The women may get all the attention in Warner Bros’ latest movie entry in the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. But it bears remembering that the recently jilted Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), vengeful assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), club singer with a killer register Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and hard-boiled Gotham detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) wouldn’t even have gotten together if it weren’t for one 12-year-old pickpocket named Cassandra Cain.
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Cassandra Cain is played by Ella Jay Basco in the film. She’s a Filipina-Korean-American actress not far off in age from the character she plays in her feature-film debut—Ella is 13. For fanboys and comic-book geeks, Ella’s casting is a big deal, as this is the first time ever that the street urchin-who-will-grow-up-to-be-
For Filipinos, Ella’s casting should be a big deal, because she is the niece of actor and voice talent Dante Basco, who was only three years older than Ella is now when he made a splash as Rufio in Steven Spielberg’s Hook. Ella was born into a creative family, with her father Derek also an actor and her older brother Darryl a songwriter.
But to hear Ella talk about her character, it seems like she tuned out the huzzahs and just connected with her character—a focus one would expect from a veteran who got cast in her first commercial when she was six months old and snagged her first TV gig on Grey’s Anatomy when she was 7. “When I read the script, I just loved Cassandra Cain,” says Ella. “She’s a street girl without a family or a home, so she’s both really misguided and super independent. She has had to fight to survive in this world, until she meets Harley Quinn.”
Robbie says it was a particular storyline in a comic that initially inspired her to include the Harley/Cassandra relationship that ultimately plays out on Birds of Prey. “In my research, I read Harley Quinn: Behind Blue Eyes, and I knew I wanted to explore that mentor-mentee relationship. It told me a lot about who Harley was and what she was capable of. We didn’t use the exact storyline from the series, but just understanding her and her connection to Cass in that way was enlightening.”
Due to the circumstances of the story, the young actress spent the bulk of her scenes alongside the Australian sensation, who just got her second Oscar nomination for Bombshell. “Margot was like a big sister to me, we had the best time with each other. She taught me so much about working with people on- and off-camera. It was amazing.”
Meanwhile, director Cathy Yan admired the hard work her youngest actress put in: “Ella was so impressive. This is her feature debut, so I can’t imagine how she must have felt to show up to set and work with Margot Robbie every day, but she was a total champ, incredibly mature for her age. And she really understood Cass and brought a certain authenticity to her—a real kid, not a shiny, perfect version of a little girl.”
But that shiny, perfect version of a tweener—vibrant, enthusastic, her declarations peppered with qualifiers like “super” and “majorly”—is what Ella Jay Basco brought to the table when ANCX talked to her last October.
ANCX: You are the first actress to play Cassandra Cain ever in a live-action adaptation of any DC comics title. That’s quite a distinction. Were you a fan? Had you read the Birds of Prey comics at all?
Ella Jay Basco: I just really knew about Harley Quinn and The Joker. But when I found out that I booked this, I didn't know about the Birds of Prey storyline and Cassandra Cain. So the second I got the job, I bought a bunch of comic books and did my research. It really helped me understand who she is.
What was the audition process like?
The audition process was about a month long. We go in every Friday and then they would check in with me on Monday, seeing how I did. And I had chemistry readings with Margot [Robbie] and Jurnee [Smollett-Bell] and our director. And the final one was a three-hour process with me and two other girls. I had to cry and yell and scream. So I was very relieved afterward.
Birds of Prey has women filmmakers pulling the strings as producers and as writers. Your director is an Asian-American woman. Would you say there was a strong “woman power” vibe on set?
There definitely was, the energy was very womanly-powered. Working with Margot, Jurnee and Rosie [Perez] was super fun, and I definitely felt good. I definitely felt the feminine connection there.
Cathy Yan, your director, is just the second woman directing a DC Extended Universe film [after Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins] and the first Asian-American, if I am not mistaken. What's her directing style like, especially with you as a fellow artist with an Asian heritage?
She's really great. She’s super open-minded, and our relationship and how we worked was super collaborative. She’s super loving and really nice and, honestly, like a mother figure to me.
Your dad Derek is your acting coach, right?
He is. He was on set with me majority of the time and he helped me tap into my emotions. He works really hard with me.
Did you have to undergo any fight training for this?
I did! A lot of the stunt team, except for one woman, a lot of them were actually Filipino. So I worked with them on my fight stuff. I also did taekwondo, so that helped a lot. And I had a stunt double who helped me train. Those helped me prepare for this role majorly.
You worked on Grey’s Anatomy, and I’m a fan of that show. Any anecdotes you can share?
Wow, that was a while ago! I remember on my episode, there was a scene where it was pouring rain. So I had to layer a bunch of outfits just to keep warm. I think that was one of my first official TV experiences.
I might be aging myself here, but I still remember watching your uncle Dante when Hook was released for the first time. What was it like growing up in such a creative acting family?
It's really great, especially my Filipino side. We love music and whenever we have a big family party, we sing to karaoke. So it's like the average Filipino family.
Did you know that you always wanted to be an actress or did this come slowly to you?
I think it did come slowly to me. I was definitely born into the industry. But after a while, maybe when I was about eight years old, I realized this is what I wanted to do and this was the job I wanted to do. I wanted to work. At about eight, I told my mom and dad I wanted to be an actress.
How did the acting bug bite you? Was there, like, a great Aha! moment where you realized playing pretend was really fun? Was it on the set of something your relatives were working on?
I think watching movies with little girls in them really inspired me. It looked so fun. Like, watching the movie Annie, that was something that stuck with me when I wanted to become an actress. And watching [the 1985 Steven Spielberg-produced adventure-comedy] The Goonies and [the 1993 kid’s baseball comedy] The Sandlot, it just looked like so much fun.
You’re Filipino-Korean. Your dad is Filipino and your mom is Korean, right?
How did those cultures and traditions get expressed in your life growing up in America?
Growing up, again with the Filipino side, we would always have a big party. Having people over every night is the norm. I love chicken adobo. My dad makes the best chicken adobo. On my mom’s side, we eat kimchi all day. Also, I think growing up with those cultures on both sides, there is a real focus on family. We did a lot of fun family things, family fun games. Pie Face and a bunch of other silly games.
I have nephews who grew up in America. Both their parents are Filipino, but they grew up there and they always felt like a bit of an outsider. As both Asian and American, do you have issues like this? Or do you feel more integrated?
I definitely think that Asian-Americans aren’t represented as much. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that I felt like an outsider. Growing up I was always immersed with my big family, so I never felt left out or like an outsider. But I definitely know where those views and feelings could be coming from.
Do you feel like you're part of this surging Asian-American representation that's happening in Hollywood right now?
I do! And I'm very proud to be even a small part of it. I think being represented in the industry is important, so I'm super happy about it.
Photographs from Warner Bros. Pictures