Dante Basco Talks About His New Role on "Artificial" and the New Frontier of Interactive Storytelling
Basco talks about his upcoming project and his status as an Asian-American icon, Rufio in "Hook."
Now in its third season, Artificial, the first live scripted audience-interactive sci-fi series on Twitch, has invited actor Dante Basco to be a guest star.
The plot of Artificial focuses on the challenges and consequences of humanizing a self-aware AI —reminiscent of the film Ex Machina, but with the interactivity of the Netflix series Bandersnatch. The episode structure pivots between two different formats: world-building episodes where the audience coordinates with the showrunner to determine what will happen next, followed by story episodes where their decisions are brought to life. A real AI component called LifeScore also changes the music of the show in real time based on the mood of the chatroom, adding an additional layer of interactivity to the experience.
Basco has been a fan of Artificial creator and showrunner Bernie Su's work for several years, and he closely followed his previous projects like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved. Su was even featured as the keynote speaker at the February 2016 meeting of We Own the 8th, an arts collective founded by Basco to support and guide Asian American creatives. Both Basco and Su had been looking for an opportunity to collaborate for some time, but it wasn't until the pandemic that they finally got the chance to work together. When Su asked him if he would be interested in joining the third season—produced entirely remotely—Basco jumped at the opportunity.
He first joined the world-building episode on June 26th, watching as the audience shaped his character, Zander, in real time. The final result was a controlling, superstitious, flamboyant playboy and a self-aware AI with a dark sense of humor—quite different from the fan favorite characters he has portrayed in the past, like Rufio from Hook and Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Basco debuted Zander on the story episode on July 9th.
Popdust got the chance to speak to Basco and discuss interactive storytelling, the relationship between audiences and storytellers, artificial intelligence, and the gratitude he has for all the fans who have supported him throughout the years.
Artificial has a cast and crew that includes a lot of Asian Americans, and you're obviously a proud longtime member of the Asian American creative community and you're not only involved in acting, but also producing projects. What for you has been the most rewarding part of being such a key part of the Asian American creative movement?
All of it, you know — I've been part of the industry for the past 30 years. Doing roles that became impactful and iconic as years go by is very rewarding. But as I've grown up and started to write, produce, and now direct, being able to create opportunities for others has also been just as rewarding — if not more so.
It's really important to me to help create something for the next generation. My generation didn't really have anything happening now like Crazy Rich Asians, so it's really rewarding that we're actually moving things forward. It's our job to be diligent and not let it fall on the wayside, and to continue to create videos and films to show our own voices.
How would you describe Artificial in your own words?
I think it's really innovative. I don't know if it's going to be the future of storytelling, but it's definitely a new corridor. It's not completely new if you know Choose Your Own Adventure books and things of that nature, but bringing it to live action is an adrenaline rush. I just did my first episode yesterday.
What was the process like in between the audience's creation of Zander during the world building episode to you actually bringing his character to life in this week's story episode? How far in advance were you given the script, and what were rehearsals like?
After we did the world building character episode live-cast, Bernie wrote a script incorporating his character and adding all the elements that the audience put in. I got the script on Sunday or Monday and then we had rehearsals on Tuesday. We got to run it a few times, and then we came back on Thursday and taped it live, so it was a short interval in between things to meet the character and trying to find his voice, but it was fun. And interacting with the other cast was really great, even if it was only via camera.
Were you surprised by the choices the audience made while developing your character Zander, especially since you got to see it happen in real time?
Oh yes, definitely. There were a lot of things, traits like winking and flamboyance, and I was like, "Okay! Let's see where the audience takes this character." The great thing is that it's like theater to a degree, but even more engaging, because a lot of the things we're doing, especially in this live format, is to really engage and interact with the audience. In the past, storytellers didn't have to do this much audience engagement. It's fascinating, because at the end of the day it's a relationship between the storyteller and the audience that's hearing the story. This is just a different path to that relationship.
You'd mentioned during the world building episode that this was your first experience with narrative storytelling specifically on Twitch, but you're also a proud Homestuck. What draws you to web culture and nontraditional forms of storytelling, and how would you compare your experience with Artificial to Homestuck?
Well, Homestuck is what brought me to the web. When I look back at my whole social media/web life, my first love was Tumblr. Tumblr was the first site I went viral on to a degree, and it was all around Homestuck.
I was on Twitter for a day, and someone said you need to get a Tumblr. I was like, "I just got Twitter!" They said "I know, but you need to go on Tumblr. I swear, if you go on Tumblr right now, you'll have a thousand followers by tonight." I thought, "What is Tumblr? I just got The Twitter!" But I got a Tumblr and soon I had over a thousand followers and my inbox filled up with pictures of Rufio with horns.
I asked, "What is this?" and my fans said, "You have to read Homestuck", so I said okay and decided to read it. I think I had over 250,000 people following me on Tumblr as I live-blogged myself reading Homestuck, which is crazy.
It's a very narrative, interactive experience. Andrew Hussie did this years ago through webcomics and it's still fascinating when I think about what he was able to pull off and how he engaged with the audience to create this narrative story that went on for a long time, that I was a part of.
It's such a cool new way to tell stories and obviously Artificial is pushing it to the next level. Now that you've had a chance to experience it for yourself, what other kinds of stories would you be interested in seeing use this kind of audience interaction?
I'm really a student of what's going on with live streaming and figuring out how to engage the massive audience who wants to be engaged and how that's going to impact storytelling. With Artificial, I don't really know if the format is going to take over Hollywood, but I think it's a new avenue that's open now, that's going to remain open. I don't know where it's going to go - I think we're still at the new part of this whole era. We're all just students of what's going to happen.
Speaking of new frontiers, since Artificial's narrative focuses on the attempts and consequences of trying to humanize an AI, what are your thoughts on AI and has your experience on Artificial had any impact on it?
I think that's always up for conversation with Bernie and the rest of the cast. Look - we all deal with AIs every day, especially these days, with Siri and Alexa. I'm on the fence about it. At this point, it doesn't feel like something that's really intelligent, but we've all seen Terminator 2. It gets to a really dark place.
We're already a new species of people, right now. Us human beings are like these cyborgs. Our smartphones are attached to our bodies over 80% of the day, and that makes us officially cyborg-esque. Hopefully we can use technology to improve and not degrade our situation.
One last question - you're so interactive with your fans, and your username is rufiozuko on TikTok. What do you enjoy the most about interacting with fans who have such a passion and love for your previous characters on these different social media platforms?
I've been very fortunate to be in the industry for a long time and even more fortunate to have characters that audiences care about 10, 15, even 25 years later. I enjoy interacting with fans, appreciating why they appreciate the characters, digging the fan art, and just being part of the conversation — I just appreciate you guys, appreciating me. It's kind of like that — that's my attitude towards it.
I try not to overthink it. We've all been in times where social media can have highs and lows for everybody. As you imagine, if you have a certain following or celebrity or whatnot — the highs and lows that a regular person has is magnified by tens of thousands of people commenting, good or bad.
I just try to keep it really chill and make it less about me and more about fans and the conversation, because it is a relationship. You've gotta understand and respect that relationship, you know?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.