Dante Basco produced and starred in two films at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival last week. In Paradise Broken he plays a pimp struggling with his hooker girlfriends in the underbelly of Hawaii. Hang Loose is a comedy in which he plays the best man who gets the bride’s brother (KevJumba himself, Kevin Wu) into some bachelor party trouble. Of course you know him as Rufio from the 1991 Peter Pan prequel Hook, and he still has the spiky hair. He’s also the voice of Prince Zuko in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and voices on “The Legend of Korra.” In the Director’s Guild lobby, home base to the Asian Film Fest, we met Basco and learned there is also a Rufio movie in the works that he could produce.
CraveOnline: Watching Paradise Broken I was reminded of an experience I had in Hawaii once. I went to an ATM and outside the bank were waiting all the prostitutes, and they were the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. I thought if I’m ever going to be tempted, if I hit bottom that’s the place to do it.
Dante Basco: Yeah, it’s a very strange world as far as most mainlanders don’t think of Hawaii in that realm. We just think of bikinis and surfboards and what not. For the local kids, it’s a whole different situation.
And I was in Oahu, and the movie is set in Waikiki, right?
Yeah, that same area. One street is all the hotels and then the street over is all the prostitutes. It’s one street away.
Does that surprise a lot of people that there’s such a big business for the world’s oldest profession?
It doesn’t surprise the locals because they understand it. It probably surprises a lot of tourists that come.
Was it a matter of doing more research into that world or was it something you grew up familiar with?
I was semi-familiar. I have family out there and grew up aware of gangs and drug dealing so I understood that that world. Going there when I was younger, I was like most Americans, like, “How are you involved in all this madness when you’re living in the middle of paradise?” Obviously they don’t see it that way and it’s a small town. You’re stuck on a rock and I understand that mindset coming from a neighborhood where a lot of the cats from my neighborhood never make it out of the neighborhood. It’s just their neighborhood is accentuated by being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. But then going there to research the character I was able to go to some places where the kids hang out that are living that lifestyle of that are runaways in the street and really talk to kids, get their story and their vibe and try to infuse it into the character.
Was producing a way for you to get an ideal role to play?
I guess so, you could say that. Producing came out of necessity to a certain degree. I produced a lot of theater over the years. Just as actors, you do theater and then within the Asian American scene, my producing partner James Sereno approached me about trying to do some films. It kind of came out of necessity. Especially in independent filmmaking, if you can get one or two names attached to a project and we can really get the funding and confidence behind it, I’m happy to lend the people I know and whatever stature I may have to help get films made.
Has it been hard to get the sort of dramatic roles like Paradise Broken offers when you’re just auditioning as an actor?
Definitely, definitely. That’s why there’s great things like our company, Kinetic, or like the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival. The amount of stories that “white Hollywood” includes Asian American film roles, you may find a great role that comes once every few years, if you’re lucky to be even considered for one of those roles. So I’m definitely fortunate to get a role like this to play.
Are Hawaii-based films part of your goal as a filmmaker?
Yeah, at Kinetic we come out of Hawaii. I love the landscape of Hawaii because for people who’ve never been to Hawaii, they’ll realize how Asian it is. It’s pan Asian American. I’m always telling Asians in the mainland to go spend some time in Hawaii because it’ll open their mind up about not being a minority within their own country. It’s not like going back to the Philippines or Hong Kong or Tokyo. These are Asian Americans. They’re Americans like you and I but they outnumber everyone else. I always say it makes perfect sense that Obama came from Hawaii because he came from a land that Caucasians weren’t the majority. It was never in his mindset there where he couldn’t be president of the United States because everyone who was in any executive position on the island is probably not Caucasian. Part of my idea about Hawaii is if we can bring any story to Hawaii, it’s like Woody Allen doing stories about the New York upper east side. Like it’s a love story, it just happens to be two Jews. It’s a love story, it just happens to be two Asian-Americans and Hawaii because that’s 90% of the population. So I’d like to do more stories. It’s easier to get stories put in Hawaii because you want to do Asian-American Pacific Islander filmmaking, their reality is if you set it in Hawaii, almost any story is probably going to be Asian people playing the leads.
Hang Loose looks like a mainstream comedy, but you still had to do it yourself?
Yeah, we still did it ourselves. You still face the same challenges as far as big studios aren’t yet willing to see Asian-Americans as being marketable, which is fine. We’re here as a production company to do films for us by us and really target our genre audience.
What kind of opportunity was it to play that party animal instigator character?
A lot of people would say that’s really me in real life. So it’s much easier. We just had a good time. I cast it with my brother, my family, some of my close friends. I co-wrote it with KevJumba, one of the new generation of Asian-Americans coming up through YouTube scene. It’s really a bridging of generations and a bridging of worlds too. The new media world of YouTube, the Hollywood world that I’ve grown up in and it’s kind of bridging those things in this crazy film.
Do you guys out-Hangover The Hangover?
I wouldn’t say we out-Hangover The Hangover. We’re definitely inspired by The Hangover with a little Swingers mixed in there.
How do you escalate the party chaos disasters?
We have a few disasters in our own way so we have a few moments of madness for sure.
Is it very R-rated?
No, no, we actually kept it very PG-13. Mainly for KevJumba’s audience. It’s a younger audience and we definitely want to cater to his audience being his first starring role in a film. So we were very conscious of that. Of course we wanted to push the envelope as much as we can but we definitely kept it family friendly.
What were your thoughts on the Last Airbender movie?
Actually I didn’t see that movie yet, which is no slight to the movie or M. Night. It’s just I lived with the animated series for five years and it became a phenomenon and I love the series. I just didn’t get around to watching it when it came out. There were all these reasons, I blogged about it and then I ended up having lunch with the creators Mike and Bryan. They’re like, “Don’t watch the film. You don’t even want to.” I’m sure I’ll catch it sooner or later. I’m a big M. Night fan anyway. I love Dev Patel as an actor so I’m sure I’ll see it. I just haven’t seen it yet.
That’s the thing. When they were in pre-production and you heard M. Night Shyamalan was making a movie of your show, didn’t that seem like a good idea?
Oh God, oh God, it seemed like a great idea. I’ve heard inner things from people about how things happened and what things happened. You know, he’s an artist and he tried to put his stamp on it and it’s one of those things, it’s hard to put your stamp on something that’s already its own powerful entity. Who knows? Some people loved it. A lot of people didn’t like it. Who’d want to do Star Wars if it was a famous comic book first? It would be so hard to accomplish that.
Well, look, John Carter just tried to do that.
I know, John Carter, it’s almost impossible. Maybe if it wasn’t as famous a director to do it who’d really follow the comic to the T, it might’ve been more successful. But when you’ve got a powerful director, of course they want to put their stamp on it.
When James Cameron’s Avatar came out were you like, “Hey, that’s our name?”
Yeah, that was a little bit of a weird time again, like how did this happen? It’s just weird how a lot of things happen simultaneously, names but again great film. It kind of established the film as The Last Airbender. So now the cartoon’s “Avatar,” the movie’s Avatar and the movie Airbender, so it’s distinguishing all the different Avatars.
What’s going on with “The Legend of Korra?”
We just started the new season, I think third or fourth episode. I have a role in it and I’m always proud to be a part of the “Avatar” family. Everything is hush-hush with it always. I’d get yelled at for even talking about it but I’m excited. I love the new show. I think they did a great job and I can’t wait to see how the fans take to it.
Is that a great way to revisit a world and play different characters in it?
Yeah, totally. It’s one of those things to be a part of, like the Star Wars thing. Or Harry Potter, to be a part of something that was phenomenal in its own way, a world that someone creator or these guys created. No one was planning for it to take off the way it did or be as perfect as it was. It’s just cool to be a part of that family.
Is “Korra” still important for integrating Asian cultures?
To a certain degree I think. It’s still in the same lineage of what “Avatar” was doing, maybe not as much. I think they’re playing up a lot of different other storylines but it’s always a part of it for sure.
Are you playing the same characters or any new ones?
I can’t talk about. I can’t even talk about it.
Is Rufio still recognized today?
Yeah, Rufio’s still around. I have a T-shirt company, Rufio Inc. and we’re doing charity work to try to unite the Lost Boys of the world, try to just raise funding and charity stuff for at risk youth, “Lost Boys.” Rufio’s a great iconic character for a certain generation and definitely something I’m always associated with, proud to be associated with which is cool. Actually there’s a film in development, the Rufio film, where a hotshot group of kids from the East Coast graduated and they wrote this whole script, the prequel to Hook and it’s the Rufio story. We have it right now with a director, Rpin Suwannath who’s doing the new Zorro for Fox. He has the script and he’s attached to the film and I’m attached to produce so that’s actually in development right now which’ll be cool, a Rufio for a whole new generation.
We don’t want to spoil Hook for new kids, but Rufio wasn’t supposed to grow up anyway so is there any chance for you to play old Rufio?
No, I don't think I’m in it. I’m definitely not in it but I definitely want to find the next young hopefully Filipino actor to play the role, or Asian-American actor to carry on the Rufio tradition.
Will the new Rufio still have the Mohawk?
Yes, the storyline is crazy actually. These guys have a whole storyline of how he gets the Mohawk. The whole story’s crazy. These guys came with the script, I’m like, “You guys wrote this?” Not only did they write this, they did the musical in their college. They were going to go off Broadway with it and then they lost their insurance and they came to Hollywood. If anyone saw their play it’s that, but the newer version is pretty intense. They added more action. I never saw the play but I think they added more backstory to Rufio, like how he became Rufio which I was impressed by. It’s in development .
At Columbia, who made Hook?
No, no. We’re pitching it around right now. We haven’t found a home for it yet. The director we have attached right is, like I said, in the middle of doing Zorro for Fox. Hopefully if Zorro goes well Fox will have more incentive for this movie but it’s a big movie. It’s not like an independent budget.
When you did that as a kid, did you have any sense of the magnitude of creating an original character in the Peter Pan world?
No, I mean I was just excited to work with Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman. I want to do good work. Thinking about the whole magnitude of it, I was so little at the time, we had the Mohawks in our hair, like “Well, this is going to be what I’m going to look like. I’m going to dress like Michael Jackson or something weird. What am I doing?” I think when you’re doing the work you just don’t think about it. Hopefully Steven likes what you’re doing as you’re doing it or you get through working with Robin who’s maybe the most amazing improv actor in years and he’s improv’ing every scene. You’re like, “How do I get through this?” And you’re a 15-year-old kid so it’s like that kind of thing every day.
Did Williams ever do two takes the same way?
Never, never. He’d always be the scripted way, and then “Can I go back and do one or two” his own way? What are you going to do? You’ve got a few choices. You can try to improv with him, spar with him. It’s like sparring with Sugar Ray Leonard or Pacquiao. Or you get run over, or you try to just cut him off. Have him improv one and try to jump in with the next line.
The insult scene before the food fight, was that both of you improvising or just him?
I was sticking to my lines and he was improvising and I was just trying to say my lines whenever I felt a window come in.
Was it a big break for you at the time?
Oh yeah, of course. Definitely a big break. It was the biggest film in town at the time, an epic actor playing the lead of this multi-cultural crew. It definitely put me on the map and started my career in a really great direction.
Even that was considered a mistake for Spielberg and he took heat for it. Was that something you were aware of after?
I don't know. People always say that. It’s not something I really concern myself with. With me it’s for a generation. My generation grew up watching Grease everyday with our babysitters or whatever. We watched Grease everyday, Sound of Music, Mary Poppins every day. We wore out the VHSes. For that generation, these kids watched Hook every day. There are a few films, Hook, Newsies or something like that.
A lot of people love Newsies too.
Yeah, certain films that kids of our generation watched every day. So they would watch Hook 100 times. It became that cult classic and I think Rufio has been one of those characters that stand out because he was a new character introduced in this iconic Peter Pan story.
Were you disappointed Jeff Speakman didn’t become a bigger action star?
A little bit disappointed. With his first film when we did Perfect Weapon, I’m just disappointed in the sense that we all had three picture deals. If he was going to take off, we were going to do a few films together. But Jeff ended up going to Europe and doing a bunch of films in Europe. Last time I saw him he looked great. It’s a hard business. You take your good fortune when it comes and hopefully you can ride those waves.
Have you been at this film festival before?
Yeah, this film festival is like home base for me and my family. In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve had a bunch of films in the festival, a bunch of films open the festival. The Debut, Hundred Percent, Fakin’ Da Funk. Films like that so it’s nice to be home at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival. This is definitely home base for me and the Basco family.
Have you ever had two films at the fest before?
Never had two films and never produced a film. A lot of people here are kind of excited for me to be a first time producer in the festival, which I am too.