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At 15, ‘Birds of Prey’ star Ella Jay Basco is ready to change Asian representation in Hollywood

"Young people in particular have a responsibility to speak out."
Ella Jay Basco
Ella Jay Basco attends the "Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn" world premiere in January 2020.Lia Toby / Getty Images

Ella Jay Basco, 15, made her big-screen debut in 2020’s “Birds of Prey,” and she is also making waves as a singer-songwriter. Her latest single, “Bubble Tea,” is a joyful anthem that celebrates the younger generation of the Asian American community. Through her creative projects and activism, Basco, who is of Korean and Filipino ancestry, encourages her peers to be proud of their roots. She shared her story with TODAY.

Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of representation for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in the media, especially with the younger generation. That’s one thing that inspired me to create the music video for my new song, “Bubble Tea.” I really want to make sure that younger Asian American kids have platforms and voices. I hope kids will watch the “Bubble Tea” video and think, “Oh, there are other girls and other guys who look like me and are shown on-screen.”

As a teenager, I think I have a different perspective on AAPI representation than my parents, grandparents and other elders. My generation is going to have to take care of this world and this Earth once the older generation is gone, so I feel like young people in particular have a responsibility to speak out. I think that we are handling this very well, and making sure that we are represented in our community, and I’m so honored to be a part of it.

When it comes to representation in Hollywood, our community as Asian Americans is definitely progressing in the right direction. Obviously, there’s more that can and needs to be done, and it’s exciting because we have yet to see what the future holds, but our community is already creating a lot of amazing content and media that makes us feel heard and allows the world to see our joy, power and heart. 

Movies and TV shows like “Squid Game,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Turning Red” and “Pachinko” — and one of my new favorites, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” — have done a great job of properly representing our community. Right now, we are more represented than we have ever been before.

I grew up in a family of actors. I like to say I never really chose acting because acting kind of chose me! As I was growing up, we would always do auditions and fun little acting exercises.

My dad, Derek Basco, is my acting coach when we do auditions, and sometimes I’m his acting coach, too. I’ll film an audition for him and tell him what I think. It’s really fun, and I have so many great role models and influences around me in my family. Having that love and support is really a blessing.

Ella Jay Basco and Dante Basco
Ella Jay Basco and Dante Basco in 2019.Albert L. Ortega / Getty Images

My uncle, Dante Basco, played Rufio, the leader of the Lost Boys, in the movie “Hook,” and Prince Zuko in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

He knows what it’s like to grow up in the industry and to be Asian American at a time with even less representation on screen, so he’s definitely given me a bunch of advice. He tells me to just go with the flow and be yourself and be authentic.

Ella Jay Basco starred alongside Margot Robbie in "Birds of Prey."
Ella Jay Basco starred alongside Margot Robbie in "Birds of Prey."Alamy

Over the course of my career so far, I’ve always wanted to make sure that my heritage and my culture have been represented. I worked with a primarily Asian and female team for “Bubble Tea,” because it’s just as important to have representation behind the camera as it is in front of the camera. Our director, Bianca Catbagan, is a Filipino woman, and so is our director of photography, Andrea Walter, and our associate producer, Leslie Alajandro. 

I also like to celebrate designers from the AAPI community on the red carpet. For the “Birds of Prey” premiere, I wanted to represent my culture in a way that would be elegant and super fun, so I wore a custom hanbok from Meehee Hanbok. I really wanted to honor my Korean side specifically, and so it was this really beautiful white silk organza gown that was like a traditional Korean hanbok. Honoring and uplifting other AAPI designers is really important to me and something my stylist, Amanda Lim, and I continue to do.

Ella Jay Basco
Ella Jay Basco's look at the "Birds of Prey" premiere was inspired by a traditional Korean hanbok. Karwai Tang / WireImage

It’s also important to me to uplift and empower the AAPI community through my work. My 2021 single, “Gold,” commented on the skin whitening industry and Eurocentric beauty standards. The song shines a light on how hurtful those beauty standards can be, and combats them by saying, “We are rich with love and we embrace the color of our skin, because that is what we are here for.”

I feel like there are a lot of insecurities and doubt that people feel when talking about their culture and their heritage, and sometimes even feelings of embarrassment. But in my opinion, we should embrace who we are. When you learn to love your true reflection and your true self and don't try to hide anything, then you’ll always be rich in love and empowerment toward your culture and your heritage and the color of your skin. 

While promoting “Gold,” I heard so many stories and so many beautiful words from people who said the song really resonated with them. After one performance in Los Angeles with my collaborator on the song, rapper and spoken-word artist Ruby Ibarra, a bunch of people came up to us and said, “This was great. I really feel like you guys spoke out to our community.” It’s always powerful to hear these things.

For any young people in the AAPI community trying to make it in the entertainment industry — or reaching for whatever dreams they have — my advice is to be authentically yourself. I feel like as teenagers in general, we get kind of confused and lost in this battle of, “Who do I want to be? People are trying to ask me to be an adult, but I still want to be a kid.” It’s easy to feel confused sometimes as we grow.

But wherever you are, just try to be yourself and go with the flow, because you never know what opportunity is going to come up.

As told to Lindsay Lowe. This interview has been edited and condensed.