Throughout the first season of Mr. Robot, it was assumed that the omnipresent Whiterose was a man. When Whiterose first appears in episode eight, we discover that the leader of the world’s most dangerous hacking collective is a transgender woman (played by BD Wong) whose time is precious. Wong appears onscreen for only three-plus minutes, but the reveal, along with Whiterose’s gender identity, is central to a show that has played with the meaning of identity and reality throughout its first season.
Wong made a second appearance in Wednesday night’s finale, under much different circumstances. We spoke with the longtime actor (M. Butterfly*, Law & Order) about being approached by Mr. Robot’s creator, Sam Esmail, for the role, and why the show’s portrayal of a transgender character has so far been radical.
When did Sam first reach out to you about playing Whiterose?
Episodes one to five had already been shot when I signed on. I was told there was this show everyone is talking about, and here is what they want you to do on it, but it was already in production when it happened.
Did you have to meet with Sam, or was this a cold pitch and you accepted?
Well, first of all, there was no meeting. I was not even being asked to audition. I was being asked to just do it. I was really nervous about it. It was right in the middle of this wonderful discussion about trans people.
I thought, I don’t want to be that flashy actor doing this evil trans part. I don’t want to be the evil trans person. I also didn’t want to take a job away from a trans actor. And I said, “I want there to be an opportunity for a trans actor to play this part.”
I was then told Sam did meet some trans actors but didn’t pick them, and then he asked me to do it. I don’t know why he was asking me to do it, and I was putting up a little bit of resistance.
Sam told BuzzFeed that he immediately thought of you for the part of Whiterose, but since he intended for the character to be a woman, he stumbled over your gender. Did he ever explain why he thought you were perfect for the role?
Not really. When directors call you, you don’t know where they are coming from. And you can’t call them out and ask them, “Where are you coming from on this?” All I know is that he seemed really sincerely invested in my doing it. One could assume because he knew I played another gender before [in M. Butterfly].
I think he thought of me as a male actor, which I am, and that my sensibility was going to be right for Whiterose, the personality of the person, regardless of their gender. It seems to me [Sam] said to himself, Oh, but wait, why am I being so conventionally gender-normative about this?
It’s such a small part, but so crucial to the show’s plot. Did you sign on right away?
First of all, they are very secretive about the scripts. They didn’t let me read the script, they didn’t even let me read the scene in the process of offering me the part. They didn’t give me anything, so I wanted to pick Sam’s brain about what this part really is.
I don’t want to be a man disguised as a woman trying to get away with something and fending off what transgender people are all about. It does play a big part in why I did this role. I want people to know I asked these questions. And the questions I was asking: “Is this a guy pretending to be a woman?” And he said, “No, no, no, no. This is a trans person.” I asked, “How would they know it’s a trans person?” He said the show is the kind of show that doesn’t explain things, but hopefully, the way we are doing it, it’ll be clear there is no added layer of their transness having anything to do with anything.
Which seems to be an approach that hasn’t been portrayed on television.
Usually, when you are an ethnic person or a trans person, in your average, everyday, unsophisticated television show, you are there for that reason. And they clearly justify and overexplain why.
You very rarely see a transgender actor playing the part of a grocery-store clerk without having to say, “Oh, look at that trans person.” They aren’t ready for that yet. They don’t think the nation is ready for that yet. Sam said, “She is transgender, but her transness has nothing to do with anything.” Sam then told me the irony really is that Whiterose is in disguise when Whiterose is a man, and not when Whiterose is a woman. At the end of Wednesday night’s episode, when Whiterose meets with [Evil Corp CEO] Philip Price, Whiterose may or may not be suppressing all of the femaleness of her to have these conversations with Price. That is a very radical concept, which I don’t know if we have ever seen before.
I made it clear to Sam that I am not comfortable with the idea of masquerading. He said, “If there is any masquerading at all, it is Whiterose masquerading as the businessman working with Philip Price, not the reverse.” That, to me, was interesting. I don’t yet know what he means by that, and I hope the show goes a bit further with it.
Was it difficult to portray Whiterose for the two scenes? And how did you prepare?
I completely short-circuited when I played Whiterose in her first scene. I have done the gender thing before. I had no problem figuring out how to play the part, but this time I was completely overwhelmed — I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I had visited the set the day before to try stuff on and get ready, and I had to sit with Kurt Haas [the show’s script coordinator]* in the dressing room. I told him, “I know I am not supposed to know what’s going on, but I don’t know what is going on! You have to explain something so I can play this scene. You’ve got to help me!”
Kurt took me through every episode. He didn’t explain Tyrell to me — that whole thing has nothing to do with Whiterose. There are things I am learning as I watch the show. But he did explain to me the whole collaboration between the Dark Army and FSociety, and the raspberry pi and the honeypot.
So there must have been a lot of planning to play Whiterose the first time?
It was way more than what you would think of her just walking into the room. Sam is one of those people who understands diversity. When he is talking about a trans woman, he knows what that means. There is no teaching moment. But I didn’t know him, so I didn’t [know] whether he knew what it really entails.
I had done this before, and there were certain things I wanted to make sure we took care of. So I asked, “When you say trans woman, do you mean she has a woman’s shape? Does she have breasts? How far into the process is she?” I grilled him on that. I added, “Well, that means you can’t just get women’s clothes and put them on me, you have to put a foundation on me, and you have to give me the right shape that goes under the clothes.” Coincidentally, we both agreed on the same kind of hairstyle. We were looking at pictures of Diana Chen — she is a Hong Kong megapower businesswoman who is very chic and very strong and very feminine — and her hair was one of the model pictures.
Did the scene go smoothly?
The shoot lasted all night, and I am so mad at Sam for not shooting her full-length — I had these crazy five-inch heels on that nobody ever saw, and I wore them for the entire shoot.
I didn’t know what I was saying. I blew a lot of takes, I blew way more takes than I usually do, just trying to get the lines out. I was really sweating bullets trying to knuckle my way through it. I couldn’t remember something as simple as the name Terry Colby. I remember saying, “What’s his name again?” because I am not really in the story. Terry Colby to the real Whiterose is a no-brainer. He is a leading player in her life. For me, playing the person who is Whiterose, I am scrambling to remember the name and let it trip off my tongue in a way that is natural.
And when we were shooting the scene, it was frustrating because Sam still couldn’t tell me anything! I’m asking him, “Why are we doing this scene?” My sense is that he is still figuring it out, but I also think he doesn’t want me encumbered with too much knowledge. He was rather laid-back about it, not, Oh, I am so sorry, I can’t tell you that. He just doesn’t tell you. And I love him, and I think he is amazing, and I give over to it. I know that there is something right going on here. I am a really controlling person, so maybe I should temper my controlling nature and just go with it.
If I get to go back and we see Whiterose again, it would be easier. I would be much more comfortable with all of the elements of the costume and makeup and hair. That took quite a bit of effort to design, to make decisions on what to wear and what to do, and now we have established an aesthetic for that character that the artists that work on that show could revisit easily.
Was it an easier process shooting Whiterose’s scene for the finale?
Yes, it was way, way better. It went much more smoothly. It was shot in one take at one of the Gatsby–style Gold Coast mansions on Long Island. I was completely in the dark when we shot it, which is one of the maddening, and also cool, things about shooting this show. You just have to give yourself over [to] it.
The scene is a very basic scene establishing a connection between this person, who I believe you will eventually understand to be Whiterose. I’ve watched this episode with several people now, and every time, at a certain point in the scene, everyone goes, “Wait, what’s happening? How do they know each other? Did I forget they know each other? My mind is racing.”
It isn’t until the end of the scene when his watch beeps that you realize this person may actually be Whiterose. There is no indication prior to that (and it is a very short scene) that he is Whiterose. At some juncture during the scene, you say, “What the fuck is going on?”
It seems like Whiterose, more than any other character, represents the thrust of the show’s attempt to examine identity.
It’s the whole idea of, who is who? Elliot is asking himself, “Who are you?” and at the same time, “Who am I?” In some cases, they turn out to be the same thing.
What Sam is starting is some kind of an exploration of an even deeper understanding of that identity. There is some reason why Whiterose is the creature that she is. There is a reason none of us yet know. Sam probably does. And that reason would have to do with the understanding of self-identity, or someone else’s perception of someone’s identity.
If I am totally immersed in the woman who is Whiterose, then you have to question what the elements of truth are in her personality. She will be playing what appears to be two sides of this complicated coin. “Whose side are you on?” is another part of the identity question that is raised in the show a lot, here and there.
You’re now built up an acting career as this cult character actor, with Whiterose adding to a résumé of parts ranging from Oz to Law & Order: SVU. Is that how you predicted your career would go?
I always knew I’d be more of a character actor than a leading man, and I always wanted to take that and run with it. But then I also go after extreme character parts to shake it up and keep it interesting.
I am fine playing Law & Order and even the Jurassic movies to be straight up, as far as the characters being portrayed there, but I never want to stay in straight-up land too long. I always wanted to do something where the character’s world gets to be explored.
* An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Wong starred in Madame Butterfly. He starred in M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play. It also misidentified Kurt Haas as Kor Adana.