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Dante Basco reflects on diversity in Hollywood as a child star: 'No one even knew what a Filipino was'

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Are the Kids Alright? is Yahoo Entertainment's video interview series exploring the impact of show business on the development and well-being of former child entertainers, from triumphs to traumas.

You couldn’t ask for a cooler entrance in a movie than Dante Basco has in Hook, Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster 1991 version of the Peter Pan story. As Rufio — the self-appointed leader of the Lost Boys since Peter flew away and grew up to become Robin Williams — the then-15-year-old Filipino-American actor is first glimpsed riding a tree-top roller coaster and then leaping onto a trapeze followed by a swinging vine before landing directly in front of the 40-something Pan.

And if all that stuntwork wasn’t cool enough, Rufio’s outfit is cutting-edge ’90s fashion: leather vest on top of a midriff shirt and a flame-red Mohawk up top. “It’s a cool character,” Basco tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It’s a character I’m still proud of to this day. [Rufio] means a lot to people and he changed my life.” (Watch our video interview above.)

Basco didn’t necessarily feel the same way about his career-defining alter ego 30 years ago, though. In his off-screen life, the born-and-raised California native was a self-described “hip-hop kid” during this teenage years, and Rufio’s look was the opposite of the baggy clothes he favored in the early ’90s. “As a teenager, you just want to be cool,” he says, laughing. “They put me in a midriff shirt, skin-tight jeans… and it wasn’t that cool to me. I was like, ‘God, can I just be cool?’ When you’re young, you’re worried about your image and how the world’s going to see you.”

Dante Basco had his breakout role as Rufio opposite Robin Williams's Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg's 1991 family favorite, Hook (Photo: TriStar Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)
Dante Basco had his breakout role as Rufio opposite Robin Williams's Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg's 1991 family favorite, Hook. (Photo: TriStar Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

And like any teen, Basco occasionally acted out because of his insecurities. In the middle of shooting Hook, he and his brothers were caught doing some Christmastime shoplifting. "We were dumb kids doing dumb things," Basco says now. "I even had my mom's credit card, but we thought 'You know what? We want some extra stuff.' I needed some Isotoner gloves, and I got caught stealing them and some other stuff."

Funnily enough, that incident became his own Fresh Prince of Bel-Air moment. Basco's parents decided to send all four brothers to the Orange County High School of the Arts, a performing arts high school located a long bus ride away from their home in Compton. "Right or wrong, my parents thought that the neighborhood was being somewhat of a bad influence on us, so we got into our own Fame school situation, which was wonderful."

Every teenager does dumb things — but not every teenager deals with in the public eye. That’s was Basco’s experience as he aged from a child star to a teen idol to a grown-up multi-hyphenate who acts, produces, writes and directs. Among his many current projects are a major role on the buzzy Twitch series, Artificial, and serving as the co-writer, director and star of the semi-autobiographical feature, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, which premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and is awaiting a general theatrical release. “Hollywood’s been good to me,” he says of his overall career trajectory. “It’s been over 35 years for me in Hollywood… so it’s been a life, and it continues.”

Basco directs and stars alongside his brothers in the semi-autobiographical feature film The Fabulous Filipino Brothers (Photo: Courtesy SXSW Festival)
Basco (far right) directs and stars alongside his brothers in the semi-autobiographical feature film The Fabulous Filipino Brothers. (Photo: Courtesy SXSW Festival)

It’s a life that began in a unique way. Basco is the middle child in a family of five siblings — three brothers and one sister — all of whom developed performing ambitions early on.

“I like to tell folks my whole career in the entertainment industry started at the ground level, and for me and my brothers it was the actual ground,” he jokes of his Hollywood origin story, which began when he and his brothers formed a breakdancing crew in the mid-1980s. “We were called the Street Freaks, and we performed in the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley, all those areas where you still see street performers. That led us to doing competitions and getting pretty well known — we ended up working as professional dancers for the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland A’s.”

Breakdancing eventually gave way to ballet when the brothers received scholarships to study at the San Francisco Ballet, where they performed in productions like The Nutcracker. With enough experience under their belt, the Basco family made the choice to move to move the bright lights of Los Angeles. “Once you get here, you realize Hollywood is a film and television town more than it is a dance town,” Basco says. “My mom got us into acting classes, and then we were on our way.”

But their way was initially blocked by one major obstacle: the lack of substantial roles for Asian-Americans, let alone Filipino-Americans. “[Diversity] was non-existent,” Basco remembers. “There were no Asian roles and no one even knew what a Filipino was!” He ultimately made his screen debut at age 12 in two 1988 episodes of The Wonder Years alongside Fred Savage, which led to him playing Savage’s best friend in the 1989 movie The Wizard — a role that was cut from the finished film.

Guest spots on other TV shows — including Highway to Heaven and Booker — followed. And since there were no child actors in Hollywood who looked like the Basco brothers, they frequently competed against each other in audition rooms. “We’re still up against each other for parts,” Basco says with a laugh. “That’s just how it works.”

Despite being pitted against each other during those formative years, Basco says that he and his siblings mostly avoided fighting about who got what role. “The fact that we all lived in the same room and ran lines with each other made it a bit less [difficult]. There weren’t really any fights. We do have a saying in our family: ‘You get what you get and you don’t get upset.’ That’s how Hollywood goes, you know?”

It helped that his parents made sure to foster an environment of collaboration rather than competition. “My dad was a telephone man, and my mom was a mother of five, so they didn’t have a lot of experience in the Hollywood world. They gave us blind support. I really credit my parents with just loving us and being there to support us.”

Even with that support, Basco says that his teenage years were sometimes turbulent, especially when he was cast as Rufio at age 15 — a role that his older brother, Darian, also auditioned for. Overnight, the actor says he found himself in an entirely new and different stratosphere of Hollywood. “You do Hook and that changes your life! I mean, to work with legends in our industry like Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman. I don’t know how I dealt with that at 15. To the world, I became Rufio and in a weird way, I’ve been Rufio longer than I’ve not been Rufio.”

Additional perks followed the bigger stage offered by being in a Steven Spielberg movie. Basco soon found his image gracing the pages of '90s teen magazines like Tiger Beat and Bop. He also regularly hit the town with his friends, and encountered other teen idols engaging in after-hours fun. "We would go to clubs, and there was one club that would let us in underage. And there were also teenage clubs. This is the era of Leo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire — we all had our little cliques and we'd run around the same scene."

Basco's clique frequently included actor and fellow teen idol Jonathan Brandis.

"He was a buddy of mine, and we ran closely when we were coming up. He was dating [Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star] Tatyana Ali back in the day, and we went to all the same clubs and house parties. I would follow him around, because I was always trying to be a good kid, especially on other people's sets. I remember this one time — it might have been on the Fresh Prince set — we were hanging out and I was like, 'Can we go to craft services and get food?' Jonathan was like, 'It's Brandis and Bosco! Who's going to stop us?' And I was like, 'All right Jonathan, let's go and get that food!' He always had a little gung-ho in him."

(Original Caption) : 1994-Actor Jonathan Brandis is shown leaning on the front bumper of a rusty old truck.   (Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Actor and teen idol Jonathan Brandis photographed in 1994. (Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

But Brandis is also a cautionary tale in the industry: The actor committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 27 after struggling to manage the transition from teen to adult roles. His death rattled many actors of his generation, including Basco. "Jonathan always had this dark side to him, I understood that about him" he reflects now. "He always was dealing with certain things and fame just magnifies whatever issues you may have, mental health-wise. A lot of friends that were young actors we lost on the drug scene. It's always a cautionary tale, but with more fame is more availability to whatever floats your boat. If you can't figure out what the positive or the negative things are, you have a bigger opportunity to lose everything."

"I think now with mental health being such a bigger conversation piece, we have the ability talk about it amongst each other and get a lot more help," Basco continues. "Part of becoming an actor and artist is being open and vulnerable to all these things early on. Especially as a kid, you're so vulnerable in this world, so hopefully you have the right people to protect you for the time you need to be protected. And then there comes a time in every young actor's life where you gotta go live it for yourself. If you fall, that's on you, but you're an adult now and you can't be coddled. You've got to go make what you can out of your career."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 10: Dante Basco arrives at closing night for The 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on May 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John Wolfsohn/Getty Images)
Basco attends the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: John Wolfsohn/Getty Images)

Basco managed his own evolution from young actor to adult actor in part by balancing roles in live action movies with voiceover work in animated shows. In 2005, he landed a key role on a fledgling Nickelodeon cartoon called Avatar: The Last Airbender. That series has since become a mammoth multimedia franchise and Basco's character — Prince Zuko — is one of its biggest stars. "It's another role that's become iconic for another generation," he says of his animated alter ego. "The inner kid in me geeks out, because we're all fans of something. Star Wars is probably the original fandom for a lot of us and to be part of a project that has its own world feels so good."

Twitch is another world that Basco is exploring through the interactive series, Artificial, which recently premiered its fourth season on the live streaming platform. Originally a place for gamers, the service has been expanding into other forms of content aimed at reaching the current generation of kids and teens. "It's a whole new medium," Basco raves. "We grew up with 'traditional entertainment,' but at the end of the day we're all storytellers. I go to gaming cons and sitting and talking to the fans, I see that they have the same emotional reaction to a video game that we had when an emotional moment happened in Star Wars."

And unlike his introduction to Hollywood, Basco quickly discovered that the Twitch audience is beyond diverse. "The gaming world is very diverse, and the audience that watches is as diverse as the world is. And the Artificial creators are very key on keeping the cast diverse. To see a vast array of society represented in the show is really cool." Cool... like Rufio.

— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee