Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Given how many years he’s spent on the primetime and premium-cable landscape playing priests, therapists, and other assorted authority figures, it’s occasionally hard to remember that BD Wong got his start the same way many actors did in the 1980s: by appearing in TV movies. After his Tony-winning role in the Broadway hit M. Butterfly, however, Wong was in a better position to steer his own career path as an actor, resulting in a length stint as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s resident psychiatrist, Dr. George Huang.
It’s been about a decade since Wong left behind the confines of those semi-weekly SVU appearances, and he’s been able to spend that time reinvigorating his skills as a character actor, making acclaimed appearances on such shows as Gotham and Mr. Robot. Lately, however, he’s been doing something a little bit lighter: playing Nora’s dad on Comedy Central’s Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, which returns for its second season this week.
Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens (2020-present)—“Wally”
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way onto the series? Did they come looking for you specifically?
BD Wong: They did, and I’m very proud that they did. I think that they came to me first. They seemed to be very forthcoming with that information. I was really intrigued by this creature, Awkwafina. I felt any opportunity to be in proximity to this artist and to her energy and her sense of being in the moment and her youth… all of that was very attractive to me. And I got what I asked for. I really signed on to a season one that just broadened my horizons and took me to new places and taught me about myself as a performer. I leaned into the improv and all that stuff. And then season two, we’ve had more of the same, and it’s gotten deeper. It’s really a wonderful deepening of season one.
AVC: How did they originally describe the character of Wally to you?
BDW: I don’t remember exactly what they said, but the impression I got was that he was kind of a blue-collar guy that was trying to make it work and was kind of perplexed by his young daughter—which I related to: I have a young, twentysomething son—and was perplexed about her wishes, and what she wanted or needed to do, and what was best for her, and should she move out or should she not move out—all of these parental questions. I was also told that [Awkwafina’s real-life father] was around, and that I’d probably meet him. [Laughs.] I’d never had that particular equation or set of circumstances before, and I always look for something new, so those were all really good reasons to do it.
AVC: When you look back at season one, is there a particular highlight that leaps out at you?
BDW: I really always go back to any scene that had all four [principal cast members] in it. I’m really into the whole brand of the show. You can see the artwork of the show this season that has all four of us in it: it’s intergenerational, there’s three generations represented, there’s something really unique about that. There’s something very subtly Asian American about that, but it doesn’t ever kind of call attention to itself, and I think that’s really nice.
AVC: And what can we expect from Wally in season two? That you can actually speak about, that is.
BDW: Well, Wally was struggling in season one with widowhood, and with entering the dating force, and with the ramifications of independence and what that means for him or doesn’t mean for him, and how that affects his relationship with his mother and his daughter. And he’s starting to get serious with one of those women that he started dating in season one, which is Brenda, played by Jennifer Esposito, who is wonderful. She comes back, and Brenda and Wally get more serious, and that creates the potential for conflict between Wally and Nora. It certainly brings up issues for Nora, because Nora grew up without a mom, so having not grown up with a mom, any woman that takes Wally’s attention from that point on—even though Wally’s a very fully-grown man—is something that, hilariously, makes Nora act out in different ways.
Focus (2015)—“Liyuan Tse”
AVC: You mentioned that you leaned into the improv aspect of playing Wally. What was your improv background before that?
BDW: I didn’t have a lot of improv background. I was very comfortable making stuff up. I was also very comfortable rewriting my lines on certain projects—and getting permission to do so, but kind of making suggestions and stuff. And so I’ve become really comfortable with that, but I’ve never gone off-script. [Hesitates.] I don’t think I have. There maybe have been times when I’ve gone, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no…” [Laughs.] But my improv confidence grew tremendously working with Margot Robbie and Will Smith on Focus. That was a lot of improv, and as the days went on working on that show, I got so into making stuff up that it stuck with me, and I really took to it.
No Big Deal (1983)—“Student - Miss Karnisian’s Class”
AVC: Blame IMDB if this is wrong, but it looks like your earliest role was playing a student in Miss Karnisian’s class in No Big Deal.
BDW: [Grinning.] Yep. Really good. Well, you know, I was an extra, playing a member of the class, and the class was featured all the time, so I was going to be working, like, four weeks on this movie. And you go into the class, and you try to see if you can find a seat that’s going to be in proximity to principal actors. So I immediately wanted to sit in front of Jane Krakowski. I think it was in front of her. But at one point, they needed a bit where Jane Krakowski passed a note to one of the other girls in the class—Stacy Lauren—and so the note had to go through me! [Laughs.] So I got a bit where I did that. But it was Jane Krakowski and Kevin Dillon—it was really great. And it was a good, steady job. I got paid to work on a movie for, like, four weeks, and I learned a lot of things from it, actually, about acting on camera. In fact, I want to make some memes out of that bit with the note, so thank you for reminding me.
AVC: Well, if you do it before we go to press, be sure to send them along.
BDW: [Laughs.] You got it.
Oz (1997-2003)—“Father Ray Mukada”
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2001-2015)—“Dr. George Huang”
BDW: Oz was the first time a writer and a show creator/showrunner came to me and said, “I want to write you a part in a show.” I thought that was an incredible thing for them to say and to feel that it was something they wanted to do, and given the quality of the character—Tom Fontana had the idea that I would play a Catholic priest, and there was something kind of forward-thinking about that but also really normal. He gave me this part and wrote this really sensitive, wonderful, complicated, conflicted part of a man that’s trying to do good in a very impossible situation of serving the men as a spiritual advisor in a maximum security prison. And I learned a lot about that.
It played a big part in my research—or served as kind of a dress rehearsal—for the 11 years I spent on Law & Order: SVU, because the characters were both really intense listeners, they counseled people through their listening to them, and tried to serve them based upon keeping their own story out of it. That was a really interesting thing to experience. I’m very critical now if I see actors playing therapists on TV or in movies, because I… think I’ve figured out how to do it or something. [Laughs.]
AVC: It would be an understatement to say that there are moments of intensity within Oz. Were there any moments where you were taken aback or just had to kind of take a moment?
BDW: You know, in both Oz and SVU, there’s this kind of graphic depravity: there’s mental illness, there’s desperation, there’s cruelty, and all that stuff. And people are always wondering, “How do you deal with that?” Ironically, it’s not that hard. It’s just make believe, and you go, “Oh, wow, that was intense!” and then you walk away from it, and you talk about it, and you might even laugh about it. Now, there are times when something might seem really real to you in the moment, and it becomes appropriately scary, where—if you’re like me—you want to feel that fear, because you know it’ll make your performance better. It’s okay with me if I feel that fear, as long as I know as I’m not going to be hurt and I feel safe and all that stuff.
There was one particular shot—and it’s a really great shot—in Oz where I’m picked up and dragged into this pile of people. Like, they’re all being beaten, and I get sucked into this mountain of men in the most kind of violent way. And I remember feeling, “Oh, I don’t like the way this feels! I don’t like this feeling right now!” You know, take after take of being pulled without any kind of strength or ability to stop. There were multiple people pulling me, as I recall. So that was when the intensity was most strong. But other than that, I didn’t find it off-putting. I didn’t bring it home with me or anything like that.
Mr. Robot (2015-2019)—“Whiterose”
AVC: Just to momentarily switch from interviewer to TV viewer, I have to say that this was one hell of a performance.
BDW: Oh, thank you! I have so much to say about it. It was one of my favorite experiences from a career standpoint and from a creative standpoint. In season four, I really wanted to try to leave it all on the field, and I had the great luck in season four of getting the script in January and February and shooting my big scene in July. And I worked on that scene every day from the time that I got the last draft that Sam Esmail wrote.
I said, “I need the script as soon as you can be finished with it.” And Sam tweaked the table-reading draft, and he gave it to me, and I said, “You know what? I’m going to conduct an experiment. Because my best and most confident experiences have been on the stage, I’m going to rehearse this monologue and this scene like it was a play, and I’m going to do it every day. In my bedroom, maybe record it with my iPad, watch it, redo it.” And by the time I walked on the set in July, I knew exactly what I was doing. I mean, I usually… [Laughs.] I can’t say I don’t usually know what I’m doing, but I felt a comfort that I feel when I’m in a play.
You rehearse a play for four weeks before an audience even sees it. You never do anything like that on a television show. You’re never allowed to do that. You can’t do that. So you’re exercising the muscles that create a way that you can get past that. You create a sense of being comfortable when you’re not actually 100% comfortable. Some actors would disagree with my description of the process, but for me, it was great to have it under my belt completely. So when the director said to change something, I could do it. I wasn’t caught in the canyon between short-term memory and long-term memory. I was into the long-term memory already, and it was great. And, okay, I would walk away from the seasons and I would watch them as an audience member, and I would ask all the same questions, and I would have the same curiosity.
I thought it was just a great show, and… I’m not talking about me, but I don’t think the show got the recognition it deserved. I think it was a show for smart people, and maybe there weren’t enough smart people to fully understand it or appreciate it. But I think it’s an amazing show.
AVC: Agreed. It’s definitely a show that you have to concentrate on, though.
BDW: Yeah. Sorry! [Laughs.]
M. Butterfly (1988-1990)—“Song Liling”
AVC: Since you mentioned theater—
BDW: Song Liling was the 30-year-pre-dress rehearsal for Whiterose, but only because of the gender ambiguity in the part, and for me being comfortable and facile with it. I was always comfortable and facile with it on some level as a little boy. I played dress-up and put on girls things and stuff like that. I was very fluid in certain ways. And when I did M. Butterfly, it was my Broadway debut. I had hardly done anything before that, and it was like a lot of things that I had inadvertently prepared for all kind of came together.
It was a great experience, and it was primarily a great experience because of John Lithgow, who was the star of the show and played the lead character. I was kind of the catalyst. I was kind of the Salieri and he was the Mozart. No, he was the Mozart and I was the Salieri. I forgot which. [Laughs.] He was the main guy, anyway, and I was the catalyst. So I think he was the Mozart! And he was incredible. He was an incredible actor to learn from, he was very gentle and nurturing and a great mentor to me. He taught me how to behave when it came to being the leading member member of a company, and he had great grace and great talent and great passion for the part. And he was brilliant in the part.
So those are my takeaways from that. And the Tony Awards—that’s all kind of a blur. It was all a fantasy. And I certainly enjoyed it.
Mulan (1998) / Mulan II (2004)—“Shang”
BDW: Mulan occurred at a time when it was a big deal for Asian American actors to voice Asian roles. At the time, it was a very ’50s/’60s post-war kind of feeling. “Well, it doesn’t matter. You can’t see them, so what does it matter?” And this was absolutely true in a lot of other places, and here there was an instance where the studio actually, and to its credit, made a different choice and gave us—for the most part—the parts that we played, and we were Asian voices.
It’s the precursor to the definition of what became the discussion about appropriation. Appropriation is kind of taking on a different culture or character or another marginalized group when it’s not your group and portraying them or wearing their culture like a costume. And I didn’t realize at the time how important that was. It was noted at the time, and they got points for it, and we pointed it out. But now I go, “Wow, in the timeline of history, there was something that was shifting at that time that continued to shift.” And now here we are today doing something like Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, where these questions are less of a big discussion.
AVC: Now, I will say that your singing voice—it’s the darnedest thing, but it sounds just like Donny Osmond.
BDW: Uh huh. [Laughs.]
AVC: Seriously, though, how did you feel about that situation at the time?
BDW: Now, are you saying that because you heard what I said about it before?
AVC: Actually, no. I mean, I’m sure you’ve had plenty to say, but I haven’t read any of it.
BDW: Well, you’re not going to believe it, but this was actually the excuse that was given to me for the hiring of Donny Osmond: “Well, this is very hard to explain, but: His singing voice sounds more like your speaking voice than your singing voice does.”
AVC: That’s… something.
BDW: Yeah, I… I couldn’t argue with that. [Laughs.] “Okay, that’s great. Thanks!” And, you know, there’s lots of reasons for that. The thing that producers feared at the time was that Asian American stars weren’t needed because Asian American stars couldn’t carry the box office load. And it’s true that there weren’t a lot of Asian American stars. But how much it mattered and whether they should’ve given other Asian American actors a chance to be stars—that’s a whole other discussion.
Awake (2012)—“Dr. John Lee”
Gotham (2016-2019)—“Hugo Strange”
BDW: Hugo Strange was very important to me because I left SVU in 2011. I had been on the show for 11 years. I took the contract so I could stay in New York—my son had just been born in the year 2000—so it was overlapping Oz slightly, I think? But at any rate, it was at a point when my son had been born, and I was, like, “I need to stay in New York. I’m not going to L.A., and I don’t want to do that whole bicoastal thing, and I’m not dragging him around with me. I’ve got to take this contract.” And this was the closest thing that an actor could get to a 9-to-5 job, which is a contract for a network show that guarantees you a certain number of episodes and that shoots many episodes a year. And the regularity of that is vital for someone that’s establishing or maintaining a family, all of that stuff. So it was for a really practical reason.
When I left the show in 2011, I had completely erased any past reputation that I had of being a character actor. Because I’d always thought of myself as a character actor, and then all of a sudden I realized I had created a sense that I wasn’t a character actor but a procedural actor. And I left SVU because I didn’t want to do a procedural show anymore, and that was the only kind of job that I seemed to be able to get.
I did one other show right after that where I also played a therapist, on a procedural show called Awake. That was an NBC show, and it was a very good show, but it was the same thing, and I would’ve been happy to stay on that show, but it didn’t last more than one season.
And then I struggled for a little bit until, in close proximity, they called me and asked if I wanted to do Gotham, and Sam Esmail called and asked if I wanted to do Mr. Robot. And then I was able to say, “You see? This is my bread and butter: I’m a character guy. I play characters, which means that I play people who are different from myself.”
So Hugo Strange was really important to me. And I loved the world of [Gotham], I loved the way they shot that show, and the amazing wardrobe and the amazing designers there, and the comic-book sensibility of the show. Those were my main takeaways of things that I liked.
And I loved the character! I had a great season where I worked really closely with Tonya Pinkins, a Broadway star who was absolutely wonderful, and her role was that of my kind of weird assistant until she was unfortunately, uh, eliminated from the show. Because her character got killed. [Laughs.] And I loved it! I thought it was really funny and just an opportunity to be really dark and lean into an almost campy kind of comic-book world.
Executive Decision (1996)—“Sgt. Louie Jung”
BDW: Oh, okay, the big story about that is that it was through some sort of disorganization or… [Hesitates.] No, I shouldn’t say that, because this is going to go out there and onto the internet. [Laughs.] So, yeah, let’s say this was disorganization that caused a situation in which I got to the table read of Executive Decision, and we started reading it, and I realized another actor was playing my part. That character didn’t have a name at that point. I named him, actually. But they said, “No, you’re playing Charlie.” I was, like, “Oh, I’m playing Charlie? I thought I was playing…” “Oh, no, no, so-and-so’s playing that!” “Oh, okay.”
And I know I didn’t think I was playing this other character for no reason. I didn’t make up that I was hired to play this character. But there was a huge confusion, and I ended up staying with the movie even though it was not as good a part, and I was happy to have done it, because it was a great, crazy, competitive alpha environment. We went to Fort Bragg, and we were trained for, like, a week. You know, crawling around on the ground, shooting rifles, stuff like that. So it was this really alpha environment, masculine toxicity everywhere, and actors really trying to be super-competitive with each other, and challenging each other. Which was fun! [Laughs.]
When the movie came out, it was tremendously successful. I don’t know how well it did at the box office—it did pretty well—but when you watched it in the theater, it was a real thrill ride for the audience. The audience loved it. But it was prior to 9/11, and it was a bunch of very, very sensitive things you would never do. There were Middle Eastern terrorists. There were a lot of actors who were not Middle Eastern playing Middle Eastern, which was another strike against it. So there were a lot of things that were a little bit oogy about it. But it’s a real fun movie to watch. And it’s fun to see Marla Maples in a movie! Marla Maples plays one of the two flight attendants, and she was sweet as can be.
But I loved doing it. The scene where the wall of the plane is breached and all of the debris flies around, and I’m getting dragged down an aisle because I’m going to be sucked out of the airplane—I immediately remembered one of my favorite movies when I was a kid: Airport, with Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset, in which that happens, and how fascinated I was when I was little by the idea of what happens when the air depressurizes in a plane. So I was really into all of that, and… it was great! It was really fun.
Oh, and I named [the character] Louie because I thought, “I don’t want to be the Asian guy playing ‘Charlie’ in this war-related context.” Because “Charlie” was a nickname that they gave to the Vietnamese that they were fighting in the Vietnam War, and I just felt uncomfortable with that. So I named him “Louie” after my favorite cousins and their dad, whose surname is “Louis.”
Crash Course (1988)—“Kichi”
BDW: Oh, my God! I just found an ad from TV Guide that included Kichi! And Kichi is actually a really important part of my development in my self-esteem and… he’s not really on anyone else’s radar. [Laughs.] But Crash Course was a TV movie, back at the time when they made things called “the movie of the week” or whatever. But it was one of those NBC star mash-up movies, so it had in it Tina Yothers from Family Ties, Alyssa Milano from Who’s The Boss, Brian Bloom from As the World Turns, Rob Stone from Mr. Belvedere, Jackée Harry from 227, Charlie Robinson from Night Court, Harvey Korman from The Carol Burnett Show, Ray Walston from—well, he’s a Hollywood legend! So all these people were in the same movie, and I was a high school student who was a flunkie and had to take driving school during the summer with all these misfits. That was basically it, I think.
It was a big part in a TV movie prior to me going to New York to do M. Butterfly, which—as I mentioned—was my Broadway debut and was where doors really opened for me. But the character that I was playing was a direct descendent from the wacky foreign exchange student from Sixteen Candles that was around a lot at the time. Gedde Watanabe had made such an impact in that movie—for better or for worse!—that they wanted to clone it a lot, and they cloned these Japanese foreign exchange students. And I tried my damndest not to slide into anything in… icky-land. I wanted him to be attractive. I didn’t want him to be pervy or anything like that. So I did the best that I could, and… it was a good experience!
Jurassic Park (1993) / Jurassic World (2015) / Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) / Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)—“Dr. Henry Wu”
BDW: Yeah, you know, I’m a very lucky person. I did this bit part in the original Jurassic Park movie, and anybody who worked on that movie would probably have to be honest and tell you that they didn’t have any designs for that character at all. They didn’t care about him, they don’t even explain what happened to him at the end of the movie when everyone’s evacuating the island! Clearly, he was not a priority for anyone. And I was very bitter about that for many years. But my good friend Nathan once said to me, “Oh, well, you don’t have to worry about that, because that’s going to come back to you. You’ll see. They’ll come back to you.” And I was, like, “I don’t see how that’s ever going to come back to me.” I really could not see what he saw.
But what he predicted was exactly what happened, which is that Colin Trevorrow and Steven Spielberg conspired and collaborated to reinvigorate the franchise from the park perspective, going back to the original book, and any sequels that would come from this are related to the original park or the original characters. There were two other sequels between Jurassic Park and the Jurassic World films, and you can count them as sequels, of course, but they’re not really related to the core energy of Jurassic Park. And Jurassic World and the films that followed were. And in their looking for loose ends, Colin Trevorrow remembered this character who played a huge part in the book, had a huge death in the book, and allowed him to be reinvestigated.
It was perfect, because he needed someone who hadn’t died to be a touchstone to and a bridge from the original movie, someone who would really actually have been there. Not someone who would’ve gone away and they’d have to fly them back and make up some excuse about why they were back, but someone who was actually part of the origin story of where this all came from in the first place. And so that began this journey of three movies in which I was able to explore very different aspects of this character, and this strange unprecedented instance of me playing a character that I played in one movie and then, 23 years later, I resumed the character, and the character had gone through so many different things that he became almost a different person. You don’t get to tell people that you want to do that and have it happen. [Laughs.] That’s really lucky for me!
And at the end of last year, we finished shooting Jurassic World: Dominion, the third movie, and it’s spectacular. It’s so beautifully shot and so epic. It’s a much more epic movie than the other two. Colin really wanted to go out with a bang, and I think he had credibility with the studio at this point, and from what I gather, they let him make the movie that he wanted to make, which is really chock full of good old-fashioned storytelling, amazing effects, and a resolution for all of the characters in the story. Including the three main movie stars, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum, all of whom are in it. So… that was great. [Laughs.] It always reminds me of Garrett Morris’s character [from Saturday Night Live, Chico Escuela]: Jurassic Park has been very, very good to me!