There's no denying that Avatar: The Last Airbender has become a pop culture phenomenon in recent years. After the series ended in 2008, it wasn't long before fans were clamoring for more. And now Avatar's co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have returned to the franchise by developing a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, debuting this weekend on Nickelodeon.
IGN had the pleasure of speaking with the voice of Korra, Janet Varney. If you don't recall the name, you might recognize some of her work: TBS's Dinner and a Movie, Rifftrax Presents and The JV Club, to name a few. She's also an accomplished performer in the national comedy scene (and after a few minutes of chatting with her, this comes as no surprise).
As a fan of the show herself, Janet had plenty to say about her time in the studio as Korra.
IGN TV: So tell me about how you first got drafted into The Legend of Korra.
Janet Varney: I love that question because it makes it sound like I am so awesome that I get to pick and choose my projects. I don't. [Laughs] I auditioned for it. I'm a huge Nickelodeon fan, and it was really exciting for me when I was brought into the Nickelodeon community and started to audition for projects. I love doing voiceover. I would have loved to have done anything for the network. But I will say that I unequivocally lucked out and got the best job in the world. It's a lot more than I ever could have hoped for. I would have been really, really fine just being a side character who pops in and recurs on something goofy. The fact that I was invited to join this incredibly fantastic and iconic, pre-existing world and allowed to put a new spin on it by introducing this great new generation of characters is just -- I'm still kind of getting over it. It's been a little while since we started recording, so I don't know why the shine hasn't worn off. But it has not.
IGN: How many episodes have you recorded so far?
Varney: I'm not even going to tell you the answer to that. Because I don't even want people to know when this thing starts or ends or where it's going or anything. But we've got a really great season.
IGN: Were you a fan of the original Airbender series before you started working on Korra?
Varney: I was. I wasn't as knowledgable. I have friends who are super diehard fans. I had started watching the series and fell in love with it. Then the audition came up, and I became really afraid of how much I wanted it. But it's such a great series. It's wonderful. To me, the real genius in making television for kids is making something that inadvertently -- or perhaps intentionally -- becomes something that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. It's got such a broad appeal, above and beyond it's target demographic (for lack of a better term). But the fact that it extends beyond that is just such a joy.
IGN: Like you said, the original series has always catered to both its younger audience and adult viewers alike. Does knowing that influence your approach to voicing the character?
Varney: Well, I can't take too much credit for that because I think Michael and Bryan are always so careful and so focused about what their intention for these characters was and for this world. They don't pander, and I think that's so admirable -- and it pays off in spades. I think that in a strange way that sort of reflects back to me and my feelings about kids in general. They are incredibly smart and incredibly intuitive. They're sponges, and they're learning faster than we'll ever be able to again for the rest of our adult lives. They know what's up. But goofy voices are great! I'm not in any way saying that it's not fun to have goofy cartoon voices. I love doing them, and I love watching them. But I also love that with this particular show, they were like, "No, she's a girl. She needs to sound like a teenage girl. She doesn't need to sound kooky." When we talk to kids, we can talk to them with our regular voices. They're hip to it, you know what I mean?
IGN: Totally. So what has the recording process been like for you? Usually with these types of shows they'll put you in a room by yourself and say, "Go." But the fluid dialogue in this show leads me to believe that that's not necessarily the case?
Varney: Yes, that is not the case. Nickelodeon is so, so smart and so great about putting as many of us in a room as can be there at any one time because they understand the value of really acting in an ensemble. I think there are moments that can be found in those processes that are really, really hard to achieve when you're a lone wolf in a booth. Having said that, people that are great at just being able to go in and be in a booth by themselves are my heroes because it's that much harder to really give a great, authentic performance. But we're very lucky in that there's a lot of time and care put into scheduling so that P.J. [Byrne], David [Faustino] and I can be together and J.K. Simmons can be there whenever possible. Just really getting that relationship happening live is such a gift to us.
IGN: Coming from a background of sketch comedy acting, what have been some of the challenges transitioning into voiceover work?
Varney: Well, I'm mostly doing all the stuff I normally would, it just so happens that nobody is catching any of it except for the microphone. [Laughs] And I feel like I witness my fellow actors doing the same thing. We're still just kind of acting and flailing our arms, and if I'm climbing something on the show, I'm fake climbing! If I'm being held captive or tied up, I'm making my body rigid. I think there are people who are voiceover experts who can get what they need out of themselves without doing that. But to your point, I come from such a using-your-whole-body background that I don't really trust myself to get there unless I'm feeling it. So yeah, I guess I'm not limited in that I don't limit myself, much to the enjoyment and amusement of everybody who's watching while I record.
IGN: And what's it been like working on some of the more dramatic scenes from the show?
Varney: Well I've told our amazing director Andrea Romano more than once -- and I think I've told the creators this as well -- that I've done the most acting in my career on this show. They write such involved, wonderful plots that are so multilayered, and these characters are experiencing so wildly disparate things, from the kooky comedy to some of the more emotionally powerful stuff. I've been given the opportunity to really act in a way that, coming from a comedy background, I frankly don't get to do that often. I think that's one of the things I wasn't expecting that I've been really surprised and delighted by.
IGN: I've seen the first two episodes so far. I absolutely loved them.
Varney: I'm so glad!
IGN: I'm a big fan of the old show, and Korra is already shaping up to be really great. I know you can't reveal too much, but can you talk a bit about what we can expect from the rest of the first season going forward?
Varney: I guess nobody has said, "Don't discuss it." But I'm always so reticent about teasing too much because I really love for people to just get on board and find out what kind of ride they're in for while it's happening. I will definitely say that I think the personal relationships are just as important as the big-picture questions, which I'm really proud of. As with the original series, there are some really interesting philosophical questions that are being raised about "Us versus Them" and bullying and "How important is it being special?" and "Do you set yourself apart too much?" -- things like that. And I know that's sort of vague, over-arcing stuff, but I don't want to give too much away about the characters and the twists and turns. I mean I do want to, but I'm not going to. [Laughs]
IGN: Not to poke that bear much further, but there does seem to be a potential love triangle among Korra, Mako and Bolin. If you were to guess, between the two of them, which guy do you think Korra prefers? I'm sure you'll be getting that question in a lot of fan letters soon....
Varney: [Laughs] Yeah. I mean... as Korra, that's one question -- and I can't answer that because we've got to let her figure that out for herself. As me, I couldn't love my cohorts P.J. Byrne and David Faustino more. I just adore them, and any opportunity to be in a room with them is just a kick in the pants, I love it. Having said that, character-wise, I'm more of a Bolin girl. I just love the geeky comedy boys! Those are the guys I go for.
IGN: Finally, if you could have any type of bending to use for yourself, which one would you choose?
Varney: Oh, that's such a great question, and it's so difficult... It's really, really hard to watch Korra throw those balls of fire and not think about how awesome it would be to be able to do that. [Laughs] I don't even know. That's the most scary, violent one, and if you knew me you would know that I am the least threatening person in the world. So maybe that's part of it. Maybe it's so opposite of what I am in my regular life that when those fireballs start flying I just get really excited!
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