Dallas Liu Dives Deep into Live-Action Zuko: His Scar, AVATAR Season 2 Direction, Soft Heart, and More

Zuko, Dallas Liu, and Iroh in Avatar the Last Airbender Live-action

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most beloved fictional series ever. And that makes Prince Zuko one of the most beloved characters to emerge from one of the most beloved series ever to air. With such an intense weight of expectation behind it, stepping into the role would be no small thing for any actor. But happily, Dallas Liu absolutely crushes it as Prince Zuko in Netflix’s live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not only does he do justice to everyone’s favorite grumpy royal in exile, but he actually enhances the character—breathing new life and emotion into Zuko and adding nuance and depth to the Prince’s journey (even beyond his already nuanced cartoon turn). It’s a feat that I may have said was impossible before I saw Liu’s peerless performance in the Netflix series.


Nerdist was fortunate to sit down with Liu for an in-depth talk spanning the ins and outs of bringing live-action Zuko to the screen. Liu even shared with us that it was one of the first opportunities he had to speak about the role, making for an extra exciting conversation on both ends. Dallas Liu’s enthusiasm and deep, nerdy love for Zuko and the Avatar world, in general, was beautifully evident. From the audition process to the evolution of Zuko’s scar to Zuko’s soft heart to where Zuko’s head is going into a potential season two, let’s dive into all things Zuko with Dallas Liu.

Jump to: Getting the Role of Zuko // Creating Live-Action Zuko // Zuko’s Live-Action Avatar Scar // Live-Action Avatar Season Two Zuko // The Cartoon Scenes Dallas Liu Wants to Bring to Life // Zuko and Ozai // Zuko and Iroh // Zuko’s Soft Heart // Dallas Liu Brought Zuko Some Comedy // Dallas Liu’s Martial Arts Background

Spoiler Alert

On Getting the Role of Zuko in the Avatar: The Last Airbender Series and His Fellow Gaang-Mates

Nerdist: So Zuko is such a critical character in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe, and I think in fiction, just full stop. Can you tell us more about the audition process, how you ended up getting the role, and then just what it was like to step into his scowl?

Dallas Liu: So my audition process wasn’t very complicated, to be quite honest. I know that some of my other cast members had gone through these very rigorous audition processes, but for me, I had one or two Zoom calls with the casting director and some of the producers, and then eventually, we moved into a stage that they call chemistry reads, which is when I meet with other actors that are all trying out for the same part. And it goes the same for Zuko.

So, I actually got to read with Gordon for one of my chemistry reads, and he and I met a couple of times over Zoom. But it’s so funny because they gave us these dummy scripts, like these fake sides. I think ours was talking about math the entire time. I corrected him on a specific word. He pronounced it, and I didn’t know if that mattered, but I was just like, “Let me help the kid out.” So the word was Descartes, which is super hard to pronounce when you see it.

Avatar the Last Airbender Live-Action Dallas Liu as Zuko and Aang

Yeah, I mean “Dezcartez,” if you’re young!

Liu: Exactly. And so for the rest of our meeting, he just kept on forgetting that line or paragraph and I felt so bad. But, you know, three years later, he’s Aang, right? So I guess it worked out.

Maybe it helped them see him in this sort of childish light, and you kind of being like, “Hello?! Do it right!”—Zuko-style.

Liu: Yeah! From that point on, he was great. And then, I think me and Kiawentiio had gotten our roles around the same time. So we received the scripts and both of our names were on there, instantly stalked each other on IMDb.

Dallas Liu On Creating Live-Action Zuko

Avatar the Last Airbender Live-Action Dallas Liu as Zuko

Liu: My experience filming was obviously a blast. I think our script allowed me to make Zuko a real person versus the more one-note hothead character that we see in the animated series, which I was very thankful for. Like Albert Kim and our producers and writers, obviously, they just didn’t want a simple impersonation. And that’s something that I was very open to because as great as Dante Basco’s voice acting is, and I actually enjoyed Dev Patel’s performance of Zuko, having those performances to pull from or maybe stay away from and then having just full the creativity to play with it was great.

The beauty of revisiting a character that has already kind of had his full journey is that you can infuse earlier moments with understanding what’s to come. So, how did you go about pulling what you know about later Zuko into early Zuko here?

Liu: Well, originally, that wasn’t my plan because, funnily enough, Albert Kim, our showrunner, didn’t want to give us all the scripts at once. The cast members pretty much had gotten each script about two to three weeks before we started shooting those episodes. We shot them in blocks, which is two episodes at a time.

So, each episode was something new for me that I really had to make sure that not only did I feel comfortable with it, but I was also giving all of the OG fans the real full service of Zuko. Because I want to emphasize this, season two and season three aren’t guaranteed for us. And they never are. So as much as we could say, “Oh yeah, Zuko will get his full character arc in the later seasons,” it’s really not true because we don’t know what’s happening.

Avatar the Last Airbender Live-Action Dallas Liu as Zuko in Fire Nation armor

And so in this first season, I did my best, I guess to say, playing the villain. But in those flashbacks that you see without Zuko’s scar, in those subtle moments, those small moments where he and Iroh have a heart-to-heart talk, I tried to give people glimpses, whether it was a small smirk with Aang in the shack after I’ve captured him I guess you could say. Or before I leave off to the Northern Water Tribe and those small moments with Iroh, I tried to hint at it, that he was a good guy. But I feel like Zuko in our first season is so obviously a good guy trying to be a bad guy… Or no, no, no. I guess the best way to put it would be he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but obviously he’s doing the complete opposite… Trying to kill a 12-year-old.

But Zuko has been through enough trauma in his life, I guess, in our show. We’ll let it slide.

On Zuko’s Scar

Avatar the Last Airbender Live-Action Dallas Liu as Zuko and his scar

Let’s talk about Zuko’s scar. It’s so narratively and physically important to who he is. Was there a process to figure out what it would look like or the scene surrounding it? Were there other iterations of it at play?

Liu: Yeah, me and the head of our makeup department, we really tried to fight for more, honestly. We brought it up like, “Hey, this could be really something special. It doesn’t have to be overly gruesome to the point where I look like a real-life burn scar victim, but I think we can, I guess, play around and see what it would look like.”

But we’re making a kids’ show at the end of the day. Even though this might feel closer to a drama than a kids’ show, we’re going to have young kids watching the show. Just like the who were young kids watching the Avatar cartoon. Now, I was definitely like, “Oh my gosh, what’s going on with this guy’s eyeball in the animated series?” But I think for newcomers to the show and younger viewers, this version of the scar certainly works.

On Zuko’s Mindset Going Into a Potential Season Two of Avatar: The Last Airbender (And Maybe Even a Season Three)

Zuko at the end of season of of the live-action Avatar played by Dallas Liu (2)

In the cartoons, Zuko’s transition into being one of the good guys is a real slow burn, and then in the end, we only get a few episodes of him fully on the Gaang/Team Avatar. But here we are already kind of seeing that extended scene with Aang after they save each other at Pohuai. In the happy event of a season two, do you think that we might see Zuko warm more quickly toward the team, or maybe we’ll see more extensions of that friendship?

Liu: Honestly, I think in the next season, obviously it’d be nice to shoot with everyone because I’m so close with everyone personally, but I think he’ll be honestly even angrier about anything given the news that he just found out at the Northern Water Tribe. So I think honestly, it’ll sort of match up with the original show that even though we get to see more of the emotional side of Zuko in our show. I think that’ll make his internal battle throughout season two even more crucial. And so I think he’ll really be going through it. But I do see them, I guess, bonding quite quickly if we were to go a third season.

That makes total sense. So you think what Zuko took away from that kind of final confrontation with Zhao is anger?

Liu: He was certainly pissed really off. But, everything that he had been fighting for this whole time, he realized that he was just a part of this game plan for his sister. And what’s even worse is that his sister doesn’t even know that she’s part of another game plan. So you see Ozai’s manipulation of his own children really at work.

And for Zuko, it’s been three years he’s been on this boat fighting for his life. So I think he’s just, like he said, he just says he’s tired. I think he’s feeling the most extreme of negative emotions possible, but it’s also too much for his brain to sort of contemplate and sink in. There’s almost no emotion on him at all at the end, right? He’s just kind of numb, like, “I’m just going to take a nap.”

So you think his next chapter here contains just kind of intense self-reflection, basically?

Insane. Oh yeah, insane. I really hope we get to do the Zuko with the Airbender Arrow in the next season. That would be so funny.

On What Zuko Moments Dallas Liu Looks Forward to Portraying in Avatar Season Two

Zuko in Zuko alone and as Lee on a Date

Looking kind of forward, if we do get a season two or more, are there any scenes that you’re really excited to bring to life?

Liu: Well, the first one that comes to mind is obviously Zuko Alone. And then Zuko’s Betrayal. And one more, Lee’s date from the tea shop. That would be so good.

On Zuko, Fire Lord Ozai, and Zuko Reaching Out for His Father

I think it’s really wonderful that they did try not to age up Avatar: The Last Airbender and kind of kept it youthful, but also intense. I think it’s actually much darker than the cartoon version. Seeing Zuko literally burn that was, I was like, “Oh, okay, here we are.”

Liu: Oh my gosh. Seeing that episode, you’re actually so tense. Your body is tense watching it. And there was this small moment that I loved, that I added that felt almost necessary for Zuko. But in our fight, if you really watch it before he gets his eye burned, he puts his hand on Ozai’s heart specifically. It’s a very small detail. But I thought it was so necessary that we put that in, just to show [their connection.] When he puts his hand on his heart, Ozai holds it. And I was like, “Dude, you are…!!” Such an insane moment for everyone to see. Because we didn’t get to see anything at all before. I think that was a very touching moment for just Zuko.

Dallas Liu Dives Deep into Live-Action Zuko: His Scar, AVATAR Season Two Heading, Soft Heart, and More_1

Absolutely. And I think sort of the moment we see following it where he’s recovering, and Ozai comes in, and he’s like, “Just give me another chance,” and Ozai gets so mad. I thought that was a really beautiful moment. What do you think Zuko was trying to convey when he was like, “Sometimes weak things can become stronger”? Why do you think it made Ozai so mad?

Liu: Wow. I think he felt that Zuko’s mentality was just so weak. It wasn’t related to the Fire Nation at all. And you hear it actually at the end of that line, he goes, “I’ve made you just like your mother,” or it is something like that. He’s like, “You’re just like your mother.” And oh my gosh. I was like, “Yes, Netflix, yes, Albert.” Slip in, “Who is Zuko’s mom? Who is Azula’s mother?” Right?

Totally right.

Dallas Liu On Zuko and Iroh in the Avatar Live-Action

Avatar the last airbender live action Iroh and Zuko

I have to bring up the Uncle Iroh relationship. If you’d asked me before I watched the live-action, “Could it be better? Could it be evolved or improved?” I would’ve been like, “No, it’s perfect. What are you talking about?” But you made it, maybe not better, but more complicated. There’s more to it, especially in episode four, there’s these two moments, one where Zuko sits and comforts Uncle Iroh after the death of Lu Ten. And then when Uncle Iroh comes with Zuko on the ship, and I think they kind of come back to that in the finale moment where he basically tells, but doesn’t tell Iroh like, “You’re my father and I love you.” So what was it like building those moments that weren’t from the cartoon and just in general crafting the relationship?

Liu: Paul [Sun-Hyung Lee] is so spot on as Uncle Iroh, and he was also very open to not making it a one-for-one remake of the animated series, which I was thankful for because my Zuko is obviously somewhat different from what we see in the animated series. I think all I did was really just capture the true essence, but then Albert Kim’s script and the Avatar world that we live in allowed for those changes in my character.

But with Uncle Iroh, Paul [Sun-Hyung Lee], first off, he was a real-life Uncle Iroh to me on set. He was taking care of me. I had my stresses and worries about the lines and the direction that our scenes would go in. So, for those moments that we don’t see in the animated series, he and I purely went off of instinct. We went over it, we talked with the directors of those episodes. We talked amongst ourselves, but the scenes really spoke for themselves. I don’t think either of us had to try to overcompensate for anything that was missing. I think those scenes were so beautiful. And the music, whenever there’s a Zuko and Iroh flashback, oh my gosh, my heart was like… You can tell that song as soon as it comes out.

Avatar the Last Airbender Live-Action Dallas Liu as Zuko comforting iroh

On Zuko’s Soft Heart

I thought it’s really interesting that Zuko has all these facets, and he’s so emotional, he can’t resist being like, why would you do that if he’s mad? Or just like we see him in tears several times in the season, or sometimes he’s really happy, and you can just see, ‘Oh, he’s so happy, but oh, he’s going to get crushed.” And I think that’s really different than many renderings of heroes or villains. Obviously, Zuko is that anti-hero, but I think it’s also a very interesting vision of masculinity in a sense. Did you all talk about bringing that version of Zuko to screen and how he might convey his emotionality and things like that?

Liu: Well, honestly, that wasn’t something that I necessarily had a one-to-one conversation with Albert Kim. But it’s something that I figured out on my own, I guess, doing my homework and doing my research on the character. Because I guess that fake masculinity that Zuko has in himself in our first season, I think it was so obvious from the start that it wasn’t something that I just had to write down in my notebook.

Avatar the Last Airbender Live-Action Dallas Liu as young zuko

I think the way the writers had written out this script and Albert Kim trusting me to really take on this character with his best interest as well, it was sort of planted in the script already that, “Oh, yeah, this guy, he actually is a very emotional man with a very soft heart,” which you see throughout our show, which is something I think you don’t get as much early in our original series, is I guess the heart of it all.

Avatar the Last Airbender Live-Action Dallas Liu as Zuko during burn aftermath

Dallas Liu On His and Zuko’s Comedic Chops

I actually think one of the underrated pieces of Zuko or that he’s actually a really funny character in some ways. He’s so ridiculous sometimes that you in an endearing way, you’re just like, “Oh my God, are you really jumping into this freezing water? What are you doing?” You just laugh sometimes. I know you have a background in comedy. Did you try to infuse some comedic elements into his otherwise very serious character?

Liu: Yeah, I certainly did my best in these very specific episodes. I think it was in Omashu with Uncle Iroh when I’m just simply traveling around. Yeah, re-watching last night, there’s one line-read that they chose for me that was quite sassy. It’s when he’s talking about, “You guys heard about ice in a place that had no ice?” I was like, that made me laugh, honestly. And it was really getting to see those moments from Zuko and Iroh are alone. Because that’s when Zuko is truly himself, he puts on this facade of being this tough guy. And he’s a boy who is a man because he’s in control of this ship and he’s out to search for the Avatar. So, when he’s with someone that he’s comfortable with, he’s certainly going to be someone that you’d never expect him to be.

Avatar the Last Airbender Live-Action Dallas Liu as Zuko with Iroh in Earth Kingdom

On Bringing His Martial Arts Experience to the Role and Giving Input Into Zuko

You also have such an intensive martial arts background and martial arts is such a big part of Avatar’s world, so were you able to put some of that athleticism and skills that you already had to use?

Liu: Absolutely. The cool part about bending is that, yes, it is based on real martial arts styles. However, we’re bending these elements, and obviously, that doesn’t exist in real life. So, we were allowed to be creative in the way that we wanted it to look. It didn’t just have to look like a simple kung fu or a martial arts fight scene that you might see in a traditional martial arts movie. We got to use our imagination to imagine what these bending strikes would look like and how the fire would rotate, and the water would block everything. So yeah, it felt like second nature to me, and the stunt team was nice enough to let me have some input on what these fights would look like.

Zuko firebending Avatar the last airbender live action

What was one piece of input that you’re particularly proud of that maybe we can see on the screen?

Liu: There were a few fire blasts in me and Zhao’s fight that I really got to play with. And then actually, funny enough, my fight with Daniel Dae Kim in the flashback that you see in episode six, for the most part, they had moves set in place, but then I kind of customized them to what I felt was not only Zuko’s way of fighting, but I got to input my own sort of flair and style into it, which was really, really fun.

I think our directors really did a good job of making a story out of these fights. It was getting to actually take the time and dissect each move, each shot, and how we’re going to go about it for the day.

Dallas Liu Zuko with Fire

Dallas Liu Actually Wanted to be Aang as a Child

Liu: When I was a kid, I wanted to be Aang. But Zuko was my favorite character. [In my] martial arts [history], I actually specialized in bo staff first, and then I switched over to swords, and so I was like, “Oh, yeah, I could beat this kid easy.”

Nerdist Editor Rotem Rusak has been an Avatar: The Last Airbender fan for nearly two decades. You can learn all about her love of Zuko’s story on Nerdist’s Laser Focus Podcast.

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