The awards season ended with a bang as Hollywood celebrated Lulu Wang’s The Farewell winning Best Feature and Zhao Shuzhen nabbing Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards while Bong Joon-ho’s peachy dark comedy masterpiece about social class made history at the Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English speaking film to win Best Picture. The South Korean film also made strides, winning Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. The huge wins for The Farewell and Parasite were benchmarks for Asians and Asian Americans, but just a week prior, Birds of Prey was released in theaters. On the surface, the Warner Bros. pic may seem like an action-packed, candy-coated mind trip of comic book movie, but the movie is a nuanced touchstone of Asian American representation — and even though it focuses on Harley Quinn’s narrative, the story would be nothing without Cassandra Cain, played by breakout Ella Jay Basco.
At the center of Birds of Prey is Basco’s Cassandra, an orphaned pick pocketer with the mouth of a sailor — but a heart of gold. In the movie, everyone is looking to nab her as she holds the MacGuffin (in the most unlikely place) which everyone is after. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn takes her under her wing and mentors her as they eventually team up with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to take on Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), possibly the douchiest and most self-absorbed comic book movie villain to date. The comic book movie shows isn’t a straight-forward Asian narrative, but it shows that one isn’t necessary to deliver representation.
Half Korean and half Filipino, Basco is one of many Asian actors in the Cathy Yan-directed movie. Ali Wong appears as Montoya’s ex-girlfriend (intersectionality!) while the story is peppered with Asian actors throughout including Dana Lee and François Chau. But even behind the camera, there is a solid representation of Asian talent. Yan directs a script from Christina Hodson, who is of Taiwanese descent while Oscar-nominated Matthew Libatique, a Filipino American, serves as director. In addition, the stunt team is filled with representation including Jonathan “Jojo” Eusebio and Jon Valera, who serve as stunt coordinators for 87Eleven.
Basco’s role is significant as she is an Asian American female lead who is part of an ensemble comic book pic — it could very well be a first. At 13 years old, she is blazing a trail for Asian American girls who are looking to see themselves on screen. Basco is very aware of this and of her place as a Hollywood representative of the Asian American culture — something that she didn’t even see much of when she was growing up.
“I feel like Asians are the largest minority in terms of not being represented,” Basco tells Deadline. “I could think of many other young African American kid actors or many others of different races — and off the top of my head, I can’t even really think of Asian American kid actors because we’re more of the minority. I think we’re definitely changing the lay of the land, but at the same time, we still have such a long way to go.”
Basco is honored to be part of an era where inclusion and diversity are paramount and top of mind in Hollywood. She speaks proudly about her heritage and it showed when she attended the London premiere of Birds of Prey where she donned a gown that looked like a hybrid of a traditional Korean hanbok and a baro’t saya, a customary Filipino dress.
With Birds of Prey, she was excited to work on a project that was fronted by women — diverse women to be specific. She says it was “eye-opening” to come to set every day to work with Cathy. “I think we’re definitely starting a movement and I really hope other young Asian American girls can see that they can be represented in the community as not the stereotypical Asian American girl but more as themselves,” she said. “I think that’s super important and I think it should become a norm to see more diversity throughout the industry.”
If it seems like Basco is wise beyond her years, she is. But she’s not precocious in way that echoes that of an insufferable young, know-it-all character with a catchphrase from prime time network TV. Instead, she is grounded and is proof that you can talk to young people like an adult — but she still maintains a youthful charm. You believe her what she says and it’s not a stock answer resulted from media training. She’s the real deal — and it’s probably because her family maintains is rooted in Hollywood.
Her father, Derek Basco is an actor and producer and her uncle Dion Basco is also an actor who was seen in the classic series City Guys as well as the 2003 pic Biker Boyz which also starred her other uncle Dante Basco, who is also best known for his iconic role as Rufio in Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan fantasy Hook. All three of the brothers appeared in the Filipino-American coming-of-age drama The Debut and will reunite in the forthcoming The Fabulous Filipino Brothers. In addition, her cousin Jaeden Martell starred in the IT franchise and Knives Out while her aunt Andrea Walter is a filmmaker who helmed the indie Empty By Design and is the DP in the aforementioned The Fabulous Filipino Brothers.
“I feel like I wouldn’t know as much as I do now about the industry because I have resources like my dad, my uncles and my mom…and I feel like I wouldn’t even enjoy or understand it if I didn’t have a connection with anybody else close to me that understands the industry,” she said. She also admits that she enters the industry with an advantage because she sees it from a different perspective and with so many family members who also serve as role models.
In addition to her family, Basco looks to other actors who launched their careers at a young age and navigated the Hollywood landscape to later become major players in the industry. She cites Natalie Portman, Jodi Foster and Leonardo DiCaprio as influences. Outside of her immediate family, she sees Asian actresses like Sandra Oh and Awkwafina as role models.
The character of Cassandra Cain first appeared in the DC comics in 1999. An Asian American trained from birth to be an assassin, she stepped into the Bat-family as Batgirl. Unlike Batman, she teetered the line of superhero and supervillain. More recently, author Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux wrote Shadow of the Batgirl, a graphic novel that gives a new origin story to the teenage assassin. But with Birds of Prey, Cassandra gets a different story as she becomes Harley Quinn’s apprentice. All the while, it keeps in the spirit of the source material.
When Basco was pitched the role of Cassandra, she didn’t even know she was playing her. “They didn’t even pitch it to me as Birds of Prey, it was just pitched me as a rated R action movie maybe with Harley Quinn directed by an Asian American female,” she said. “Nobody put it in my head that it was going to be Birds of Prey so I actually didn’t even expect it to be such a large scale movie.”
She found out that she landed the role when her parents picked her up from school. “I was definitely freaking out because I knew that this would be my big break,” she said. “Honestly, I also thought they were kind of pranking me because I could not believe it.”
Basco admits that it was hard to be humble because of how big of a role this was, but ultimately she stayed grounded in a her first major feature role that would not only be her big break, but would be an opportunity to be one of the faces of the next generation of Asian American representation in Hollywood. With that, she points out, “I definitely feel a little more refreshed to see people who look like me more represented in the community.”