At the Los Angeles press day for Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” there was a special energy in the air. I could sense an extra hint of excitement amongst the journalists, cast and even the publicists, as we all scurried around the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. I had just seen the film the night before and, although I’m not what you would call a ‘fanboy’ for the original comics, the magic of this unique superhero adventure transported me to another world.
Despite Benedict Cumberbatch — who portrays the title character and undoubtedly the star in the spotlight on that particular day — I was eager to speak to the cast’s other talented British Benedict: Benedict Wong. I first saw his work on the Netflix series, “Marco Polo,” in which he plays the powerful Kublai Khan, the 13th century leader of the Mongol Empire. The range and depth of Benedict’s talent is immeasurable as he wholly embodies Khan, both in physique and mind. In fact, he admits that he gained forty pounds for the role. In “Doctor Strange,” he does a complete 180 from Khan, stepping into the shoes of Strange’s sidekick, who is coincidentally named Wong. From drama to action adventure, Benedict’s natural comedic timing is on display throughout the film.
Although I only spent a short time with Benedict, it was clear that he is an ‘actor’s actor,’ someone who takes into consideration the director’s vision and his personal character research. With every role, he draws the audience in, making one forget that they’re watching a performance.
With plenty of controversy surrounding Hollywood’s practice of ‘whitewash’ casting, Benedict knew that the role of Wong was meant for him in more ways than one. It was a way to encourage aspiring Asian and East Asian actors to see that for once, they didn’t cast a white man or woman in a role meant to be played by an Asian actor. Unfortunately, this happens more often than not, and especially with box office superhero franchises. But the British-Chinese actor is determined to break boundaries and I have no doubt that he has already begun to make major strides, starting a dialogue with agents, directors, etc.
Just a few hours before he would walk the red carpet at the film’s Hollywood premiere, I sat down with Benedict for an in-depth conversation about his career and the Marvel adventure. In keeping with the British custom, he offered me a cup of tea and I asked my first question…
What were the comics and characters that lit up your eyes as a young boy?
As a kid, it was always Spider-Man comics. I always remember telling my cousins, as we were playing: “I’m Spider-Man.” And I was a 13-year-old collecting Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-Man, the Amazing Spider-Man and Web of Spider-Man, which I own the no. 1 copy of. I would take a bus from Salford to Manchester, and there was a comic book store called Odyssey 7. It’s not there anymore, so we’re evoking the memory. I would just spend hours trawling through all the comics and spending my days there.
This must be a dream. When you were filming, or even before, when was that magical moment when you realized, “I’m in a Marvel movie?”
I really enjoyed the whole aspect of just being involved in a Marvel film. When I was watching them very early on, I was thinking, “Well, where are the East Asian superheroes? Where are we represented?” You feel a bit questionable about that. I remember I was tip-tapping on the internet and I saw this illustration of Strange, and on the side, this character Wong. My mouth was open. I thought, “I have to get this part,” if not for any other reason but for my ancestors. [laughs]. I was then filming “Marco Polo” around the world. I was looking at the dates and they weren’t really happening. I had no agent. They contacted me in Budapest, so I went on tape. I was in Slovakia, and then I went on tape again. And by the time I was in Malaysia that was it. I got the call and the lovely casting director said, “Congratulations, you’ve got the job. You’re going to have a great time.” And I was like, “Oh, wow. Wow.”
You said, “Where are the East Asian superheroes?” There is a lot of controversy surrounding the lack of diversity in casting. In your opinion, what do you think we need and could do to evolve?
It’s in your own control. When I looked at the comics from the ‘60s, there were obviously certain aspects that were very stereotypical — this idea of a manservant. And what’s amazing is that you have Kevin [Feige] and Scott [Derrickson] pushing beyond this, and the dialogue that we had. And we said look, “You know what, we can move forward.” We said, “Absolutely, let’s do this.” And now we have this strong, stoic character — the drill sergeant who understands the seriousness or the severity that lies ahead, that stands alongside Strange. That to me is a positive role model, and people will see this. I call upon the directors, the producers, the casting directors, the writers. They are in some ways the gatekeepers to sort of free us from certain shackles, really. And there are plenty of East Asian actors that deserve a crack of the whip here. They just need to contact me if they’re a little bit stuck, and I can happily direct them their way. I haven’t seen the film yet, but obviously what is interesting is that people are feeling like they haven’t seen anything like this before in terms of that character being portrayed; someone who’s not taking any sh** from Strange. In turn people will go, “Oh wow, this is new, this is not generic and formulaic.”
Benedict with 'Strange' co-stars Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch
It’s really refreshing. The comedic aspect of this film is brilliant. Kublai Khan, on the other hand, is very serious. Were you looking forward to exercising your comedic skills?
It was nice just playing a bit of comedy, and more with Benedict. It’s really hard to describe. You just think, “Is that working? Oh, I think that’s kind of working.”
The chemistry within the cast was palpable. Was anything improvised between you and Benedict?
Yeah, we would throw around different things. We go back as well — we’ve known each other through the course of our careers. It’s just great to play alongside him. Also, I’m just surrounded by these uber actors, really. And I feel like I’ve won a little competition. [laughs] It’s just great.
The imagery and the special effects are impressive. What was it like shooting? Do you do your own stunts?
Yeah, I was falling into the rubble. There’s not much time to think about anything, because you’re in a harness going, “OK? You OK? I think I’m OK.” And then all of a sudden you fall back. And then you get a nice round of applause, and you go, “Oh, right great. I’m fine.” I’ve kind of been used to doing my stunts.
There’s an incredible scene in the first season of Marco Polo when you are fighting your brother. Do you feel like you’ve mastered your on-screen fighting skills?
I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it. It’s kind of all smoke and mirrors, isn’t it? But it was only just a certain few moves. I used to do little bits of kung-fu when I was a kid, which I traded off because my mom wanted me to go to Chinese school on Sunday. I was doing little line dancing and stuff, so I knew some elements of movement. I understood the idea of breathing, and the chi, and energy balls. I think that really lends to this type of movie. It’ll be interesting to see how the future unfolds with these characters.
Speaking of characters, I’m curious because you’ve done period pieces, theater and whatnot — how do you approach a character? When you get into that costume, do you feel, “Now I’m ready”?
It’s a mixture of things. Always the action of the scenes. I sort of approach things quite differently, depending on the part. What’s difficult is, how do you know how to play this person who existed? I found a little hook with the Kublai part. John Fusco told me he was born in the year of the earth pig. So I researched the characteristics of the Chinese horoscopes and the animals. He was business astute, had a large social circle of friends, and liked to eat and drink a lot. And obviously he suffered from gout, so then I looked at the emotional symptoms that connect with gout. Then with that, it’s someone who is impatient and someone who likes to dominate. So all of a sudden you create these little tools. And with that, I piled on about 40 pounds, and I ran with my actions. I really enjoyed playing that part. Literally, as soon as I finished filming that, I was on a plane back home, dumped my bags, and was picked up by Marvel within an hour. I was on the next day working with Benedict. I did suffer a lot of jet lag on the first day, and Benedict was doing an elaborate one-minute spell and I was still in a jet lag, falling in a black hole. [laughs] I think they were thinking, I think we need to send this one back home!
'Strange' director Scott Derrickson with Benedict at LA Press Day
Theater, TV, film — what is something that you would like to conquer in any one of those mediums as far as a character or a genre?
You know what it is; it’s always within this latter stage of my career. I didn’t go to drama school, and I just trained myself at any opportunity with various jobs. And you start very early on in all the dolls’ clothes. [laughs] You’re doing anything and everything for the first part of the 10-15 years. I think now it’s been really wonderful to just enjoy following the good story. Because therein lies the passion. It’s so difficult in terms of actors around that, we have to take certain gigs, because we simply have to pay the bills. And it’s spinning the plates, and once again, there are plenty of East Asian actors that deserve their time as well.
I’m going to send them your way for mentoring.
By Pamela Price
"Doctor Strange" is in theaters now. Catch "Marco Polo" on Netflix. Check out my 'Strange' movie review here.