Ian Ousley

Rising actor Ian Ousley is making waves in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

When speaking with Ousley, seeing what the casting directors saw in him wasn’t difficult. A sharp wit, a dry sense of humour, and a charm that could easily capture the hearts of millions. He is the embodiment of Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe and he absolutely kills it in the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender. Premiering this past February, Ian brings the character to life with a new dimension, giving us (the fans) a glimpse of what makes Sokka truly tick. It is clear the initial animated series meant a lot to him and the entirety of the crew that worked on the show. If you’re expecting a beat-for-beat retelling of the animated series, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, but if you open your mind (and heart) to new interpretations, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.

Being a fan of the original series himself, Ian never dreamed that the opportunity would even land on his doorstep. However, when Netflix announced they would be doing a live-action retelling, fast forward to mid-2021, Ian is sitting in a hotel getting the call that the directors had found their Sokka. As they pass the torch to a new generation to be introduced to the beloved show and its characters.

Following the news of Netflix renewing the show for another two seasons, Ian Ousley talks with 1883 Magazine about his love for the original animated series, his proudest moments on the show and his hopes for later seasons. He also chats about how he keeps himself centered after a long day, which character he’d like to switch places with and so much more! 

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So, first things first, congratulations on Avatar: The Last Airbender being out in the world! 

I know, it’s crazy!  

How long have you been working on the show? Before Netflix officially announced it, or?

Truthfully, I don’t remember when it got announced. But I do remember being in my kitchen and hearing about it being like, “Gosh, that’s insane. I wonder who they’re going to get for that.” Not even thinking it would be me. It just seemed so otherworldly at the time. This was years before I auditioned for the show, I believe. Maybe about a year before? I remember sitting with my manager at the time (we were close) and I made him watch the whole first season. I just subtly nudged him, “Hey, dude, this is casting. I love the show.” I got cast much later, end of May 2021. I didn’t know what I was auditioning for. It had a code name and everything. My manager didn’t know either, when he found out, he was like, “Well, I guess I got it for you!”

Did you have a suspicion when you were reading for the part? Did it feel familiar at all?

I think it goes back to what I just said about me being in the kitchen. It had a name. Usually, the ones Netflix wants to keep secret do. And so, I was like, “Let’s think about this. Could this be Avatar?” Because the character description was so much about his sister. And I said to myself, “She has power. She has to save the world. She doesn’t know how to handle her powers.” It sounded like she was supposed to be the lead character. So, maybe not Avatar. The funny thing is, I was practicing with my sister and she said, “This is like the secret tunnel episode!” And I was thinking, “There’s no way that’s in season two!” And we moved on! 

When did they finally break the news to you that you were auditioning for The Last Airbender? Was your mind blown?

It’s funny, I was going through my behind-the-scenes for the show last night. I was on this deep dive of all the memories and stuff. I found a video after I did the chemistry read. I was like, “Hey, I just did the chemistry read for the show ‘Tradewinds’.” I was fully immersed in the fact that this was so new, I thought it was going to be like Outer Banks. When I got it though, I freaked out. They told me I was going to do a personality test, which I was very scared of. Also, my management team didn’t know what this was. So, they were like, “We’ve never heard of this before. You might have been a jerk, so they want to make sure you’re not a jerk to work with, you need to put your personality on for this.” And I was like, “What? Give me another audition, please! I’d rather do another audition.” I was out in the country, and I had no cell service.

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Oh, no!

I had to drive to a hotel 30 minutes away that I hadn’t even booked. I sat down, threw on a different shirt and was ready to show the most personality I’ve ever shown in my life [laughter]. They didn’t let me talk, they were just like, “Hey, we’ve looked all over the world for this role.” I originally thought I was up against 40 people but it was 10. They said, “This is for Avatar: The Last Airbender and we’ve been looking for our Sokka.” And I just burst into tears, I started crying. I was doing that cry where you can’t quite catch your breath.

The ugly cries?

[laughs] Yeah, the ugly cries!

Has it sunk in yet?

I mean, I think so. I think one of the most grounding moments for me was the premiere. Watching it with a bunch of other people who were really enjoying it. It was so surreal getting to celebrate each other for all the hard work we put into it. And I think we’re all proud. So yeah, that was one moment that made it feel real. Also, meeting Jack De Sena (the original voice actor for Sokka) was crazy.

I saw that clip!

I never thought I’d meet him, honestly! So, that was a cool thing. He talked to me after the premiere and said some kind things, which I’m going to keep private. 

Of course.

But it was really, special to me. It was amazing.

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Now that The Last Airbender is out what scene are you most excited for fans to react to and why?

That’s such a big question! There are a lot of great scenes! You could pick any scene from episode 8. I’m excited for fans to see the scale of our show and the epic magnitude of the fighting. I’m excited for fans to see the more human elements of Sokka. Who he is and why he is the way that he is. I would have to go with an arc instead of a scene, but the arc he has with his father and episode 5 is really special, and I think fans will open a new pathway in their heart once they see that episode and why our show is the way that it is. It’s still in the spirit of the animation. There’s a lot of new material when you see these characters in the flesh.

I agree. The live-action gives way to more character growth and new moments to be created. Since we’re talking about arcs, what advice would you give to Sokka as he goes on his journey? 

Before Season One or before Season Two?

Let’s go before Season Two.

Okay, so he’s learned a lot, honestly. I think some of the advice I’d give to him is to be grateful for the time he had with Yue instead of holding on to the past. I would also advise him to let go of Katara a little bit and let her become her own person and empower her the best he can. Be more open-minded. Also, he could love the kids in the water tribe a little better. In Season One he’s fed up.

He’s just a guy with a boomerang doing the best he can.

He definitely is!

How would you say you’ve grown as an actor since booking the role?

I don’t even recognize myself as a person! But this show has changed my life forever, in more ways than one. I mean the people I’ve gotten to meet are the most important thing. And the material means so much to all of us. It’s not very often that you get a project that everyone is so passionate about making good. Like the best that it can be. What was the question?

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How do you feel you’ve grown as an actor since booking?

There’s nothing like experience. There’s nothing like experience on location, I was very far away from home for 13 months. I just immersed myself. I don’t think I would have been able to carry on if I didn’t give everything I possibly could to this role which is what I think I was trying to say earlier. Everyone was in that mindset. I roomed with Dallas Liu, who portrays Prince Zuko, and we were helping each other. We were figuring out each other’s scenes. I did a lot of acting classes, but there’s nothing like getting to play in front of cameras, it’s a whole new dance, especially when you’re in front of that thing every day. So, I still have a long way to go I’m only 21. I feel like I more than levelled up on the show, just like anything, you grow if you’re doing it for 12 hours a day for 13 months. I feel like a whole different actor than I was a year ago. I’m so proud of the work that I did.

As you should be! If you could switch roles with one of your castmates, who would it be and why?

Appa, bro! Just switch the faces out! It would be terrifying, but I think I could pull it off.

Oh, to be a flying bison soaring through the sky.

I joked around and I said, “Guys, I think I can do it!” The voice actor they got for Appa is incredible, I just wanted to do one sound. They wouldn’t let me do it.

I feel like that was a missed opportunity.

That’s what I’m saying! 

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You never know, they may let you for season two! So, when the press junkets and the interviews are over, what do you do to unwind? What does your free time look like? 

Yeah. It’s kind of a weird job. Because you leave the press junkets and you leave these experiences that are honestly just talking for 8 hours? It’s like a therapy session. It’s not that deep or intense. It’s just being mindful not to say the wrong thing and that you’re serving the show the best way you can. It’s a whole other side of the job I’ve never experienced before. It’s a whole other job in a way. And you leave these things feeling fantastic, but by the time you get home, you’re drained. It’s like you want to lay on your couch and fall asleep.

So, for me, I try to realign spiritually. For me, when you’re giving a lot, you have to pull from a source, and that source for me is God. I’ll just sit in worship and I’ll read my bible and journal and pray. I’ll work out with Dallas, too, to try and get some of that physicality out. Also, fashion is a big part of my life. I read a lot of magazines; Vogue and such. I’ll draw occasionally. Just whatever inspires me. But mainly reading and just sitting with the Lord is the thing that centers me.

Looking to the future, what is one scene from the animated series you’re looking forward to seeing brought to life?

Oh, man. I’ll choose a serious one, and then a fun one. Okay, I need my space sword! And for a serious one… there are so many. Anything with Sparky-Sparky Boom man! I don’t know if we’ll get to him, but I hope so! 

I forgot about him! I think seeing combustion bending in live-action would be so cool, especially with what we’ve seen with bending so far! And lastly, what advice would you give young Ian knowing everything you do now? 

Oh, wow. To young Ian, don’t put too much stock into material stuff. Don’t stress out so much, it’s all going to be chill. Enjoy it more. I was so worried about ‘making it’ that it was the main thing in my life. I was consumed with film in general because I wanted to direct, I wanted to act, and I wanted to write. So, just chill out, you’re 15 — everything is going to work out just fine. Even if it wasn’t this [acting], it would have been something else. I believe that. Just work hard at something. Something that you’re passionate about and give it up to the Lord, honestly. That’s all you can do. I think that’s a recipe for success in any field for any person.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender is streaming now on Netflix.

Interview Dana Reboe
Photography Ben Duggan
Styling Douglas Van Laningham at The Rex Agency
Grooming Stephanie Nicole Smith using Prism Botanics and Bumble and Bumble
Studio Vision Studio LA

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