This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. We stand with the SAG-AFTRA. Without them, the movies and television shows we cover would not exist.
At this past weekend’s FAN EXPO Chicago, Dante Basco was among the myriad of celebrity guests who attended the convention to meet and interact with fans, signing autographs and taking photos. On Thursday, his panel was one of the first for the four-day event. He began the panel speaking passionately about his love for the Chicago food scene, giving praise to Au Cheval for having his “favorite burger in all of the world” and showing love to Kasama, the first Michelin-star Filipino restaurant. But, unsurprisingly, much of his panel was dedicated to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which he is permitted to speak about during the WGA strike, and his experience with the show.
Here are a few things we learned from the Filipino actor during his FAN EXPO Chicago panel:
He was initially skeptical about ATLA.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a beloved animated series that, nearly 20 years after it first premiered, remains popular and is seen as one of the best of its genre. But Basco, who voiced Zuko on the show, was unsure whether it would be a success when he started his initial work on the project. During his panel, he recalled going into the booth to read the pilot episode’s script and being handed a picture of his character. The bald head, ponytail, and scarred face weren’t what he was expecting.
“Now, it’s genius,” Basco said. “At the time, you’re like, “This ain’t Nickelodeon.’”
“I’m like, “How is this going to make it on the air after SpongeBob? How are we in the same universe as SpongeBob?”
Sundance Film Festival helped him realize the success and impact of ATLA.
When ATLA premiered in 2005, the premier social media outlet was Myspace, Facebook was just a year old, and Twitter had yet to be founded. So social media didn’t have the power to spread and publicize the success of the show like it can now. Ending in 2008, the show ran right before social media really blossomed into the influential entity it has become, which is something Basco pointed out during his panel when asked about realizing the show’s impact.
He went on to recall how, at Sundance Film Festival the following year, a run-in with Jason Isaacs, who voiced Admiral Zhao on the show, offered context on how big the show was becoming.
“We run into each other in the snow, and he’s like, ‘Dante, that cartoon we did.’ I’m like, “Yeah?” He goes, ‘Everyone’s talking about this cartoon at Sundance Film Festival!’”
He thinks the show’s relatability to real life is one of the best parts of the show.
During the fan Q&A, Basco was asked about what he thought was the greatest struggle Zuko had to go through. He proceeded to explain how he felt Zuko himself was the struggle because of the character’s humanization. Zuko fights to figure out and understand what’s right, which Basco pointed out is not only something people can relate to but is also why he believes so many fans love the character.
Basco went on to say that the idea of a gray world isn’t something he saw in the cartoons he had growing up, like Thundercats and Transformers.
“The world is not Autobots and Decepticons; that’s not the world,” Basco said. “When you watch Avatar and you watch these characters, you’re seeing good and bad in every element. It’s not like Fire Nation is all bad and Water Tribe is all good. No, there’s good and bad in each thing. And, with Zuko, what he thought was good for him at the beginning of his journey, he realizes in the middle. And that’s where we all are in our lives. We’re all in the process of who are we going to become.”