Dante Basco, the 44-year-old Filipino-American actor known for his roles in Hook and Avatar: The Last Airbender, can talk your ear off about Star Wars. "Star Wars is the first fandom, to me," Basco tells Inverse in a Zoom call.
Basco has a lot of opinions about Star Wars. Not only because he's a fan (and voiced Jai Kell in the animated series Star Wars Rebels), but because other fans often bring it up. The internet sees a striking resemblance in Basco's popular anti-hero, "Prince Zuko" from Avatar, and Adam Driver's ambitious Sith villain, Kylo Ren.
"I've gotten, 'You're Kylo Ren' since Kylo Ren came out," Basco says.
Are the comparisons apt? Basco points a few key differences. "We've seen the whole thing by now, but I said early in the game: He [Kylo Ren] has to die to get redeemed," Basco says. "He killed Han Solo. Zuko didn't kill Ozai, and Ozai is not Han Solo."
Basco also has his own ideas for rewriting The Rise of Skywalker. "Just have all the Jedi talk to Kylo Ren!" he says, getting worked up just thinking about it. "Get his grandfather to talk to him from the spirit realm! He'll tell him what's up!"
An actor for more than 30 years, Basco first rose to prominence as "Rufio" in the 1991 film Hook starring Robin Williams. The role led to steady work in guest spots for TV sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Moesha.
"When people saw Rufio or Fresh Prince, they were like, 'You were the first cool Asian I've seen on television,'" Basco says. Coming up in Hollywood at a time when the popular culture at large still had a narrow view of Asian communities, Basco stood out without doing any kung fu.
"We’re brown Asians," Basco says. "You walk into a room and they’re like, 'What kind of Asian are you?' I didn't get cast for quote 'Asian' roles because I didn’t fit the box of 'Asian' in Hollywood. Consequently, I was able to create a new box."
Once, at a party attended by dancers from America's Best Dance Crew, Basco was approached by performers who had incorporated the spunky spirit of Rufio in their routines. "They were like, 'You're the guy! You were Rufio! You were the hip-hop Asian we're all doing.'"
In 2001, Basco starred in the coming-of-age drama The Debut, the first independent Filipino-American movie and a film Basco considers "very important" to him personally. "When Crazy Rich Asians came out, a lot of people in the community would refer to The Debut," Basco remembers. A poster for The Debut hangs framed in Basco's home, alongside Avatar and Hook.
But it was in 2005 when Basco found another "anchor point" in his acting career as Zuko, the ambitious and temperamental son of the evil Fire Lord Ozai (voiced, coincidentally, by Star Wars alum Mark Hamill) in the animated hit Avatar. Set in a fantasy world where martial artists control the elements, Avatar was a cult sensation on Nickelodeon, where it was heralded for its intelligent and funny exploration of complex themes like war, death, totalitarianism, and prejudice in an all-ages television cartoon.
The series spawned an unpopular live-action film in 2010 and a more popular sequel cartoon The Legend of Korra in 2012. A live-action show is currently in production at Netflix.
While Avatar maintained a dedicated fandom after its conclusion, its renewed popularity stems from its recent return to Netflix streaming in May 2020, during widespread quarantine.
"It feels like the show came out all over again," Basco says. "It was fascinating to be a part of an IP, a franchise that happens in real time. No one knew this was going to happen. I thought we were just doing a cartoon on Nickelodeon. All of a sudden it's a big hit. It was Star Wars for a new generation."
Comparing anything to Star Wars brings up a question Basco asked about himself. "If this is Star Wars for a new generation, you're like, 'Who am I?'" Predating Adam Driver's debut as Kylo Ren by ten years, there was only one other Star Wars character in Wars Basco related Zuko to: "I'm like, 'Am I Han Solo?'"
Today, Basco is a writer, producer, and director of Asian-American cinema. His directorial debut Fabulous Filipino Brothers is currently in post-production.
He is also still an actor, and can be seen in Twitch's first scripted series Artificial, an interactive sci-fi about an A.I. learning human behavior. Unique to Twitch, the show is told through a branching narrative decided by viewers. Like Zuko, Basco's Artificial character "Zander" is another bad guy out to get the main heroes. Unlike Zuko, Zander is a sexist tech millionaire who was "created" by fans in an experience Basco likens to Dungeons & Dragons.
"Many things are possible," Basco says of his current gig. "We have writers, it's not full improv. But being engaged by an audience, we make choices where scenes go." In his first episode, Basco worked with showrunner Bernie Su and 14,000 people watching at home to create his role. Though an obstacle of the show is putting up with trolls, the show knows how to roll with the punches. "Sometimes trolls are funny," Basco says.
But for Basco, Avatar still looms large. Throughout the show, Zuko is mentored by his beloved Uncle Iroh, played by Japanese-American theater legend Mako in his final role. They first worked together, playing another nephew/uncle pair in the 1991 action film, The Perfect Weapon.
Art imitated life in Basco's own relationship with Mako. "He's played my uncle or father at least three or four times," Basco says. "He was Uncle Iroh. Throughout my career, he'd always give me advice. Starting an Asian-American film company is inspired by Mako. In a very Uncle Iroh way, he illuminated to me that it's not about you, but what you can do for the next generation."