Kiawentiio Talks Playing Katara in Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

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Kiawentiio is starring in a Netflix show. It’s a sentence she’s still processing.

“Growing up as a little native girl on my reservation, I never thought that this was something I’d even be able to do,” she tells TODAY.com. “It was completely out of reach in my mind. So when I got the role, when we were filming and even now, it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that it’s all real.”

Kiawentiio, a 17-year-old actor and singer from the Mohawk people, plays Katara, a beloved character from “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” in Netflix’s live-action remake. The show hit the streaming platform Feb. 22 and quickly soared to No. 1 on Netflix’s list of top TV shows in the U.S.

Before this, Kiawentiio appeared in “Beans” and guest-starred in Season Three of “Anne with an E.” Now, she’s adapting a cult classic cartoon and faces a fandom that’s hesitant to trust a remake, still sensitive about the previous attempt, a film released in 2010.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon, from 2005 to 2008. The show achieved worldwide success and a cult following that only grew once the show was added to Netflix in May 2020. Like the live-action show, it became the most popular show in the U.S. on the streaming platform within days.

In a world full of “benders,” people who can manipulate one of four elements — water, earth, fire and air — a group of friends embark on an adventure to save the world from impending war and destruction.

The story begins as Katara and her brother Sokka (played in the new live action by Ian Ousley) find a boy named Aang (Gordon Cormier) frozen in an iceberg. Aang turns out to be the long-hidden “Avatar,” a bender with power over all four elements who’s been promised to bring stability to the world.

Kiawentiio as Katara in "Avatar: The Last Airbender."
Kiawentiio as Katara in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”Robert Falconer / Netflix

Kiawentiio is a longtime fan of the original series and never thought she’d get to play one of the characters she grew up watching.

“The fact that I do get to play her, I cherish these moments, even the rough ones,” she says. “When we were filming, there was a lot that I was trying to deal with at the same time. But even in all those moments, I do my best to stay grateful because of how lucky and blessed I actually am to to be in this situation.”

To have other people who are going through the exact same thing that you’re going through, it really strengthens our bond as a crew.

Kiawentiio on her bond with the other cast members

Friendship is a core component to the series, and Kiawentiio says the focus on community in the show translated to set. She says she first met the rest of the cast at a boot camp, and was initially intimidated by some of the others — including Dallas Liu, who plays one of the main antagonists, Zuko. But the cast quickly found a close bond that she says will last long after production wrapped.

“With playing Katara, meeting the other cast members and becoming family with them, that is something that we are locked in for life,” she says. “We’ve talked about this before, we’re gonna be at each other’s weddings type thing. I’m so grateful to have that, a second family formed for ever.”

The whole cast had the difficult task of portraying existing, beloved characters, in addition to trying to translate a two-dimensional character to the screen.

“To have other people who are going through the exact same thing that you’re going through, it really strengthens our bond as a crew.” she says.

There will always be differences watching something live action compared to a cartoon, Kiawentiio notes — but they can actually be for the better.

“So much more emotion comes, I mean, just seeing an actual face compared to a drawing of a face is so different on its own. So I’d like to think that the emotion of Katara and her backstory is more amplified or zoomed in on,” she says.

Another difference stemmed from turning a cartoon world into a physical set — which as a fan of the original show, Kiawentiio calls surreal.

In the original cartoon, the core trio travel across terrains, cities and oceans on the back of Aang’s flying pet bison, Appa.

“All these new things that kept coming up, it was just crazy to see it unfold in front of me,” she says. “And for that to be my job, that’s just incredible. Especially as a fan of the show, I was really almost in tears once a week, or more than once a week if we’re being honest.”

Critics of live-action remakes often point to both the lack of new aspects to the story they bring, as well as some seemingly unnecessary differences from the original story.

The series is the second attempt at a live-action remake of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The first was M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 movie, “The Last Airbender,” that released to overwhelmingly negative reviews. The film has a 5% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and Roger Ebert, who gave the film a half star out of four, wrote that the film “is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.”

The live-action precedent set up Netflix’s new series in a unique spot, where returning fans are simultaneously hoping for a more accurate remake while tentatively extending their trust.

Kiawentiio says balancing the appeal to both old and new fans was a through line during production.

For that to be my job, that’s just incredible. Especially as a fan of the show, I was really almost in tears once a week, or more than once a week if we’re being honest.

Kiawentiio on watching the show come to life

“That was in all of our minds — how to appeal to existing fans from the original show and also bring in new fans that have never seen the show before,” she says.

It’s a weighty task for a young actor.

“For me, in the back of my mind was always ‘I’m just doing my best.’ As a person, you can do only as much as you can,” she shares. “But I am open to opinions, and I know there’s going to be a whole variety of different opinions. And I did my best that I could at the time.”

Buzz around the eight-episode first season of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” continues to grow. Kiawentiio is looking to relish in any quiet she can find.

“As of right now, I’m trying to enjoy whatever quiet that I can,” she says. “It’s hard for me to plan stuff because I don’t know where I’m going to be then. But I’m just trying to soak up the nice quiet, and I’ll be there when I’ll be there.”

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