“What does your name mean?”
Those are the first words to come out of Mark Dacascos‘ mouth when he greets me during the John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum junket ahead of the third film’s theatrical release. I tell him it means “Forever precious” in Vietnamese, and he launches into an excited monologue about the importance of retaining one’s cultural roots, something he’s trying to teach his kids. It’s a fitting start to our conversation about his villain, Zero, in the upcoming action film sequel starring Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin.
The John Wick series has grown to become a bonafide cultural phenomenon for its blending of Hong Kong-influenced martial arts with rapid gunfire, in a new style that director Chad Stahelski has cheekily coined “gun-fu.” Stahelski has described the style to be a combination of “Japanese jiu-jitsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tactical 3-gun, and standing Judo” — a blending of rich and varied cultures, much like Dacascos’ own cultural identity.
Born to a Hawaiian father of Filipino, Spanish, and Chinese ancestry and a mother of Irish and Japanese ancestry, and trained in martial arts by his parents from a young age, Dacascos is the embodiment of the John Wick franchise’s cross-cultural mix. He’s starred in a number of martial arts film in his 34-year career, often as the one token Asian fighter. But in John Wick: Chapter 3, he’s not alone. His villainous assassin Zero has a whole entourage of fighters of Asian ethnicity, while the film features cameos from the Indonesian martial arts hit The Raid as well as Tiger Hu Chen from Reeves’ Man of Tai Chi.
/Film sat down with Dacascos to talk about everything from representation, to Iron Chef America, and how he improvised one of the funniest scenes in the John Wick franchise.
You are of mixed heritage of…everything –
I am very mixed. Yes. And proud of it.
Yeah. And you get to star in the John Wick entry that has the most Asian representation of all of the series. So how did you feel about going in and realizing that you are not just the one Asian guy, but one of many?
Yes. First of all, I was very honored and absolutely ecstatic to get the call from Chad [Stahelski] because he and Keanu [Reeves] established this world and to be a part of a show that has so much cultural diversity, is inspiring, and hopeful. You know what I mean? Yeah. And to represent the Asians and to help represent the Asians and, and have a lot of Asian costars and fighters and actors and performers and stunt men and women in the show, it was just fantastic to be a part of it. I’m so proud of it. I mean obviously the John Wick world has it grown since 1 and 2 and 3 now. And I have to say that because of the cultural diversity and gender diversity, and of course the story, but it gives nearly everybody and gives everybody someone in the movie to feel akin to or to relate to. We’re not just one ethnicity, it’s a rainbow out there. And, uh, I think Chad and Keanu brought that to our movies, so I’m delighted.
That’s awesome. When John Wick 1 was first was released in theaters and became this cultural phenomenon, did you take notice of it and think, that is a great martial arts franchise, I want in?
So this is, this is the truth. I didn’t see John Wick or [John Wick: Chapter 2] in the movie theaters. My wife saw the movies before I did. And this is an interesting fact. She’s not an action movie fan, but obviously she loves Keanu, and the story seemed appealing enough for somebody like her to go and watch it. She saw 1 and 2 and loved them both. And she knows that I love action, but for me it’s really important to have story first. And so if I want to see action a lot of times, I’ll watch some fights or I’ll watch short clips. But for me, it’s really important to have a story.
So eventually I saw them and of course I’m thinking, “Oh, I should have seen this on the big screen.” They were fantastic and I too have been a fan of Keanu’s for years. But Chad and Keanu, they raised the bar for action. I mean, in my opinion, way up high. I mean they’ve set the bar. And the reason I think it works is… You love John Wick, you feel for him. He lost his wife, his dog, his car. And most of us have lost something like that, something or someone you know, or the love of an animal. And so we feel for him and then when he gets down to his nitty gritty and all that fighting and shooting, we understand it and we want him to go back and do it, you know? So it’s that story. How they opened up the world. So, yes. I saw [the movie] and I thought, man, if I ever do action again, that would be such an honor to work with those guys and those women.
Yeah. It has been awhile since you did a major action martial arts film. Going into John Wick 3, how did you prepare for that? Were you nervous or did it just fall right into place?
Well, kind of both. Everything in the above. My parents are kung fu teachers so I’ve been practicing kung fu and different styles all my life. And so even if I was doing other projects, I myself would always practice martial arts. It keeps me happy, helps me fight my own demons, um, relaxes me. So, and then all the health benefits and so forth. This is part of my life. So that’s, that’s always there.
I was in New York in, I believe it was March of last year…and I get a call from my representation saying that, uh, Chad Stahelski, director of the John Wick movies would like to see you. Are you kidding me? Wow. So I went in to go see Chad and we had about a two hour meeting. He told me upfront that his lead villain was already cast, but maybe I would be interested in doing a featured role, a fight scene and a little bit of dialogue and some character. And I said, of course I would be honored. So he said, “Okay well, I’ll probably be calling you sometime in October.” Cut to first week in May, I believe. I get a text on a Sunday and it’s Chad and he says, “Please call me first thing in the morning.” So I call him Monday morning. I say, “Chad, how can I help you, what’s going on?” He goes, “Yeah, hopefully you can help me… Things have changed. I’d like you to go from featured role to lead villain.” And I said, “Yes!” He goes, “Wait a minute. Read the script first.” Okay. So I read the script, I call him back in a couple of hours. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” He says, “I need you to come tonight.” Monday night. I fly from LA to New York. I get here Tuesday morning and we start prepping. And Thursday I’m on the set with Asia Kate Dillon and Laurence Fishburne. No specific preparation. I just jump right into it. And that’s how it happened. It still feels surreal. And as I talk about it with you, I’m still processing because, because I heard that some of the other cast had five and six months preparation. So the whole thing and to be a part of this, this world and this franchise, I’m still overjoyed. I will be forever.
I will say I did like how you or your villain kind of stands apart from the past villains in that you’re little bit of a fan boy.
So you saw the whole movie? So then you more than I did because, uh, I was invited to some of the screenings and I didn’t want to see the movie until the premiere, so thank you. Does that mean you loved it?
I loved it, yeah. But I did notice that your character had sort of this fanboy approach to John Wick, which I thought was really nice and fun.
Was that something that was built into the character or something that you are brought to it?
A lot of it was on the page and then Chad and Keanu, um, they opened the space up for us to be very collaborative and they encouraged improv and variations. And so they really urged me to play and we went from there. It was quite organic.
We had our rehearsal and before we actually shot that particularly scene in the lounge when I [sit next to him]. Cause that physicality was not on the script. It was just the words. And Chad said, “Before I actually give you guys some direction, let’s do a rehearsal and give me what you want and we’ll take it from there.” So we’re standing outside the lounge and Keanu asked me, “You want to go in first?” And I said, “If you don’t mind Keanu, I feel like you should go.” So he goes in and he sits down and I already knew what I wanted to do. I thought, “What I want to do, it’s pretty out there, but try it.” So I walk in the door, I look at the one chair and see [the dog] standing over there. I pass the chair on the sofa and then I start scooting over like this so much that I’m now touching John Wick’s leg. And I sit down, rubbing him as I sit down. And I could feel Keanu’s energy just go, “What the?!” And I thought, this is going to be either really good or not so good. So I sit down and you can feel that in rehearsal Keanu’s trying not to laugh. We go through the scene and eventually he scoots over, gets up. I see that John’s gone, I get over and we start to do the scene and we finish it. And Chad yells, “All right, cut.” And Keanu bursts out laughing, “That’s too funny. We can’t do that, right? We can’t do that!” And from behind the curtain, you hear Chad go, “I love it. We’re doing it!”
It’s one of the few moments of humor in this franchise, and I really enjoyed what you brought to it.
Thank you. So it was organic and improv.
Speaking of things you brought to your character, I did notice that the intro to your character is at a sushi stand. I wondered if that was a reference at all to your job at Iron Chef America?
Good question. I don’t know what the intention was, but it certainly felt that way and I was trying to channel my inner Iron Chef Morimoto. It was really fun. So I don’t know if Chad and the writers, had that intention, but, but we’re going to go with that.
You’re usually the martial arts guy in most of your past films.
In my past life!
Yes, so you’ve probably experienced this, but martial arts has had longstanding history in Hollywood. But with the exception of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan it’s kind of relegated to B-movies or sometimes TV shows. But with John Wick, do you think that it is sort of introducing a fresh take on martial arts to new generation of people? How do you feel about that?
Yes. And thank you for bringing that up. 100%. So obviously I love martial arts. I love martial artists in the discipline and respect and everything. But with very few exceptions, I really feel that you need a solid story and then you need actors, whether they’re martial arts actors or just straight actors to tell the story first so that people can relate and feel and emote. I’ll just say that, again, my, my wife is not an action movie fan, but loves the genre movies because she feels something. And then of course, you can enjoy the action. But I think you need a story and performers that can tell the story and get your audience involved before you start fighting.
If it’s just a physical fest, um, that could last for a little while, but quite frankly, you could watch a lot of incredible, um, physical feats online without being emotionally connected. What the John Wick movies do, I feel is they connect the audience with the emotions and, uh, the circumstances of our characters, you know, and that storytelling. So Chad and I had a talk last night and I just said, he did it. He obviously proved it that it’s story and the acting and the performances of that and then the action. And I think that’s why it has gone from a genre piece to mainstream, because we can relate. In the end it’s about people, right? And humanity. Amd John Wick, Keanu plays him so brilliantly because he’s of course this tough guy, but he has a vulnerability and this the sympathetic quality. He loves a lot of things. He loves his people, you know, represented by his wife. And then, you know, whatever that car symbolized for him. He obviously worked hard for it and that was his thing. And then, you know, the vulnerable animal. I mean, so that’s a lot of story there before the fighting. And I think a lot of us action fans, hopefully they see that it’s really that, that gets us into the fight and it gives us a reason to fight. It gives us a real emotional reason to fight.
Yeah. I’ve always felt like the John Wick series, cause it takes cues so heavily from Hong Kong martial arts movies which makes the fighting part of the story.
And do you think that because the director’s a former stuntman and all the fighters involved are people who have long worked in that martial arts genre, John Wick is so successful at that?
Yes. And yes. Chad is obviously he’s an artist, wonderful director. But he has a vast amount of knowledge in different martial arts. He is an excellent martial artist himself. He still practices. And so, his experience from actually doing it himself, it makes it so much easier to have him as a leader in a movie like this because he can do it. He knows how to shoot it. He feels it, if there’s that he feels it, he embodies it. And so when he’s talking with actors in explaining what he wants, he and Keanu who — Keanu, who also trained so much for this, and it’s obvious, with his experience — you get from the inside, not just from the outside. Chad knows how to do it himself and knows how to shoot it. And there’s this specificity of the moves and the thought right behind it and before it, he gets it. It’s those little ingredients I think that helped make John Wick really stand out.
You’re well versed in all sorts of martial arts styles. What style did you specifically use in this movie?
Well, for the most part, whatever worked at the moment, you know. I say we because it’s Chad directing and so he’s steering us. And then 87eleven Action team and myself collaborated to really find out who Zero is. As you pointed out, Zero is a little fierce, but he has that fanboy quality that’s a little psychotic. To love somebody, but I got to kill you. We wanted to take his personality and put that into his fighting style. Obviously Zero knows that John is fantastic with his hands grabbing and throwing. So he’s not going to engage him up close unless he has to. He’s going to use more striking or kicking more movement, like a mosquito that just doesn’t go away. That’s the idea. So there’s a different conflict styles in there. There’s a couple styles and some boxing footwork, just staying away.
Can you tell me what your most difficult fight to shoot was in the movie?
By far, the most challenging fight scene for me was the finale. We shot that over a period of a month. We weren’t able to shoot it in consecutive days, which is probably good because it gave us time to rest our bodies in between. But it was a night shoot. So night for night we started, maybe 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. at night and then finish the 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. in the morning. So that’s difficult for the body, but the intensity to sustain that intensity and energy was challenging and yet very inspiring. Because you keep thinking if this is a big finale fight of John Wick 3 and the characters… They’re opponents. I’m not sure if they’re enemies, [but] there’s a certain respect — that’s the way I played at, at least in Zero’s mind. John Wick does what he has to do to Zero. But in Zero’s mind, you know, we’re tight. It’s reciprocated. We’re the same. But that was very hard. That was a hard one.
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