Daniel Dae Kim Teases Fire Lord Ozai’s ‘Appetite for Domination’ in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

“He tries to teach his son a life lesson and, unfortunately, it leaves an emotional scar as well as a physical one,” the actor tells TheWrap

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)

Daniel Dae Kim brought the ultimate villain — tyrant Fire Lord Ozai — out of animation and into 3D in Netflix’s live-action “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” especially in interactions with Ozai’s children Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) and Azula (Elizabeth Yu), who reflect him in different ways.

Kim’s Fire Lord doesn’t make an appearance until the very end of the third episode in the Netflix series, similar to the “big bad” in a video game, as the actor puts it, but he still appears much sooner in the live-action series than in the animated one, voiced by “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill. Until then, his son Zuko, the main active antagonist to Gordon Cormier’s Avatar Aang, signals the approach of a different tier of evil. Additionally, Zuko’s younger sister Azula provides another extension of the ruthless Fire Nation ruler.

“There was something really nice that Mark Hamill did, and I give him a lot of credit because he is one of the best voice actors I’ve ever heard. He’s so versatile,” Kim told TheWrap. “What I wanted to take from his performance was the directness that Ozai has. He is who he is without apology, and there’s a bit of joy in that and his performance. I thought that was something important for Ozai’s character.”

Ozai descends from Fire Lord Sozin (Hiro Kanagawa) whose thirst for power kicked off the destruction of the world by the Fire Nation to assert itself over the other three types of element benders — water, air and earth. The cruel precedent set by Sozin becomes apparent in a planned genocide of air nomads to smother the next Avatar (whose life cycle dictated that they would next be an Airbender) before they could even challenge the Fire Nation to a fair fight. Once it was realized that this attempt didn’t work, Ozai sent his firstborn, Prince Zuko, on a quest to find the Avatar, capture him and bring him before the Fire Lord.

“[Ozai] is someone who, in his mind, is parenting the best way he knows how. He is just not equipped with the proper tools to do it, and that’s combined with this unrestrained ambition,” Kim said. “How he views his children about that ambition is part of what causes his values to be determined to be what they are. I also think that he’s had his own trauma that has gone unexplored in the series. I often wonder how he was parented, what was his relationship with his own father? Because very often, we repeat the mistakes of our own parents, or we make completely opposite ones. That made me think a lot about his own childhood.”

The decision to assign Zuko such a daunting task sprouted from a disagreement between the prince and his father at a war council, which viewers don’t see in full until the sixth episode, titled “Masks.” Zuko questions why his father would send a group of Fire Nation soldiers to die, which his father interprets as a sign of weakness. He punishes his son for questioning his strategy by challenging him to agni kai, a traditional fire-bending duel won only when one opponent burns the other, between father and son.

Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim) challenges Prince Zuko to an Agni Kai duel (Netflix)
Daniel Dae Kim plays Fire Lord Ozai in Netflix’s live-action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Netflix)

“[Ozai] does open [the duel] and lets Zuko know that this is a real fight. Zuko is reluctant to take on his father, and what it is in Ozai’s mind, I think, is a test.” Kim said. “‘Can he really stand up to direct confrontation, direct conflict?’ And when he shows compassion and he hesitates, he fails the test. So again, this is the way that he tries to teach his son a life lesson and, unfortunately, it leaves an emotional scar as well as a physical one.”

When Zuko shows compassion and hesitates to inflict damage on his father, Ozai singes the skin of his left eye as a cruel lesson. As if that were not enough, he banishes Zuko from the Fire Nation until he finds the Avatar, which Ozai thinks might not be possible.

“He has such an appetite for domination that if his child cannot conform to what he needs, he can’t utilize him in the way that he needs, and in a strange way, I think he’s trying to guide his son. He’s trying to show love,” Kim said. “I think that’s explained in the scene directly [following their duel] where he walks into his room and tells him, ‘These are the values that I believe in, and this is what it takes to succeed. If you can’t get on board with those values. we’ve got to find another way for you to learn them.’ That’s really what he’s saying to him. And so this is his way of showing him love and trying to prepare him for his future in the only way he knows how.”

Princess Azula gets similar treatment, both in terms of Ozai’s parenting and with a limited appearance and backstory in the first season of the Netflix series. However, she ultimately proves to her father that she is ready to execute the plan he has for her, unlike Zuko. In the animated series, she provided a tier in between Zuko and the Fire Lord as an opponent for Aang and his friends.

“[Ozai] spent so much time trying to groom Zuko that when Azula shows herself to have some of the traits that he’s looking for, it’s a pleasant surprise,” Kim said. “Somehow there’s hope for his lineage, his legacy. Azula’s a very important character.”

The live-action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is now streaming on Netflix, as is the animated series.


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