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Asian-American actor/dancer/poet/activist/rapper/pioneer Dante Basco has tried everything -- and I mean everything -- in this business to make a name for himself. Luckily, his efforts have not gone unnoticed. And it helps that he's not camera-shy either.
Dante Basco is famous -- or should I say infamous? -- for stirring up trouble. After his breakout performance as Rufio in Steven Spielberg's cult classic Hook, Basco's name became practically synonymous with the rambunctious lost boy who refuses to grow up. His infectious on-screen charisma and mischievous smile made Rufio an icon. To this day, you can still ask almost anyone about Dante Basco and expect a rousing rendition of the "RUFIO!" chant. But unlike Rufio, Dante did grow up and he is certainly anything but lost.
Today, Dante Basco has found his way out of "Neverland" and into a role that he was born to play. The role is Ramos, a smooth talking and more importantly, hip-hop-dancing Puerto-Rican teenager, in Liz Frielander's debut movie Take the Lead. As Ramos, Basco not only delivers his signature rebel attitude as the detention-bound high schooler; the actor also gets back to his first love: dancing. Dante began his career as a break-dancer and if you think comebacks are slick, his dance moves are even slicker. Throughout the film, Basco impressively breaks, merengues, and tangos with style and ease, showing us that this cat (as Basco himself would say) has got more up his sleeve than acting.
In fact, when Dante's not on the big screen, he¡¦s on the small screen as the voice of the spunky and mystical power-entrusted Jake Long in Disney's animated series American Dragon: Jake Long. And when he's not morphing into dragons on the television, he's in the studio, rhyming and freestyling, recording new rap tracks with his three brothers. The album is just one part of a series of upcoming Basco Brothers collaborations. The brothers are on a quest to become what Dante calls "The First Asian American Family" and ignite the "Asian explosion." Sure, this may sound like a lofty goal, but perhaps this audacity is just what we need to get Hollywood to listen up and plaster more Asian-Americans on its screens. Lucky for us, Dante Basco isn't afraid to step up to the challenge, even if it means playing a Filipino superhero named Chang and receiving backlash for it. Basco may have come a long way from Rufio (or acting for that matter), but he will always be as just as fearless.
APA talks to Dante Basco about taking the lead, shifting careers, and navigating Hollywood as an Asian-American actor. -- Ana La O'
Interview with Dante Basco
April 14, 2006
Interviewed by Ana La O'
Transcription by Ana La O' and Michelle Chan
Camerawork by Brian Hu
Video Edit -- Coming Soon
Part One (Ana La O')
APA: You're currently starring as Ramos in Take the Lead. What attracted you to the role?
Dante Basco: First and foremost is dancing. We shot this, like, last year and I've been acting for a long time now. I've been acting for 20 years and it's ironic, say, like, two years ago, my acting coach at the time was like, "You've been acting for a long time, Dante. Your work is always good, but there's something missing, like your joy for acting. Try to reconnect with why you started acting," which is an interesting question, an interesting thing to think about. Doing some soul searching and thinking and whatnot, and actually what came up is I started acting because of John Travolta in Grease and Saturday Night Fever. Really. I was a breakdancer before I was an actor. Dancing is my first love. So I started acting probably because of that and so, ironically, a few months later this film comes about and it's a dance film and that was the first thing that attracted me to the film. After 20 years in the industry, it's like it's the first time I get to dance in a film, which is ironic and great at the same time.
APA: You talked about John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever -- what did you like about his character's personality? His character and your character have a lot of attitude...
DB: Yeah actually, I ended up using his character in Saturday Night Fever as a kind of prototype for the character of Ramos in this film. For my own private thing, I wanted to update the Tony Manano character and make it this Miguel Ramos kid in 2006 and the same kind of somewhat chauvinistic, somewhat cocky. He has a lot of lessons to learn, but still has a lot of heart and he is able to get his heart broken and has vulnerability like Travolta's character in the film. As an actor sometimes you do that -- you take characters, you take people from the past and try to incorporate that. In my hotel room in Toronto, I had a big picture in my hotel room of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever just as inspiration to keep me on the right track with the character.
APA: So the character of Ramos is supposed to be Puerto Rican?
DB: Yea, he's Filipino to me.
APA: How much does the racial background play into the role?
DB: No, it was written as a Puerto Rican role, Miguel Ramos. It doesn't really matter when you're shooting the movie, you're the shooting the script... good looking, teenage Puerto Rican Miguel Ramos. But I'm Filipino and I've been in the industry for a long time and I've played a lot of roles in my life, from plenty of Asian roles to plenty of Latin roles. Being Filipino is a unique, you know, we're a unique culture as far as we have a lot of Spanish blood in us, a lot of Asian blood in us, so we are able to go through a lot of these things. I did have a discussion with the director Liz Friedlander, who I love. She's a great, brilliant director in her first film. Miguel Ramos is written Puerto Rican, but I think he can be Filipino. Miguel Ramos is a Filipino name just as much as it could be a Puerto Rican name and the producers were like, "Well, it's New York. We'd prefer you keep him Puerto Rican." And then Antonio comes up to me and just jokingly, he's a great guy, I love Antonio, he's like, "Well you know Dante, Puerto Rico, Philippines, Cuba, we liberated all of you. Same thing,¨ which is funny because he's Spanish. Spaniards...
APA: How was it working with Antonio in terms of dancing, particularly hip-hop? You started out as a breakdancer; did you give him any tips?
DB: For hip-hop. He's a pretty good dancer, I mean, regardless. I mean he comes from Spain and the theater and he has a lot of control of his body and his agility and things of that nature. We all flew to Toronto like a month early to just study ballroom dancing. It was like a month. It was like 6 weeks. I don't know, it was like a lot of weeks of every day, just ballroom dancing, 10-6, every day, five days a week, six days sometimes. It was intense and Antonio was with us, studying with us. You know you learn the tango, you learn the salsa, you learn the merengue, the rhumba, foxtrot. You know he didn't have a lot of hip-hop experience, but all of us did, so he learned a lot from us as far as you know, how to swing into hip-hop style and whatnot, but he killed it in the film. His tango scene is amazing.
APA: The final tango scene in the film featuring you, Jenna Dewan, and Elijah Kelley -- how much of that was you? Did you have a lot of input in the choreography?
DB: Yeah. The whole thing, as far as the dancing is concerned, it was all about ultimately, not just getting the kids to learn ballroom, but to bring it up to speed with our lives. We call it fusion, the fusion of hip-hop and ballroom because in the end, it's like as cool as the ballroom dancing is, it's not very accessible to most youth or urban youth. To meld it together was key. So when it comes to like hip-hop, everyone's dance style is very unique. You got ten different cats who are hip-hop dancers who've got ten different styles and that's just the beauty of hip-hop, so to be able to choreograph that with ballroom, it's really you with the choreographers and what you do naturally and melding it in. I was very much involved with the choreography we were doing. With that last scene, the choreographers were brilliant. It was great, but also kind of scary because it's never been done before. But as you start going with it, it just starts flowing. Me and my brothers, we're all dancers. We're Filipino. That's what we do. Being Filipino, I mean we grew up dancing, singing, rapping -- it's a part of growing up -- piano lessons. I just went home recently to help honor my grandfather who was in the Bataan Death March and it was Bataan day in my hometown Pittsburgh, California, and there was a parade and there's always like these things. So we're hanging out with grandpa and whatnot, you know, there's a band there and stuff and partying and then the music comes on and everyone's cha-cha-ing. You're changing partners and I think that lent to me being very comfortable in partner dancing and kind of understanding that and then, you know, flipping it. Growing up, doing the cha cha with my mom and my aunts and whatnot, we would always throw in hip-hop in the middle of it; we couldn't keep it basic.
APA: It seems like hip-hop drives a lot of your projects...
DB: And as far is hip-hop is involved in my career, I feel I've always been a hip-hop artist, you know? No matter what I do, I'm part of the hip-hop generation and the multiculturalism of hip-hop and the voice of hip-hop. It's kind of like blood through our veins. It just so happens that I've done it more in the past few years as an actor. I have a band with my brothers and I always write and I have a poetry venue. It's one of the biggest poetry venues in LA., the biggest open mic venue in the nation. And to me it's all an extension of hip-hop.
APA: You talked about "Da Poetry Lounge." What inspired you to write poetry?
DB: Women. Yea, women probably. You know, I started writing poetry when I was young. I was a teenager, probably 14 or 15. I was just a kid from Pittsburgh, California. When I came to LA, same thing, Paramount's a very blue collar town, you know? It's very simple, family, very simple people. That's totally fine, that's totally great, but sometimes when you become an artist you need certain people to open up that world to you. There's so much other stuff out there that if you want, you can go out and get and create. This teacher happened to do that for me. Reading poetry and being inspired by it. It's a real Dead Poets Society-kind of feeling and then taking it further and actually wanting to write it, that came from my teacher one day giving me Charles Bukowski to read. That was different, that was like okay, I love Shakespeare, I love Pablo Neruda, I mean, Leonard Cohen, but then you read someone like Charles Bukowski, who I love, and it's so simple that you start to feel that okay, I can write something like this. And you start to write and you write and you realize that your stories are valid and everyone can lend a write a verse and that's alright and that's how I started the lounge. It was a gathering of friends to just share their stories really through poetry. I just happened to catch poetry really on the edge when it kind of became this phenomenon in America for a while. I was credited by the L.A. Times as the one bringing poetry back to L.A. It' weird. I don't know. There are certain things in my life that I guess I've accomplished or people said I've accomplished them, I don't even know if I've accomplished them. I guess I was just at the right place at the right time.
APA: Currently, you're also doing the voicing for Jake Long The American Dragon.
DB: I'm the American Dragon. Actually, the show was kind of created for me to a certain degree. I did a pilot for ABC Disney a few years back and it didn't go. Things happen and all of a sudden, I have this television series, which is so cool. It's so cool to be a cartoon character. I talked to the animator you know, before I even signed on to do it, he originally drew the guy to look similar to Rufio from Hook, which is ironic, you know? That character is just one of those characters that follows me around, which is great. You know, I love having such a memorable character.
APA: Do you think being Asian had anything to do with your getting the role?
DB: Yea, for sure with the American Dragon, it had to a lot to do with the role. I mean, it's an Asian show with an Asian star. I don't necessarily sound Asian. I mean a lot of times in my life, I've been told I sound Black. I find it ironic that I'm playing this little Asian kid. It's kind of like me. I mean they put a lot of me into the character as far it's a little hip-hop Asian; he's just in N.Y. and turns into a dragon. He's very hip-hop and skateboards and totally now and just happens to be Asian, which is so cool I think. It's going to be very influential as far as on the kids today growing up. As far as, I mean the images we grew up with as kids, we never had a cartoon like this growing up. We were just bombarded with you know, white images. That's just the time we grew up in. Now it's a different time, a multicultural time and as adults, we're struggling to, you know, get our voice[s] heard as far as the different media, television, film, music, and whatnot and that's just where we're at in our generation and we're doing more and more every year and I'm glad to be a part of that. I think the next generation coming up, their minds are already open. If you look at the Disney Channel, they're already opening. There's so much multi-ethnic casting and not having any glass ceilings and you know, that's only a generation behind me and the generation behind them are going to have even a less harder time which is right, which is good, and if I can be a part of that, doing cartoons and these things -- I'm proud to do that.
APA: You seem to be taking your career in a lot of different directions right now. How does everything relate?
DB: Yea, you know, it's all the same thing to me. It's kind of like you grow up and you have more things to say as an artist. It's all about telling stories, whether it's music or acting, film or whatnot. So many stories to tell. The ultimate goal is to produce with ease the things that I want to say or of other artists that I see that I want to get out there as well as continuing to voice my own thoughts.
PART 2 (Michelle Chan)
15 years ago Dante Basco slashed his way through the magical terrain of Neverland. Today, the Southern California native continues to forage through testy terrain, pioneering his way through the beach-blonde, Brad-Pitt-dominated entertainment industry as an Asian-American actor. Although his existence in the industry at all indicates headway in Asian representation in Hollywood, Basco expresses his realities, concerns, and goals as one of the few Filipino entertainers. Currently involved in not only film, but producing, television, and music, Basco clearly has a comprehensive plan of attack. -- Michelle Chan
APA: How does your Filipino Background influence the roles you take on?
DB: I'm Filipino [and] it does always [influence you]. You never forget that you're a person of color, you never forget that you're Asian-American. You never can. Being that where I am at my career right now I'm luckily tied down to just playing Asian characters. A lot of things I go out for like Ramos or whatnot. Or even other things like a black character; maybe they'll change it for me or it's a white character, maybe they'll change it for me. And I get those opportunities and I'¦m thankful to get those opportunities. I know a lot of actors don't get that kind opportunity.
As far as Asian characters go, we're the least represented community in Hollywood. Asian-Americans, to be more specific. There are a lot of Asian films from other countries that they allow, which I love like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero -- these are great films and even directors like Ang Lee are great directors, but they're from other countries. It's a different experience. It's like, "We're Asian-American. It's a whole other vibe. We're the least represented ethnicity in Hollywood. Like it or not, as an actor you got to realize that the average American audience probably sees a full Asian character ten [or] 15 characters in a lifetime, maybe. Like it or not, they're going to judge a large part of the Asian community based upon those characters. So if the ten [or] 15 characters [are] all going to be stereotypical characters, in the back of their mind [it's] somehow going to influence what they think of the whole community. That's just the reality of art and the impact Hollywood has on the world. If I can come in and just give another sprinkling of a character. You could watch me do a Ramos and go "Ok, that's an Asian kid, a guy on screen, but he's not working at a computer or he's not whatever," which is also part of the Asian experience. I think being Asian is like being white, like being Black: there's everything in us. Ther's everything from the stereotypical Long Duck Dongs to anything I can do over on this side. I think we should have as many images put out there as possible, so if I can put anything out there that is different and people can dig it and see it and just open the scope of what the feel of the Asian-American experience is, then I'm happy to do that. And I'm proud to do that and I think I've been able to accomplish a little bit of that thus far.
APA: How important was it for you to do the role of Ben Marcado in The Debut, one of the few Filipino films?
DB: I think it was the first one -- it'll probably go down in history as the first Filipino-American film and I'm proud! Ironically, I'm Filipino-American and at that time I had been working in the industry for 15, 16 years; never played Filipino ever, which is crazy. I'm one of the premier Asian actors in my age group, like me and John Cho and there's a handful of others, but we' pretty much the ones that are thought about when you think about Asian actors in L.A. like, twentysomethings or whatever. I never played Filipino, so it was very important for me to play that role. When it was originally brought to me, they wanted me to play the bad guy, the gusto role because I am hip-hop and I have that track record. They thought I could play it easily, and I could've played that character, but I think my brother Darion did a brilliant job at that character and I don't think I could've touched what he did. I fought really hard [to be] the straight-laced-almost-White Filipino, [which] is not my life experience but I feel I still deserve the role. I think I did pretty good, I hope. People love the movie, I like the movie, and it's a special film. It's special because it's Filipino, because all my family is in it, because it's the first one really tying to bridge the gap between the Philippines and America. I think it had a good impact and I think it's going to be historical for what it is.
APA: Did you relate to the family in the film?
DB: Of course, I mean I grew up Filipino. Everything, every joke, I grew up with. Like the mailman, the forks and spoons on the wall to the food, it's all a part of my life.
APA: Can you tell me about the collaborations with your brothers?
DB: It's everything -- we're a crazy group, the Basco Brothers. Something like the Jacksons but we're Filipino: Michael, Marlon, Jermaine and Tito. We've always worked well together, we always were a group. We all hustled our own careers but we always like to come back and create. The push going on right now is a production company called Dragon Star Entertainment and we co-produced and co-directed a film called Naked Brown Men which won the Venice Beach Film Festival in 2005 -- that was our first collaboration producing-wise. One of the first projects we want to produce is the Basco Brothers as the first Asian-American entertainment family; the goal is for the next year, year-and-a-half to establish the Basco Brothers as the first Asian-American entertainment family, which we kind of have been for the last 20 years anyway. Within Asian circles we're very well known but we just want to bridge beyond the Asian culture. The goal is to drop a television series on a prime network, drop a full-length album, and drop a film.
We have lofty goals for sure but I think the time is coming for the Asian explosion to happen. We've been at the forefront for a long time and I think it's the Asian-American thing. We have a voice and like I said, we're the least represented so it's time for us to get our voice out there and get our stories out there.
APA: It's interesting you mentioned the sitcom because the last and only series put out was Margaret Cho's.
DB: I love Margaret too. We did a film together and I mean, she got screwed -- so many political things happened. Like I said, I did a pilot for ABC a few years back and it was an Asian-American pilot, the first Asian pilot they did since Margaret Cho, but it was an hour long, in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it was [a] family. Me and this girl find out that our parents have super powers -- it's like The Incredibles, kind of. We all have these powers and we save the world. It's like the Chang family saves the world. It's a little funny like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except for it was a family unit and it's kind of about these kids, their awakening of having these powers, and living in the real world. It ended up becoming kind of like American Dragon, the same kind of thing: I'm just this Asian kid who becomes a superhero. It was funny at that time because the two kids the show was about were me and a woman named Rona Figueroa, and we're two Filipino cats and I'm like, "I don't know how the Asian community will react if this show goes and it's the first Asian show and it's two Filipinos named Chang." I'm sure the white people and black people don't really understand, but the Asian community will be like, "Uhh, hold on a second, what's going on here?"
But that didn't go ahead because the powers that be were like, "We don't understand, we don't know." What don't you know? Then there was a certain backlash from the Asian community because they didn't want a kung fu-based thing for the first Asian show, which I understand, but at the same token I was a little bit upset at the time because I'm like, what's the alternative? There is no alternative. It's like either no Asian show on the air or an Asian show with some superhero cats that happen to do some karate. Well, hey, I'd rather have something on the air. It's like you backlash against me for doing American Dragon because, "Why does he have to be a dragon? Why can't he turn into a friggin horse?" It's because we're Asian. That's why he's going to turn into a dragon, alright? I mean, martial arts happens to be part of our culture growing up and it's like okay, whatever, sometimes you do certain things to get the envelope pushed through the door. It's better to be in the room and then make changes than to just be locked out of the room the whole time and just knocking on the door. They're going, "Well why don't you do this?" and you're like, "No because I don't want it to be Asian." But you're Asian! This is just one of my pet peeves.
Date Posted: 4/27/2006