The Actress Who Waited a Lifetime to Play Katara

The 17-year-old actress Kiawentiio (pronounced gya-wuhn-dee-yo) can’t remember a time when Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t part of her childhood in some way. Growing up on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation in Ontario known as Kawehno:ke (or Cornwall Island), Kiawentiio—who was born in 2006, a full year after the beloved animated series debuted on Nickelodeon—recalls having older siblings who would have the cartoon regularly playing in the background of their house. Years later, when all three seasons began streaming on Netflix, she revisited the series and developed a newfound appreciation for its narrative ambition.

So, when Netflix first announced that it was developing a live-action adaptation of Avatar in 2018, Kiawentiio told her team to get her an audition for Katara, the 14-year-old girl who is trying to fulfill her potential as the last Waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe after her mother was killed by the ruthless Fire Nation.

“By the time they actually did start casting, I got the call from my manager that was like, ‘Don’t freak out, but we think we have the Avatar audition.’ And obviously, I freaked out,” Kiawentiio tells Harper’s Bazaar with a laugh in a recent phone interview. Of all the roles she had auditioned for, this one was at the top of her bucket list, because she knew that it could have the same impact on the next generation of Indigenous children that it had on her. “Katara was one of the only people that I could really see myself in. With the role model that she is for young Indigenous women, it’s hard not to be drawn to her, especially when the representation is so scarce.”

Kiawentiio got her wish in the spring of 2021. After undergoing an intensive audition process, complete with a seemingly never-ending number of Zooms and chemistry reads, she got the news that would change her life. “They sat me down for another Zoom call, and I was expecting them to tell me it might take a while, but [creator and showrunner] Albert Kim ended up telling me what the project was, who I was auditioning for, and then I landed the role, and I was crying,” she recalls.

Every diehard Avatar fan can recite the basic premise by heart: Long ago, the four nations—Water, Earth, Fire, Air—once lived in harmony, with the Avatar, the master of all four elements, keeping the peace between them. But everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked and wiped out the Air Nomads. A century later, Aang (Gordon Cormier), a 12-year-old Air Nomad who has been frozen and suspended in time in an iceberg, reawakens to take his place as the next Avatar. Feeling responsible for the destruction he was unable to prevent, Aang sets out on a quest with his newfound friends, Katara and her Water Tribe leader brother Sokka (Ian Ousley), to save the world from the onslaught of the power-hungry Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim), who is determined to place all the nations under his authoritarian rule.

Katara, as Kiawentiio puts it, is the heart of the Avatar crew tasked with using their bending powers to restore peace in the divided world. “I think the core factors that make Katara [who she is] are her hopefulness and her optimism, and she’s the person in the group that can keep them moving forward in a positive direction, and I think without that, team Avatar wouldn’t be able to see the light,” she says.

Below, Kiawentiio reflects on the defining moments of Katara’s arc in the first season (which was shot two years ago in Vancouver), how she has grown alongside her character, and why she feels a new day has come for Indigenous representation in Hollywood.

A lot of the dramatic tension of the first season boils down to Aang’s internal conflict: Does the Avatar need to act alone, or can they afford to have people who help them along the way? In Aang’s case, he doesn’t just want people in his life; he needs them to help save the world. Why do you think Katara is immediately drawn to Aang and his mission? How do you think that relationship evolves over the course of the season?

I think the reason that she was drawn to him in the first place was this energy of bender to bender, honestly, and I feel like that type of energy [bonds them] not only physically, but just spiritually. It’s really intertwined in who they are because Aang plays a huge part in Katara’s growth physically with her bending, and I feel like it was just this calling of fate and where you’re supposed to be. But in terms of how the relationship has grown, I think it really is just blossoming into a family. Team Avatar is a family in our show. They’re not going to leave each other’s side; they’re always there for each other.

avatar the last airbender netflix

Netflix

Midway through the season, Koh, the face stealer of the spirit world, temporarily imprisons Katara and her brother Sokka and traps them with some of their darkest memories, which allows us to see, rather than hear about, their backstories. In Katara’s case, she is forced to relive the day she lost her mother. How do you think that loss has affected her in the present day?

It’s just painful and that is the point of Koh, right? It is to weaken his prey with their own pain and their own memories. The way I see it is she probably feels helpless. She can’t do anything, and that’s really what has held her back. What has stuck in her mind is the fact that she couldn’t do anything [to save her mom], and to be stuck in that painful loop definitely puts a damper on her confidence that she’s been working up this entire season.

That memory of the loss that she went through is a roadblock, and that’s something that she has to try and overcome as we go through the series because it really is the main reason that she can’t get to that next level [of waterbending]. In the episode with Jett, after he shifted her perspective on how she was thinking and how her memories were acting up, she really unlocks that good energy that her mom was trying to leave her with.

It’s impressive how together Katara actually is, especially in our season, because the flashbacks and her memories are so brutal that it’s like, “Wow, I can’t believe you are still normal.” [Laughs.] But that goes to show how resilient she is and how strong she is. I think that was one of the things I took away from her while playing her. I tried to implement her message in my life more to be more optimistic and to have that hope and strength.

When she arrives in the Northern Water Tribe, Katara realizes that the women of this tribe aren’t allowed to fight, which comes as a bit of a culture shock for her. But it’s moving to see how she is able to mobilize the women of all ages when the tribe is under siege by the Fire Nation. At the end of the day, they are the ones who helped defeat the enemy.

Arriving at the Northern Water Tribe was something that she was looking forward to all season, and I think in her mind she had this image of like, “I’m going to get there. I’m going to meet a master, and he’s going to teach me everything I need to know, and I’ll finally be able to reach that next step [as a Waterbender].” And getting there and being told basically all your work is not going to be paid off [because you’re a woman] was, in my opinion, devastating. That devastation leads straight into anger, which I relate to. I feel like I get the same waves of emotions, and then that leads to wanting to prove them wrong, wanting to change things [like Katara does]. Honestly, that scene with the women [Waterbenders] is just so beautiful, and it was one of my favorites to film. But I think in her mind, she was just reality checking Master Paku: “We are literally in a war. We are not going to make it. Just use your resources.” And not only was that the realistic thing that needed to happen, but the change that she’s been fighting for [all season].

I read that you trained for six months ahead of production to commit Katara’s waterbending motions to muscle memory. You spent that time going over forms of tai chi and getting strong enough to handle the action sequences.

Boot camp was intense for me personally, just because I’d never really gone through that before and I don’t have as much or any experience outside of the show with martial arts. But it was really helpful to be in the same boat as my character, training-wise. At the start of the show, she really doesn’t know that much about bending. As we go along through the episodes, we could see her get more comfortable and more confident in her bending. As we watch Katara gain her confidence, I feel like off-screen I was also gaining confidence with those movements, getting stronger as we go and just getting more comfortable in general.

avatar the last airbender

FREDERIC J. BROWN//Getty Images

With the critical success of many Indigenous projects in recent years—Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls, Killers of the Flower Moon, The English, Dark Winds—it feels like we have reached an inflection point when it comes to accurate depictions of Native American communities. As someone who is part of this growing movement, what is your take on the state of diversity and inclusion for Indigenous communities? And what do you think is the next step that needs to be taken to move the needle even further?

I think we are making huge steps in the industry. I love being able to look around more and more and see more of our faces, and I do think that there’s places that we could improve on for sure. But thinking of how far we’ve come, even from when I was younger, Katara was one of the only brown people that I saw on my TV, so it’s really special to be a part of this generation that’s being able to do these things.

I think the next step could be just normalizing things, like it doesn’t always have to be an Indigenous story to have Indigenous actors, writers or directors. I think that’s one of the things that can get touchy in this industry because we want to include everybody of course, but it doesn’t have to be so specific. Why does the doctor have to be [only] the Indigenous doctor that came from [this tribe]? Why can’t he just be a doctor that happens to be Indigenous?

Indigenous people or actors can be the main character. Obviously, our culture is always a part of who we are, but it doesn’t have to be that the reason we are in this role is because we are Indigenous. We can tell our story as a person and still value and venerate our culture without that being the only reason that we’re in the story to begin with.

With big blockbusters, I feel like it ends up being like, “Oh, the lead is white, the other lead is white, and then everybody else is a person of color.” I feel like that’s a theme that we end up seeing a lot. But another really good way to improve [on that] is supporting Indigenous storytellers. We have so many stories, and [telling them] is one of the things that is keeping our cultures alive, and there are so many stories that could be told from our perspective.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Lettermark

Max Gao is a freelance entertainment and sports journalist based in Toronto. He has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Beast, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Men’s Health, Teen Vogue and W Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @MaxJGao.