Forget The Haters, Avatar Live-Action Star Elizabeth Yu Is Our Princess Azula

When Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender announced that newcomer Elizabeth Yu was cast as Princess Azula, some fans of the original Nickelodeon cartoon immediately took to social media to complain. Some thought she looked too innocent to play the Fire Nation princess, an antagonist in the Nickelodeon series that takes place in an imagined world with people who can master and manipulate the different elemental energies of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. Others lamented that her face wasn’t angular like Azula’s is in the cartoon, or that she looked too young for the part. (An especially odd critique considering, though never specified, Azula’s age is believed to be 14. Yu herself is now 21; she was 19 during filming.) But when it comes to the fan reaction, the young actor is completely unfazed. “I’m a hit with the kids,” she jokes to Refinery29, adding that she doesn’t take it personally. “I think anybody playing this part would’ve gotten some kind of backlash.”
Yu is confident that when the show premieres on February 22, fans will see the live-action show is doing more than recreating the cartoon. In the original, Princess Azula, the ambitious daughter of the Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim), doesn’t appear until season 2 when she emerges as a new threat to the Avatar, the boy with the power to control all four elements and unite the nations against Ozai’s dictatorial rule. In this iteration, Azula is a recurring character, allowing fans to see her in a brand new light. “It’s an origin story for her,” Yu says. “It’s this foundation being laid out for a lot of things to make sense when we eventually pick up where we first met her in the original series.” So if you were worried Yu’s Azula had lost her villainous edge, don’t be. Yu describes her as “a girl boss,” but “evil.” Still, she says, “Azula is my baby girl, she’s my boo thing. I love her.”
Not only is she unbothered by the early reactions, she’s not at all nervous when thinking about how the show might be received by hardcore fans. Instead, the actor is more concerned with what her two younger sisters will think. The actor has seen Asian American representation grow from Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody — “All I had growing up was London Tipton,” she says, giving a shoutout to star Brenda Song — to recent Oscar-nominated films, like her 2023 favourite Past Lives starring Greta Lee. As half-Korean, Yu is proud to be a part of this current shift. “The idea that my little sisters are going to be able to watch TV and movies, and the likelihood of them getting to see someone that looks like them is so much higher, is such a win. It’s so healing to know that we’re creating an industry where little girls — little anyones — can feel like that.” 
The fact that Avatar: The Last Airbender stars Asian actors is arguably the new show’s biggest break from the original series. When the cartoon first premiered in 2005, it only featured a few Asian and Asian American voice actors, despite the fact that it took place in a world inhabited by mostly Asian and Indigenous peoples. When the beloved series was adapted into a widely panned live-action film, The Last Airbender (2010), the cast also remained mostly whitewashed, save for members of the Fire Nation, who were depicted as South Asian. Now, two decades after the original’s debut, Asians are finally getting a seat at the table. “It’s monumental,” Yu says. “It’s so important to be able to see yourself in stories. That’s what storytelling is about.” 

"Azula is my baby girl, she’s my boo thing. I love her."

Elizabeth yu
Yu’s confidence is impressive, especially considering Avatar: The Last Airbender is only her third credit on IMDb. She gives off the air of an old pro. And in some ways, she is. Born and raised in New Jersey, she’s been auditioning for acting roles since she was 16. She’s also been dating Stranger Things star Gaten Matarazzo since they were 15. They currently live together in New York City with their three cats, and she’s had a front row seat to his rise to global celebrity. Though she insists she has always tried to keep their careers separate from their relationship, she admits, “Getting to see someone with such a huge heart navigate this industry is the best advice that I could be given.” She adds, “We’re both still trying to figure it out, and it’s really cool to be able to do it together.” 
She continued to audition throughout her last years of high school, though “it was a struggle,” she says. During her senior year, she debated whether or not to go to college or commit to acting full-time. In the end, she stuck with her passion. Then, in December 2021, just months after her high school graduation, she booked Avatar. “‘Oh, thank God,’” she recalls thinking. “I’m doing what I should be doing.” She has since gone on to appear in the Oscar-nominated May December, opposite Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, and Charles Melton.
It wasn’t until her fourth and final audition came around that Yu finally learned what role she was fighting for. “It was insane. I cried on the phone with my mom.” Months later, she was standing on the Fire Nation set next to the legendary Daniel Dae Kim in full armour and regalia, acting between bursts of flames. (“Before they’d call action, they’d be like, ‘Pyro!’ and the flames would ignite from these sconces on the walls. It was insane.”) And though she admits acting opposite Kim was intimidating at first, it was also pretty damn cool. “Who wouldn’t feel like the baddest bitch in the room sitting next to Daniel Dae Kim as Ozai?” 
It sounds lucky, but her road to Azula had more than a few bumps. First, there was the fact that she didn’t know what project she was actually auditioning for. “They sent this completely fake, made-up storyline for this fake TV show. I was auditioning for a character named April,” she explains. After getting a callback, she hit the internet to do some sleuthing. “I became an FBI agent trying to figure out what I was actually auditioning for, because I was like, ‘Something about this does not feel real,’” she says. When she realized that it might be an adaptation of Avatar, a show she watched growing up, she couldn’t believe it. (“I was like, ‘No way. That is definitely not what I’m auditioning for.’”) Then there was the “minor car accident” that she got into right before her first callback. (She made it safe and sound and “did the damn thing!”). 
As for what big names she hopes to work with next, Yu is open for whatever comes her way. For now, she’s got her eyes set on a not-yet-confirmed season 2 of Avatar, which she hopes will include Azula’s time on Ember Island with her brother Prince Zuko (Dallas Liu) as well as some of her character’s famous lines. “I’m really excited to go into a second season and finally do these iconic line reads that Azula has,” she teases, adding, “I quote them all the time to myself. There’s this one scene in the original where she says, ‘Do the tides command this ship?’ And she’s basically threatening this soldier that she’ll throw him overboard if he doesn’t do what she says. It’s just so badass.”
Live action or not, Princess Azula will always be badass.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is out now on Netflix.
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