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ian ousley

Ian Ousley recalls sitting on his parents’ bed, switching on the television, and completely transporting to a different, magical land: the land of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like many other early 20-something-year-olds, he grew up with the show. “Avatar was one of the things that pushed me into wanting to do martial arts,” he reflects, “My parents were so sick of me pretending that I could bend stuff [laughs].” 

 

Some years later, Ousley received the news that he would be a part of the live-action rendition of the series — a very full-circle moment for the young actor that he describes as emotional. But this time around, viewers are given a glimpse of the Avatar universe through a new light. Departing from the original animated form, the actors in this new iteration all faced the challenge of translating these quirky characters to real life.

Ian Ousley is photographed by Anthony Giovanni, Fashion by Edwin J Ortega, Grooming by Patrick Santa Ana Words by Kayla Curtis-Evans, Cinematography by Aramis Duran

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“Luckily enough for me, I had tons to pull from based on the animated version. Asking and answering those questions for Sokka was really important to me. Like, what was my relationship with my dad before he left? What was my relationship with my mom like? I dove into some things that the animation doesn't explore all the way,” he expands, “Music and costumes were great access points for me as well. Putting on that costume while I'm listening to music was really helpful. I would journal a lot as Sokka every morning too.” 

 

As a kid, Ousley reflects that he would actually mimic the actions of Prince Zuko, the anti-hero of the fictional series. He laughs when thinking of the irony of pretending to be Zuko but ending up playing Sokka, one of the less intimidating and more misunderstood characters on the show. “He wants to be a warrior so bad. And he wants to be valued so badly. He wants to have something to offer, but sometimes he doesn't always feel like he has the physical capabilities for that,” he continues, “So there's a really beautiful story there, I think with him finding ways to be helpful to his friends and the mission of saving the world — without having to be the muscle, even though he so badly wants to be.” 

 

In many ways, Ousley found it easy to shapeshift into Sokka for this project. “His sarcasm really brings things together. He's so complex and so funny. I joke a lot too, especially to deflect things. So I feel very tied with Sokka in that way,” he shares. But there were surely some challenges to channeling this character, like maintaining his air of comedic relief, as the threshold for comedy in animated television is much higher. Characters can launch off of cliffs or battle with larger-than-life villainous creatures, with little to no consequences. “Everything's weightier in our show because it's real. You're looking at a real little 12-year-old dealing with saving the world. You're looking at a real Katara and a real Sokka. But I was very passionate about keeping the comedy on set.” 

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While on set, Ousley and his castmates fostered a family bond not unlike the bond of all of the young characters in the series. “We feel so lucky to mesh with each other as a family unit. I think it came really easy 'cause we spent so much time together, on set, but also off,” he expresses, “Gordon is just like Aang in real life. He's just an energy ball and you feel like he's gonna save the world in real life too. Kiawentiio is just such a force in her own way. And then you have all the guest stars too, which I could go on and on about, but I just feel really blessed. I also shadowed a lot of the directors while I was on set because that's something that I am passionate about wanting to get into.” Ousley even lived with his castmate, Dallas Liu, for the duration of filming, sharing that the two fostered a close-knit brotherly bond.

 

When Ousley isn’t on set, he taps into another form of self-expression through fashion and design. During the SAG-AFTRA strike this past year, he joined forces with two of his friends, Ryan Sullivan and Hunter Baker, to help with the design and creative direction strategy for their vintage-inspired brand Kalo Soil. But this medium of artistry isn’t a novel one for the young actor; he’s been into sketching and designing for years now. “I started a clothing brand when I was 15 and was just making hoodies and embroidering stuff in the fashion district of DTLA. I had fashion internships with a professor from FIDM, so it's been a passion of mine forever,” he reflects. When he isn’t filming or feeding his interests in the realm of fashion, he flexes other creative muscles, sharing that writing or journaling provide moments of decompression for the 21-year-old who has been moving in the fast lane since he moved to LA as a teenager.

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Between his diverse roles, Taekwondo, and creative outlets, Ousley has a pretty full plate. But he carves out the necessary time to unwind and take it all in. “I've always needed a creative outlet, so I'm constantly sketching and designing stuff just for fun. I've been doing that since I was 15 and it feels effortless at this point. I can always channel whatever I'm feeling into those things. I also love writing, so I try to stay consistent with that — songwriting, poetry, and essays — all of it. I journal a lot too. I spend time with God. I just try to stay rooted in the things that I can control with so many different things going on.” 

 

Staying rooted in his life is important to the multi-talented actor, but he still looks ahead in the hopes that his career in Hollywood will continue to flourish. A smile flashed across his face when alluding to directing, a skill he’d like to hone in the coming years, but he maintains that his heart really does lie with the current project that he spent the last year dedicating himself to. “The thing that I'm looking most forward to is to continue the show. We all love the show so much, so season two and hopefully season three would be the goal. Sometimes in busy cities like New York or LA, people want to move on quickly. But I think that we all have found a really fun home here, so I would like to enjoy that for a little bit.” 

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Just before concluding our Zoom call, Ousley indulged us by answering the hard-hitting questions — I mean, it felt almost unnatural not to ask. “[Laughs] My favorite character from Avatar is Apa. There's no other answer that should be allowed.” And though he masters Sokka’s playful humor and personal intricacies, he shared that if given a chance to occupy the grand Avatar: The Last Airbender universe, he’d definitely be a part of the water tribe. “That’s a hard question,” he posited, “Gliding on the ice and playing around with water powers looked so fun in the animated show — so I’d go with that.” 


Netflix’s highly-anticipated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming.

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