Tom Jolliffe chats with action legend Mark Dacascos about his illustrious career…
Among action aficionados, Mark Dacascos is a name associated with a string of cult favourites like Crying Freeman, Drive and Brotherhood of the Wolf. He’s also known to TV audiences for his recurring villainy in Hawaii 5-0 and the recent Wu Assassins (not to mention a long stint on Iron Chef America). Last year saw Dacascos given a (much deserved) platform on the big screen for the first time in a while, when he starred as Zero in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. For fans like myself it was a pleasure to see him in the kind of film worthy of his talents. Mark kindly took time to chat with FM about his career to date.
When did you first get the acting bug? Did you always aspire to be an action star?
I never really had an interest when I was younger. I’d never taken any acting or drama classes. I wanted to be writer and a Buddhist Monk, a bit like Jet Li in The Shaolin Temple. That inspired me and touched my heart. I loved the honour and the respect (and of course the martial arts). I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do. It has the moral code, the discipline and it struck me in the heart.’ When I was 17 I saved up some money and sold my drum kit. I headed out to Taiwan with my dad, who helped me find an apartment, get work and started learning Chinese with the goal of eventually getting to China and a Shaolin temple. Cut to a couple of years later for diverse reasons I ended up back in San Francisco (via Germany, Hawaii and L.A). I started teaching at my mothers Martial Arts studio. One day I go out for lunch. Two gentleman stop me and ask if I’m an actor. I said no, but they asked me if I wanted to try out. I declined but they gave me their card in case I changed my mind. After speaking with my mother, I tried it out. I auditioned, three days later I got the job. This was a film (Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart) directed by Wayne Wang who later went on to direct The Joy Luck Club. My first scene ever as an actor and I’m playing Joan Chen’s boyfriend. It was very exciting to be on set, and I found all the technical process so interesting and I’m just 18 at the time, I’m working with this beautiful woman and I’m thinking, ‘they’re paying me to do this!?’ This was my start. I love it and I love the power actors can have to make people laugh or cry, to open their hearts. When we as actors are at our best, we can do that.
Would you say Only The Strong was the first big break for you? What were your memories of this one?
Yeah I think it was. Right before I did a film called American Samurai. That kind of gave me a strong base in action movies. Some of the promo shots I did for that ended up being seen by the producers of Only The Strong, so that connected the dots. It was my first studio film and my first lead. I was 28. 10 years after my first acting job. They say it usually takes 8-10 years to break out as an actor so I guess I was in line with that.
Do you still practice Capoeira?
I still practice on my own. I practice with my mestre Amen Santo who was my teacher before Only the Strong, during the film and continues to be my teacher. So I had begun studying Capoeira before I’d been approached about the film. Three months after I’d started Capoeira my manager tells me about the film and it’ll be the first action movie where Capoeira is a main theme. Fortunately I got booked for the job. I’m sad to say I’ve probably not improved since the film, just because it’s been difficult to find the time to dedicate to it, and do it in class and practice with a partner. I’m a still a yellow chord, a Tigre, really just a beginner but I’m still passionate and excited about Capoeira.
I can imagine for several obvious reasons, Crying Freeman is a particular milestone in your career. What are your thoughts on the film?
Yes, Crying Freeman is huge for me. Thanks to Christophe Gans and the late and wonderful Sammy Hadida, for casting the wonderful Julie Condra, I met my now wife. We married 4 years after the film and now have three very lovely, but naughty teenagers.
This film had a great cast. I just remember Christophe, true artist that he is was involved in every part of the film. I remember these big Buddha heads built for the films finale. So we got to set for the finale and he checked them over, but they weren’t big enough. They pushed the finale back and had to remake these heads bigger. For Only the Strong I’d had to bulk up. When it came to Freeman Christophe wanted me leaner, like a steel cable. To look lean and wiry. So he really was involved in everything. I saw him in the office one day and he told me about his idea for the scene where I pulled myself up on the door and stood on top of it. He asked me if I could do it, so I just had a go then and there. I managed to do it but caught my zipper on the door latch and tore my pants. But yeah, this was a wonderful film to work on. Christophe and I are always in contact and discussing the possibility of working together again. I keep telling him ‘come on Christophe! Let’s do this while I can still move!’
How long did it take to do the body tattoos?
About 12 hours, with the full tattoo, in the scenes where I was near nude, it went down to my legs. It was three months of solid work but I loved it. I’d been a fan of the Manga.
Do you think the film could have become a cult classic in America had it been released there?
It was disappointing not getting an American release for myself, for Julie and of course Christophe and Sammy. The film had done great in Europe and the rest of the world, we had fans all over, but no one in America had heard of the film. To this day, the only people who have seen it in America are the real hardcore Anime/Manga fans. It was frustrating and sad, but such is life.
The Island of Dr Moreau has become as infamous for the shoot as the film itself. Do you have any particular memories of working with Brando, and did you get much time with Richard Stanley before he left the project?
I only had one physical meeting with Richard which was during the audition. I came into audition for the role of M’Ling, Marco Hofschneider’s role but having read Richard’s amazing script I was more drawn to the role of Lo-Mai. So I get to the audition and asked Richard if it was possible for me to audition for that part instead. He said ‘why don’t you take a few minutes and give it a go…improvise something.’ So I came back in, did a scene. He seemed pleased and then four weeks later I’d booked the job. By the time I made it to Australia, Richard had been replaced by John Frankenheimer. So I’d only met him the once but he was lovely and I enjoyed his energy and creativity. I was sad not to work with him but saying that Marlon Brando was lovely and Frankenheimer also too, and a legend of cinema.
Drive is a particular favourite among your fans. It must have been a lot of fun to make. Was a sequel ever close?
It was 6-7 weeks of laughter and getting my ass kicked non-stop. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many bruises in a film but at the same time so much joy, laughter and whimsy on a film. Between Kadeem Hardison, Jon Pyper Ferguson and the amazing Brittany Murphy it was just a blast! Steve Wang had a great sense of humour. Full of heart, passion and creativity. It was a blast for 7 weeks and we worked 7 days a week (even though we weren’t supposed to). There were some issues with the producers cut, but I preferred Steve Wang’s cut. The producers cut took out some of the human element and just left the action. Steve’s version was the one which won film festivals and which fans loved. The sequel never went further than us wanting to do it. Myself, Steve and Kadeem would all love to do the sequel, but as is the case with these things there are all those rights issues.
Huge thanks to Mark Dacascos for chatting with us, and be sure to check out part two of our interview here where Mark discusses Brotherhood of the Wolf, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and more.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.