Once again, I’ve never watched the series Avatar: The Last Airbender which became the basis for M. Night Shyamalan‘s upcoming movie THE LAST AIRBENDER but I received an e-mail from Rama’s SCREEN reader Frankie who informed me of some of the fans outraged by the casting choices that may or may not seem to reflect the race/ethnics of the characters from the original material. I replied I found it a bit funny that people were making a big deal about it considering that the Airbender series was American made, not Asian-based, that said, I was not surprised because casting actors of one ethnic to play characters of another ethnic is a trick that Hollywood’s been using for a long time. But Shyamalan himself addressed this issue, via io9, and I think you’ll find his explanation to be.. justified… Those of you fans of the series would know more than me about Sokka, Katara and the Fire Nation…
Here’s the thing. The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that’s just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that’s what’s so beautiful about anime.
When we were casting, I was like, “I don’t care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I’m going to figure it out like a chessgame.” Ideally we separate the nations ethnically — ideally. I didn’t know how or what it was going to be. And it was so fluid. For example if you found a great brother, [but] he didn’t go with my favorite Katara, then we couldn’t use him. Theoretical things like that. There was an Ang that we really loved, but he was like 5’10.” There’s all kinds of issues that come to the table physically. And I had a board of all the people that I was considering, the seven or eight. There was, at one time, a Chinese Sokka and Katara, and they were over here. One of them was a better actor than the other, and so I was gathering my pros and cons.
I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn’t know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.
The Fire Nation was the most complicated. I kept switching who was playing Zuko. It was such a complicated and drawn out thing, about practical matters. But the first person that I was considering casting for Zuko was Ecuadorian. So I started thinking that way. Then when that person couldn’t do it, the next person who came in was much more Caucasian. And then we had to switch everything around.
The Earth Nation was always the issue as well, because the second movie is so dominated by that group, and it will represent most of the movie. But it has a small, small part in the first movie. So that was important in thinking about it in the long term. Then Dev [Patel] came into the picture, he was really early on. He had auditioned for me in London. He was a sweet guy, but he did such a great reading…I always go for the actor.
For me, Nicola [Peltz, who plays Katara] had a lot of Russian qualities, European and Russian qualities. So that was the direction we went there. Whoever I ended up with, I went that was their nationality. Suki was Jessica [Andres] who is a mix of Filipino. And now the Earth Kingdom is all Asian so Toph will have to be Asian. Suddenly I was looking at the board and I thought, this works for me, because everything was represented.
And there’s a section of the Earth Kingdom that’s African American. Because it’s such a big country and land I thought you could have some diversity in there as they travel through the cities. So more so than the show, it will have a much more diverse ethnic backgrounds to it. It’s not an agenda for me, but it’s something I’m super proud of. That when my kids or any kids look at it they will see themselves.
So.. are you satisfied with his answer?
He also said if there’s enough feeling and momentum from the audience, if this movie does well, he’s going to prep for the sequel.You can read the rest OVER THERE and check out his previous bulletpoints..
Air, Water, Earth, Fire. Four nations tied by destiny when the Fire Nation launches a brutal war against the others. A century has passed with no hope in sight to change the path of this destruction. Caught between combat and courage, Aang (Noah Ringer) discovers he is the lone Avatar with the power to manipulate all four elements. Aang teams with Katara (Nicola Peltz), a Waterbender, and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), to restore balance to their war-torn world.
THE LAST AIRBENDER opens July 2nd, 2010