NYCC 2013: "The Legend of Korra" Interview: P.J. Byrne, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Bryan Konietzko
At the 2013 New York Comic Con, Toonzone News had the chance to sit down with some of the cast and crew from Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra: actor P.J. Byrne (Bolin), executive producers Joaquim Dos Santos and Bryan Konietzko.
TOONZONE NEWS: My first question is for P.J.: you were a finance and drama double-major in college. Were you just playing it safe there?
P.J. BYRNE: I’ll do the long story short. I was a finance major and sophomore year, I had one of those semesters where you had to take 5 tests. This is terrible, but during the week, I would just load my refrigerator up with beer and say, “When this is all over, I’m going to drink all this beer!” So I finally finished, I came home, and I was so pumped. I lived in an 8-man (dorm) and no roommates were home yet. So I just started cracking beers and saying, “Man, this is great!” Finally, about 3:00, a roommate rolls in and I say, “Someone to drink with me, this is great,” and he said, “I’m going to audition for a play.” I said, “What?!” (Laughter) “No, we’re going drinking and out to bars. OK, I’ll go to this audition if you come drink with me afterwards.” He said, “Fine, but it’s right now.” I said, “What do I need to do?” “We need a monologue,” I didn’t know what a monologue was, so I said, “Let me just make one up.” And he’s like, “No, the audition is over in 20 minutes!” and I said, “I’ll just make one up.” So anyway, I make up the monologue, like I’m an old man talking to a shrink. When I go on the audition, they’re like, “What’s the name of the play?” and I’m like, “It’s called Cupcakes in Heaven.” “Who wrote it?” and I said, “John Ballard,” who was my high school history teacher.
And then I get the part and he doesn’t. And that’s how I started acting.
BRYAN KONIETZKO: Because of beer.
P.J. BYRNE: Because of beer…
TOONZONE NEWS: Beer and irresponsibility.
P.J. BYRNE: Yes. That’s exactly the reason. Yes. And then faculty saw that and said to audition for main stage.
BRYAN KONIETZKO: I’m going to guess you weren’t expecting that answer. (laughter)
TOONZONE NEWS: I was not expecting that answer. But, you know, to be an actor, on some level you have to be fearless. You have to be willing to…
P.J. BYRNE: To risk. To take a chance. Exactly. That’s not a joke.
BRYAN KONIETZKO: I want to hear the long version of this story.
P.J. BYRNE: There is a long version of this story (laughter).
TOONZONE NEWS: For Bryan and Joaquim, The Legend of Korra is an action cartoon with a female lead character who is clearly a shade of brown, with no merchandising deal that I can see. Conventional wisdom says any one of those would get the show canceled early, if not keep it from getting greenlit. You’re doing all of them and you’ve got four seasons. How are you doing this?
BRYAN KONIETZKO: Well, Avatar has always been an anomaly, I think in the American animation industry and at Nickelodeon as well. A lot of people are like, “Oh I love the show but it’s so weird that it’s on Nickelodeon.” But the truth of the matter is that Nickelodeon asked me and Mike (DiMartino) for an action adventure and/or legends and lore show in 2002, so at that time, that’s what they were looking for. They were looking to get into a certain demographic and a certain kind of show. They had their network needs and creatively, that was exciting for me and Mike. So even though it doesn’t seem like it fits and it’s not their typical fare, it was something that they asked for.
Now, we came up with our version to satisfy that, and that’s how the show was born, but Korra….there will never be another thing like it. It was picked up before it existed. They picked it up before they even told us. We had a meeting with a few of the executives, and they said, “We’ve greenlighted 12 episodes for you guys. You can do whatever you want.” And this was at the bottom of the economy, at the end of 2009. When NO studios had any money or anything, so we just said, “How can we say no to this? This is great.” We always thought there’d be a time when they’d come back and want more Avatar, and we always assumed they’d want more Aang and the gang and all that stuff, but we said, “That story arc’s done, we don’t want to reopen it,” and they surprised us. They just said, “As long as it has bending, do whatever you want.” So we just made the show we wanted.
All those things where you’re like, “What about toys? And a female lead?” There were certainly departments that were nervous about that stuff, but once they saw what we were making nine months later, they wanted more, and then once they started seeing actual episodes coming back, we convinced them to pick up even more. They tested it before it aired and it tested really well, and boys didn’t care that she was a girl, like we knew they wouldn’t care. We probably wouldn’t have cared when we were kids either. But we got picked up for 52 episodes before we had even aired.
Look, I could never repeat this, I don’t know how it happened (laughter) but a lot of it was built on the foundation of Avatar. This obviously doesn’t just happen out of the blue. It was more of a continuation of a property or of a franchise. Luckily, they trusted us, and that’s it.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: These guys just gave me a call and said, “We’re doing a new show, female lead, come over.” “OK. Let’s do it!”
P.J. BYRNE: “Do you like beer?” (laughter)
TOONZONE NEWS: Joaquim, I know you came on in the middle of season 2 of the first show, but you were on Korra straight on as one of the executive producers. How did coming in at the start change your role on the show?
BRYAN KONIETZKO: Not to answer your question, but Mike and I knew that if we were going to come back, the only way we would come back and do TV animation again was if we could have Joaquim helping us to run the show.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Yeah, I think we just, more than any other show that I’ve been on before, we just gelled. Not only on the show itself, but as friends outside. It was just a relationship that kept growing even when Avatar ended. The relationship would continue to grow, and we would get together and just talk creative stuff. It just made sense. It felt right.
BRYAN KONIETZKO: So we made him a co-exec. We didn’t want to just bring him back on and draw, we really wanted him to be part of development, and I intentionally didn’t do any drawings once we started the creation. I wanted the first drawings to come from Joaquim because I wanted him to have a sense of ownership. With the original Avatar, I had designed all the main characters, at least the initial concepts, but we called Joaquim and told him our idea of Korra and an hour later, he e-mailed us the first drawings, and that’s pretty much what she looked like. We wanted him to be in the DNA of the show, not just a hired hand.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Yeah, it was weird, because Mike is a strong voice creatively, and he and Bryan were like, “Just go, dude. Just start drawing.” I was like, “Excuse me?”
TOONZONE NEWS: You had the same reaction as they did when they talked to Nickelodeon. “Really?”
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Yeah, when they said “female lead,” I said, “they’re going to let you do that? It’s OK?”
BRYAN KONIETZKO: And we said, “she’s like an mixed martial-arts fighter.” That’s Joaquim’s bread and butter. “And she’s like a snowboarder, tomboy”…boom. An hour later, he knew what she looked like.
TOONZONE NEWS: For all three of you, in season 2, I’m kind of feeling like Bolin is like early season 1 Sokka, where he’s largely comic relief. He’s kind of been a little shunted to the side, and certainly on our forums, we’ve got members saying, “Bolin was cooler in the first season.” What’s happening with Bolin?
BRYAN KONIETZKO: Well, I don’t like talking about spoilers or even forecasting what’s coming up. We take so long to craft these shows, and I’d rather that come out through watching the show rather than me giving an interview. I will say that even though we set up Korra differently, where there’s story arcs for each book, it’s still a continuous story. They have a different bad guy and a different challenge for each book. We knew we wanted a long arc for their characters, just like Avatar. For me, that was the most interesting part of Avatar. You had the big, long arc of finally facing the Fire Lord and taking down the Fire Nation, but we also had the character arcs. It was us knowing where Zuko was going to end up from the first episode. We knew in 61 episodes where he was going to be. With Bolin, he’s the goofy, naive, good-hearted, child-like guy, and we know that he needs to go through a lot to grow up and find himself. That’s his arc.
P.J. BYRNE: Just to add to that, I think the first thing is not necessarily that he’s not cool. His whole life, all of his decisions were determined by his older brother. So when you’re let out into the world on your own, and now you’re actually making the calls about what you do or how you live your life and how you interact with people, when you’re by yourself and no one’s around to nod and say, “Yeah, do that” or “Do that,” you’re going to fumble.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: You’re going to fill your fridge full of beer and go on an audition…(laughter)
P.J. BYRNE: Or eat a lot of noodles!
BRYAN KONIETZKO: His coolness was by proxy, because of his brother. But his brother got a girlfriend, and a job…
P.J. BYRNE: He was a sidekick. It was the sidekick. And when the sidekick has to stand up on his own, there’s going to be speedbumps.
TOONZONE NEWS: On an acting level, sometimes records can be weeks or months apart, it’s very different from live-action acting. You can do lots of things over a longer span of time instead of live-action, where you’re doing a lot of stuff very concentrated. As an actor, how do you get back to Bolin’s character when you need to get back?
BRYAN KONIETZKO: He IS Bolin. He’s smarter Bolin. (Laughter)
P.J. BYRNE: Especially when you’re on multiple jobs, and you’re like “Who am I?”
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: Because you do some really dramatic stuff, too.
P.J. BYRNE: That’s the thing, too. You have to compartmentalize a lot. You have to take whatever job you’re working on and then go back to that space. With these guys, any time a character is written so well, honest to God it’s like riding a bike. This character, I can feel, is so close to who I am as a person, so it’s not as difficult as you’d think. Actually, it’s kind of a nice escapism to get to be this pure, honest, good person, and be like, “You’re going to go in and just chew on life and have fun, and go.” It’s kind of a nice place to go. It’s like going on vacation.
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: I also noticed that the first record I saw you in, there was that freedom to do your version of the line, and you were just doing your thing.
P.J. BYRNE: Yeah, I would also say that in the beginning, it was like a lot of improvising jobs where they’re like, “Dude, go.” They gave me that space, but now they’ve sort of gotten into my brain so I don’t actually improvise as much.
BRYAN KONIETZKO: Oddly enough, that exact same thing happened with Jack DeSena, who played Sokka. We had an idea for the character and Jack came in and augmented it, and would improvise, and we loved it, but then we started writing to that voice. I think that same thing is happening. P.J. still improvises, but I think we’re kind of anticipating where he’s going to go.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time for the interview with this last question. Toonzone would like to thank P.J. Byrne, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Bryan Konietzko for taking the time to talk with us, and to the Nickelodeon PR team for arrainging the interview. The Legend of Korra airs on Friday nights at 8:30 PM (Eastern)/7:30 PM (Central). Visit nick.com’s official Legend of Korra website for more info (including full episodes and video clips). You can also follow Bryan Konietzko via his Tumblr account, Joaquim Dos Santos via his Tumblr account, and P.J. Byrne via his Twitter account. Also, make sure you check out GWOtaku’s coverage of the Legend of Korra panel at New York Comic Con 2013!