Orange County School of the Arts

Benedict Wong talks ‘Doctor Strange,’ revamping his character, and championing Asian representation

You might know him from Netflix’s “Marco Polo,” as Kublai Khan. Perhaps you’ve seen “The Martian,” where he played the fictional director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Bruce Ng. Now, you get to see actor and activist Benedict Wong as the loyal drill sergeant of Kamar-Taj—the mystical place where Dr. Strange acquires his powers and becomes the hero we know and love.

Wong, who fortuitously plays a character named Wong, was thrilled to be joining a cast of Hollywood’s biggest talents, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen, under the vision of director Scott Derrickson and President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige.

“I feel so lucky to be part of this amazing project. It’s an amazing ensemble. It’s a really strong cast—a real honor to be a part of them,” said Wong. “It’s interesting because you never really know [the final product] because of the green screen—you can’t really summon those images into your mind. You’re lending that to Scott and his vision, relinquishing your own trust.”

The cast of Doctor Strange.
The cast of “Doctor Strange.”

Like Dr. Strange has to let go of all control to learn magic, the actors completely trusted the director to make the specific choreography—a combination of dance and martial arts—come alive with magic in the film. Not only did Wong have to learn the hand motions, but also completely reinvent his character’s personality.

“When I look back at the source material, I knew I had to start from scratch. The comic books in the ’60s—there are certain perspectives in terms of East Asia that I’m sure you feel it irks you, seeing a manservant with tea-making duties,” said Wong, referencing the original character in the comics with a very limited role as diminished sidekick. “My job as an actor is to say, we’re not having any of this. We literally need to update this. Kevin and Scott are on the same page—we are creating a Wong of our times. A stoic, loyal-to-the-cause drill sergeant and librarian—not your average librarian—who’s a really positive role model.”

Doctor Strange and Wong from the original comics.
Doctor Strange and Wong from the original comics.

Tonally, the film pioneers its own subgenre under the superhero umbrella, exploring a multiverse filled with dark dimensions, energies, and mysticism. Wong spoke about the film’s daring to be unique.

“The magic and the meditation—we’re going into a different world where we’re not involving superheroes who were dunked in acid or electrocuted,” said Wong. “There’s [a power] that’s kind of innate within us through meditation, the power of our minds, what we can do with it, and how we can will ourselves to be in involved in things that can change us for the better.”

The film also explores the folds and creases in time. If Wong could manipulate time and have the opportunity to sit down with his younger self, he would tell him not to “think too much.”

“This idea of being present and enjoying the moment—I think we forget to do that. We get carried away by our habits, by work, and we lose this enjoyment of being present,” said Wong. “It’s interesting, isn’t it, because all roads lead to where you are. If we didn’t take all the paths that we took, we wouldn’t be sitting here. Me collecting ‘Spider-Man’ comics and going to the comic stores and avidly reading—and now to be here in a Marvel film representing an East Asian superhero is a very proud moment. You want kids to say, wow, if he can do it, so can I! We all deserve to be represented.”

The England native is in fact a huge advocacy for diversity in Hollywood. As an ambassador for Act for Change, an organization that opens up conversation about representation in the arts, Wong hopes to do his role in raising awareness about the Asian experience in Hollywood.

“Most actors of color are shackled by playing these stereotyped parts, dictated by writers, directors, and casting directors who just want to fill a gap. They’re not really there to change the movement. They’re [either] gangsters or zombied. It’s a gravy train. It’s not breaking, in terms of what is the truth. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. There are certain people in the industry who are just clocking on and they’re doing their job and happily earning their money, but what needs to be addressed is being mindful and conscious of what’s happening.”

The actor’s Twitter is filled with articles that examine the state of racist typecasting and the minority experience in the industry. He also tweets support to fellow actors of color to celebrate and promote their successes.

“There are many actors of color who are basically being compartmentalized and put in a box…We need to break those shackles. They need to be part of the movement. When we have something like Wong in “Doctor Strange” and audiences watch it, hopefully they feel that they’re watching something refreshing. They’re seeing something that is of the truth. That’s what we need to be moving forward with. When we look at “Marco Polo” on Netflix—there are some fantastic actors there. That needs to be highlighted in this world, not just the groans of the lack of [diversity]. Let’s start championing the productions that we are making—the ‘Fresh Off The Boat’’s, the ‘Dr. Ken’’s, the ‘Marco Polo’’s,” the Wong’s in ‘Strange’—when you put the focus on that, it lifts. We’re celebrating it. I understand the frustration but it’s about making the dialogue move to the gatekeepers… The more we keep doing that, the more we’ll start resonating what is the truth.”

Benedict Wong in a scene from Netflix's "Marco Polo." Photo Credit: Phil Bray for Netflix.
Benedict Wong in a scene from Netflix’s “Marco Polo.” Photo Credit: Phil Bray for Netflix.

Audiences can expect Wong to return as Wong in the next “Strange” movies, hopefully as a closer ally with the Doctor himself.

“We know Wong to be the drill sergeant, so if he’s teaching the moves, he knows the moves,” said Wong, perhaps hinting at the future action-packed scenes for the loyal librarian and guardian of Kamar-Taj.

Journalist Cassandra Hsiao and Benedict Wong.
Journalist Cassandra Hsiao and Benedict Wong.

Catch the stoic and surprisingly humorous Wong in “Doctor Strange,” in theaters Nov. 4.