The description “acclaimed star of stage and screen” seems tailor-made for BD Wong. From his Tony-Award winning performance in M Butterfly to his ongoing role in the Jurassic Park franchise to his characters in TV series like Law & Order: SVU, Gotham (as Dr. Hugo Strange), and Mr. Robot, the actor always makes an impression.
These days, Wong can be seen on Comedy Central in Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, in which he plays the rapper/actress’ father, Wally, in an autobiographical look at Awkwafina’s pre-stardom days living with her dad and grandmother (played by Lori Tan Chinn).
Wong spoke to Fandom about playing Awkwafina’s dad, what it was like to return to the world of Jurassic in recent years – including in the currently filming Jurassic Park: Dominion, which was about to begin production when we spoke – and his recently wrapped role on Mr. Robot.
Getting Funny Again
At a glance, some may find it surprising to see Wong in such a comedic role in Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, though he has had previous comedy experience in projects like All-American Girl. However, for quite a while he’d been doing drama, and Wong said he welcomed the return to comedy, explaining, “I think because Mr. Robot was such a wonderful, intense experience, I owed it to myself to depart and veer away from it. Just as a kind of way of treating my brain to something new. It was important.”
Wong said he’d previously learned valuable lessons on how to avoid being too identified with one type of show, recalling, “I had been on Law & Order for eleven years. What I discovered after leaving, that I didn’t know while I was doing [the show], was that I kind of cemented myself to this perception of procedural, one-hour drama acting because I hadn’t done anything else for eleven years. And when I got out of it and couldn’t get the jobs I wanted, I thought ‘Something’s not right. I guess people think of me in a way that I don’t see myself. What is that?’ Eventually, I found my way out of it. I made what I would consider a return to the character world and that’s what drew me to the genre stuff and I did Gotham and Mr. Robot and other things came about that were what I’d call “character” [work]. There was a little bit of comedy in Gotham and he had a sense of humor. But it wasn’t since the 90s that I did comedies that were a big part of my training ground. So I do think it’s great and I do love it and I do enjoy the feeling of being on a set and doing comedy as it relates to the rest of the crew and the other actors who are all trying to entertain each other at the same time. In other shows, there’s not that element at all. It’s the opposite of that. You’re very serious. You keep it very straight and, in many cases, such as Mr. Robot, you keep it very tight to the script. I loved that about Mr. Robot but not doing it is also fun.”
Awkwafina has said Wong was the actor they always wanted for the role of Wally. For Wong, “I had been following her and I’d say of all the people I’d have been introduced to as a new fan, she was on the top of the list of people I was insanely curious about. Like ‘What are they going to do next? What is it all about? And what does it mean that this person is going to have their own show?’ And I was therefore unhesitant. I was like ‘I’m definitely going to do that. I don’t have to know much about it at all. I’m going to do it and see where it takes me because I think that girl is going places’. Not just because she’s been good in these movies and getting a lot of attention but because something about her energy gives one a sense of forging new territory, or electricity or something. It’s not an accident; her fame is not accidental at all. I’m really interested in that energy. It’s positive and youthful and at odds with itself in that it’s wholesome and dirty at the same time. And that’s what makes the show special. That it’s wholesome and dirty at the same time.”
When it came to how to interpret Wally, Wong noted, “I was open to whatever [Awkwafina] wanted. If she wanted me to meet her dad because he had a really specific way of talking or anything — But she didn’t. And I didn’t as a result. Because I had kind of given an indication of what I was going for, maybe at the table read, and I think she was really supportive. She was like ‘oh my gosh, that’s my dad.’ I don’t know how it ended up that way. I was basically channeling Ray Romano. And yet she kind of thought ‘That’s what I want you to do.’ I didn’t have to do a lot more in depth research. It was a luxury in that way because I would have done that research on another project. But this one kind of fell into place in a way that other shows don’t usually. Her blessing spoke volumes. She had given me a few indications through some videos and stuff about the essence of what he was like, things he might say, but very minimally. And then I met him a couple of times. And then we were on our own. I always checked in with her like ‘Is that right? Are you buying that?’ And she was always very supportive. I always am looking to her to get real with me if she needs to. I think she’s very respectful and I suspect that sometimes she would not tell me she didn’t like something. But there were plenty of times where she’ll say ‘No, no, I didn’t like that.’”
Wong gave an example, recalling, “She came out on the first day that I was shooting and didn’t like my wardrobe at all. And I had spent a lot of time with the costume designer working with the wardrobe and thought we were taking everything from the signals she gave us. And she was like ‘Oh no, no that’s not it.’ That was fascinating. So she is capable of saying no. But sometimes I’m like ‘Don’t be so nice! If you don’t like what I’m doing, say something and I’ll change it.’ But she hasn’t done that. She’s been very supportive.”
When Awkwafina won a Golden Globe in January for her performance in The Farewell, she pointedly said, “I’d like to dedicate this to my dad, Wally. I told you I’d get a job, Dad!”
Said Wong, with a chuckle, “I take inappropriate pride in that! I have nothing to do with it but at the same time I feel connected to the moment like ‘Oh yeah, that’s me!’”
FARWELL TO WHITEROSE
Mr. Robot recently came to a conclusion, ending Wong’s run as the show’s primary antagonist, Whiterose, a character who we only met briefly in the first season, but who would prove to be integral as time went on.
Wong called the experience on Mr. Robot, “Super satisfying. I’ve been on a lot of shows in which they’ll say ‘Your character is going to figure very prominently!’ And it either doesn’t happen or it happens in a way that’s not satisfying. So promises, promises is the way you categorize that when it happens. Sam [Esmail] invited me to be on the show and said this character is going to figure prominently and I said ‘Thank you very much, that’s great. If he doesn’t, that’s fine. I’ll do the scene.’ Then it just got more and more integrated and juicy and interesting and useful. When you get to the very end of the show you realize, oh, of course, this is completely calculated! When he said this was going to figure prominently, he knew. He could have told me at that moment, four years ago, how it would go because there’s no way he accidentally wrote this from season to season without having mapped it out. I’m sure he mapped out more as he went along but he knew how it would play out, for the most part. But I sure didn’t. So that felt great.”
Wong added, “Of all the shows I’ve ever done, Mr. Robot was the one show that I was able to maintain my identity as a fan while I did it. I was able to not immerse myself in what any of the other actors were doing. I just did my part and when the show aired, I was able to watch all these wonderful things happen and appreciate them as a fan. I would be as vocal as you would be, like “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe that’s happening. Wait, what? Run that back. What’s going on. There’s another alter? I didn’t know that!’ And that’s really fun, especially with a show as juicy as this. There was a wonderful energy surrounding the fourth season. We read all the episodes in two days in a traditional season table read. This was the first table read I’d ever been to where Sam would ask you ‘If you’re not in the next episode, please leave the room,’ or where there were gigantic passages redacted in the script. This was right at the time where the Mueller report was being talked about and big things that were going on were being redacted. So I was able to maintain my innocence on the show right until the last moment.”
A JURASSIC DOMINION
Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum will all be back for Dominion, but when the Jurassic Park series was revived with Jurassic World, it was notable that Wong was the only actor from the first three movies to appear in that 2015 re-launch, especially since we hadn’t seen Dr. Henry Wu since his relatively brief appearance in the 1993 film that kicked off the franchise.
Regarding what it was like to find out they wanted him back so many years later, Wong said, “I have this friend, Nathan, who is one of my closest friends in my life and he’s a big Star Wars fan and a big franchise fan and he said ‘That’s going to come back to you, that whole Jurassic Park thing.” And I said “Noooo” and he said “You didn’t die! It’s going to be you” – he thought I would find the Barbasol can and do this and that. And I said ‘Nathan, you’re crazy.’ And I had to bite my words and say, ‘Nathan, you were absolutely right. It did happen exactly like you said.’ A new director came in that wanted to create a new franchise based upon the original ideas.”
Though things don’t work out so well for him, Henry Wu had a much larger role in the Jurassic Park novel than he did in that first film, and Wong admitted, “I felt completely shortchanged in the first iteration of the movie because I knew what Michael Crichton had written in the books. I knew there were possibly reasons why, from a racial perspective, that they might make this choice, because there were no movie stars at the time who could play these parts, so they just threw away that part. And of course, now, it was 22 years later, and maybe we are ready for a more substantial Asian American character. Of course we are. And that’s what happened. I felt wonderful and lucky and the franchise continues to evolve. It feels great. It’s really nice.”
Looking at his career overall, Wong remarked, “While it’s true that I work hard and bring a lot to the table, there’s no question about the fact that I am super lucky and these lucky things happen to me that create opportunities I could never dream of. This whole thing with Jurassic Park and the Jurassic World movies, who would ever dream of that? It’s a very lucky thing to happen. This show with Awkwafina is really lucky. That it came at the time that it came and that she was at the moment she was in and I was in the moment I was in and finishing something else… It was the most welcome creative thing for me at the time. It all lined up really well and I’m grateful for that.”
Awkwafina is Nora From Queens airs Wednesdays on Comedy Central.
Jurassic World: Dominion opens June 11, 2021.