Thirty years ago, Dante Basco bangarang-ed his way onscreen as Rufio, the leader of the Lost Boys in the movie Hook. His career has spanned three and a half decades, and several of the projects he has worked on are now reaching various milestones.
In addition to Hook’s anniversary, Avatar: The Last Airbender, the beloved Nickelodeon animated series in which he voiced Prince Zuko, experienced a renaissance within the last year since its return to Netflix. He also voiced the title character in the Disney Channel series American Dragon: Jake Long, which just became available to stream on Disney+ in late February.
Basco is also known for having brought to life Ben Mercado, a teenage artist struggling with his father’s pressure for him to become a doctor, in the renowned Filipino American independent film The Debut, which will have a 20th anniversary screening at CAAMFest 2021.
“That sounds [like] a lot. That sounds good on a… Just like a highlight reel, you know?” remarked Basco, who in March celebrated the world premiere of his directorial debut, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, at South by Southwest. “It’s wild that all of this is happening in 2021 as kind of like a landmark year for my career. I feel so lucky that I’ve done some characters that have legs and people appreciate it years later, even decades.”
Basco and his siblings, who were all encouraged to pursue their interests in the entertainment industry, were raised with an old saying from school: “You’re stuck with the character and the character’s stuck with you.” As an actor who always strives to find characters that he relates to, he aims to bring himself and his own stories to the respective roles he has taken on over the years.
“I’ll also hopefully kind of extend the story, but I always feel like we put the characters where we intersect,” he said. “So my process is really work on the character and work on yourself. That’s kind of the whole process of it all.”
Having been in the industry for as long as he has, the ability to take on so many creative pursuits – in acting, writing, directing, poetry, dancing, and more – is his favorite thing about it. Basco believes that the hardest part of the industry, especially as a young artist, is getting over the feeling of uncertainty regarding one’s potential, as well as the possibility of being limited to the kind of roles that are offered.
“I think the thing that I least like is the feeling of not having a lot of control over what art you can put out, especially at a young age,” he elaborated. “And then as you get older, you try to do away with that idea, and just what I’ve done is just started making movies myself in between getting hired for other films and television works, so I can balance that feeling out.”
Basco’s upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area is what got his start in the long haul of entertainment. He and his brothers performed as break dancers in the pioneering days of hip hop in a group called the Street Freaks.
That grit he developed from battling other street performers helped shape him for the industry. “That’s the same grit that you kind of have in Hollywood to this day,” he described, “whether it be auditions you go on, whether it be making movies and taking that leap of faith and putting it out there to the world and just letting them see what you can do–good, bad, or ugly. That’s the whole path of the artist.”
Basco has had his share of role models and influences over the years and across different creative mediums. From break dancing groups like Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers, to actors such as John Travolta and Robert DeNiro, and filmmakers ranging from Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese, he’s always finding new artists to idolize and emulate in his own range of work.
Being one of very few Asian Americans onscreen for the longest time, that pressure of representation was something he hadn’t considered when he started out, but has become more aware of as he’s gotten older.
“I think as you kind of grow up and understand how the whole town works and the systems that are created and what can change and what narratives can change,” he explained, “it became really important in my life to speak out about it and be a part of the generation that’s helping to open the doors for the next generation, and I love that.
“We need to tell stories from our own perspective,” he added, “and we need to have that conversation of art through each other’s perspectives and see how each other look in each other’s eyes and have that conversation. And that’s the conversation of art.”
For The Fabulous Filipino Brothers – which, in addition to directing, Basco also co-wrote and stars in – he feels it’s a culmination of everything he has done up until that point, as he acts alongside his siblings, Dionysio, Derek, Darion, and Arianna, in a series of shenanigan-filled vignettes leading up to a family wedding. From the different roles they’ve played over the years to the creative skill sets they’ve acquired along the way, he felt ready to take on the challenge when his producing partner, Rawn Erickson, suggested that he go for it.
“There’s that old saying, ‘You know more than you think you know,’” he quoted. “When you direct a film after working in an industry for so many years, you start to utilize these things that you know.”
Basco did note that directing is not something he would be quick to jump on. If he were asked to direct ten years ago around the time he started producing projects, he believes he would have shied away from the offer.
“I got more comfortable with producing over the last ten years, but directing is a hard, tedious task that I don’t always love doing,” he said. “If it’s not something that my heart and soul’s into, I don’t know if it’s something that I’d be running to do every day. The enjoyment I have as an actor, as opposed to directing [is] a different thing. So I think this was the perfect project for me to direct.”
Basco is one of the spotlight filmmakers for CAAMFest 2021, where The Fabulous Filipino Brothers will have its Bay Area premiere at the Fort Mason Drive-In and The Debut (which screened at CAAM’s festival in 2001) will be having a 20th anniversary screening online. Being familiar with CAAM for the past two decades, coming to events often feels like a homecoming for him and his family, due in part to its location in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He also sees CAAM as a catapult for Asian American stories for the past several decades and considers it an honor to be recognized in the upcoming film festival. As he elaborated, “CAAM has been such a big part of this whole Asian American film movement for years. This [being] the highlight of right now is like the highest profile we’ve been as Asians in pop culture. I think CAAM has been a big part of that. So as a platform, they’ve just been one of the essential pieces of what we are as Asians in media in America for over 20 years now.”
Always a constant creative, Basco has more projects in the works. He’s planning a lot of Asian American film projects set overseas in different parts of Asia and has a podcast that’s set to come out. He also hopes to go back on tour for his 2019 memoir, From Rufio to Zuko, which examines the influence of his Filipino American heritage and the dynamics that have evolved during his career.
In addition to all of that, he’s very focused on getting The Fabulous Filipino Brothers out there and available for distribution, which is a new experience for him. “I’m excited about going on that journey and trying to get the film out to as many people as possible,” he commented.
There are more projects up his sleeve that he and his family are doing together, as well as individually. As he casually concluded, “I don’t know, Lauren, there’s a lot of different things going on.”
Dante Basco’s The Fabulous Filipino Brothers will be screened as part of CAAMFest 2021’s sold-out Celebration of Filipino American Stories. You can still buy tickets for the CAAMFest on Demand screening of The Debut.