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SYFY WIRE Features

Avatar: The Last Airbender's Dante Basco on 'tango' of doing live, audience-driven Twitch show

By Jacob Oller
Dante Basco getty

Actor Dante Basco has a rare claim to fame. Not only has he portrayed an iconic character in live action over his prolific career — Hook’s Rufio — he’s also provided the voice for a pair of similarly legendary animated characters: Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Zuko and the title character of American Dragon: Jake Long. Having reached such heights in genre entertainment, perhaps it just makes sense for Basco to get increasingly creative with his projects ...

Like: What if he focused on something that was more like a live Bandersnatch than a traditional TV series?

That’s what happened when Basco made his debut last night on the third season of Artificial, Twitch’s interactive sci-fi series about futuristic A.I. technology, which occurs live for a streaming audience that helps determine the story. He plays Zander — who was created over a similarly audience-driven livestream with showrunner Bernie Su — a character who possesses a rich quantity of Dungeons & Dragons-like qualities. Zander is a flamboyant medium with a penchant for winking, the rival/ex-friend of Sebastian (Stephen Chang), and, pivotally, against self-aware A.I.

Basco spoke with SYFY WIRE about working in this innovative medium, the connection between acting and gaming, and creating Zander.

What drew you to Artificial?

I've been friends with Bernie Su, co-creator and director of the show, for a while. I've been watching his career and been a fan of things he's done from The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to Emma [Approved] to this now. We've been wanting to work together for years, trying to figure out the right thing, and now, with the pandemic and everyone stuck at home, we needed to figure out how to do this.

He talked to me about coming on the show and I was like, "Hey, man, I'm not shooting anything else right now — let's do it." It was perfect timing and situation.

It's a perfect storm of opportunity for this kind of project. What was it like making your debut in this medium?

It was a little scary and exciting. I've been involved in the digital side of the industry for the last few years now. I had a deal at Maker Studios for a lot of years and did a lot of stuff with them, and after they got acquired by Disney, one of the co-founders of Maker [created something new]. I'm a partner in his company: Rawn Erickson II's TheMachine. We've done a lot of stuff on the digital side of things, but this is pushing it more.

Being involved in this very innovative way — going from YouTube to Twitch, happening live — really is weird, right? It's a dualism. It's innovative and brand-new and exciting, but it also goes way back to theater. Live-action, on-stage theater. One take, let's go. It's really fun and smart in the way that Bernie has approached it, especially around artificial intelligence, which is a conversation for right now.

When I was watching, it felt like a combination of your work doing board game stuff with Rooster Teeth, live-action theater, and something like Bandersnatch with audience input. What's it like not knowing exactly where you're going to go?

Like any live theater, when anything happens, you have to tango through it. You saw that last night with Elle; Christy St. John's internet was being wonky, which put everybody else on their toes because we all have to do scenes with her.

That's the old theater saying: "The show must go on." We all learned that growing up in the theater, so we're just back to that.

When you were creating Zander, you were given a lot of arbitrary qualities from the audience. What aspect of the character affected your acting choices most?

They're all in the back of your mind as they're writing and as you're performing it. But the wink thing, I like the wink thing. There's a certain kind of guy that winks a lot. It's kind of an interesting thing. Flamboyance, trying to bring that to the words and the costuming and the jewelry. Playboy: There're all these overly sexualized things that the character is doing that're creepy — actually made extra creepy because the Wi-Fi was wonky.

So I'd say a line that was probably cringey toward a woman and, because the Wi-Fi was lagging so hard, it was extra time just sitting there.

We really got to marinate in it. The pauses were so interesting — how strange to deal with that as an actor.

These are problems I have as a gamer — I'm on Twitch through gaming — where you're playing and someone's lagging or the framerate's low. Everyone knows gamers are talking about this all the time, but [having] the same conversation in filmmaking is hilarious. What happened to Christy last night is like you're playing League of Legends and someone misses a few kills or gets dead or stalls out and they're like, "Oh sorry, I'm lagging." In the game, you'd be like, "What? Restart your computer!" We're doing the same thing as we're shooting a show.

With Twitch, you're also getting immediate feedback from people watching you. And you're not just playing a game, you're in the middle of your craft. Do you pay attention to that, or are you thinking about it?

We have people going through the chat because we are interacting, throwing questions and polls at us, which we're reading. I'm not reading the chat live, because it's hard when you're acting. It's one of the things that's weird for me, because I do have a life on Twitch with my stream where we stream a few times a week and we do Let's Watch Avatar.

People are very used to me on Twitch as Dante, outside of any of the characters I play. We're hanging out, talking smack, playing video games, having drinking games — it's very interesting for me to be back on this platform, but not being me and acting again. I'm interested to see how audiences take it.

People are like, "Is this fake, is this real?" And you're like, "No, this is scripted." People are reliant on platforms for what things are.

Totally. If you're not there with the stream from the very beginning, it can feel like "OK, are people putting on a live-read or ... ," and you have to keep watching to realize the structure and the branching paths. What's getting the script like?

You get a script with extra scenes, going down those branches, like you said. Basically, you have to be ready for "if they go this way, we have to say these lines; if they go that way we have to say those lines." You gotta be prepared for either way. Which is fascinating, but it's extra work for the actors and the writers because they're overwriting and we're memorizing two scenes instead of one.

Did you get to do any Zoom rehearsals with the cast, or was the stream the first time they'd seen Zander?

Yeah, we do. Like theater, we get to run it a bunch of times and work out the kinks. On their end, what they're doing branch-wise and editing-wise, and we have to work out both sides of it.

Also getting a part in character creation has to be novel as an actor.

When I was doing the worldbuilding episode with Bernie, I likened it to creating a D&D character. But, at that time, with 14,000 people watching and throwing out all kinds of ideas. Pretty fun.

You were very close to being able to speak to the dead.

Yeah, and it's very interesting to see what audiences want to see. And also, to see just great regular internet life with people trolling and trying to get the weirdest things out there. Which is cool, that's part of it too! Some trolls, let's roll.

You've got a roster of iconic characters like Zuko or Rufio in your back pocket and pulling from a giant backlog of cameos and supporting performances — is there any character from your past that Zander pulls from?

The flamboyance, the cuttingness of the character. I did a character in Blood and Bone, the Michael Jai White movie, where I play the manager of Michael Jai White and he's kinda streetwise and crazy. There's always little aspects of other things going in there. There's brand-new stuff too, which I hope we get more into. He's very spiritual and aura-filled and very L.A. in that way. We're playing with it now and I can't wait until we get more into it in the future.

You talked a little about how you're doing an Avatar rewatch, like many fans are now that it's on Netflix. What’s it like revisiting the show?

The great thing for me is being able to call up a lot of my co-stars from the show and hang out with them online, talk about the show and watch it with the fans. It's great to get everyone's idea of what they remember from the show and how it fits today. It's ironic that it comes out now during these crazy times we're living in and is poignant for a lot of things happening right now.

Beyond that, it's just great to be a part of a great project. Sometimes you know how great it is 10 years after, rather than when it first comes out. This is one of those projects that's definitely like that.

You also had your memoir come out, From Rufio to Zuko, right before the pandemic. Can you tell me a little about that?

I was approached by the indie press company Not a Cult, and they approached me to write a book. I was like "I'm too young to write an autobiography." But they pitched the idea: "We want a book on Hollywood from an Asian-American perspective, and you're the guy that we all grew up with. What's your story?" I really liked that point of view, and I didn't know where to go when I was writing all these essays, until I realized that maybe I can give something to the next generation of artists coming to this city.

Because me and my family didn't know anybody and went through ups and downs — so this is just a little thing I can offer to the next generation. Especially people of color, especially Asian-Americans, but any artist coming to town.

Artificial is like the next chapter there, with a large Asian-American cast and creative team.

There's always a next chapter in this town.

Artificial airs every Thursday at 6 p.m. PT on its Twitch channel.