Last summer, Nickelodeon announced that it had partnered with iHeartRadio to produce Avatar: Braving the Elements, a Last Airbender podcast. Hosted by original series voice actors Janet Varney (the voice of Korra) and Dante Basco (the voice of Prince Zuko), the Braving the Elements podcast is a deep dive into the wonderful world of the Avatarverse.
As Varney and Basco expressed during The Beat‘s virtual press junket interview, they hoped it would be eventually safe enough to record an episode live at a convention. Sure enough, at New York Comic Con last weekend devoted fans crammed into a room to watch Varney and Basco as well as surprise guest Dee Bradley Baker host a live taping of the Braving the Elements podcast.
Right before the panel though, The Beat had the fortune to catch up with Varney and Basco to discuss their experience working on the podcast thus far, finally recording an episode in the same room, and much more!
Taimur Dar: Back when I first interviewed you both about the podcast during the virtual press junket, you mentioned the desire to record the Braving the Elements podcast at a convention. How did the decision to pull the trigger and bring it to NYCC come about and were there any hiccups?
Janet Varney: It came up right when it could come up, “OK, New York Comic Con is definitely happening. We’ve been doing the podcast. Do you guys want to do an episode?” In that regard it was kind of a quick turnaround because everything’s been so up in the air. At anytime you’re ready for an event to go away. This has been a real exercise for all of us finding out what we can control and what we don’t have any control over. “Be the leaf,” as I like to say.
Dante Basco: “Be the leaf!”
Varney: “Be the leaf,” came in real handy this year. Gotta be with your elements and not try to control everything. Once we confirmed it, it was pretty smooth sailing.
Varney: We had to figure out what we had time for. We are so used to doing panels where we have Q&As with the audience and you run out of time and 40 people haven’t asked their questions. So we were trying to think about it from a practical sense of we want people to listen to it after the fact but we want it to be special for the people who were there in person. So we tried to do a hybrid of both.
Dar: It’s been two years since I last attended NYCC or any convention in general. I love attending cons but large gatherings are still so weird for me right now. I even feel like I’m out of practice talking to people in-person. What’s it like for you to be back attending a con?
Varney: We’ve both done some stuff before this. So this isn’t the very first time back being with a bunch of people. But we’ve both had our own sets of social anxiety—
Varney: —and feeling really tired after a smaller interaction. You realize you burn more fuel when you’re a social creature which we are meant to be. But when you haven’t been doing that for a while…
Basco: Everybody’s going through it so it’s like this weird social interaction.
Varney: Yeah! Everybody can empathize!
Varney: No, we haven’t been. We actually got to shoot one thing together. This is our first episode that we are doing together. The first time we got to see each other it wasn’t for a podcast episode. Now we get to do “the” podcast together and be live.
Basco: We’ve done all these episodes so far remote. But so far it’s been pretty good.
Varney: What are we going to do if we actually get to go back to a studio and a guest comes in? We won’t hear their dog barking in the background. We won’t hear their doorbell ring. We won’t hear any leaf blowers. I’ve gotten used to all of those sounds. I’m very fond of all those sounds now. You have to embrace it. [Laughs].
Dar: I’ve been doing these animation press junkets for awhile. I had one recently with Grey Griffin, who of course is no stranger to Avatar: The Last Airbender. During our conversation, I brought up something share shared last year during a podcast interview about how she was struggling during the pandemic as a single mom and had a breakdown during a remote recording session. I was really glad to tell her how much it helped me personally to know I wasn’t the one having a difficult time coping. Life is hard in general and it’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic. It dawned on me how comforting entertainment like these podcasts can be for people. Has working on this podcast been therapeutic for either of you in any way?
Varney: Oh God, yeah. Certainly for me. The themes that come up in the show are often very emotional [and] watching what these characters go through. I was just talking with fellow voice actors yesterday who were in New York and people who worked at the convention telling stories about tough things that happened to them or people they care about during the pandemic. I am such a firm believer in that. Grey is a great example of someone who has always been upfront and very empathetic and shares experiences that she’s had. Even the characters that she and we play are broken in some way. That is one of the things that I love about them. It gives people permission to know that you can overcome stuff, that you can be redeemed, that you cannot ever be great at something. And that’s OK. We’ve seen how fragile we all are but there’s something beautiful about that and so uniting if we let it.
Basco: Shout-out to Grey. She’s one of the real ones. It just trips me out that when we started the show she was not a mother at all. Now she has 3 kids. Grey, how did you have three kids in this time?
Like Jan said, you’re going through your past and seeing friends. Everything we’ve been through together and even hearing the voices of people that we’ve lost like Mako is very emotional. You get to relive these points of our lives. We’re all in this together.
Varney: I like that we have thinner skin right now. It can be scary but we’re more in touch with our feelings. And we can support each other more because we’re coming from that place.
Dar: I mentioned during our aforementioned virtual press junket that I had read George Takei’s beautiful graphic novel memoir They Called Us Enemy. Towards the end, he discusses how immediately after meeting with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that he knew the show was going to be special and needed to be a part of it. Dante, for Last Airbender did you have any intuition it was going such a success?
Basco: No intuition.
I thought it was really cool. I loved the fact that we were doing this Asian inspired show for Nickelodeon. It really warmed my heart to work with Mako who played my uncle because Mako played by father 4-5 times in my career since I was 12. This ended up being Mako’s last project so I felt very honored to be a part of that. That relationship was always special to me. As far as intuition…
Varney: Here’s what! He liked it so much he couldn’t believe it would be great. I understand too. So many times you read something and you’re like, “This might be too unique or ahead of its time.”
Basco: We’ve learned to have no expectations in this industry.
Varney: You can do a project that’s artistically gorgeous and think should win all the awards and that goes nowhere. Then you do another thing that pays the bills and that becomes the thing that goes for four seasons.
Basco: You put all your heart and soul into something and no one saw it. Then you do a TikTok and you’re like, “Everybody saw that TikTok!”
Dar: Conversely for you Janet on Korra, it would have been so easy for the show creators to copy the same story and characters from The Last Airbender. I know that’s the big gripe that I and many people have with the new Star Wars trilogy in that it pretty much repeats the same beats from the original trilogy. But what I love about Korra is that it’s willing to go in a new direction that’s still true to the franchise. Is that something you appreciated as an actor?
Varney: Oh yeah. It was wildly intimidating to be a part of something that followed this incredibly beloved show. Knowing it was so far in the future and there were going to be characters that people adored from the first series who were going to be gone [was intimidating]. Mike [DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko] were like, “This is where we are with the story. This is where we’re excited to build out. And hopefully people will come along.” I know there are still people who would have preferred to pick up right where the story left off. And I totally get that. We are steeped in Avatar so hard right now that I’m like, “I never want this to end!” I get it but Mike and Bryan have such a strong vision. The storytelling they love telling, I am never disappointed. We call them our two dads because they are our artistic role models.
Dar: Finally, what can you tease for the Braving the Elements podcast, and is a Korra podcast in the future?
Varney: Yeah! That’s the plan. We are definitely going through in chronological order. We’ve gotta tackle Book 2 of Avatar in our second season. And Book 3 in our third. We’ve got a lot of great guest stars to have on our podcast. We already have people asking about actors and characters who appear in upcoming episodes in Avatar. Guys, don’t worry we got you! I promise you, if you are eager to have this person on our podcast we are even more eager and already on top of it. We want to be that ambassador and have the podcast be a hub where all of this information where you might get on the internet or hear in a DVD extra or interview becomes a companion.
Basco: We’ve become reporters for the Avatar universe. We’re like Dan Rather and Connie Chung.
Varney: We gave us a lot of gravitas there.
Basco: I know but there are going to be some who are like, “Who are those people?”
Janet Varney & Dante Basco’s Avatar: Braving the Elements podcast is available on all major podcast platforms.