Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Paul Sun-Hyung Lee Shares Thoughts About Why The Live-Action Show's Asian Representation Matters

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The long-awaited live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender Netflix series is here! And if you’re asking yourself “Why tune into another Avatar series when the original is so perfect,” one could point to its diverse cast that more authentically represents the show’s characters. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays Uncle Iroh, recently spoke to his thoughts on the show’s groundbreaking Asian representation, and he makes some great points from his own experience in the business over the years. 

Prior to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee being part of the Avatar: The Last Airbender cast, the South Korean-Canadian actor was wracking up acting gigs since the '90s. Here’s what the actor shared when talking about how opportunities for Asian actors have changed in the past thirty years: 

When I started off, it felt like a desolate wasteland, where you kind of felt doomed to forever play a gang member or convenience store owner, or a doctor or lawyer or whatever. Characters that were just window dressing and not really characters, but more decorations, human decorations that were sprinkled in the background to show diversity but were never the ones that were the center of attention or the ones that drove the narrative.

In an interview with Global News, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee got honest about the industry previously feeling like a “desolate wasteland” for Asian actors like himself, but he finds the fact that Avatar: The Last Airbender has a predominantly POC cast to be a great sign for progress. Lee called this current time in Hollywood a “golden age” for representation, which he’s especially excited about because “it’s a movement and not a trend.” As the Uncle Iroh actor continued: 

When you see your culture, your people, people who look like you as heroes instead of villains, it makes a world of difference. I think a show like Avatar will put another stamp in that history book and say, ‘Hey, let’s open up more chapters and keep building on this.'

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While the original Nickelodeon series portrayed imagery from Chinese culture along with other cultures from other parts of Asia, Siberia, and the Arctic, much of the original voice cast did not hail from these regions and therefore didn’t represent these places in an authentic way. However, in the new series there’s a major focus on the cast being part of the cultures the original series sought to represent and it makes all the difference for the people from these cultures. 

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has found work across thirty years, but has rarely found main roles for himself, though there are exceptions. Back in the early 00s he starred in the Canadian soap opera Train 48 for two seasons and he’s perhaps most known for playing Appa in Kim’s Convenience from 2016 to 2021. After finding fame for the comedy, he memorably found a place in the Star Wars universe in The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and Ahsoka

While critics have been all over the map regarding their thoughts on the new series, the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender series has already shot to the top of Netflix charts in its first day on the streaming service. You can check out the series yourself now with a Netflix subscription.  

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.