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In a sprawling and candid interview, actor Dante Basco discusses everything from his new movie and Avatar to Psy and Homestuck.
Actor Dante Basco has as many roles online as he does onscreen—actor, fan favorite, and famous fan. Beloved by fans of Spielberg’s Hook, the animated series Avatar, and the epic webcomic Homestuck, Basco’s popularity taps into a convergence of fanbases.
Last week his latest film, Hang Loose, began streaming directly to fans. Basco and costar Kevin Wu, better known as Internet celebrity KevJumba, are hoping these same fans will turn Hang Loose into a success; and—with any luck—into a crucial milestone for Asian-American cinema.
If you’re one of those fans, then you probably know Basco best as Rufio, the magenta-haired, mohawk-sporting leader of the Lost Boys in Spielberg’s Hook. To fans of the popular animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, he’s the voice actor behind the haughty but lovable Prince Zuko. Or perhaps you know him as the most famous fan of Andrew Hussie’s massively popular webcomic, Homestuck—where his Hook character, Rufio, has appeared multiple times as a featured character, not to mention his entirely new character, a troll dubbed Rufioh.
Earlier this year, Basco joined Tumblr and started reading Homestuck at the urging of his fans, unaware of all the meta-references to his character that awaited him within the text of the comic. When Hussie found out Basco was reading, he began leaving cryptic notes for the actor on the homepage of his website: “HELLO DANTE“; YOURE DOING IT MAN; “YOU ARE MAKING THIS HAPPEN.” He even referred to the event in the comic itself. And fans flocked to Basco’s Tumblr to watch his reactions as he read.
Meanwhile, Basco has been busy with his other fandom: Last spring, he delighted Avatar fans by returning to voice Zuko’s grandson in Legend of Korra, the hit continuation of the franchise. The role of Zuko was played by Dev Patel in M. Night Shyamalan’s notorious attempt at adapting the franchise into a 2010 film for Paramount. Basco was unconnected to the widely publicized controversy over the Paramount production’s whitewashing of most of the main cast and the subsequent fan protest that came to be known as Racebending.
But the campaign did hit Basco where he lived; as a Filipino-American actor, Basco is all too familiar with the rarity of quality parts for minority actors.
A desire to level the playing field and represent the Asian-American community was the impulse behind the creation of Basco’s production company, Kinetic Films. A comedy set in Hawaii, Hang Loose is “a cinematic amalgam crossing Weekend at Bernie’s and The Hangover,” according to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, where Basco and Wu snagged awards for Best Actor and Best Newcomer, respectively. The film’s trailer, featuring an intro by Basco and Wu explaining why they made the film, has racked up almost half a million views on YouTube.
On Friday, Hang Loose began streaming directly to fans on the movie’s website. The Daily Dot was eager to talk to Basco about the film, as well as the importance of creating diverse content in the world of online media. Along the way, we touched on Avatar, Psy, Jackie Chan, and of course, Homestuck.
DD: One of the driving forces behind the idea of Kinetic Films is the Asian-American community doing it for themselves instead of waiting around for equal representation that’s clearly not going to happen.
I can’t complain. I’ve actually had a great career in Hollywood. I’ve been a working actor my whole life. But I also see where we’re at and what could be improved. Back in the ‘90s, when we did The Debut, there were a handful of really great Asian-American films that came out; and we thought, this is it! This is the time! Hollywood’s gonna see that we’re cool, that we’re a community that needs to be catered to. And it just never happened. I think in the back of my mind, [I felt] like Hollywood would start making parts for us, but that hasn’t been the case. What it really comes down to is making films for ourselves, putting out images that show the reality of minorities in America.
DD: Do you feel like there’s been a regression since the ‘90s in terms of representation?
I don’t know if it’s a regression—there’s definitely been things like the controversy over the Asian-American character in Two Broke Girls. We’ve come so far, but it’d be great to have images that counter that, to have young leading men who don’t have accents that aren’t the brunt of the joke. Even “Gangnam Style”—as great as that song is, its popularity cements the idea in people’s minds that we’re all foreigners.
DD: You’ve stated that you don’t think Psy’s success is an indicator of advancing opportunities for Asians in the entertainment industry.
Not really. He’s great; he’s a great talent and a great personality. But the most famous Asian-Americans in American media are Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Psy. Kinetic Films wants to tell stories about us, about people who are born and raised in this country, and who are part of the fabric of this country. “Gangnam Style” is cool, but that’s not what we are.
DD: Do you feel like the overwhelming support for projects like Avatar/Korra, or hallyu (the Korean wave in general) have opened more avenues for minorities in the entertainment industry, or do these not fix the real problem because they aren’t authentically Asian-American?
Not yet. But my real belief is that if we can give lead roles to Asian-American actors, if we can create stars like KevJumba and AJ Rafael from the next generation, then money is a great equalizer. It brings weight to the argument for more representation. If we can prove [that there’s a demand for Asian-American film], then we’ll have more lead roles.
DD: I have to ask about [the failed fan campaign against whitewashing in the Last Airbender film], Racebending, because as painful as it was, since then, we’ve had so much visibility and attention given to the subject of whitewashing in Hollywood—the fact that “racebending” is a word, for example.
It’s illegal to hire or fire anybody because of their race, appearance, or sexual orientation, but in Hollywood, ironically, it’s the reason people will hire or not hire you. Depictions of race have changed so much since, like, the ‘50s, where white people just played every race. But the pendulum swings both ways: I’m Filipino-American. If I had to wait for a Filipino role to come out to get work, I couldn’t eat. There are barely any roles out there. It’s a grey area. I think the best thing is that we’re aware of it. The conversation about racebending helps a bit, but most of all I think it’s a really empowering conversation for ethnic actors, and helps them level the playing field.
DD: What was your reaction when you got asked to return as a voice actor for Korra?
It was definitely a huge surprise. I love being part of the Avatar family. It’s great to see [creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino] continuing the franchise and taking it to the next level, and pushing themselves to do even crazier ideas.
DD: Do you think you’ll have an even juicier role next season?
Hopefully! I have no idea what they’re doing, but they always keep me in the loop.
DD: Hang Loose is getting all kinds of attention from a convergence of fanbases that are coming together to support the project—your own fans, Avatar fans, Homestuck fans, fans of KevJumba.
It’s a new time. It’s a new world. It’s the idea we came up with, going directly online, to take the film directly to our fanbases—matching them all up and giving something that we hope they’ll like. It’s so experimental, and the response has been great so far. It’s just a different time. It’s like when YouTube came out for musicians and they could market straight to their fans. This is the first time I’ve seen filmmakers bypass studios and distribution companies and going, no, we’re going to make stuff straight for our fans. Because my career’s been so long, I have fans from different generations and different genres—film, television, animation. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Put that together with KevJumba’s army of a fanbase and our desire to come up with a story that appeals to the Asian-American community, and it should be very interesting.
DD: Have you ever had a night like Dante’s and Kevin’s in the film?
I’ve had quite a few nights! You know, our relationship was a lot like the one in the movie. I guess I’m the young vet around town, especially in Asian-America. I’ve had quite a life. To be a celebrity, as a person in this town, as a producer, and as an actor. Even in Hawaii, it’s kind of nice. So there’s a big brother/little brother thing. And the great thing about the movie is that there’s so much I learned from Ken about the whole process and continue to learn about how the new world [of Internet media] is working. And I want to think he learned a lot of things from me about old media, “old” Hollywood: What we do, how we make movies, and how we write, our process. It’s a great partnership.
DD: Do you feel like the Internet has influenced that at all —your style of filming and production? Obviously it’s influenced your style of marketing.
I think it’s influenced everybody. It’s a great equalizer and a new art form, whether you’re using it for movies, music, or art. If you really work at it hard, you can really find your audience, tap into it, and make stuff for them—and realize that you’re a part of it, too. It’s not like you’re above your fandom. We’re fans of everything that our fans are fans of. It’s a different relationship between you and your audience.
DD: Speaking of which, can you talk a little bit about Homestuck?
Homestuck is—if you don’t know, it’s an online webcomic…
DD: Oh, I know, I’ve read it.
Oh, you’re a Homestuck?
Awesome! So, I got wrangled into Homestuck. It’s the story of my whole social media [experience]. First of all, I wasn’t online, ever. I was telling Kevin and AJ [Rafael], you know, man, I’m not online. They were like, “Dante, Google yourself. You’re online.” And so if you don’t cultivate your own online persona, you’re just leaving it up to, whoever, to do it. That kind of scared me, and they got me to really start doing Twitter, Facebook, and so on. After I got my YouTube channel and my Twitter started growing, a lot of people were like, you need to start a Tumblr. This one girl named jhenne-bean said, you’d have a thousand followers by tonight. I’m like, alright, I’m going to just follow you guys and listen to the fans. I did, and she was right: By that night I had over a thousand followers, and it just kept growing.
And then after a few hundred of my subscribers were like, “You need to read Homestuck because [Basco’s popular character from Hook] Rufio makes an appearance in it.” I did. And when I started reading that, all of a sudden I had over 40,000 followers watching me live-blogging my reading of Homestuck. It’s so crazy! It’s one of those things you can never imagine happening, and then it just happens and it’s the neatest experience and I’ve never ever been a part of. I’m having a great time.
Illustrations by Andrew Hussie/MS Paint Adventures; photo by Aja Romano
DD: Did you contribute to Hussie’s Kickstarter?
Yes. That thing’s amazing. It’s crazy. I’m inspired by that all over the place. And even [Homestuck creator] Andrew Hussie’s written me, and we have this weird relationship through Tumblr and online, and he’s created a new troll [one of a group of characters in Homestuck] that takes my typing quirks and personality. I can’t even get my mind around it all right now, but we’re still in the middle of it.
DD: Was that also how you met Kevin Wu? Through online interaction?
I met Kevin through AJ Rafael. He’s another big YouTube star. He’s a very conceptual singer-songwriter. They have a similar relationship. One night, I met Kev at a bar, and we’re all having drinks, and I’m so inspired by these guys that that night I was like, “Kev, we’re gonna do a movie together.” He talks about it, too, sometimes. Like, “I can’t believe I met Dante Basco in a bar in Laurel Canyon, and then months later we’re in Hawaii shooting a movie.” Everything just came together.
Photo via Dante Basco/Facebook
DD: You’re doing at least three more movies together?
Yeah. So the first three are all set in Hawaii. Manna is a comedy written by Kevin Wu and Justin Shawn. Our other film’s a drama called Paradise Broken. It’s about the dark side of Hawaii; I play a pimp and a heroin addict in Waikiki. That’s been to film festivals and won awards. And then I’m finishing writing a new movie called Red Roses, which is a musical written around AJ Rafael’s album, Red Roses. So what we’re trying to do is finish four films every year, a musical, comedy, drama, and action. And if we can pull that off, we can really create an Asian-American genre that has never been done before on a consistent basis.
DD: Did you make a decision to film in Hawaii for financial reasons or was it partially a decision to support the Hawaiian economy?
There’s two reasons that we film in Hawaii. One, my partner, James Sereno, has the biggest commercial house in Hawaii. He has a USC grant, so after building a successful commercial house, he wanted to do a movie. He reached out to me as being one of the more popular faces in the community, and we got along so well, I said that we’d have a bigger impact if we did a slate of films instead of just one. He loved the idea.
The second reason, for me—if you’ve never been there, Hawaii is run by Asian-America; it is Asian-America. It’s 85 percent Asian-American; it’s pan-Asian-America. We run Hawaii. The mayor, the leaders, the bankers, the waiters, everyone; when you go to Hawaii, you’re in America, but everyone is Asian. So that’s a powerful thing. I always tell people from the mainland, if you’re Asian-American, and you’ve never been to Hawaii, you need to go. If you’re Filipino, Chinese, or Japanese, it’s different than going home. Even when I go home to the Philippines, I’m American. Everyone knows I’m American. I was born and raised out here, I don’t speak the language, and as proud as I am of being Filipino, I love being home, I’m still in another country. I’m still a foreigner there. When you go to Hawaii, it’s a different feeling: You’re not a minority, and you’re still in America. It’s a very powerful feeling.
Not only that, if we do a story in Hawaii, the odds that two people in the movie are Asian is a 90 percent chance. Woody Allen does movies about Jews on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That’s his world. I took that same mindset: Let’s do movies in Hawaii. We don’t have to explain why anyone’s Asian. It’s just, this is what Hawaii is. I think that’s a powerful subliminal statement that we can make.
DD: What do you hope the response to the film will be?
My biggest thing is, I want to make an impact. Of course we want to become a success and make money and keep going, but the bigger picture is to impact the industry: to create something that was never done before. The Asian-American genre has never existed before in Hollywood. To do something like that in an industry this big is a powerful thing, and I think it’s a worthy thing to try to accomplish.
You know, in the last few years of my career, I’ve been getting a bunch of achievement awards, role model awards, for being a prominent Asian actor for the last few decades. I always graciously accept them, but part of me wonders: What did I really do? I just was an actor that managed to be able to keep working in a very hard and competitive business. And I guess that’s admirable. And I understand that’s valuable for a lot of people in the industry, but I didn’t get it.
But then one of the other award-winners came up to me after the awards ceremony. He’s a lawyer, and a doctor, and he does clinical research, and he’s amazing. And he said, “Mr. Basco, I’m a big fan of your work, I’ve followed your whole career. You don’t understand how important your job is, how much you help widen the scope of what people think of Asian-Americans today.”
And that really impacted me. As an adult, we’re looking at legacy and how we can improve the world in what we do. And what I do is act, and this is how I can help open the doors for actors in my community, and go, look, this wasn’t here when I got here, but I can bring that here for the next generation. I meet all these Asian-American actors who want me to tell them how they can succeed; and it’s hard to look at a young actor coming up and go, “Hey, in my generation, it was just me and John Cho.”
It’s our job to try to make things better for the next generation, and this is what I came up with: Let’s create a production company. Let’s show Hollywood that we can make money, and great films, great art, and stars for the next generation. We can employ the next generation, of not only actors and actresses, but also writers and directors and crew members. I told Kevin, if we’re not going to do it, who’s going to do it?
DD: Last question: Who’s your favorite Homestuck troll?
My favorite troll… it’s gotta be Tavros; he’s my dude. That’s an easy pick for me. Kanaya is my patron troll and I really love her also. Who’s yours?
Karkat’s cool. Kanaya’s my patron troll, and I gotta love her for that, but then she’s gangster! I mean, the chainsaw all of a sudden? I’m like, yo, that’s my patron troll. But I will forever be close to Tavros, just because of [the connection between Tavros and Basco’s character from Hook], Rufio. I know that the new Rufioh troll came out, but I haven’t gotten that far yet.
DD: I’ve seen him on Tumblr. You look great!
I was a part of it, but now I’m part of it in a new way. It’s just like a time continuum, this weird evolution of my part in Homestuck.
Hang Loose can be purchased and viewed online at the film’s website.
Photo via Dante Basco/Facebook
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.