You might know him as the tri-hawked troublemaker Rufio from Hook. I know him as Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation, one of the most well-written characters in TV history. I’m told there’s a bit of a generation gap between the two camps, and there are certainly people who love him for both roles -- but that’s just because of a prolific career. Dante Basco, the LA-bred Filipino actor has, over the course of three decades and therefore having a fan base that spans generations, has proven himself to be one of the most important Asian-American actors in Hollywood, a dominantly white industry where entertainers of color have to work extra hard to be seen.
But behind Dante's memorable roles, which have inspired cult-like followings, is real life—one defined by ambition, struggle, and Hollywood’s glitz and grime. This is the life Dante wrote of in From Rufio to Zuko, an up-close and personal memoir about… well, it’s about a lot of things. It’s about the making of Hook. It’s about voicing gigs for the likes of Avatar: The Last Airbender and American Dragon: Jake Long. It’s about being a poet, and what it means to grow up with a love for the arts. But there's really so much more to it. "Really, the story I tell in the book, even though it's my story, really it's the story of my family, comin' to LA and not knowing anybody," he says. "And one of my focuses was, as people read the book, it's really for the next generation of artists, especially people of color, especially Asian-Americans or Filipinos coming into LA that, just like us, didn't know anybody." From Rufio to Zuko is a look at how Dante processes the Asian-American experience, in the context of the great entertainment machine.
Dante visited Manila House last week to bring his book to Philippine shores, and for a short sit-down interview with Tim Yap. Fighting off the image of Prince Zuko in my head as the actor spoke wasn't easy. He carries himself with an approachable knowingness, as someone humble but also keenly aware of the cultural impact of his roles.
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In the beginning of the conversation, Dante talked of his experience as a child actor, and how being a young person of color shaped the way he took gigs. "It's very interesting being Filipino because, as Filipinos, as y'all know, we're very culturally mixed,” he states. Because of this, for auditions and talent searches, he’d tend to take on roles that weren’t Filipino. He’s played Native Americans, Malaysians, Mexicans, Cambodians. And this is mostly due to the fact that back then—and even now— roles specifically calling for Filipinos were extremely hard to come by, if not totally non-existent. In the book he talks about how, when a casting director asked if he was Mexican, he’d explain that both Filipinos and Mexicans were colonized by the Spanish, and by that virtue Dante was viable for the role. “Any amount of anything meant I was all of that thing, in the eyes of a casting director,” Dante writes. “They’d check their box. They’d found a ‘Mexican’ actor. Now I’ve got the gig. And they got a free lesson in imperialism mid-talent search.”
In fact the first actual Filipino role that Dante ever took on was for a movie called The Debut released in 2001. Observing that there was a 19-year-gap between that movie and the release of Crazy Rich Asians, Dante reflected in the book on the progress of Asian-American representation in Hollywood. “That’s progress. Glacial, but moving, and I want to be hopeful. We’re finally getting heard on our own terms, and our stories are coming alive on the national stage. Our American story.”
It’s almost a shame, then, that The Debut isn’t the movie Dante is most known for. Same for the super underrated But I’m a Cheerleader, progressive for its time. Dante’s roles in Hook and Avatar: The Last Airbender seem to be what he’s recognized the most for. And while the actor, who describes himself as a blue-collar actor in the book, approaches his work in an even-keeled way by moving from gig to gig, Dante spares some reflection on the way such roles have followed him around. “People ask me if I ever regret playing Rufio,” he writes. “This thing that shaped my life but also made me ‘Rufio’ to people that have run into me on the street for decades. It limited me in some ways. It lifted me up in some ways. It has always been an elaborate set of emotions to unpack.” Sharply, Dante writes with poignance and a healthy dose of humor, about how playing a Lost Boy has shaped his career, and how he feels like a Lost Boy even now.
These deep moments of subtle crisis can inspire change and a sense of purpose. And what Dante is doing now, as a man in his position, is work to empower Asian cinema.
In his conversation with Tim Yap, he goes: “As a producer of cinema for the last ten years, I’ve solely produced Asian cinema, which is now looking really brilliant, right? ‘Cause like, a lot of friends of mine from the Hollywood side, especially like the white guys [go], ‘What are you doing? If we put a white lady in here, we can get more money.’ I’m like ‘Nah, that’s not the point of what I’m doing.’ What I’m trying to do is create a situation, a world in Hollywood that was better than the situation I came up in.”
From beginning as a child actor nabbing ethnically ambiguous roles, to becoming a changemaker that empowers Asians in the entertainment industry, indicates an extremely rich life, which is what From Rufio to Zuko gives us. It’s a book filled with poetry, joy, and its fair share of darkness. It should serve to inspire those in homeland and our brothers and sisters in the diaspora to tell their stories. As a book, it opens at least two doors: one to a story that white Hollywood won’t tell, and one to a future where these stories become more prevalent.