The Chairman Never Rests
Actor Mark Dacascos, who’s played everything from Wo Fat in “Hawai‘i Five-0” and Zero in “John Wick 3” to the Chairman in “Iron Chef America,” is having too much fun to stop now.
Despite being in show business for more than three decades and having 80-plus movie and TV credits under his belt, martial artist and action star Mark Dacascos believes he has neither peaked as an actor nor grown complacent with success in Tinseltown.
That conviction makes sense considering Dacascos — who once fancied a life as a Buddhist monk in a Shaolin monastery — has long considered continual progress a virtue, and viewed nirvana as more of a never-ending climb toward self-improvement than a final destination.
Even during his interview with Midweek, Dacascos could not help but reveal the next step in his personal development journey. Midway through the conversation, the actor stopped to accept a delivery at his front door. Turns out the arriving box contained free weights, which he intended to use almost immediately. Never mind the fact that he’s already a lean, mean fighting machine. In his mind, there are always opportunities to extend one’s boundaries; there is always room to get better.
“My wife and son told me one day, ‘You’re getting too skinny,’ so I’m going to add light weightlifting back into my training,” confesses the seemingly tireless Dacascos. “I’m going to try and put some muscle on.”
He also plans on adding more polish to his craft. At 56, this ageless wonder believes there are greater heights for him to scale as an entertainer.
“I’m still taking acting lessons,” says the man who many may recognize as the Chairman on the Food Network series Iron Chef America, the crime boss Wo Fat on Hawai‘i Five-0, and the fanboy lead assassin Zero in John Wick: Chapter 3–Parabellum.
“This is the thing: I competed in martial arts for 12 years, and we had to train before tournaments,” continues Dacascos, who’s appreciated as much for his graceful spinning kicks as he is for his high and flashy sidekicks. “So why would I ever think that as an actor I wouldn’t need to train for my next job? How disrespectful would I be to my fellow cast and crew members if I didn’t train and be the best I possibly could?
“One of the many great things about being an actor is that as long as we can keep our faculties, we have the capability to progress, to always go deeper.”
Sounding more like a wise abbot these days, Dacascos opines that part of the secret to a long and fulfilling career is to remain humble, teachable and not be threatened by others’ successes.
“It is my belief that there is always someone better out there,” explains the actor, who was born on O‘ahu to a martial arts family (his father Al Dacascos is the founder of Wun Hop Kuen Do kung fu and a charter member of the Martial Arts History Museum Hall of Fame, while his stepmother, Malia Bernal, is a legendary fighter in her own right and was the first woman to ever grace the cover of Black Belt magazine) and raised in his grandparents’ home on Lime Street until he moved to the mainland during his elementary school years.
“But instead of being jealous or disappointed with yourself, why not be inspired by those who can do more than you can do? Why not be willing to learn from them?” he continues. “See, the great thing about that is you’ll always have energy.”
To Thine Own Self Be True
If there is one area in which Dacascos would love to focus more of his time and energy, it’s as a Shakespearean performer.
A devout fan of the English playwright, poet and dramatist since his early 20s, the actor has been itching to be cast in a play for years now. He came close to fulfilling this dream in 2018 after a break in his work schedule allowed him to audition with the LA-based Independent Shakespeare Co., which stages the annual Shakespeare in the Park festival in the Santa Monica Mountains.
As Dacascos recalls, “I auditioned for the role of Aaron the Moor in the play Titus Andronicus — and they offered me the part. I was so excited! I was scheduled to do 28 live performances for up to 4,000 people.”
But alas, it was not meant to be. Two weeks after booking the job, Dacascos was handed the role of Zero in the third installment of John Wick. When filming for the action-packed thriller ran longer than expected, he was forced to withdraw from the play.
And yet, parting turned out to be sweet sorrow for Dacascos because, in his mind, the door was left open for an eventual return.
“It is what it is,” says Dacascos about the missed opportunity. “I’m still on good terms with the Shakespeare company and I hope to someday perform a Shakespeare play for them.”
In the meantime, he vows to continue perfecting his acting skills under the watchful eye of renowned British voice coach and theater director Patsy Rodenburg, who he’s been studying with for the past 17 years.
“All that I ever learned from Patsy is what I should have learned before ever setting foot on a stage or a set,” says Dacascos of his coach, whose high-profile students include Daniel Craig, Orlando Bloom, Joseph Fiennes, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. “Her lessons are 100 percent applicable to my martial arts and my life.”
A Family Act
Shortly before Dacascos turned 19, he was approached by two men in San Francisco Chinatown and asked if he’d like to audition for a movie. At the time, he was teaching at his stepmother’s martial arts school and searching for his calling in life. The year prior, he was seriously considering a monastic future while living and studying kung fu in Taiwan. But after being invited to watch a performance by his Uncle Alan’s dance troupe in a nearby province and finding himself attracted to one particular hula dancer, Dacascos had a revelation:
“I realized I loved girls too much and that I wasn’t cut out for being a monk!”
Neither did he feel like he was best suited for life as an actor — at least at first. He politely declined the movie offer, but took the men’s cards anyway and returned to the school, where he mentioned the encounter to his stepmother. She quickly suggested that he audition for the role.
That he did, and landed the part as Joan Chen’s romantic interest in the movie Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart. Since then, the cinematic and small-screen roles have piled up, allowing this all-around nice dude to thrive in both good- and bad-guy roles. They include leading parts in Double Dragon (1994), The Redemption: Kickboxer 5 (1995), Drive (1997) and Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), in which Dacascos plays the memorable role of Mani, an Iroquois warrior on the hunt for the serial-killing Beast of Gevaudan that is terrorizing 18th century France.
More recently, he’s been cast in the TV series Wu Assassins as the monk Kun Zi, and in the zombie thriller The Driver, in which he stars alongside real-life wife Julie Condra and their 14-year-old daughter, Noelani Dacascos.
Last month, his newest flick, One Night in Bangkok, was released, and Dacascos says he’s grateful to have been offered the role of Kai Kahale, a simple man who’s looking for a bit of vigilante justice in Thailand.
“It’s about a regular guy from Hawai‘i who years before was in the military, so he’s had some training with guns, but he’s not a professional assassin,” he explains. “Some bad things happen to his family, and justice is not served. He’s as patient as can be, but he understands that things are not going to change. So he decides to rectify the situation on his own.”
Nowadays, Dacascos makes his home in the suburbs of Los Angeles with Condra and two of their children — the aforementioned Noelani and son Kapono, 18. Their oldest child, 19-year-old Makoa, recently moved to O‘ahu to live with family while learning the culinary art from master chef Alan Wong, who Dacascos fondly refers to as “the Bruce Lee of cooking.”
In fact, it was at Wong’s restaurant where the couple held their wedding dinner after getting hitched in 1998. That was less than four years after they were both cast for Crying Freeman, a romantic-action drama in which Dacascos plays an assassin hired to kill Condra. Of course, he ends up falling for her — a perfect example of how life sometimes imitates art.
“We actually met for the first time on the flight up to Vancouver,” explains Dacascos. “The producers and director brilliantly sat us next to each other so that we could start building chemistry — and it worked.”
After three months on set, Dacascos saw enough of Condra to believe she was special. But what ultimately convinced him that she would be his soulmate and lifelong partner was that he could see his future children in her eyes.
“In the end, my thought was that she would make an incredible mom. That’s what it was,” he reveals. “Yes, she is super-talented as an actress, smart, kind and very beautiful, but what I really saw was her as a mom.
“Fortunately for me and my kids — all of whom were born at Wahiawā General Hospital — I was right.”
In summarizing his still-ascending career, Dacascos — who directed his first movie, Showdown in Manila, in 2016 and would love another opportunity at working behind the camera — says he’s been both fortunate and blessed. He doesn’t dare pick a favorite movie or TV role, because doing so would be akin to choosing between his children — an impossible task, he notes.
Rather, in keeping within character, Dacascos simply gauges his path by the steady improvements he makes along the way.
“For me, I like to think that whatever I worked on last was my best performance,” he says. “Each part has been a step.”