'Geek dreams': Calgary-raised Korean actor joins the Airbender universe

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Call it a proactive endorsement.

When Netflix announced in 2018 that it would be making a live-action adaptation of the 2005 animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, Calgary expat Paul Sun-Hyung Lee was fan-cast in the role of Uncle Iroh. Fan-casting is a relatively new phenomenon when passionate and often opinionated fans of a certain franchise take to social media to proclaim their dream cast for an upcoming project. Lee, who had watched the animated series for the first time one year before Netflix’s announcement, was happy to see his name bandied about by adherents of the original show.

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This sort of support is not officially binding, of course, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

“I was almost universally selected by hundreds of people online, thousands of people online, to play Uncle Iroh,” says Lee, in an interview with Postmedia. “While the studio hadn’t officially made an offer or even started auditioning for it, I think they were aware of the desire of the fans to see me in the role.”

This wasn’t the only reason Lee was cast in the big-budget spectacle three years later. He did the auditions, there were several callbacks and a chemistry read with potential castmates before he secured the role of the wise and kind Uncle Iroh, a conflicted retired general who is part of the Fire Nation in the mind-bending Airbender universe.

The Last Airbender. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh, left, with Gordon Cormier as Aang, right, in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Cr. Robert Falconer/Netflix 2024 ROBERT FALCONER/NETFLIX

But Lee had also earned a reputation as a versatile actor. In 2023, he received Canada’s highest honour in the performing arts when he won a 2023 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. But he also earned serious fanboy bonafides after being cast in the 2020 Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian as X-Wing fighter pilot Carson Teva. 

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Avatar: The Last Airbender is a mega-budgeted fantasy series that began streaming on Netflix in late February to much fanfare. It has already been renewed for a second and third season after capturing 41.1 million views in its first 11 days and becoming the No. 1 series in 76 countries.

Filled with special effects, hulking sets, thousands of extras and elaborate costumes and makeup, the B.C.-shot series might seem decidedly different than the comparatively down-to-earth CBC sitcom Lee is probably most associated with. The actor played Appa, the often befuddled Korean patriarch in Kim’s Convenience for five seasons on TV and on stage in the play the series was based on.

“It’s pretty cool, actually,” Lee says. “The actual job is the same, it’s the scale that is different. Whether it’s Kim’s Convenience or it’s Avatar, my job is to help tell the story and play this character with as much honesty, as much authenticity and as much depth as I can bring to it. All the other things, the special effects and whatnot, those get layered in afterwards. I’ve always had an active imagination so it’s not too hard for me to make those jumps.”

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Besides, these types of shows are now often shot on special stages where projected virtual images surround actors to create an immersive environment for performers.

“It’s kind of like being on the holodeck in Star Trek,” he says. “We’re living in the future. We are shooting in this digital environment. It helps as a performer in the end, but when it comes down to the actual effects of the manipulation of elements, none of us saw any of that until the finished project. So you have to rely on your imagination and the craftsmanship and the artisanship of all the effects artists working to create and add. in those elements. It’s rather breathtaking when you finally do see the final project. It’s not just the visual effects, but the sound as well. It really is quite unbelievable. There is that sense of wonderment always whenever I see any type of show with that, especially being on the other side.”

Avatar: The Last Airbender certainly has a high-concept premise that lends itself to eye-popping special effects. The Airbender world is divided into four nations – Water, Fire, Air, and Earth – where inhabitants can manipulate their specific elements. The Avatar, who has mastered all four elements, keeps the peace. But chaos reigns when the Fire Nation takes steps to conquer the world before the next incarnation of the Avatar emerges. It’s up to young “Air Nomad” Aang (played by Gordon Cormier) to take his place as the next Avatar to save the world by facing Fire Lord Azai (Daniel Dae Kim) and estranged crown prince Zuko (Dallas Liu.)

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The kind Uncle Iroh is the brother of Lord Azai and a mentor to Zuko but is also sympathetic to Aang’s plight. The character was a favourite in the 2005 animated series and was voiced by veteran Japanese-American actor Mako in the first two seasons and Greg Baldwin in the third after Mako’s 2006 death.

“Since he is so beloved and revered, it’s no light task to try and fill those shoes and make the character my own,” he says. “The last thing I wanted to do was be an imitation or do a really bad impersonation of Mako. I had to imbue this character with my own flair in a sense. It’s very apparent that I don’t sound like Mako, nor did I feel it would do the character any justice. I thought it would be kind of disrespectful to attempt to make myself sound like Mako. That was (his) actual voice.

“With the fan-casting for Iroh, people saw me and said, ‘Oh, it’s Appa.’ I looked similar to the animated character. Because I had an accent in Kim’s Convenience and Mako had an accent, they thought, ‘This will be perfect.’ But the accents are completely different. Mako’s accent was Japanese, mine was Korean. The one I used was my father’s voice, it was a lived experience. It was decided early on, that we would not be doing the voice of Mako.”

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Born in South Korea, Lee came to Canada with his family as a baby, eventually ending up in Calgary. Lee stayed here until graduating from Winston Churchill High School and leaving for the University of Toronto, where he caught the acting bug. Lee landed supporting roles on stage and screen, including joining the original cast of the stage production of Kim’s Convenience in 2011. But for a kid who first watched Star Wars in the theatre at age five, he never dreamed he would become part of big-budget franchises.

“I’m a nerd,” he says. “As a BIPOC nerd, a nerd of colour, representation hadn’t been there traditionally speaking in the earlier parts of my life. To be at this stage of my life and my career to be able to play in these playgrounds is immensely satisfying.”

“It’s making all my geek dreams come true,” he adds.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming on Netflix.

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