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‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Crown Prince Dallas Liu Had Elliott Smith on his Zuko Playlist

Courtesy of Timothy Fernandez

Before he found his calling, Avatar: The Last Airbender star Dallas Liu considered becoming a stuntman. But when Liu was only 12 years old, his soon-to-be manager discovered his competition videos on YouTube and asked him if he'd ever thought about acting. The answer was yes: “Martial arts had definitely inspired me to become an actor, because of the performance aspect of it,” Liu tells GQ from his home in California.

Now, at 22, Liu’s credits include a Gen-Z cult comedy (PEN15) and a high-profile Marvel film (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.) He’s been able to channel his eclectic background to play the complicated villain at the center of the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise, Fire Nation royal Prince Zuko.

A few weeks before Netflix announced that Avatar had been renewed for a second and third season, Liu talked to GQ about how playing Prince Zuko changed him, his love of A24 films, and the Pen15 renaissance.

Were there any Avatar scenes that you were really excited to film?

All of the flashbacks. All of episode six was super fun, but specifically the scene between Aang and Zuko in that shed after an escape. And then, when Zuko sort of blows up at Zhao, at the fight at the Northern Water tribe.

The writers had given me a lot of good stuff to work with, and so I was just happy that in our show Zuko gets a character arc. In the first season of the animated series, he’s sort of one-note and quite melodramatic in each scene—he's sort of being repetitive about his motives. [But] he was always my favorite character as a kid. I just loved Zuko. Being able to play him was a dream come true.

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Timothy Fernandez</cite>
Courtesy of Timothy Fernandez

I saw in another interview that you said that it was great to humanize him. Was there anything that you kind of discovered about yourself through playing Zuko, because he's such a complicated character?

Yeah, since he’s so complex, playing him opened up my heart while I was off-set. When I had originally arrived in Vancouver to work on the show, I was similar to Zuko in that I was very narrow-minded in what I wanted to do, in terms of how I wanted to be an actor on set. I thought this was my one opportunity in life to prove to the people that I have a spot in this industry.

I was like, I'm focused on my work, do my job, go home, rest, and just take care of myself. And throughout that process, that's what it feels like with Zuko and Iroh. Zuko is like, "I'm just going to capture the Avatar, and then return them to my father and then I get to go home." And we see that that's not the case.

There are so many things that are involved in this journey that Zuko and Iroh go on, and something that I felt was my relationship with the other cast members and with the crew members started to grow. I found myself wanting to open up my heart and share this experience with them, and share all the love that I had inside of me that I had been trying to hold back on.

If you were not playing a character from the Fire Nation, what powers would you want to have personally?

Oh, it still definitely would be fire. It’s the most aesthetically-pleasing one in my opinion. In the world of Avatar, you can start to manipulate other elements once you become a master of that base one, and I think lightning is something that I've always thought would be super cool to bend. I think fire represents me, my heart.

What's your Zodiac sign?

I'm a Leo.

That adds up.

Wait, why?

Leo is a fire sign!

Oh, yeah, that's true!

Have you seen the TikToks about the Pen15 renaissance?

During my time shooting it, Pen15 was still blowing up. It's been on this continuous rise, which I'm so happy because that show—now it's really, really popular. But at the time, it was so underrated. I was still tapping into a younger version of myself on that series. But [for Avatar] I took inspiration from watching Maya and Anna act out as kids, for Zuko being an innocent child himself in the war meetings, in that first scene with Uncle Iroh in episode six.

I mean, you were still a kid. You were 16. That's a child.

Yeah. Yeah. Well, I guess it's a lot closer to Zuko, and that he doesn't think he is.

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Timothy Fernandez</cite>
Courtesy of Timothy Fernandez

Did you really shave your head for this, or did you do a bald cap?

Given that we were trying to stay faithful to the original and what it represented in the show, I thought it was extremely important for me to shave my head. I had a choice. I won't get into what it represents so much, but you get to see a little bit in some of the Avatar lore that exists outside of our series. But it gets you into character so much because it pisses you off so badly every morning. Waking up on the weekends when I'm not working and I just want to go out, I have to throw on a beanie. But waking up and staring at myself—This is my life now, this is who I am—I think it certainly got me into character very easily.

I really liked your red velvet suit at the premiere. How has your style evolved from your younger years to now?

My mom has always been my biggest fashion influence. She's the one who sort of turned me into this picky critic when it comes to outfits and clothes. Even when I was younger, I wouldn't ever let her pick out my outfits. And because I didn't let that happen, I ended up looking really stupid and goofy a lot of the time.

But I think everyone starts in sneakers—very common, especially for guys. You start with basketball shoes, and then you transition into Jordans, and then you transition into some form of streetwear after that. And at that point, you could go, I think, either into this world of vintage or archive clothing, or obviously, people love designer clothing and mixing up that world of streetwear with that.

But for me, I think I just really elevated basics. My style has just become less about brands, obviously, and more about quality. I'm 22 now, so I'm paying for all of this stuff myself. So I'm like, is this worth it? Am I going to be fine without this? On carpets for the Avatar premiere, I wanted to go all out. When I'm in real life, I just stick to all black and different shades of gray.

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of Timothy Fernandez</cite>
Courtesy of Timothy Fernandez

Did you make a playlist for Zuko, his character to get into character?

I did, but at some point, I stopped using it just because I sort of found my groove from the character. But some artists that were in there were Elliot Smith and Duster.

Which Elliot Smith songs did you put on there?

“Between the Bars.” And just all of his most popular stuff for sure, because especially “Between the Bars” relates to some part of Zuko's life, whether it was his actual scar banishment or catching the Avatar.

Are there any genres you want to dabble in next?

I honestly love drama so much. Obviously, the new Dune film just came out and I just love Denis [Villeneuve]. Every actor, I feel like can agree with me on [that]—and that we want to do an A24 film. But honestly, I'm still just trying to take any work that I can get, because I do want to show my range as an actor. I'd love to work with Willem Defoe on something, that'd be cool. So, just projects that are grounded, but have a stylistic element that separates it from Hollywood blockbusters.

Originally Appeared on GQ