For many Asian millennials, Dante Basco is a legend of sorts.
The Hollywood veteran was one of the few Asian faces seen on-screen in the ’90s and early 2000s. He was the face of representation at a time when representation was sparse, and he showed that Asian characters could be funny, suave and badass.
The Filipino-American actor started performing at a young age: In the early ’80s, he and his three brothers, Derek, Darion and Dionysio, performed as a breakdancing crew called “Street Freaks.” By 1986, the Basco brothers and their mom hopped in a van and headed to Los Angeles with only $100 and a dream to make it big in Hollywood.
It’s safe to say they were successful, with a career spanning over 35 years and the family being dubbed the “First Filipino Entertainment Family” by the city of Los Angeles.
Dante’s big break came in 1991 when he was cast as Rufio, the leader of the lost boys, in Steven Spielberg’s Hook. After that, he landed spots on both the big and small screens in numerous roles: Ben in The Debut (Hollywood’s first Filipino film), the voice of Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, and my personal favourite, Ramos, the confident breakdancer who performed in that killer tango trio alongside Jenna Dewan and Elijah Kelley in Take the Lead.
In his decades-long career, Basco has also dabbled in producing, music making and writing, releasing his memoir “From Rufio to Zuko” in 2019. Now, he’s making his directorial debut with a movie called The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, which premiered on February 8 on Amazon Prime Video and Google Play.
The film is a Basco family affair, starring Dante, his brothers, and his sister (along with numerous other family members). It tells the story of four brothers as they confront issues with love, family and culture, all amid the ultimate Filipino event: a wedding. It was filmed in the Bascos’ hometown of Pittsburg, California, with the whole film based on true stories.
For Dante, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers is a way for him to tell his story authentically, and in his own way — something he feels is especially important in Hollywood right now.
Below, Dante talks about The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, the impact of being a pioneering figure in Asian American cinema, how YouTubers and new media shaped representation, and why it’s more important than ever to support Asian creatives and Asian storytelling.
REPRESENTASIAN PROJECT: Hi Dante, thank you so much for taking the time to chat, it’s a huge honour to be speaking with you.
DANTE BASCO: Hey, I appreciate it.
RP: Let’s get right to it. Tell me about The Fabulous Filipino Brothers — you and your brothers have been in this industry for quite a long time. What made you decide to come together and create this film?
DB: I know, it’s been a long time that we’ve been together [and in Hollywood]. I’ve been blessed in this incredibly hard industry of Hollywood to go from breakdancer to actor, then poet and writer, and being able to write plays and films, then produce films, and now getting to direct a film. We’re just living in amazing times where authenticity matters and we’re in this pioneering era for Asian cinema. We’re in the highest profile in the history of Hollywood with things like Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite winning the Oscar and Squid Game being the number one show in the world. It’s like our stories matter now more than ever. And so putting this film together is just adding the Filipino story to this whole movement going on. And we’re not the only ones — Yellow Rose came before us, Jo Koy’s Easter Sunday is coming out this year. But this particular movie was just me telling a little story about my family, where I’m from (Pittsburg, California), and the Filipino community I grew up in. It’s a love letter to that. But it’s just wonderful in this day and age that our stories really matter.
RP: Yeah, and it’s coming at such a great time, too, especially since the Asian community has been hit so hard with COVID and anti-Asian racism. What do you hope this movie brings to the Asian community, and specifically, Filipinos?
DB: First and foremost, representation and pride. I mean, the movie’s really a celebration of my community and where I grew up. I had no intention of making some kind of blanket, all monolithic statement about all Filipinos or Filipino Americans. I wrote it specifically about my family and the community I grew up with in this part of the Bay area. I often tell young filmmakers, “Write what you know, tell your story.” And the more personal I got with telling this story and being inspired by the personal stories in my life and my family, it became universal. So hopefully the Asian community can feel some pride that we’re being represented up there on-screen. I hope they’re entertained more than anything. But just to be seen is really powerful.
RP: One hundred per cent. Now, this is your directorial debut. What was it like to be on that side of things?
DB: It was hard.. I’m not going to lie, it was hard, but it was great. I’ve gotten to produce a lot of stuff over the years, [but] it’s a new adventure for me to be able to be the one that really gets to craft the story the way I want to. [And though] I wrote, directed and produced the film, everyone in filmmaking knows that it takes a village of people—a family of people—and a minor miracle to complete anything. So being in this industry as long as I have and as long as my family has, we’ve been able to put together the right group of people to help put this film together. I think we’re getting better at it. And again, we’re not the only ones, there are so many more Filipino films coming, so many stories coming, and I’m excited to be a part of the wave that’s happening.
RP: Yeah. But really, you were one of the first Asian people—specifically Filipino—my generation saw on screen. My boyfriend’s Filipino and he was like, “Holy smokes, Dante Basco?! He was my childhood hero growing up!” And truly, that’s all we saw. So I’m wondering, first, what was that like for you back then to be that “only” person, and second, what is it like now looking back on it retrospectively, like, “Hey, I was representing for so many different people and I was that face for people to help them feel seen”?
DB: It’s wild. I did [Hook] at 15 and it’s hard to really even think about that age. Like I was just a kid and trying to do the best I could. I was walking amongst legends like Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts. And that had a profound impact on me.
So, when I run into people today and [my role in Hollywood] means so much to them as a community…I mean, Jon M. Chu is talking about Rufio when he was doing Crazy Rich Asians and how important that was to him—that it made him feel like he could be in the industry, and that there was a place in Hollywood for him. Even Shang-Chi‘s director [Destin Daniel Cretton] is talking about Rufio and creating Asian heroes…it’s fascinating, but I mean, look, it’s beyond me also. There are a lot of things that are just like, wow. You never set out to do that. I totally honour that part of my life and I respect that part. But as a kind of veteran in the industry now, I understand, too, the importance of representation, of what these things mean.
“We’re just living in amazing times where authenticity matters and we’re in this pioneering era for Asian cinema.”
That’s why [as] a producer, I pretty much do exclusively Asian American projects…it’s important for us to be the leads in our own films, for us to tell our stories.. Before Crazy Rich Asians came out, leading up to that, I was doing projects with KevJumba and Justin Chon and ironically, I became friends with a lot of the new media kids, like Kev, Ryan Higa—
RP: All the YouTubers!
DB: All the YouTubers! And we had big discussions about what [new media] is. When new media happened, half of the top hundred YouTubers were Asian American. And these kids were showing a depiction of Asian culture, of Asian youth, that had never been seen in popular culture or in Hollywood. No one had written them, because they didn’t get it. You know, it’s like, that’s a real person. Hollywood’s never created a character anywhere near what Kev’s doing or what AJ [Rafael]‘s doing, or what Ryan’s doing. And so, in a lot of ways, that authenticity is now making its way to Hollywood where we no longer can just buy someone’s rendition of us.
And that’s been the business for so long. The guys that created the business happened to be straight white males, so a lot of the stories came from their perspective, and that’s human nature. But now [with new media and social media] and we get to see how people really are and we wanna see us from our perspective. And actually, we’re gonna see you from our perspective, too, since we’ve been shown through your perspective for many, many years. The problem with past is it’s been so one-sided. Even stereotypical depictions of us are not false — it’s just one aspect of who we are in our culture. And now it’s time for these little fine lines to widen up and for the conversation to go back and forth.
“It’s important for us to be the leads in our own films, for us to tell our stories… The guys that created the business happened to be straight white males, so a lot of the stories came from their perspective. But now…we want to see us from our perspective…and we’re going to see you from our perspective, too.”
RP: Yeah. Now, you’ve played a lot of different roles that weren’t necessarily Filipino characters in the past because you sort of passed off as racially ambiguous and films could use you to sort of check off a box. But The Debut was really the first time you got to play a Filipino character. What was that like for you?
DB: That was groundbreaking, in a lot of ways. I was in my early twenties and for the first time in my career, I got to play a Filipino character in the first Filipino film ever produced in Hollywood, which was phenomenal. It was just so many different levels of seeing ourselves on screen: us being people, us going through ups and downs…it was fascinating to literally see a family on screen and to figuratively see your family on screen… that’s powerful.
It also connected me to the Philippines. I got to go to the Philippines for the first time during the making of that film, and I got to meet the talent there. And to work with these stars from another country that I didn’t necessarily grow up seeing…it’s that same feeling as working with stars here [in the States].
What clicked in my mind at that time was these guys have spent thousands and thousands of hours in front of a camera and are able to do performances and are able to take moments and understand the art of filmmaking. And the only way to become a master at it is to do it. But the reality is, a lot of us here as Asians in [Hollywood], we don’t get to do that. We’re playing small roles. It’s like, you can’t hope to be a star and get the time in front of the camera… there’s no roles for you to play these things. And that really impacted me, but also really inspired me to make things and understand we need people like us to star in the film. Not to come in and be the great, funny, shiny fun toy that steals the scene—which is great, which we’ve all done. No. The world needs to walk in our footsteps as much as we’ve walked in their footsteps.
“We need people like us to star in the film. Not to come in and be the great, funny, shiny fun toy that steals the scene—which is great, which we’ve all done. No. The world needs to walk in our footsteps as much as we’ve walked in their footsteps.”
RP: You mentioned before that we are in this big moment right now for Asian Americans in Hollywood. What are your thoughts on Asian representation right now? How far have we come and what more needs to be done to push it forward?
DB: It’s phenomenal. We’re at the highest profile we’ve been in Hollywood in the history of Hollywood. It’s almost like we’re living in an alternate universe. I mean, go watch Spiderman: No Way Home. There’s a Filipino grandmother speaking Tagalog in Spiderman, like what’s happening? It’s really beautiful and it’s really exciting. But for it to continue, we need to continue it. It’s our time to make movies, it’s our time to tell stories as the filmmakers and the creatives. We need to work hard and push for it.
But it’s also our time as the audience to support these films, support these musicians, support these artists. That’s the relationship that we have. We need to keep this moving forward. I’m also old enough to be a part of things like the Latin explosion that happened in the ’90s. And yes, the JLos could happen, the Mark Anthonys, the Ricky Martins are going to happen, but guess what? The George Lopez show is going to get cancelled—Fresh off the Boat‘s already cancelled. If we do not create what we want and keep our voices alive and out there, as well as keep supporting creators, it can [die down].
But, we are in a new time. It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’ve got a superhero, Shang Chi is amazing. Simu [Liu]’s great. We’re all connected, we all talk to each other. There’s the Unforgettable Gala, which we’ve been going to for years. Our little clique, we call it #AsianProm. But to see it grow and to see the excitement of what everyone’s doing and to see it rise and become this really powerful thing… there’s just so much to celebrate.
But let’s not rest on our laurels. Let’s keep going. And yes, some people will get to the mainstream and become not just an Asian star, but a star. And that’s great. But we also have to continue to create our homegrown stories and really support our indie scene, because that’s really where we create the stars that are going to matter at the end of the day.
RP: Yeah. Well, thank you so much, again, it’s a huge honour to speak with you, and I really appreciate you taking the time.
DB: Thank you. Tell your boyfriend I said hello!
The Fabulous Filipino Brothers is available for streaming now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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