By the third installment of any movie franchise, a conundrum presents itself: How do you maintain the sensibility of previous films while still arriving at moments of shock and delight? In the latest Keanu Reeves murder film, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, Mark Dacascos is one surprising and effective answer. As Zero, he’s both final boss and fanboy — an assassin with the heart of a geek and the skills of a killing machine. In a delightful scene, Zero steps into the business-free Continental Hotel and sits uncomfortably close to John Wick, his target, before gushing praise. Zero loves John Wick just as we, the people, love Keanu Reeves.
The 55-year-old Dacascos, best known for playing the Chairman on Iron Chef America, got the role of Zero as a last-minute replacement. And yet, watching him in John Wick 3, you’d never know it, what with his ability to seamlessly blend a martial-arts background with wide-eyed verve. In a phone conversation after opening weekend, Dacascos discussed how the movie mirrors his own relationship with Reeves (he’s a fan), stepping into his role at a moment’s notice, and whether he thinks Zero could have survived.
My understanding is that you were originally supposed to play a smaller, secondary character, but then there was a major change during production and you became basically the final boss in the movie. What happened?
That’s a huge part of my whole John Wick journey. So last January, I did more episodes of Iron Chef America; then I did my second Hallmark movie, called The Perfect Bride 2; then I go to New York, and I’m doing Shakespeare with my voice teacher. While I’m there, I get a phone call from my agents, and they tell me that Mr. Chad Stahelski, director of the John Wick movies, would like to meet me. Of course, I’m thrilled because I was a huge fan. So I took the meeting. I went in and met Chad and Jonathan Eusebio, his stunt coordinator and fight choreographer, and Chad was very upfront. One of the first things he said was “We already have our lead villain, so that role is taken.”
Who was it?
I don’t know if I’m at liberty to say. That’s why I kind of want to hold back. No one’s asked me this yet. It’s kind of cool because the actor that was originally supposed to play the part I’m a huge fan of. So I’m like, Ahh, the whole thing is just surreal.
[Editor’s Note: After reaching out to representatives at Lionsgate, Vulture learned that Hiroyuki Sanada, who starred in 47 Ronin alongside Reeves, was originally cast in the role of Zero.]
So in any case, he said they already have their lead villain, but if I’m interested Chad would like to develop a featured character for me and this fight with Keanu. And I said, “I would absolutely be interested. I’d be honored to work with you guys.” Anyway, Chad left it with “I’ll get in touch with you, and just plan on sometime in October in North Africa.”
So I don’t hear from Chad for two or three months, and then cut to mid-May. I get a text on a Sunday night from Chad, and it reads something like, “Hey, Dacascos, text me first thing in the morning.” I said, “Okay, Chad, will do. Great.” I call him first thing in the morning, and he goes, “Well, things have changed. We would like to move you from featured villain to the lead villain.”
At this point, I hadn’t heard from him since that meeting, so there was nothing, really. It was just an idea or an invitation. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” He goes, “Well, read the script first, and then call me back after.” So he sends the script. Two hours later I call him back. I said, “I love the part. I would be honored to work with you. Thank you … When would you like me out there?” I’m in Los Angeles now; he’s in New York, already having shot maybe one week of the movie. He says, “Come tonight.” So I get on a flight — a red-eye. I’m now reading the script only for my second time. I’m ecstatic but also going, “Holy smokes! I’ve got to put this backstory of this guy together. I’ve got to get in his bones and feel.”
What helped you get into character?
We kind of go through all the logistics, getting fit for wardrobe and all that. I ask Chad, “I’d like to shave my hair off for the role.” My character’s name is Zero. John Wick has long hair and a beard. It’d be great if Zero was the contrast — shave his head off and clean-faced. He goes, “Come back in an hour. Let me think about this.” And of course, before I asked him I had talked with hair and makeup and they both agreed that it could be a very interesting choice. So hair and makeup and myself, we go back to Chad and say, “Chad, you had your hour. What do you think?” He goes, “You sure you want to do this?” I said, “I do.” He says, “All right. Shave it off. Hurry up before I change my mind.” So we did that. Then I showed him my head, and he was apparently happy with it.
So did you ask Chad how this giant turnaround happened?
I just know that something happened with [Sanada and] that they needed to find somebody else to replace him. For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to do the part.
Was it the same character?
It was the same character, yes. This is why it’s kind of touchy, because [Sanada] already has a very good relationship with Keanu. So the whole thing was just abrupt. It was just a shock for everyone, from Keanu to Chad and then, of course, to me. When I read [the part], I thought, Okay, this is perfect for [Sanada]. But I thought, If they’re going to have me play it, I’d like to put some of my ideas in there, if possible. Not changing the dialogue, but put my spirit or my take on it.
Would you like to hear a little anecdote of the couch-scene sequence and how that evolved?
Sure, I read that you improvised that.
It was great because we didn’t change the dialogue, but before Chad actually started filming, he said, “I’d like you guys to just do what you want to do, and then I’ll take it from there.” This is our actual first one-on-one scene. When I read the dialogue in the script, it said that I’m a fan, but in my mind I’m a fanboy. There’s fun things to play there. When is Zero ever going to have a chance in his life to have this moment with Mr. Wick? So the whole thing was building inside me. You start clicking. I took a chance and did the move and then moved a little bit closer. And then when I felt Keanu’s leg against mine and I could feel Keanu’s energy, it felt like his energy was saying, “What the f—,” because my leg is touching his.
Big kudos and credit to Keanu and Chad because either of them could have said, “Cut. This is not working for me. This is too weird or awkward.” But Chad let it go, and Keanu stayed in character. It was fantastic. And that energy — we held it. Then he did that great thing where he actually turned his head and moved, because Keanu’s improvising too now. He’s looking at me like, “Dude, move away.” And I don’t. So we finish the scene. Chad yells, “Cut!” Then Keanu starts laughing and drops some F-bombs, and says, “That’s too funny. We can’t do that, right?” There’s a beat, and I hear Chad from the back go, “I love it. We’re doing it.” And that’s how that take evolved.
There’s this interesting meta quality to the scene because it feels as if the film is playing up how people feel about Keanu himself. Did you have a similar experience when you met him, sort of like when Zero meets John Wick?
Yes, Alex, that’s awesome. Because after we did that take, I said, “Keanu, I don’t want to embarrass you, but this is kind of easy and organic for me to play because the way Zero feels about John Wick is how I feel about you. I’m a huge fan.” And that was so crazy because when I said that, he kind of gave the same John Wick response. He kind of smiled because I think he appreciated it, but I didn’t mean to make him uncomfortable because I meant it. That was very earnest. That was probably the most true I’ve been because all those good things we’ve heard about Keanu Reeves, they’re true. He is so humble and grounded. He worked, in terms of the cast, obviously harder than anybody, being there every day, and then on weekends he’d still show up for fight rehearsals. To me, he was so incredibly welcoming.
Do you have a favorite Keanu anecdote?
I do. It’s kind of a Keanu-and-Chad anecdote where we’re shooting the finale fight scene. There was one point during the fight that we had some choreography laid out, and Chad said, “Hang on. I think I’d like to change it up a little bit.” So instead of Chad asking a stuntman to go over and perform it with another stuntman, Chad just takes his earpieces out and asks another stuntman to join him on one of the mats and then tells him what he’s going to do. Chad jumps up, wraps his legs around the stuntman’s waist, does a twist, and then they both go flying spectacularly through the air. And they land safely, and they both get up.
For Chad, it was no problem. For me, I was just in awe because I’d never seen a director, in his jeans and T-shirt, just walk over and do this fantastic move. I was like, “Wow. That’s pretty darn crazy.” I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was, just to see it happen. So Keanu goes, “Huh.” Keanu gets up, and he’s like, “All right, let me give it a try.” So he goes over, and he does a couple tries where he just wraps his legs around the guy and kind of feels it out. Then the third time around, he just jumps up, hooks the legs, twists the body, and they both go flying. And Keanu is like, “Okay. All right. Let’s do this.” And that was it. And I thought, Wait a minute. Are you kidding me? First the director does it incredibly well, and then Keanu Reeves himself, after doing all this stuff, just gets up in front of all of us and just goes over and gives it a try, does it too. And I was just blown away. I heard him say that he’s not a fighter. He just learns the moves to movie fight. And okay, but in my estimation, he could fight if he wanted to. Not that you want him to fight, but he could.
You’ve done so many fight scenes and stunt work in your life. Is it tougher on your body now that you’re older?
I would say yes and no. Yes, just because it’s like a tire, there’s been a lot of use on the body. So in that respect, I need a little bit more time to rest and heal in between. But the good thing is I can do this little diagnostic check, so to speak, of my body parts, and I can feel where I’m at. I’m a lot wiser with how to do the move, how many times, what speed. I’m much more aware of what I have and what I have to work with, as opposed to before I was just like, “Oh yeah, I’m fit. I can do it.” It becomes much more analytical, and I can see it in my own body and I can feel it. I’m much more present now. So maybe before I could do many more takes before getting tired. Now I would say that I don’t need quite as many takes, so I don’t have to get that tired. As you get older, it’s a necessity if you want to survive.
Do you think Zero is dead in the end?
Oh goodness. I hope not. I mean, obviously you see what happened: A sword went through his body. I suppose if I break it down — if it was able to miss the vital parts of the vital organs, and the muscles clamped around the sword and held off the blood from pouring out, and with the addition of Japanese shinobi-ninja homeopathic powder medicine and his fitness and his mind control and then, add to that, Western technology — there’s possibly a possibility that he’s alive. In the Wick world, sure. On the other hand, if we find out that he didn’t quite make it, oh, what a sweet death it was.
Did you sustain any injuries while working?
In terms of anything major or serious, I’m happy to say no. I had tons of bruises. Oh man, I looked like a leopard. There’s a part in the finale fight scene where John Wick throws me against the wall and then it goes back and forth. That night, we get back in the morning, and I go back to my hotel. I take a shower, take my shirt off, and I’m like, “What?” I had all these spots and blotches all over. Because although the glass is somewhat flexible, you hit your shoulder, your back, or whatever. It doesn’t feel too bad because your adrenaline is running in the moment, but a couple hours later and the blood gets clogged up there. So there were a lot of bruises. Little aches and pains. But happily I can tell you, nothing serious.
Did you bond with Keanu over being mixed-race Asian-Americans?
I guess we did, yes. He has a connection to Hawaii, and I was born there, my parents were born there, my kids were there. So we talked a little bit about that, about him having some Chinese and Hawaiian, yes. We did. But the funny thing is, after we shot that couch scene, it really felt like I was Zero and that was John Wick, and of course I wanted to talk to Keanu, but I didn’t want to bother him. So when we did speak, it was when he came over and invited us or left it open for us to.
My last day of shooting, actually, doing the take where I’m possibly dying or not, I was in my corner, and Keanu was on the other side. He sits on this little apple box. Then I saw him looking at me. He picked up his apple box, and he comes walking over. We’re both really tired, and he’s coming over. He puts his box right next to me and sits down, and with a big smile he goes, “Okay.” Slaps his hands together. “Let’s talk about what we’ve done the last three months.” I just thought that was so sweet. Like a recap of Keanu and Mark and John Wick and Zero. That was that last day we filmed. It was just, I don’t know, it was a beautiful finish. That’s Keanu, man. That was Keanu.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.