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Kiawentiio Tarbell attends Netflix's 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' world premiere at The Egyptian Theatre Hollywood on Feb. 15 in Los Angeles.Presley Ann/Getty Images

You know that classic actor’s arc, painstakingly building from bit parts to bigger roles, withstanding rejection and despair? Yeah, that’s not Kiawentiio’s story. The Mohawk Canadian actor was cast in the first thing she auditioned for, the hit CBC/Netflix series Anne with an E. Her next role was the title character in Tracey Deer’s wrenching, semi-autobiographical film Beans, followed by a gig on Rutherford Falls. And now she’s the second lead in a gigantic Netflix series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, a live-action reimagining of the beloved animated series (2005-08), shot mostly in British Columbia, arriving Feb. 22. And she’s only 17.

We meet via video call, and even on that flattening medium, Kiawentiio sparkles. (Professionally, she goes by that mononym, pronounced Guy-a-wen-di-jou.) She’s poised and friendly, without any child-actor posing. Now and again she glances over her shoulder into a corner I can’t see; turns out her mother is there for backup.

Her Anne with an E audition was a lark – or as Kiawentiio puts it, “It came out of nowhere and happened randomly.” Growing up on the Akwesasne reserve on Kawehno:ke (also known as Cornwall Island), which straddles the Ontario/New York State border, she was “the little arty kid in the corner, who stayed inside at recess to paint and draw,” and dreamed of going to art school. Her dad chanced upon an open casting call on Facebook, and they thought, might as well try it. She was the last audition of the day.

Landing Avatar: The Last Airbender, by contrast, required more of a campaign. As a kid, Kiawentiio loved the animated series – its environmental and spiritual themes, its thoughtful depictions of Asian and Indigenous cultures, the battle scenes of Benders wielding the four elements, “the character arcs, the sheer craftsmanship. It would fill me.”

So when she heard rumours a few years ago about a live-action reboot, she had a feeling she’d be right for Katara, 14, a novice Waterbender, the last in her Southern Water Tribe, traumatized by the world war being waged by the Fire Nation, yet undaunted and hopeful. Teaming up with Aang, the title character (played in the series by Gordon Cormier), she begins to realize her potential. Kiawentiio asked her agents to keep an eye out, “just in case the universe is listening.”

The audition, when it came, was veiled in secrecy – fake project and character names, disguised scenes, all via Zoom. After a month-long series of “adrenalin-pumping” chemistry reads with other actors, showrunner Albert Kim delivered the news: Yes, it was Airbender; yes, they’d been searching the world for their Katara; and yes, it was her. She and her family burst into tears.

With her co-stars, Kiawentiio spent six weeks at “bending boot camp,” where each learned the martial art their movements are based on: wushu for Firebending, tai chi for Waterbending, Hung Ga for Earthbending and Bagua for Airbending. They shot on a cutting-edge mix of green screens, practical sets – Kyoshi Village was built in a working quarry in Coquitlam, B.C.; Jet’s hideout was filmed at WildPlay, a ziplining park in Maple Ridge, B.C. – and volume stages, including the world’s largest LED video wall studio, a near-circle lined with 2,500 LED wall panels and 760 LED ceiling panels, at Canadian Motion Picture Park in Burnaby, B.C.

“That stage was warm,” Kiawentiio says, laughing. “Wearing Katara’s big blue parka, pretending to be in the Arctic while being in a microwave.” Watching the animated series come to life was “surreal,” she continues. “When you see Appa in front of you” – a flying beast that combines bison, hippo and manatee – “or even small things like my necklace – I remember being almost in tears.”

Canada’s Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (Kim’s Convenience) plays Iroh, brother to Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim); the actors playing Katara’s parents, Rainbow Dickerson and Joel Montgrand, also played Kiawentiio’s parents in Beans. But she didn’t get to hang out much – “I was in high school at the time, just trying to get through 11th grade,” she says. “Fun fact, I’ve never been to a first day of high school with my classmates. Every year I was doing something, travelling somewhere.” Now graduated, with a five-year option for possible future seasons, “I’m saving my next few years for the show and whatever else may come from it. But I plan on going to school in the future.”

Each of the four Airbender nations has real-world roots, including Omashu, Himalayan, Indonesian and Indigenous Arctic cultures; cultural consultants advised on folklore, history and mythology, as well as costumes, calligraphy and artifacts; and the series’ four directors are of Asian descent. That mattered, Kiawentiio says: “It’s 100-per-cent important to me that I represent where I come from, my people and my language. That comes with me to every character I portray.”

Her opportunity to embody authentic Indigenous characters has never been higher, as a spate of recent series attest: Reservation Dogs, Little Bird, Echo, True Detective: Night Country, the Yellowstone franchise. Lily Gladstone could well become the first Indigenous woman to win a Best Actress Oscar, for Killers of the Flower Moon. And Deer, Kiawentiio’s Beans director was an excellent role model: “Being able to see her be the leader, be so strong, opened my eyes to other things I can explore – directing, producing.”

But she doesn’t want portraying Indigenous characters to become its own kind of limit. “Those roles will always be at my root; they are what I can see myself in and relate to. That doesn’t have to be the end of what we’re capable of, though. We don’t have to just play the Indian friend, the Native guy. We can be just that doctor or teacher or lawyer, those regular roles. The days of just getting a role, and not The Native role, are still ahead of us.”

Now that Kiawentiio’s accidental career is skyrocketing, “it’s funny how weirdly normal it gets,” she says. “I understand how people can lose their groundedness. You’re in the air so much, how do you stay grounded? It’s helpful to keep my real life separate, with my family and friends, and have my work self be almost a persona.”

She’s always had a readable face, she realizes. “I can’t hide anything; it’s all in my eyes. But to be able to be in control of that to portray someone else is so interesting. My dad told me he’s never seen me light up the way I do when I’m on a set. That’s when I knew I should stick with it.”

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