Inside one actor’s DIY approach to representation in — and outside — Hollywood

The last time I talked to actor Dante Basco in 2012, he was producing his first film. The screen and voice actor, who got his break playing Rufio in Spielberg’s Hook (1991), had gained a legion of new fans when he voiced the surly but sensitive Prince Zuko in Nickelodeon’s cult hit Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008). But as a Filipino American actor, Basco found he had trouble using that clout to open up doors in Hollywood for himself or other Asian American actors. So, he decided to make a film of his own.

His 2012 buddy dramedy Hang Loose enjoyed modest success and picked up a few awards — and it set Basco down a DIY path that he’s still on. In 2019, he made his directing debut with The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, based on stories from his own family. Recently, another Asian American Hollywood trailblazer, Bernie Su, recruited Basco to join the cast of his own groundbreaking foray: Artificial, an Emmy-winning sci-fi show that’s also the first interactive long-form web series to launch on the Twitch streaming platform. Now in its third season, Artificial follows the adventures of an android and the mysterious corporation that made her. Artificial features a cool choose-your-own-adventure story that allows fans to tune in to weekly livestreamed episodes and vote on characterization choices, story elements, and upcoming plot twists. In June, fans gathered to help Basco create his character, building the character from scratch while Basco looked on. (“Zander” turned out to be a controlling former childhood friend turned rival of the show’s current antagonist.)

But Artificial is more than just a tool for fun improbable adventures. Su and Basco are both Asian American creators, and both approach storytelling as an opportunity to create representation for people of color. Two summers after Crazy Rich Asians was supposed to have broken barriers for stories starring Asian characters and other characters of color, roles for Asian American actors are still highly limited. And while Basco is currently enjoying the pop culture spotlight thanks to Airbender’s recent, triumphant arrival to Netflix, he’s still ensnared in the cyclical struggle to diversify and change a resistant film industry.

It sounded like we had a lot to catch up on, so I reached out to him to chat about everything from Hollywood gatekeeping, to Avatar’s cultural resurgence, to Twitch pros and cons, and beyond. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Aja Romano

I don’t know if you remember, but I actually interviewed you way back in 2012. We mostly talked about Hang Loose and [the popular webcomic] Homestuck.

Dante Basco

Oh, wow. Very cool. Well, a lot of things have changed since then, and a lot of things have stayed the same.

Aja Romano

Yeah. You were releasing Hang Loose as an independent film in part because you couldn’t get studio attention for the kinds of stories that you wanted to tell. And it feels like we’re basically having the same exact conversation today about diversity and representation.

Dante Basco

We are, for sure. But there’s been some — you know, I’ve been a part of the whole Asian American film movement since Hang Loose, which was a big part of that conversation. And I started a group called We Own the Eighth, which is celebrating Asian media in America [on] the eighth of every month. Those conversations help lead to things like Crazy Rich Asians. And now I just directed my first film, called Fabulous Filipino Brothers, my eighth film I’ve produced. It’s continuing the theme of people of color in America telling our stories and [testing] the fabric of, what is our story? What’s going on in America outside the Caucasian paradigm?

Aja Romano

I think most people see Crazy Rich Asians as a watershed film for Hollywood diversity.

Dante Basco

Totally. Totally.

Aja Romano

From your perspective, since you’ve been embedded in the Asian American Hollywood community and in those conversations, does it feel that way to you, or does it feel like Crazy Rich Asians’ success was the culmination of a lot of moving parts?

Dante Basco

It’s a culmination of a lot of moving parts and it’s a watershed moment at the same time. I know the issues and struggles that director Jon M. Chu had getting that movie together, [moving] from doing things like Step Up to Justin Bieber’s stuff and whatnot, [to] really doing something for his community, the Asian American community, and how that’s changed the trajectory of his career and his life. To really do something personal like that, and to really impact the industry at large about the significance of Asians in America. This is a golden age, I mean, we’re at the highest profile we’ve been in our culture, American pop culture, for sure since the history of American pop culture, or the history of Hollywood over the last 150 years.

So it is really, really important and really exciting. Is it a perfect film, does it represent everybody in the community? No. There’s no way any film can do that. But it shows what’s possible. And so I think that urged a lot of companies to add Asians to their cast and open their eyes about looking at Asian content.

And I think it’s important for us to keep pushing that. And it’s happening, but it’s also not really just on the studios, it’s really also on the filmmakers like myself and others, [that we] continue to have a robust indie film community pushing out films. If a studio is putting out Asian content or a film of the Asian American experience once a year, we as filmmakers need to have films coming out. Every month [a studio isn’t] coming out with a film, we should have an indie film coming out to continue the conversation.

And take note from the African American community, from the Harlem Renaissance to what Tyler Perry’s doing as blueprints of how to keep things going. I mean, I was around long enough, and I’m sure you were around, too, for the Latin explosion in the ’90s. But if you don’t have the power or the minds or the writers in place to keep things going, you fall into a lull again, where there’s not enough story [to tell]. So I urge the African African community, the Latino community, the Asian American community, to continue to work and continue to create content and projects inside the system, outside the system. It all culminates in a more diverse kind of field.

And with all these digital platforms, we can do multiple things. It’s really fascinating talking to executives and having them understand that this person on Tik Tok can have a bigger social impact [through] these no-budget minute-long videos than a film that they put out for like $50, $60 million. That’s where we’re at. And look, the studio wants to have an impact as much as anybody. No one knows the answers, but [there’s] opportunity to create impactful stories and ultimately make money.

Aja Romano

Do you find it a little more freeing being able to do projects like Artificial that are on the internet instead of studio-based?

Dante Basco

Yeah, because [with] the studios, you have tens of hundreds of millions at stake — there’s a lot less freedom. Of course, we still push to get [those types of films] done. But in the interim, there are other projects like this one that could be very impactful, award-winning, and important, and tell stories from other ethnic leads without as much pushback. And that’s helpful too, and very, very important.

Aja Romano

What is it about Twitch that makes it a good home for that kind of storytelling?

Dante Basco

So Twitch is a livestreaming platform, and it really scaled on video game livestreaming — it became the YouTube of livestreaming, and livestreaming is the newest iteration of social media to a degree. The focal point of livestreaming in longform was Twitch, and Twitch created this really big, robust platform for games. And now Twitch is expanding to more narrative things like Artificial.

The unique thing about it is that it’s livestreamed, but it [also provides] engagement with millions of fans that are interacting and affecting the story and characters. No one’s done anything like this before, not on this level. When we were creating my character the other night, it was — we were in front of 14,000 people, creating a character for me to play. I had no idea what I was going to play when I started on the show. It’s crazy.

While they’re watching the show, they helped create this character and they’re going to help push the character collectively where they want [him] to go. It’s kind of like a sci-fi soap opera that the fan is completely engaged in. And it comes from Twitch.

Aja Romano

Is that daunting?

Dante Basco

It’s daunting to a very large degree, but it’s exciting because, you know, it’s acting — you don’t get to do these new things that often. We’re an old craft. And [finding] new ways to interact and engage with the fanbase that you’re doing it for makes it exciting. It makes it very exciting. I don’t know what’s going to happen to [the story], but you’ve gotta be open and flexible. And ironically it goes back to the old-school way of theater, where fans got to affect, not necessarily the direction of the story, but they would interact [with] the characters. And that’s what’s happening now in a more specified digital form, so I’m excited.

Aja Romano

Twitch has been dealing with some extremists on the platform — they’ve banned a couple of people recently [including President Trump]. Have you and Bernie had conversations about controlling that element of the audience, given the level of interactivity?

Dante Basco

Yeah. I’ve talked about it a little bit with Bernie. I know [the show] has people that are going to be dealing with that. With livestreaming, things like that can happen. Different groups can try to overtake and affect the story the way they want to affect it, or promote things that they want to promote. That’s one of the cons of social media and especially live stuff. I’m sure it’s a caution moving forward, but it’s also the same thing with a play. Like, there could be protesters outside, [but] you gotta keep going.

Aja Romano

The show must go on. You’re also hosting a livestream watch of Avatar on Twitch, right?

Dante Basco

Yeah. On my channel, Honor Society.

Aja Romano

How’s that going?

Dante Basco

It’s going great! Like many actors and artists and public figures, beyond our work on just film and television, the world of social media has opened up to us, and that’s a whole ‘nother full-time job. Two years ago, we opened up our Twitch and I partnered up with Jestin [@ItsRadley] and my assistant Bridgette. And we play video games and interact with fans from the whole geek world and the nerd world and the video game world.

And it’s been really, really cool to be a part of that conversation and then use that platform to livestream Avatar: The Last Airbender, especially since it’s back on Netflix now. And using that weekly show to reconnect with all my [fellow] cast members, like Jack DeSena, who plays Sokka, or Michaela Murphy, who plays Toph. For me, it’s like a weekly catch-up with friends that I don’t get to see, especially within this pandemic lockdown. But also we use it as a way to raise money. We just raised $10,000 for [Covid-19] frontliners through Direct Relief. We’re pivoting this week and figuring out the next charity to [fundraise] for. These things weren’t ever possible growing up in Hollywood in the ’80s and ’90s. So it’s really cool to be a part of these movements and engage audiences for goodwill.

Aja Romano

Absolutely. With all the attention that Avatar is getting right now, do you feel like it’s undergoing a cultural reappraisal, or is it that it’s always been good and now just more people are realizing that it’s always been good?

Dante Basco

I think it’s always been good. I was surprised the first time it hit in a phenomenal kind of way. As filmmakers, you never know how your stuff is going to land on the audience. Having these iconic characters that I’ve gotten to play that have lasting power, like Rufio [from Hook], and now [Avatar’s] Prince Zuko, you really get to see what [the work] means in different eras. And you can question: Why does it last?

When Avatar first came out, I mean, it really was this really exciting new thing. And it became in its own little niche way, its own little world, like Star Wars or Star Trek or Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, you know? I’m a fan of all those things. So to be a part of something like that is really exciting — but then for it to come out [again], you get to see the power of Netflix. And of course, the story is so pointed to these times. I think it really has a different feeling now, especially in the times we’re in.

Aja Romano

Despite all the garbage fires going on outside, it feels like this is an exciting moment for you in Hollywood.

Dante Basco

I’m very excited by it. You know, I’m in my forties and I’ve been through some things — you know I’ve been through some things. And it feels different. The protests and the consciousness feels different than what it felt like during the ’92 riots, which was a lot of anger, and, and rightfully so. I live in Los Angeles and they’re a very liberal town, so these are the things that we take for granted as things we already know. But trying to illuminate issues to the rest of the world at large — I think it’s different now.

I think with social media, thinking of the new generation … as people of color, we all know what the deal is at the end of the day. And for it to come to the forefront and have these conversations, I think there’s a real chance for significant change to happen. I look to the new generation that’s really moving it forward. I think there’s a bit of enlightenment that’s already happened. And I hope that it ripples through and teaches older generations.

Aja Romano

Have you changed anything as a result of the protests? How have those ripples touched you?

Dante Basco

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if it’s necessarily changed anything because I think my point of view is the same. I think [the protests] have strengthened some of my ideas and my courage to speak out and be a part of certain things. When you have a mass [movement], you don’t have to fear speaking out as much. So more than anything I think, hopefully, I’ll be with others out there. It’s encouraged us to band together and speak and be a part of this new movement.

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