I think it still is polarizing says Janet Varney voice of Avatar The Legend of Korras eponymous heroine. Were currently sitting in a canteen at Calgary Expo 2022 talking about a piece of fanart Varney received earlier in the day. Despite being surrounded by food Varney hasnt eaten a thing. Shes been too busy meeting fans and signing autographs for the last seven hours. Polarizing — any Korra fan worth their salt should instantly know the scene were discussing. I did a con — I dont want to get into where because I feel bad — but I definitely did a con in a specific place where I just didnt have that many people who wanted to talk about the show Varney says. And the people who did almost looked furtive about coming up. It was a very Christian community. And finally someone literally pulled me aside and said Im so sorry this is because your character is gay.
There are young people who came out to their folks because they felt inspired by Korrasami. While The Legend of Korra turned 10 years old just a few weeks ago the incident Varney is discussing occurred right before the pandemic. If you didnt know which scene she was referencing in the first paragraph its the final sequence of the show which depicts Korra and her friendturnedromanticpartner Asami holding hands as they set off into the Spirit World together. This may seem relatively tame by todays standards but as Varney points out some people still take issue with it today.
At first I just had that hot prickly flush of anger and frustration and that feeling you have if youre a people pleaser where youre like How do I change their minds? I think I can reach them all at once Varney says. And then I just sort of took a breath and thought This is really good for me to experience because I live in the bubble of Los Angeles and before that I lived in the bubble of San Francisco. So it was really good for me to even get a little pinch of what some young people still experience on a regular basis feeling marginalized or uncomfortable or that theyre being looked at askance. Its still out there.
But before The Legend of Korra could have its groundbreaking finale the series had to find its footing and so did Varney. Like its predecessor Avatar The Last Airbender Korra is a show that is simultaneously aimed at children and imbued with a deep unwavering sense of humanity. Varney knew this back when she first auditioned for the part which at the time was obviously intimidating. How do you follow up The Last Airbender or more specifically how do you even earn the chance to follow up The Last Airbender?
Korra stands in front of a statue of her predecessor Avatar Aang. The answer is simple with great difficulty. For a long time Varney was convinced she didnt get the part. And yet she was brought back — on several occasions in fact — to meet Avatars showrunners and undergo chemistry tests with her couldbe costars. Eventually she got the gig. Hearing her recall her extremely Korraesque reaction now its easy to see why. I was in a fabric and crafts store in Burbank California when I got the call that it was happening and I jumped up and down and shrieked Varney says. All the other sweet little old ladies that were shopping for their fabrics were sort of startled like little hens when a loud sound makes them kind of go… what? Dont lie — you can picture Korra doing the same.
From that point on everything gradually fell into place. Comic Con 2012 strikes Varney as a particularly memorable moment that both made the role feel real and ratcheted up the pressure. Id never been to a con she says. We came out and there were like 5000 people in Exhibit Hall H. Everyone was wonderful and we sang Secret Tunnel — it was amazing. That shouldnt come as a surprise series given how dedicated Avatar fans tend to be — hell I personally have Irohs Leaves From The Vine scene tattooed across my entire inner bicep. The people who watched Avatar as kids many of whom have since watched it again as adults feel a genuinely deep connection to the show. Thats why its still so crucial to pay heed to Varneys thoughts on the relationship between Korra and Asami which fans have affectionately dubbed Korrasami.
When you consider how close Varney was to the entire creative process the importance of her perspective is compounded even further. The finale is obviously less controversial these days although her hope is that kids watching it now never forget how it was received back then. She wants people who have grown up with notably progressive shows like SheRa to look back and think What? There was controversy around Korra and Asami… kissing on screen? Thats so strange! Its all part of the same trajectory towards better more inclusive stories.
There are young people who came out to their folks because they felt inspired by Korrasami Varney says. My parents were teachers. They were great with me becoming a performer but I always felt like… does this matter? I saw the legacy of my parents touching all of these kids minds year after year like Oh Mr. Varney youre my favorite teacher! And so when I started getting that feedback I felt like I contributed something however small.
Its obvious Varney had a profound impact on viewers all over the world through her performance as Korra. And so its only natural to wonder could it be possible for the 83rd Avatar to make a return with the advent of Avatar Studios?
I think its entirely possible Varney says. I mean certainly we left her at a fairly young stage of her life. Theres just way more diversity in voice acting now than there was then. this point Varney pauses as if deep in thought. I wouldnt want to be the voice she says after a moment of silence. I think I brought to it everything I could from my experience. And there are many many things that I relate to. I also feel like theres just way more diversity in voice acting now than there was then and I would love to see that expressed. I can only assume thats something thats important to Mike and Brian because they are so passionate about telling diverse stories and theyre so passionate about being as authentic as possible. She continues So Im happy to have been this Korra. I certainly am showing up for Avatar Studios as a fan and Im ready to talk about it forever with Dante on the [Avatar Braving the Elements] podcast — as myself.Whether Korra and Team Avatar ever come back at all remains a mystery too. In Varneys own words Theyre very hard at work and theres a lot of different things happening all at once.
Varney with Avatar creators Bryan Koneitzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.Mike Coppola/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
The gravity of Varneys words is even heavier than it might initially seem. She was actually the first person to see the first image of the show where Korra is standing in front of Air Temple Island with her back to the camera it made her cry. Varney also vividly remembers meeting with franchise cocreators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko when they told her and Seychelle Gabriel Asami what they had planned. She worked with the likes of Lisa Edelstein and J.K. Simmons — she asked the casting director to use full names before her scene with the latter purely so she could hear Janet Varney and J.K. Simmons in the same sentence. Thats not to mention the icon behind Korras Season 3 villain Zaheer.
There were a lot of moments like that where you walk in and go Oh no Henry Rollins is here. This is a big deal Varney says. It was great. Hes like the nicest funniest dude. But hes still Henry Rollins. He looks like hes going to be exactly like who you would expect from Black Flag. And they put him really far away from my mic and my little room just sort of in a corner in more darkness than everyone else. It was very intimidating.