The Iron Chef Host Kicks His Way onto Five-O
Martial Artist Turned Actor Mark Dacascos Kicks It in Hawai’i
WRITER: LIANNE BIDAL THOMPSON | PHOTOGRAPHER: MARK ARBEIT | HAIR & MAKEUP: KECIA LITTMAN | STYLIST: YU SHING TING
AT FIRST GLANCE, one might think that Mark Dacascos is one of those guys. Good-looking, witty and quick to charm, it’s easy to assume that thing just come easily for the martial artist and actor.
After an afternoon chatting with him, it’s apparent that Dacascos is much more than a flashy smile and some nice high kicks. Spouting facts about Genghis Khan -”Did you know that it’s estimated that 16 million people are descended from him?”- his quick wit kept those references to Genghis rolling throughout our five-hour photo shoot at The Waikiki EDITION.
Born in Hawai’i and raised in Germany, Dacascos learned early on that hard work is rewarded. “In Germany, you get tested for all these different levels of schooling,” he explains. “If you prove yourself, they will take care of your education.” That educational background, coupled with his parents’ martial arts school, taught Dacascos that success is earned, not given.
“With martial arts, you have a foundation to establish, and you have to train and work for your wins,” he says, using his background as a competitive kung fu fighter as an example. “Same with surfing,” he adds. “No wave just comes to you, you need to work for it.”
That work ethic along with a period of questioning typical of 17-year-olds led to a very atypical stint in Taiwan. The future movie star traveled to the country with the goal of becoming a monk.
“At 17, I was going through this philosophical evolution-questioning and wondering about materialism, sexuality and different cultures,” he explains. ” I had this glorified image of this monk who would farm, practice martial arts and teach kids math, language and philosophy. That’s how I thought my life would be: Very hands-on, very, very basic…and that’s why I became an actor.”
The group gathered for his photo shoot bursts into laughter. It’s a scene that Dacascos is clearly comfortable in. Self-deprecating, honest with humor just waiting to erupt at the turn of a phrase, he keeps everyone at ease while sharing what must have been a very private journey for him. It’s not easy for most people to reveal their teen angst-Dacascos’ happened to take him to another country and culture-yet, he does it with well with calculated candor.
He discusses at length the spiritual motivations that led to his Taiwanese quest, throwing out a quote from Katherine Hepburn’s Rose in The African Queen to sum up his motivation at the time: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on this earth to rise above.” He laments that our culture and society have evolved, yet our biology hasn’t. “We think we need to populate the world-so those urges are there-but we don’t necessarily need to populate the world anymore,” he pauses, then with a sly smile, he adds, “But, isn’t that urge wonderful? And, doesn’t that urge drive so many wonderful stories?” Again, he has everyone in stitches, yet we’ve all been privy to a small corner of his world.
Of course, monk hood wasn’t his destiny. What made him leave? “To be completely honest, I was hungry. I was teaching conversational English and German to businessmen to make money. And, at 17, I’m living in my third country. I’m paying for rent, tuition for Chinese school, kung fu classes…I had less than $1.50 to live on.” He goes on to explain that for that $1.50, he had to choose between eating and transportation.
“After six months, I got really slim-slimmer-I just got really hungry. I was missing a hot shower; I was missing that satisfied feeling of having a good meal. It was hard. Now, not as hard as a lot of people, but difficult because this was something I had chosen.” So, when his father called on him six months later for help at his martial arts school in Germany, Dacascos was more than willing to help out.
“I said, ‘Oh sure, I’ll come back (to Germany) and help you.’ Really, I was thinking, ‘Yay! Refrigerator! Hot shower!’ So, that hunger was stronger than my spirituality at 17,” he smiles.
It wasn’t all filial piety and hunger that inspired him, though. “Also, what did it too is that I met this rocking Hawaiian girl!” he zings. ” She was dancing my uncle’s troupe-they happened to be in Taiwan-and I fell so in love. Well, I wanted to eat, and I wanted the girl, so I guess I’m not monk material…but the heart was there,” he concludes.
It wasn’t long after that the acting bug struck. And, in true Hollywood fashion, Dacascos was discovered walking down the street; only it was in San Francisco. At the time, he was teaching at his stepmother’s martial arts and aerobics school. While walking with his girlfriend on his lunch break, he was approached by two gentlemen. “(They) asked me if I was an actor, and I said ‘no.’ They asked, ‘would you want to audition?’ I said ‘Absolutely not.’” But, after some encouragement from his mother-who told him it would be good for him to try new and different things-he auditioned and got the part (in Dim Sum, Wayne Wang’s second U.S. film).
“So, the first day-I’d never seen a camera, or taken an acting class-they block off this corner in San Francisco’s Chinatown and there’s this beautiful Chinese girl sitting on the hood of a car, and Wayne comes up to me and says ‘OK, in this scene, I’d like you to go over there and improv some German with her…’” Dacascos goes on to explain that while he spoke German and English, he was, at the time, studying Chinese. Of course, Chen spoke Chinese as well as English, while studying German. “The idea was I would improv some German with her then start making out with her-on the car. I thought ‘this is acting? I like
it! I’m so glad I’m not a monk!’”
He knows that he got a lucky break early on in his acting career that doesn’t come along for many people. Nevertheless, he was hooked. “That’s really the first thing I did in acting: I kissed Joan Chen-why would I not pursue that?”
With that first brush with the silver screen over, Dacascos, true to form, got to work. He points out that for nearly a decade after Dim Sum, his life was a cycle of acting lessons, going to wauditions and getting bit parts here and there. Then, another opportunity came along.
He was cast as the bad guy in American
Samurai, and later, at 28, he was cast as the lead in Only the Strong.
“But, for the record, it was 10 years from my first job to my first real job,” he emphasizes. He discourages young actors who talk of wanting fame and fortune, telling them that if that’s their goal, they’re in the wrong business. “In SAG, there are less than 5 percent that are fortunate enough to make their living solely off acting,” he explains. “Only 1 percent is making a really good living. And, of the 1 percent, only the top 5 percent are the Angelina Jolies and Tom Cruises.”
Throughout his career, he has learned that it’s about the art, and creating is the key to achieving success on one’s own terms. “If you love acting, it’s incredible,” he says flashing a content smile. “I’ve been lucky and some of my friends have been lucky, but most people have not been (lucky) when it comes to finances and wealth. You have to prepare yourself as much as possible, and what if that particular role doesn’t come for you to really shine?”
Again, elbow grease is Dacascos’ prescription for getting ahead as an actor.
“My teachers tell me to create. Don’t just wait for them to call you. Write your own material, or find your own material and get the rights to it. Get a group together, write scripts and plays and books-get creative. That’s the only way as an artist to take your own control.”
Although he exudes the confidence you’d expect to find in an accomplished martial arts champion, Dacascos wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his art. “It’s a crazy, tumultuous, turbulent road as an actor.”
“Shakespeare acted in and ran the theaters his plays were in. I want to write and direct and produce and continue to act,” he says. Dacascos is very much in the thick of things when it comes to projects. Currently, he’s working with writing partner Ross LaManna and Sara Zofko on a project loosely based on his life.
“It’s a romantic comedy, because my love life has been pretty funny until I met Julie (actress Julie Condra, his wife).”
He is also writing a screenplay based on his life as a Hawai’i boy growing up in Germany. “It’s a David and Goliath, father and son, coming-of-age story.”
His highest visibility as of late comes from his role as the Chairman for Iron Chef America. Indeed, throughout the day, people from all walks of life (the couple at the poolside bar, the cleaning lady and a family of four visiting from the Mainland) stop and exclaim their joy at seeing the man who took the iconic role from Japan and claimed it as his own here in the U.S. Later, a stint on Dancing With the
Stars further propelled him into America’s consciousness.
During the shoot, Dacascos is gracious to all. He stops to chat with the family, waves at the Japanese tourist who surreptitiously snaps his picture, sending her into a fit of giggles.
If a martial artist seems a strange choice for a cooking competition show, you need look no further than his movie career. Dacascos was cast as the lead in Crying Freeman (where he met his wife), a movie based on a popular Japanese manga. It was a hit in Japan and France. He did another movie with the same director, Christophe Gans, again another hit in Japan. When the Food Network acquired the rights to Iron Chef, Fuji Television provided a list of approved actors for the Chairman role. Dacascos was on that list and Kitchen Stadium has never looked the same.
He works on incorporating some martial arts moves into his presentation, and it has led to many other opportunities for him. His work on the show has led to The Next Iron Chef, and Iron Chef the Musical. Yep, you read right, a musical.
“I’m not a great singer, I’m not a talented singer, but I do have the voice needed for my role,” Dacascos explains.
Now, he’s set to take on the role of Steve McGarrett’s nemesis on Hawaii Five-0. He admits that, although he used to watch the original Hawaii Five-O as a kid, he was a little unsure about the character Wo Fat.
“So, I called up Alton Brown,” he recounts. “I tell him that I’ve been offered the part of Wo Fat, and he starts telling me all about how cool and evil Wo Fat is. So, Alton doesn’t just know about food, he knows about everything.”
While he knew he was playing the bad guy, he was, like the viewers, very much in the dark about what this new Wo Fat is all about. Given Dacascos’ background, everyone’s expecting action, and it’s been said that the show was looking for a Wo Fat who could go a few rounds with McGarrett.
“I think when it came down to it, Alex could handle it, ” Dacascos says. In town to shoot another episode of the re-booted crime drama classic, he is careful not to spoil the fun. Wo Fat’s character has been slowly revealed throughout this first season. “I knew I was evil, but in this latest show we just filmed, I find out that I’m really evil,” he whispers.
Like all fans of the show, Dacascos is hoping for a long run. It helps that Wo Fat is a character that spanned all 12 seasons of the original Hawaii Five-O.
He likes the fact that he gets to come back “home” to work. “The roots here are deep,” he says noting that he has several generations of family still living here in Hawai’i-another half-joking reason for his careful revelation about himself. “I still have cousins here. I don’t want them to say ‘eh! Why did you say that?’”
In fact, he is so connected to the Islands that he and his wife were married on Lana’i and they ensured that all three of their children were born here. “We’d come in about four weeks prior to the due date and settle in. All three of my children were born at Wahiawa General. I was born at Kapi’olani, but my kids were at Wahiawa General. In fact, my wife feels a little left out because all of our passports say Hawai’i and hers says Texas.”
Right now, he and his family are based just outside of Los Angeles. However, he does see a day when they’ll settle permanently in his birthplace. “My wife is a Texas girl. And she’s a proud Texan, as she should be. But, when I told her that I’d like to come back here, she said ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’”
As for a timetable, Dacascos wants to take things in reverse. “I’d like to go back to Europe, then a little bit in Asia and then come back to Hawai’i. I think that’s the perfect plan.”