Elizabeth Yu Surrounds Herself With Fan Art

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Stephanie Diani, Getty Images, Everett Collection, Retailers

The corseted leather armor Elizabeth Yu wears on Avatar: The Last Airbender is what really transformed her into Princess Azula, the show’s cut-throat, fire-bending, conniving villain. The costume snapped Yu’s posture into place while filming, keeping her back straight as she stomped onto set while listening to a playlist that included “Maneater” by Nelly Furtado. “Walking around with that playing in your ear, how could you not feel like the baddest bitch in the room?” the 21-year-old actress tells the Cut from her apartment in New York, which she shares with three cats and her boyfriend, Stranger ThingsGaten Matarazzo. “I couldn’t really relax back into my own body language.”

On the original Peabody-winning animated series, the blue-fire-shooting character of Azula doesn’t actually appear until the second season. In the highly anticipated live-action adaptation, which premiered February 22 on Netflix, we get to know more about Azula behind the scenes while Aang and his crew fly around the world training to take down her father, Fire Lord Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim). “We’re laying a foundation for her to jump off of,” Yu says of the earlier-than-expected introduction to her character. After filming Avatar when she was 19, Yu went on to appear in the critically acclaimed film May December, in which she plays Mary Atherton-Yoo, one of three children raised by two controversial parents (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton).

Below, Yu shares the advice Melton offered on set that she follows to this day as the young actress blazes her own path in Hollywood.

Were you a fan of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series before auditioning for this role?

I was one of those kids who was only allowed to watch Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. So I would watch all the reruns, but I didn’t actually see it all the way through until the audition process. Growing up you see it as a children’s cartoon so there are all these zany adventures, but then actually watching all the way through I was like, This is actually so good. There are a lot of lessons that you can take through your whole life.

It feels to me, as an outsider, that we’re in a breakthrough moment for Asian representation in media. Are you feeling that shift in the opportunities coming your way as a young actor?

Hopefully! I’m really lucky to just be starting in this sort of new era of Asian representation. It’s also so amazing to be able to work with actors who were the ones to lay out that sort of format that we are now able to play with. I’m reminded of it every single day I go to work through new auditions that I’m getting and seeing new movies. Past Lives was groundbreaking for me. Here’s this movie that is probably 75 percent in Korean, but it’s so American. And it’s a love story that everyone can relate to with a female Asian lead. That and Everything Everywhere All at Once — it’s healing the little Asian girl in me.

Moving onto our Taste Test — Where do you get your best culture recommendations from?

I follow a lot of Asian artists and creators on Instagram. There’s this new band Wasia Project I’ve been listening to a lot recently. I’m also half-white, half-Korean, so following mixed-race artists is really cool. Trying to surround myself with Asian creatives is a huge part of why I love doing what I do. I also like to keep up with Michelle Zauner, Bailey Bass, David Iacono, a lot of my actor friends. And Daniel Dae Kim!

Which celebrities, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party?

Beyoncé. Everyone loves Beyoncé. Michelle Yeoh, Michelle Obama, William Shakespeare, and Stephen Sondheim.

What’s the last meal you cooked for dinner?

I made a leftover risotto kind of thing two days ago. I had leftover rice and a bunch of vegetables in my fridge: broccoli, peas, corn, celery, onions. I boiled the leftover rice in chicken stock and added heavy cream to it. It’s actually really good.

What is your pre-filming ritual? 

I make a playlist for every character that I play. I had to make a good Azula playlist because I needed a hype up before I walked on set. Eminem’s “Without Me” is on there, that one was really helpful. There’s also “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz, “Maneater” by Nelly Furtado, and “Pride” by Kendrick Lamar. I’m pretty proud of the playlist actually.

What’s your comfort rewatch?

I love rewatching movies. I watch Perks of Being a Wallflower a lot, Call Me By Your Name, The Breakfast Club. My favorite movie of all time is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ll throw it back on if I’m feeling uninspired.

What’s the best piece of gossip you’ve ever heard?

When Solange slapped Jay-Z in the elevator. If I could travel through space and time and be in one place it would be in that elevator. I’ve done a deep dive on TikTok and YouTube of like, Here’s everything that was leading up to that moment and what could have been said. I love that pop-culture moment. I think it’s absolutely iconic.

Favorite game to play?

I just recently started getting into video games. This is a new development from the strike, just being home not doing anything. I started playing Hogwarts Legacy. Fuck J.K. Rowling, but I loved it. I started playing Baldur’s Gate, the Dungeons & Dragons game. I spent months and months finishing that game. I’m on the final boss now but I don’t want to finish it, it’s so good.

What music do you listen to when you’re alone?

I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks. Jon Brion’s soundtracks are really good, he did Lady Bird. I like a lot of the A24 soundtracks. I like romantic, sad music. I don’t know why. I’ll play it while I’m cleaning or cooking.

Name a book you couldn’t put down?

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Actually I had to put that down because it was too sad, but I’m picking it back up. I blew through The Woman in Me by Britney Spears. It’s a pretty easy read, but it’s so interesting to see her perspective of everything we were seeing in pop culture. I’m also reading Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman right now, it’s really good.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I ever received was from Charles Melton. When we were filming May December, he was constantly offering me advice and mentoring. I filmed Avatar first, but this was my first big movie, it’s the first time I’m doing all this stuff. And he was just like: “Whatever career decisions you’re facing, follow what you want to do, not what you think you should do, or what everyone else is telling you that you should do — and you’ll never regret a decision.” That was really helpful.

What about bad advice?

I can’t think of bad advice I’ve been given. Probably because when I hear bad advice I’m like Yeah, okay, let me expel that from my memory.

Favorite piece of art you own?

I live with my boyfriend and he gets a lot of cool fan art that he collects. He was on Broadway last year and got a lot of fan art from that. So we have that sporadically around our apartment. We have to keep it around because it’s so good! There’ll be little paintings of him and his cast members or like, bracelets that people have made him.

What show is your boyfriend not allowed to watch without you?

We’re currently watching Mr. & Mrs. Smith and he is not allowed to watch that until he comes back home and sits down to watch with me. Once I heard that Maya and Donald were doing it, I was like, This is going be my whole personality, I have to watch this. And it is now my whole personality.

What would your last meal be?

A mixture of guilty-pleasure foods. Raising Cane’s, and I’m notoriously known for my obsession with Applebee’s breadsticks and Alfredo sauce. Oh and my boyfriend makes bomb-ass Kraft mac ’n’ cheese.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Elizabeth Yu Surrounds Herself With Fan Art