About 10 to 15 years ago, I was waiting for a movie to start at San Diego Comic-Con and a familiar face popped up in one of the commercials. It was actor Dante Basco, selling Sprite (or Sprint maybe?) and someone in the crowd screamed “RU-FI” to which everyone. else. in. the. cinema. replied “Ohhhhhhh!”
It was, quite honestly, a perfect moment. A moment that spoke to a simple truth: To a certain generation, no one is better than Rufio, Basco’s character from Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Peter Pan reimagining Hook.
Rufio was a leader, a badarse, and the one kid feared by Captain Hook. He didn’t just have one mohawk, he had three. He was the coolest and to this day, he’s a fan favourite character in pop culture.
So when I was contacted about interviewing Basco in the leadup to Hook releasing on 4K HD next month, I replied quickly and eagerly. To get the chance to talk to an actor who was such a huge part of your childhood was too good to pass up and, afterwards, I realised the interview was too good to cut any of it out. We talked to Basco about how he got the role, the food fight, the amazing costume and Rufio’s legacy.
Take me back to the beginning. What do you remember about getting the role?
Dante Basco: The audition process is always, you go to auditions and you go to callbacks. The crazy thing about Hook was it was one of the movies in town that everybody knew about. It was the biggest film shooting in Hollywood at the time and the idea of Robin Williams playing Peter Pan really captured everybody’s imagination.
I remember calling my manager and saying, “I just want to audition for any of these roles.” My little brother auditioned for one of the Lost Boys and I was like, “I want to get in on it.” And then I got an audition. I actually went to the audition with my other brother. My little brother had auditioned for one of the roles, Dion, and then my other brother, Darion, we both auditioned for this Rufio character.
So I’m getting coaching on it and kind of dressing up and going in for the audition with the casting director, Janet Hirshenson, and it went great and a few days later they were like, “Steven Spielberg wants to meet you.” I was like, “Wow, that’s cool.”
So I remember going to Amblin which is where Steven Spielberg’s office is on the backlot of Universal Studios. I don’t know if you know the studios but most of it is grey soundstages and whatnot. But there’s a little section in the back of it that’s Amblin, which is like this Spanish Villa on the back lot of Universal. It has its own security and all that kind of stuff and I later found out, when I went to Steven’s house for rehearsals, it’s designed like his house.
So the legend of Steven Spielberg’s office, especially in the ‘90s, was that Steven had an arcade in his offices. So we go to his offices, there’s about a half dozen of kids there and they’re like, “Go to the arcade.” So we go to this room and it’s a full video game arcade in the office. It was crazy. And this was before all the PS4s and stuff.
And we were just playing for a while and someone goes, “Steven wants to see you now.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m here for an audition.” So I go in the back and I meet Spielberg and the crazy thing about that audition is we just talked.
I remember we talked about a film I did before that film and I brought up Ratso Rizzo because I was a really big Dustin Hoffman fan. And he was like “What?” and I said, “Yeah this character I did was kinda like Ratso Rizzo.” He goes, “Did you say Ratso Rizzo? Midnight Cowboy?”
So we started talking about Midnight Cowboy and he was looking at me like, “Look at this young punk.” And in the middle of the interview, I was like, “Do you want to read the scene?” And he said, “No you don’t have to read the scene.” We didn’t even read the scene. He was like, “I just wanted to meet you.”
So we were leaving, pulling out of the parking lot at Universal, and my mum was like, “How did it go?” I said, “I don’t think I got it. We didn’t even read the scene, we were just talking.” Then a few days later they offered me the roll, which was crazy.
Then I remember being on the set a few months into it, just hanging out and I asked Steven what happened. And he said, “You know Dante, we searched all over the country for this role and out of the thousands of kids we read, you were the only kid that scared me.”
That is amazing. So what did you bring to the character that wasn’t already in the script? How much of it is you?
Basco: I mean he was there. [But] I was a serious young actor and I was working with legends in the industry. So I would go home every night and watch Hoffman films, watch Pacino films, and maybe I brought an aspect of that.
Plus, he said I scared him. I grew up in a pretty rough neighbourhood, Paramount, California, outside of LA, like near Compton, that’s where I’m from. What I was bringing to the character, especially at that time in my life, I grew up in a gang neighbourhood. Gangsters were around, drugs and everything. It was a tough time to grow up. It was cool, but it was a tougher neighbourhood.
And to a degree, the Lost Boys are a little gang. So I think I had a bit of that coming into it.
But on top of that, when you’re chasing giants, I’m studying a lot at the time, my acting coach is going over scenes and again I’m watching these films. Later in life, running into Dustin at different premieres and whatnot he’d introduce me to some other actors and he’d say, “This kid is chasing us.” That’s what you’re bringing as a young actor, especially working with your idols.
Now looking back it’s so weird. You’re a foil. You’re another kind of leader. There’s Robin Williams, there’s Dustin Hoffman, then there’s you as this other force that’s supposed to be standing up to these guys, not as the equal but as the new star. So that’s part of what I brought to it. It really was a young hungry actor kid from the neighbourhood just trying to do a good job and to be a great actor.
I have to ask about the food fight scene. Any time anyone talks about Hook, they talk about the food fight scene. What was that like, what do you remember about it?
Dante: We actually shot that food fight twice, which is crazy. But, the funny thing about the food fight, for me, is if you remember it’s a scene where Peter Pan and I are fighting.
A lot of times when you remember back to certain scenes you remember your state of mind or how you were feeling that day. And it’s one of peoples’ favourite scenes in the movie. It’s so fun, it’s so entertaining, but for Rufio it’s a bad day. It’s like the end of his reign. So I always remember it like everyone else was having a good time but I was not having a good time that day.
But the great feeling of us going back and forth and the banter with Robin Williams and really seeing the magic of Robin doing the lines then being able to improv and sitting there trying to improv with Robin Williams is pretty crazy.
Then we get to do what every kid wants to do which is have a food fight. At that time they had like a whole thing of food, not just the crazy stuff we were throwing at each other, but there were all kinds of different foods out there.
Then they started making all this frosting stuff in different colours that we were throwing at each other. Nowadays you can go to the supermarket and probably get like turquoise blue and pink and all that kind of stuff but back in those days you couldn’t go to the store and buy that. They were making that stuff on the set right in the moment.
Everyone had a fun time doing the food fight and I always remember afterward everyone washing up, groups of Lost Boys, we were just a mess. There was only a certain amount of wardrobe that we could do before they’ve got to wash everything. It was just boys being boys. It was fun.
Did you do one take, wash up, and then do a second take or did you do the second take on another day?
Basco: We did small takes then we did one take where everyone could kind of go crazy. And we went back and shot another day because it wasn’t easy to clean up that stuff especially off the costumes. One take and it’s done. You’re over. That’s it.
Speaking of the costume and the hair, that’s part of what made Rufio so iconic. Was that always the concept? Did you have any input? Tell me about the look of the character.
Basco: He was the newest Lost Boy. The most modern Lost Boy and he wasn’t in the J.M. Barrie books. He was a new character created for this film and there was a lot of sketching going on. Sketches of Rufio with like dreadlocks, there were different looks going on. And then they just started trying things and that’s when the look began, which now is great.
But I always tell people when I go to Comic Cons, there are people dressed up as Rufio at all the Comic Cons, it’s this really cool look, but when you’re 15 years old and you just want to be cool, you know? It kind of took me back a little bit.
They were like, “We’re going to try some things out,” and all of a sudden… look, it was the ‘90s. We were wearing super baggy clothing. We’d come to the set every day in baggy jeans, cargo pants and hip-hop, double XL shirts, and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Put on these tights.” “What?”
These ripped, skin-tight jeans and then put me in a midriff T-shirt with my belly button sticking out and I was like, “What is going on here?” Throw on like a Michael Jackson jacket and this was ‘91. Michael was not cool in ‘91. Like, he was cool in the ‘80s then he wasn’t cool, then he came back and was cool again late ‘90s but at this moment it was like, “This is not cool.”
So you’ve got this whole Michael Jackson thing going on. OK. And then what about the hair? What about a mohawk? What about three mohawks? Like what? And I was just a good little soldier on set like, “Let’s try it out, but what about the dreadlock look? That dreadlock look was cool.” But they’re like “No, let’s try these three mohawks.”
And literally this is like a three, four-hour situation putting together costumes with costumers and going another two/three hours just to do the hair and the makeup and then you’re like, “OK, I don’t know how I feel about all this right now. I feel crazy.”
Then they’re like, “Let’s bring you to the set, let’s show Steven.” It looked crazy. It felt crazy. And I just remember walking on the set the first time with the whole wardrobe makeup crew and they’re like, “Steven we’re going to show you something.”
Steven is directing some of the other Lost Boys at the base of the Nevertree or what not. I come walking around the corner and he slowly turns around and goes, “Ummmm…Yes!” I’m like, “Yeah?” He was like, “This is it” and I went, “Oh my god, I have to walk around with my belly button out?”
But now it’s classic look. You see people with red mohawks you’re like, “That’s very Rufio” now. But at the time when you’re 15, you’re very worried about “Can I just look cool?”
Though it was embarrassing then, it seems like you still really embrace the character. You’ve reprised the role online and stuff and sometimes actors hate looking back and talking about their childhood roles. What makes you so OK and cool about this one?
Basco: I mean, I’ve never not liked it, but you move on in your career. You grow up. But after 25 years it’s fun to have characters on your resume and your past that people still love. I think social media changed a lot of things. Rufio’s a classic character and I did Zuko (from Avatar: The Last Airbender) for Nickelodeon that became really popular within the whole comic con world.
I think it’s one of those things that, as you grow up, you’re able to appreciate aspects of your career and celebrate them with fans out there and understand and engage on social media.
Like it’s nostalgic for me too so it’s kind of fun to capsulise a part of your life which, to me, was 15. Clearly, it means a lot to so many people and it’s something I’m proud of too, work-wise.
Look, everyone who ever comes to Hollywood, you hope to do something that people will remember you for. We work on so many things and I continue to work today, not just as an actor but as a writer and a producer. But [certain roles] really kind of mean things to people. [Hook] has become, for a certain generation, a part of the vernacular. The way they talk to each other. How they think of it, who they are. It’s weird. I’m constantly blown away.
And, again, with social media, you’re able to experience it in a different way with people. Like people sent me tattoos of Rufio on their bodies. As far as like “Bangarang” coming out by Skrillex, and talking to him about the whole thing and just meeting other artists that were influenced by it and impacted by it. It meant so much to a generation of people.
Also, being a person of colour, that character Rufio, as a person of colour in a leadership role in a major film, for a lot of the Asian American community, that was the first cool Asian American character they’d seen in their lifetime.
And that impacted even a movie today. Jon Chu, [director of] Crazy Rich Asians, he’s become a good friend. And talking about representation in film and him going, “That was the first time I felt represented,” and how he felt he could be a part of Hollywood because of that character.
Those are the kinds of things that you don’t even know until later on in life, the impact you had. These roles we do in our career are like pebbles on the pond, we never know what ripples they make.
Man, I could talk to you forever, but I only have time for one more question. When was the last time you watched Hook and how did you feel it help up?
Basco: I went on a tour for the 25th anniversary, which was about two years ago, with Jimmy Madio who played Don’t Ask, we always stayed friends throughout our careers. We went on a tour together with Alamo Drafthouse and we watched it together once with [executive producer] Jim V. Hart.
And it was magical, man. It was the first time I’d seen it in like, over a decade or so and in a movie theatre with a packed audience, sitting next to Jimmy and sitting next to Jim Hart and Jim telling me some stories, since I was a kid, telling me a bit about what’s going on on the adult side of the film, it was pretty magical.
The further away from a project you get you can start appreciating it as a fan and not as being attached to it. In that way I really loved it. It really held up to me and it really represented… so much has changed in the world and so much has changed in our world of Hollywood, filmmaking, the connection to how we used to make movies.
I mean we don’t make movies the same way any more. No one is doing what Spielberg did. I try to explain to young filmmakers now, there is no CGI. You see that pirate ship? You walked in the room and there was a life-sized pirate ship in a big soundstage, in the water. It was crazy. It was just a magical way to do work.
They just don’t make movies the same way right now. So kind of being connected to old Hollywood in that way is pretty magical.
It’s weird. A lot of times as an actor you watch a film it’s like thumbing through a photo book from your past. It’s people you haven’t seen in a while, there are people that have passed away, and there are people you owe phone calls to.
And again, like, it’s my teenage days. Who gets to look back at their teenage days in a crazy home video like Hook?
If you’d like to see Basco’s crazy home video from the age of 15, it will finally be released in 4K on November 14. It’s called Hook.