Thank God There Was Korra: Actors Janet Varney & David Faustino Talk ‘Legend Of Korra’ [Interview]
After weeks of limp ratings, the Nickelodeon animated series The Legend of Korra has been passed off to the Nick.com website, leaving many to wonder what the future holds for the series. Confusion is never far from the discussion, whether it’s from spurned fans or crowing critics. The fans haven’t so much hit a rough patch as been dragged through a ravine. Now it holds its breath, unwilling to be hurt again.
Which is all really unfortunate, because season three of Korra is easily the best yet. Voice actor Janet Varney’s Korra continues to be one of TV finest heroines, full of grit, passion, and unbridled talent, while David Faustino’s Mako has mellowed from a high-strung athlete to… well, a high-strung cop, but one who wears his heart on his sleeve.
The villains are a wickedly fun combination of high-minded anarchism and ridiculously cool powers. The settings range from dingy, classically-noir stakeout motels to an art deco city of metalbenders. Spirits roam the streets and humans explore the spirit world. But most impressive of all are our heroes, bound together by heartbreak and hard-won triumph, finding their way in a world on the brink of spiritual and political upheaval.
ComicsAlliance sat down with Varney and Faustino at San Diego Comic-Con to talk about where the series has been, where it’s going, and what its legacy will be.
ComicsAlliance: Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender are a fan phenomenon. Did you expect this amount of fan enthusiasm when you signed up for the project?
Janet Varney: I don’t think I knew what we were getting into.
David Faustino: I had no clue, whatsoever.
JV: To paraphrase John Michael Higgins’ first time experience of what it’s like to be at a Comic Con and be part of Korra, it was a welcome shock!
CA: Have you guys on the cast bonded in any way? What is it like to all head into something so huge and figure it out together?
DF: I think we’re just all having a ball. [Series creators] Mike [Dante DiMartino] and Brian [Konietzko] had already paved the way so much. It was already a well oiled machine. So we stepped into a well written, well prepared, great project. So, for both of us, I think, it was just a real pleasure and joy to do, because it was just so well written, it was fun to do.
JV: It’s a great and safe environment where you come in and you feel welcome to do what you were hired to do, and we have such a blast when we’re able to record together in the same room, which is pretty frequently.
DF: Yeah, 60%-70% of the time.
JV: Yeah, sometimes other stuff happens where we’re out of town working on other jobs and stuff, but that’s one of the cool things about doing Cons and stuff like this, is that we actually get a chance to hang out together outside of the studio and it’s a blast.
CA: How much freedom did you get in creating these characters? What was the process like in figuring out how Korra and Mako would sound?
JV: We both had the same experience when we were auditioning for it, which was we felt like we could relate to the characters themselves. And because they wanted more natural sounding voices, we didn’t really have to do very much other than understand their characteristics and try the best we could to play off of that.
DF: I think they were trying to cast whatever voice or idea they had for the character they’ve written. Janet and I came in and auditioned and I think we matched, and that’s what it boils down to.
JV: We talk about casting a lot, even with just Mike and Bryan. What you hear a lot from other writers and directors and so forth in show business, you don’t exactly know what you want until you hear it. Then you’re like, “Oh! That’s it! Somehow that matches an idea we have in our heads that we couldn’t have articulated until now!”
DF: Exactly. They give us some freedom. Especially P.J. [Byrne]‘s character, Bolin. He’s sort of the comic relief of the show, and a lot of his stuff is added improv and ad lib. If we come up with a great thing in the room that they love, they’ll keep it. And if they don’t like it, they’ll just cut it.
CA: How do you feel about your characters individually? Do you relate to them at all? Have you done any characters like this before?
JV: I love Korra, she’s just so complicated. Being a teenager is complicated. Being a human being of any age is complicated, having that much responsibility is incredibly complicated. It’s been such a privilege to be a part of that journey that she’s on.
I know some people disagree with some of the stuff she does, and she makes people crazy sometimes; I think that’s one of the compelling things about the show, that you’re not always looking up to her. No offense to Superman, a fictional character. That person isn’t as interesting to me as someone who is flawed.
DF: They’re very flawed and that’s why we relate to them. With Mako, I’m not good with relationships, I don’t understand women, so I relate to that part of Mako. [laughs]
CA: What has it been like to have been part of a project with such an enormous fandom and such instantaneous response? You could put your best work out there and you might get a whole bunch of praise from this massive fan base, but it might not always be so great. How do you handle that?
DF: Meaning feedback that may be negative?
DF: Angry fans, it’s part of – well look, if you don’t have haters, you’re doing something wrong. That’s the old adage, right? You’re always going to have people who disagree and hate on you. That’s just part of being in entertainment. I’ve been raised in this business, so I’m used to it, I don’t pay attention. By the way, we’re hired hands, we’re saying what these guys have come up with. So at the end of the day, it’s not really our responsibility. We’re just saying the words on the paper.
JV: I like to live in a world of unicorns and rainbows where I don’t pay attention to anything unless it’s positive. It just hurts my feelings too much. When people ask, “What do you think about when so and so said this?” I’m just like, I have no idea what you’re talking about. It doesn’t serve me. I’m not going to do a better job on the show if my feelings are crushed by someone who’s just angry at me for no reason.
DF: If we paid attention to every negative thing people said about us as actors, we would have jumped out of the window by now. [laughs]
CA: Do you have any favorite episode moments for your characters, or just in the entire show?
DF: I think it’s from Book One, actually. There’s a moment with you and I. We’re separated, we’re talking, you’re looking at an island that I’m on, or I’m looking at an island that you’re on.
JV: Nothing bad has happened to either of us yet, but we’re in separate places.
DF: Yeah, it was just a great moment. There are so many great moments.
JV: A lot of the time, what my opinions are aren’t formed by the context in which I see something. So, whenever I see something on the big screen, or [when I'm] doing a con, where it’s the first time I’m seeing something after a while of not seeing anything because it takes so long to animate something, that sometimes has the most profound impact on me.
For example, seeing episode one of Book Two, where you first are introduced to the spirits in a real profound way, and you’re in Korra’s home town and you see the beautiful lights of that winter festival and the snow; I thought that was an astonishingly great way to start a next season.
CA: Is there anything coming up that you guys are excited about that you can divulge?
DF: They don’t want us to divulge much about what’s upcoming, and to be honest, we recorded it almost a year ago, even before. So I think our memories are a bit foggy as to what happens! But even if we could remember, we’re not really allowed to tell. But it’s going to be good, I can tell you that!
CA: What do you think Legend of Korra‘s legacy will be? Both to animation, and to young adult storytelling, to media that has a really transcendent fanbase across all ages, men and women. Do you think it will change things? Will it stand the test of time?
JV: I’ve never been more confident about any work I’ve ever done in terms of whether it’ll stand the test of time. I think that it is completely timeless. The storytelling, where it’s set, what the stories are, what the lessons are, what the puzzling questions are, the conflicts, the characters. I think that it’s going to be around forever and I think that the first series has proven that. This series is not an exception to that.
I was just joking earlier today, but honestly, I don’t have kids yet, and if something happens to me tomorrow, I truly would be like, “Thank God there was Korra.” At least I had something to do with this amazing thing that I think will change — I think Mike and Brian are part of this, I don’t want to say it’s a movement, but they’re part and parcel to this idea that pretty soon we won’t even be asked the question, “What’s it like to have a female superhero?” It won’t occur to anyone, because it will just be completely equal.
DF: Great answer. I forgot the question. That’s how riveted I was. I think it’ll leave a great legacy because it inspires people. Fans talk to Mike and Bryan about how much it’s changed them, and how it brought them out of their shell, or made them do something they didn’t believe they could have done, or just hung out with their little brother that they fight with twenty-three-and-a-half hours a day, but [they] don’t for that half hour. So, I think it’s going leave a very positive impact.