British actor Benedict Wong has built an illustrious career over the last 30 years thanks to his raw talent and commitment to the arts.
Yet his biggest strength that has benefitted him over the last three decades is his undeniable drive to follow a “good story” and the exceptional skill to represent himself as an artist whilst navigating the fickle industry that is show business.
Understandably it’s taken Benedict Wong some time to get to the position that he finds himself in now—an in-demand thespian that has made his mark within the spheres of television, film, and theatre. As we all know trying to break through into any industry is tough—especially in the arts—but it’s even harder when the only roles you’re being offered are typecast characters. This is what Benedict Wong faced after he decided to pursue the arts after taking a two-year performing arts course at Salford City College.
From his first role in 1992, there was a revolving pattern of stereotypical one-lined roles that Wong would be offered such as ‘waiter,’ ‘gangster,’ and ’Chinese man,’ to name a few. Wong faced these parts countless times over the years without any support from agents in the business. Yet, speaking true to Benedict’s tenacious and hard-working character, after numerous points of wanting to give up, he never did.
Throughout the 90s and 2000s, there were moments of pure-unbridled-artistic joy; Benedict starred in theatre shows, television programmes and films where he played fully-realized roles rather than the previous two-dimensional characters he had been presented with. Most importantly, Benedict Wong was starring in projects he was excited about. When these soul-nurturing roles came in, they offered Wong what he describes as “sparks” of motivation; a feeling that would propel him forward within the industry. It was also from that point he decided to be the captain of his own fate, choosing to represent himself rather than having an agent.
It’s taken dedication, a strong internal compass to find the right roles, and time for Benedict Wong to ascend to the level he finds himself on. Now, with his potential fully realized, it feels like he’s only getting started and there’s so much more to look forward to. In conversation with 1883 Magazine’s Cameron Poole, Benedict Wong discusses his thirty years in the business, Marvel’s Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, his list of East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) actors that are killing it right now, and what he’d like to try his hand at next.
Let’s go back to the beginning when you were growing up in Salford, Greater Manchester, before you took a performing arts course at college. What would you say were the biggest factors that led you to realise you wanted to work in the arts?
I grew up in Salford, that’s where I’m from. It’s funny, isn’t it? Finding what is the ‘spark,’ especially when you went to a school that wasn’t necessarily encouraging in the arts. I remember being in a metalwork class with one hammer and 30 kids trying to planish an ashtray and we all took turns [laughs]. I think the arts was pretty much at the bottom of the list. One moment I can recall was when they ran out of boys for a production of Grease at the sixth form college. They asked me if I wanted to do it, to which I said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll help out.” I think I just got really into it. I played Vince Fontaine, he was the radio DJ. I then dug out my mum and dad’s Reader’s Digest: Sounds of the 50s vinyl, and I recorded that using my brother’s guitar amp and then I layered over it with some dialogue. I wasn’t told to do that, I just did it myself. I was really intrigued and had a kind of innate creativity which I didn’t know about.
What happened after that? I finished sixth form and didn’t know where to go. I was in drama class at sixth form and we went to the Manchester Royal Exchange and I watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Kenneth Cranham was in it. The lights went down and you were transported to this other world. I just thought “What is this?” [laughs] Everyone was adhering to it as members of the audience, we were all part of that experience. I was intrigued and fascinated, and I thought that I’d love to be a part of telling stories. I was working in a club in Manchester as a glass collector and I spoke to my friend Mike Benson, who’s an actor, and I said to him: “Mike, how did you get into this acting then?” [laughs] I literally knew nothing about acting.
I remember Mike doing a piece from Steven Berkoff’s East and it was a monologue. I didn’t even know what a monologue was! I watched him perform it and thought “okay, I’ll just copy him.” I applied to Salford for the course, I ordered a double brandy before I went into my audition/interview, I knocked it back and then proceeded to try and copy Mike’s performance. After that, they let me in. That began my imposter syndrome. I think you start with impostor syndrome and it sort of flickers through me now and then but that’s fine. You tell your little monkey mind that you now have enough experience, so it’s not true. But at the very beginning, I knew nothing.
It’s safe to say Manchester was a formative place for you.
Manchester was my foundation of culture. I always talk about the Green Room, a fringe theatre. It used to have all these touring shows that would come and perform there. Steve from the lighting box would always circle all the best shows for me and I would simply collect tickets, sweep the floors and I’d get to watch a free show and drink half a lager. It was wonderful. I didn’t know what I was watching at times. Sometimes it was contemporary dance, mime, I saw The Maids performed in Spanish. I saw Ken Campbell perform there. I will always remember a theatre company called Kaboodle that put on an amazing performance of A View From The Bridge.
All these experiences and people in Manchester have stayed with me throughout the years, I’ve never forgotten them. Another experience was seeing an unknown Quentin Tarantino who was introducing his film, Reservoir Dogs to 12 people at the Cornerhouse and I was one of them. I remember going to the Library Theatre where Judith the house manager would just let me in to watch The Life of Galileo and I’d sit and watch four hours of this incredible play. The kindness of the North and its people when I didn’t have much money and had a thirst for culture… I owe a lot to them.
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2022 marks 30 years since your first booked job in 1992. You’ve grown as an actor in an industry that can be quite fickle and, especially in the past, not as diverse. When you look back on the past 30 years, can you describe how you’ve grown as an actor? For example, your confidence must have grown throughout your career…
Yeah, it has. 30 years… This journey has been incredible. I blink and I’m back at The Green Room. I always remember doing The Last of the Summer Wine with Stephen Lewis who was known for his role as ‘Blakey’ from On The Buses. He was dressed in a very dodgy Asian garb and covered in grease because the director wanted to give him more grace. I had this massive splodge on my vest, my character was carrying a meat cleaver, and my role was called ‘Chinese man.’ It was pissing it down and I was looking up to the heavens and literally said out loud “it’s got to get fucking better than this.” It was a start, but that was the very beginning of my career.
There have been some stepping stones, but it just shows how far I’ve come from some role that doesn’t even have a name. Every actor of colour faces this; they have to face how the business views them in a certain way whilst we’re trying to break out of that mould. The number of times I was trying to get a job, just being from Salford, was heartbreaking. At times I gave up, I quit. There was something soul-destroying about waiting for an hour and 14 minutes for one line of dialogue in the back of a van whilst you’re playing an illegal immigrant on Phoenix Nights. I called my agent to say that I’m quitting and had enough. I wrote a letter to that casting director just to say that I’m better than this.
They are the really key moments that spurred me on. My heart goes out to the other actors. I’m endeavouring to try and build a platform now to help make work for other actors of colour, for ESEA actors. I’m from Salford—there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be playing someone from the north. At the very early beginning, I knew I had a lot to do because I didn’t go to drama school, so I joined the cooperative where actors represented each other and I learned about the business. I did that for about three years and I thought I’d give myself those three years to get straight into the industry. If I graze my knees, I just get back up again. That’s been my mantra ever since. I’m still always feeling like a student to it all. I’m not a finished article, it’s always continuing.
Every day is a school day, you always learn new skills or constantly improve in your craft. You should be so proud of how far you’ve come and everything you’ve achieved so far. It speaks volumes that after being knocked down throughout your career, you’ve always got back up. Film & TV is not an easy industry to break into.
Thanks, Cameron. It has been, especially over the last eight years as well. For the last eight years, I’ve been representing myself. I only recently got an agent. These were the sort of key moments so far: being part of a five-Olivier-Award-winning show, signing my own Marvel deal, signing the TV deal with Netflix for The Three-Body Problem. It just took a while to build up momentum. With agents, there probably needs to be a new model where there are more agents of colour representing actors of colour. They will understand more.
As you said—it’s about grit, the determination to just keep going. I think one of the main things was, after about 10 years of garnering enough experience, I pretty much did every single job in the acting sphere and closed the door behind the ones that I didn’t want to do. The idea of repeating patterns in terms of roles, I would ask myself, “how do I get out of this?” And the answer is to say no to those jobs.
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I loved watching a career discussion panel you did alongside actors Chris Pang and Daniel Dae Kim a couple of years ago for Asia Society. You mentioned how, at the beginning of your career, there was a revolving pattern of certain roles that you would find yourself in and there was a fine line between picking roles that would pay the bills and roles that would nourish your artistic soul. As a new actor at the time, was it disheartening to feel like you needed to take stereotypical/revolving roles at the start?
Yeah, very much so but, after a while, I decided to have a word with myself about it. It’s a pipe dream isn’t it? You can act but to find and be in a great story is something. To create something true with other people that have the same passion, something magical might happen. You can’t guarantee anything though. I always think a certain script has the makings of something great but I decided to follow the good story. Whatever happens, follow the good story.
Case in point, there was a fork in the road: there was one TV job where I played something like a radiographer which would pay £10,000 or there was a play for £4,000 and it was a really good play [The Letter]. It had Joanna Lumley and Tim Pigott-Smith in it. You’re kind of thinking about what you should do—do you go for the money or do you go for the good story? So, I pursued the good story. The money didn’t matter as it was the type of role I wanted to play. As soon as I started making those sorts of decisions, it was ingrained in me very early on.
Through picking that play I met Tim Pigott-Smith, who’s an incredible man. He took me under his wing and it was my first ever professional play. I got 10 reviews in the broadsheet newspapers. I thought there’s a chance now for me to collect these reviews and send them to 20 agents in London because I knew that there was a disconnect between being in the north and there being only a certain amount of parts that were based in the north. With that, I wrote to 20 agents and I got three callbacks in 1995.
Sir Ian McKellen had been to see the play. He’s from Bolton and I’m from Salford, so we had a pint. He asked me what I was up to and I explained I was seeking an agent. He replied, “If my name means anything, tell them that Sir Ian McKellen recommends that they see you.” So I got a recommendation from Sir Ian McKellen, it was 1995 and I thought, “what more could I do?” I managed to get a London agent, but the rewarding thing was that I was in this incredible play. That started the spark and the appetite for finding good stories.
Following that, what was the first role that initially fed your artistic soul at the start then? Would you say it was that initial play, The Letter? Are there any other roles that spring to mind as well?
There are so many wonderful roles; the opportunity to work with Danny Boyle on Sunshine, Marco Polo where I played Kublai Khan, #Aiww: The Arrest of AI Weiwei on stage. It’s been eclectic. In terms of comedy roles, working with the late and incredible Sean Locke on 15 Storeys High, Look Around You with Peter Serafinowicz. I’ve had a very varied career and I’ve loved it so far.
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Here’s a phrase that you’ve mentioned before: “Wong And Only Management.” As most people know, actors normally have an agent to help them find new jobs or get to the next level. For most of your career, up until now, you have mainly represented yourself and you’ve built a small team. This alone shows how driven and skilled you are as it must take a lot of effort and time to represent yourself without an agent. Why was it important to you to keep your team small and be in the driving seat of your career?
Yeah, the only ‘I’ in team was myself. We talked about recurring patterns—playing those waiters, playing those gangsters—and I was seeking the roles with just wanting to be British. I would ask the agents about this and say to them “I’m British” and they would reply “we’re trying,” so you wait for ten years, and it’s like nothing’s happening. I knew I had to break this pattern, so I broke the pattern again with another agency. These are very boutique and good agencies but, again, I’m asking the same question, and I’m not getting the answer that I want in terms of the roles. They kept saying “we are trying.” I always talk about that Eckhart Tolle quote about acceptance or change; either you accept this or you change it. I decided I had enough of it, so I pulled back and decided to represent myself instead.
I spent those first three years working in a cooperative where I was representing 20 actors. Now I moved to just represent myself and I used the spotlight directory. I think one of the key moments came when there were two plays, the first being #Aiww: The Arrest of AI Weiwei and the other being Chimerica. They both overlapped by a week and both parties had asked me to do theirs and not the other’s [laughs]. My answer to them was “I’m doing both and you’re both gonna have to work it out, if you don’t, I’m gonna have to choose and I don’t want to choose.” They moved the dates of the performances and all of a sudden I was in my repertory theatre. AI Weiwei was the first-ever live-streamed play and Chimerica won five Olivier Awards. I realized I could carve out my own destiny by doing this and doing what I want, so that’s what I did.
Then I was with another agent and it didn’t work out. When you develop these relationships, it’s like a marriage; it’s about how they deal with you and your needs. I couldn’t settle for whatever they were giving me, so I was just doing things by myself. I didn’t knock on any doors, I just allowed things to come to me and it’s just fortunate in many ways that Marvel found me. All of a sudden, I bagged my own Marvel deal. I’m forever grateful for people knocking on my door and coming to me. It’s been a bizarre way of working, but it’s helped and each job helps you build a more substantial body of work.
I’d like to bring up Nine Days, a film that received universal acclaim from critics and earned you a nomination for a Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male. What was it like to be recognised for your incredible work in that film?
It’s really lovely to get a nod from something as prestigious as the Spirit Awards. As I said before, it’s all about following the good story. There was a three-picture deal that I passed on just to do Nine Days because I didn’t want it getting in the way of going back and forth and getting jet-lagged. The story just mattered more to me. That’s how I’ve always worked, and it’s always put me in good stead. I trust in the process of it. It was such a wonderful time in Utah, with an incredible ensemble of actors. I’ve been very lucky; I seem to be in the right room with a whole bunch of people with the right passion and incredible talent that just want to make great stories and move people.
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You’re a huge supporter of Arts Emergency, an organisation that helps young people get a fair start in the arts industry, and Besea.n, a volunteer-led group dedicated to helping promote positive representation for East and Southeast Asian individuals. Are there any others you would like to spread awareness for?
Yeah, there is an organisation called Rising Waves which I’m an ambassador for and help mentor ESEA actors. They’re just providing things that weren’t there when I was growing up in the industry. There is a group of us that have made an organization called East By Southeast, where we try and highlight any creative that is East or Southeast Asian. We highlight the work that they’re in. It’s wonderful when you start seeing all these creatives doing it, making it in the industry and being part of this process to elevate more ESEA faces. I think that’s something I’ve got to keep championing more.
Do any ESEA actors come to mind that you feel need more acknowledgement for their work that you would like to shout out? Who hasn’t blown up yet that you think will in the future?
There’s a whole load! Jason Wong is doing great, Katie Leung is smashing it, Tuyen Do is very good. Kae Alexander, Christopher Chung who is playing ‘Roddy Ho’ in Slow Horses. There are just so many and it’s just great to see. There’s a young kid called Sky Yang, he’s also doing well, he’s in the Halo TV show. I have to mention Kirsty Rider, Frances May Li, Ioanna Kimbook, and Chrissy Chong as well.
When I do the mentoring sessions with a lot of ESEA actors, I’m not saying “this is how to…” I’m just explaining to the actors that it’s a journey. I always continue to talk about the journey and your journey within this acting game because no one teaches you how to act, you kind of learn yourself. You do this by having different experiences and it’s like real alchemy for what you draw on. I didn’t have anyone to advise me. One of my greatest heroes, Bruce Lee, wrote a book called the Tao of Jeet Kune Do. There are many sayings in that book that I pulled from and harnessed into my work and my mantra of how I should go about within the business. The Tao of Jeet Kune Do mentions how he didn’t stick to one particular style, he gleaned various styles. That’s how you make up your own. I think we all should do that.
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We’re fast approaching the anticipated release of Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. I know you can’t say much about it or your character. But looking back over Wong’s journey from the first Doctor Strange film to then becoming Sorcerer Supreme a few films later or even meeting up with Shang-Chi & Katy, Wong has become a beloved character of the franchise. Why do you think this character has become so loved by the fans and so integral to the MCU?
I think it’s just because of my adorable looks, Cameron! [laughs] No, I haven’t a clue. I’m just along for the ride. I started as the librarian and then, all of a sudden, you get these calls from Louis [D’Esposito] or you’ll get a call from Kevin [Feige], asking me “do you want to be in this?” Or Kevin would come up to me during the reshoots of Doctor Strange and say “he doesn’t know you’re in The Avengers? Did you know you’re in The Avengers?” For me, it’s like I’m a competition winner as I grew up on these comics. I used to go to Odyssey 7 in Manchester and collect all my Spider-Man comics and for me to come full circle by meeting Stan Lee and for it to be sort of realized so much. I feel so blessed about this.
I love the character progression of Wong and where it’s gone. I appreciate the ‘wong-entourage’ all getting involved and I like having a lot of fun. When they call me up and the scenes that I’m in, I’m always there to pick up the gauntlet and play what they give me. We’ll see what will happen in this movie! I’m truly grateful for it all.
Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness will mark your sixth outing as the character, six years after the first Doctor Strange film. When you look back at the past 6-7 years, is there a memorable moment in particular that relates to Marvel that sticks out to you? Maybe like having your own action figure!
It is very surreal… Now, you’re an action figure. I like the idea that a little ESEA kid can have a hero to play with and look up to. This counts obviously with Shang-Chi as well. Simu [Liu] has done such an incredible job and that whole team and cast have as well. That was such a fun film to be a part of. When all actors of colour get those roles it matters so much more because the opportunity is such a rarity. When we’re given the platform, you can just see how it shines. People need to see themselves within these characters and representation needs to be addressed, so to have an action figure or anything like that helps kids see themselves means a lot.
What would be your main Marvel highlights so far then?
I enjoyed my scenes in Avengers: Infinity War. That was a lot of fun, especially with 300-400 background actors losing their shit as a huge spaceship was descending to the ground. Hanging out with Mark Ruffalo, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Robert Downey Jr was such a good time in Atlanta. More recently though, working with Sam Raimi has been fairly wonderful. I enjoyed that and I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of Multiverse Of Madness. It’s going to be truly something.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, and yourself all mentioned this film, in particular, is unique in the sense that Director Sam Raimi [who is well known for his 2000s Spider-Man trilogy and The Evil Dead franchise] was trying to make the scariest Marvel movie yet. With that in mind, did shooting this film feel different compared to the other Marvel films you’ve been involved in? Did it feel scarier?
Well, that works with the editing, music and the intensity of the film. I have seen a few scenes of the film and I think audiences will be shaken up definitely for sure. I think having someone like Sam Raimi… how long ago was his Spider-Man trilogy?
I think the first film with Toby Maguire came out in 2002.
Yeah, It’s been 20 years. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? As we have seen what he was working with at the time but now with the technology we have for making films… you just know it’s a Sam Raimi movie. I think you just do, all of a sudden you’ve got some bizarre, huge, canon-like, anamorphic camera shooting you. I can’t wait for audiences to see it. He’s one of the old masters and for him to return like this, it’s just a wonderful thing for Sam. He’s just such a beautiful guy.
Since this film follows the events of what happened in Spiderman: No Way Home and Wandavision, after advising Strange not to mess with the timelines, can you describe where Wong’s mind is at the start of the film?
I can’t really say anything these days. NDAs are just a publicist and interviewer’s nightmare. I think I signed about seven NDAs one year [laughs]. You could put a polygraph test on me but I think you’ll have to wait and see until the film releases. Marvel is very good at keeping all their cards close to their chest.
We’ve known for a bit that the multiversal variant of Stephen Strange is known as “Defender Strange,” but new merch revealed that there is a “Defender Wong” variant as well. I’m sure there’s not much you can say regarding this so I’ll try to be more general — for any role that gives you the option to play multiple people, is that something that excites you as an actor because you can play to different strengths?
I don’t know if I can answer that. I think that’s a question for the other Benedict [Cumberbatch], so I’ll duck out of that question [laughs].
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If you had to pick your top role throughout theatre, tv and film so far, which role would you choose? Surely the role of Kublai Khan on Netflix’s Marco Polo was one of your favourite television roles to play as you previously said it was a memorable role…
I think Kublai Khan has been one of my all-time favourites. To play someone who’s a ruler of the fifth of the landmass of the world and is somehow kind of connected to Tengri the sky god, and has the idea to just take over everything under the blue sky… it was a great role to sink my teeth into. I broke the glass ceiling in many ways, as I said to you before about playing the roles right from the very beginning and only having one line in an episode or a series, to then going to have a lead role under my belt. All these roles in the past kept igniting sparks for me and now I can keep moving forward knowing there are more lead roles ahead. I have wonderful memories of Marco Polo, and I’m very much in touch with everyone that was on the show. Horse riding in Budapest whilst the sun was setting was beautiful. We also did a lot of filming in Kazakhstan, it was super cool.
What is one thing you would like to manifest this year? It could be anything…
Oh god, I’d love to manifest that everyone is the same, that there are no differences between us. If I could ask for world peace that would be amazing, wouldn’t it? There’s so much going on in the world, I just wish that we could all just look upon each other and see each other as brother and sister. Again, there’s a quote from Bruce Lee that we’re all one under the sky.
A very admirable choice! Finally, in terms of lead roles moving forward, what would you like to try your hand at next?
I’ve done a lot of the fantastical at the moment, and The Three-Body Problem that I’m currently filming at the moment with writers David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo, we’re having a great time on that. I honestly feel very blessed with my lot, my plate is very full. I’m up for doing a lot of indie projects now, I like that sphere within the Nine Days realm. I’d like to produce, I’d like to direct, and I’d like to create more work for ESEA actors. I think that’s my next mission now.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in cinemas now
Interview by Cameron Poole
Photography by David Higgs
Styling by Nausheen Shah
Styling assisted by Garrett Dickerson
Grooming by Shannon Pezzetta
Production by Kelsey Barnes
Location provided by Hotel Normandie
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