers his left eye.

The son of Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) makes his first appearance about midway through the Netflix remake on a daunting Fire Nation ship sailing through the South Pole in search of the Avatar, a young airbender named Aang (Gordon Cormier). Zuko was assigned this grueling task as a punishment for challenging his dad, which resulted in a duel between father and son that left Zuko with his notorious burn mark across his left eye.

“He has recovered physically, sure, but inside it still affects him. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to that because we’ve all experienced a level of trauma that will be hard to measure up against to others, but the way that everyone has grown up in their own lives through their own experiences will affect them differently,” Liu told TheWrap the morning after the premiere.

The “Pen15” actor continued, “Zuko was a prince of the Fire Nation, and then his dad did what he did, and you could tell how much that has really scarred him. [The eye scar] is a representation of it, obviously some sort of symbolism, but the damage that was really done was in his heart. Zuko hasn’t healed from it. Hopefully, the third season, if we get one, he will.”

The 22-year-old actor, who trained in mixed martial arts starting with Japanese Shotokan before eventually competing in the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA) circuit, took TheWrap behind his approach to portraying an already iconic character through specific scenes.

Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) and Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) in "Avatar: The Last Airbender" on Netflix
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Uncle Iroh and Dallas Liu as Zuko in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Netflix)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

There’s so much anticipation to see all of the characters, and Zuko gets a buildup in that first episode before we see him. Can you take me behind filming his debut scene on the Fire Nation ship?

Liu: That was the first day of shooting and funny enough, that day, one of my contacts had popped out in my left eye that has the burn scar so I couldn’t see out of that eye. But it kind of worked because I was staring out of the corner of my right eye to look at all the statues, the little avatar figures like lighting up. It was a big moment.

Was there anything from the animated series that you tried to bring to your version of Zuko in the live-action show?

This portrayal of a boy who thinks he’s a man. Sometimes in the animated series, he is very serious; Zuko has experienced a lot. But at times, it’s hard to take him seriously because he’s this kid trying to order people around. And while you do see that he actually does feel that way, there is the sense of, I don’t really know if he’s being serious or not because everything that he’s saying, that’s coming out of his mouth, doesn’t look like it fits him. I wanted to make sure that I represented that, at the end of the day, Zuko is still quite immature. Despite all that he’s been through and his time spent with Uncle Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee), his narrow-mindedness can come off as childlike.

How did you approach the tension between Zuko’s desire to please his father and his conviction to show compassion in moments?

At the end of the day as a real human being, I think it’s pretty rare to find someone with only evil in their heart. Whether it’s something that they’re masking or something that is just very deep buried inside their heart, as human beings, we have that sense of love and compassion. I had to be very specific in the moments that I chose, with Zuko, to show that compassion. That came down to the things that he really wanted and cared about. 

For example, Uncle Iroh. Even though [Zuko’s] masking [himself with] this tough guy façade, Uncle Iroh knows Zuko’s past and his history. So he goes along with it, but when Uncle Iroh’s in trouble, obviously Zuko goes to save the day. But when it came to scenes with Gordon, episode six, for example, the whole compassion line, [Aang] talking about his childhood is what gives Zuko the slightest little smile in his mouth. I wanted to make Zuko a real human being trauma-wise and emotionally, because there are things when you think about your childhood that will bring a sort of happiness inside of you.

I have to ask about the Agni Kai Duel. What was your process going into filming that scene and how did it unfold on the day? What was the choreography like?

Because of my martial arts background, the stunt team let me incorporate my own personal style and collaborate with them on the choreography. I thought it would be really cool if me and Daniel got to add these strong character moments in our show, so some of the blocks and the evasions, catching them by surprise with that stuff. 

Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) in the live-action series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" on Netflix
Daniel Dae Kim plays Fire Lord Ozai in Netflix’s live-action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Netflix)

Honestly, Daniel and I didn’t really need to rehearse it a ton. Being a very experienced actor, he was on top of everything with the blocks and the punches. I was just able to feed off of him. He sent me videos, and [we went] back and forth about how it would go on the day of shooting. We shot [that duel scene] in one entire day, from the dialogue to the fight scene. So that flashback with everyone in it, Paul [Sun-Hyung Lee], Lizzy [Yu], we dedicated that entire thing to one day, which was like, my favorite thing. 

It was crazy because even though me and Daniel are fake fighting, his arms are so strong and huge, it was actually killing me during this. Originally, when I had entered the series, I was like, ‘Yeah, I wanna get ripped. I wanna get jacked.’ But I was like, ‘Wait, I have to do these flashbacks of me being like a 14-year-old.’ 14-year-olds might be strong and fit, but not Zuko. So I played into that. I had crazy bruises on my arm, [Kim] was insane to work with.

What can be said about Zuko’s relationship with Uncle Iroh?

Iroh has helped keep [Zuko] in check through his words of wisdom. When we get to learn about Zuko and Uncle Iroh’s story throughout episodes three and four, oh my gosh, those are real tear-jerkers. Episodes five and six are for a lot of characters. The glimpses of Zuko and Iroh’s support for each other are where the real compassion is.

All episodes of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” are now streaming on Netflix.

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