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Benedict Wong on Lobbying for Doctor Strange, Battling Jet Lag, and Avoiding the ‘Asian Sidekick’ Stereotype

You might know Benedict Wong from The Martian, Netflix’s Marco Polo, or the new Black Mirror season’s big closer “Hated in the Nation,” but the British actor is about to have his more high-profile role yet, entering the Marvel cinematic universe as Wong, the keeper of books and magical secrets in Doctor Strange. Working alongside Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), he tries to fend off universe-rending threats, and he’ll reprise the role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. Recently, Wong sat down with Vulture to talk about how he pursued the part, what Wong means for onscreen diversity, and where he goes from here.

How did you come to this role?
I’m a pal of Chiwetel’s, so we had lunch and I asked him what he was up to: “I’m doing Doctor Strange.” So I said “Okay,” and I started doing a little nosing into it, a little investigating into the world of Doctor Strange, and I couldn’t believe it: I saw this character, Wong. I had thought there were no Asian superheroes, and I was always crestfallen watching the Marvel films and collecting Spider-Man comic books and not seeing any characters that looked like me. So I thought, “Okay, what am I going to do?” I don’t have an agent, so …

How do you not have an agent?
I know, I know.

Are you just fortunate enough to be offered parts?
They come to me at the moment, yeah.

Well, I guess you don’t have to give that 10 percent to anybody, at least.
No, not at all. I laugh about it with my friends … I call it “Wong and Only Management.” So yeah, I was looking at dates of the movie, thinking, “I’ve got to get this part.” Simply by birthright! I joked to Chiwetel, I should start a petition: “Wong for Wong.” 

Who could argue?
I was filming Marco Polo at the time, and they came to us when I was in Budapest and I went on tape. By the time I was in Slovakia, I did a few more tweaks and sent it off, and then I went to Malaysia and they said, “Okay, you’ve got the gig, congratulations.” And then I texted Chiwetel, “I’m gonna need some help. I might need your lawyer.” He texted back, “Wong for Wong?” And I wrote back, “Wong IS Wong.”

People on the street are going to yell “Wong” at you now, and you won’t know whether they’re referring to the character or whether they actually know you.
I’ll just pretend I’m at public school, where they just call you by your surname. So anyway, I flew back to London, dumped my bags, and an hour later I was picked up by Marvel and into costume fittings, then shooting the next day. Really surreal, I was kind of battle worn. I remember I was shooting with Benedict and Chiwetel, and Benedict was doing this really elaborate, one-minute spell, and I was there suffering from jet lag! My character was chastising him about the space-time continuum, which I was actually feeling at the time. I couldn’t get the words out, and we went into double figures [on the takes]. As he was creating this spell, I was falling into my own black hole. They sent me home that day, but I got back on track with it.

This is a different, more assertive Wong than was in the comics.
Obviously, in the 1960s there were certain aspects of it that we can now safely leave in the ‘60s, this idea of a manservant-sidekick. That’s not something that appeals to me. I sort of found that out myself, and I thought, “How can we change this?” When I came onboard, I met [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige in the trailer and said, “I’m not really into that idea of the character,” and he said, “Absolutely, we’re not doing that.” I felt completely buoyed. Now Wong has become this kind of drill sergeant, who’s not your average librarian. Overdue books are fined with broken fingers! This is someone who’s serious and understands the severity that lies ahead. It’s a Wong for our times, or a Wong corrected. I feel really proud to be a part of this change. Maybe there’s a kid who’ll watch and say, “Oh wow, there’s a superhero representing me.” That’s what we want from diversity.

This is a big, effects-heavy movie, but how do you keep things straight when so much of the scene will be added in postproduction?
There’s some green screen, and what I’ll say about green screen is that you have to relinquish trust and give all that trust to the director. You have to say, “There you go. Don’t fuck up, will you?” I’ve been so lucky to work with visionaries like Ridley Scott and Scott Derrickson, and everyone is saying the images in Doctor Strange are blowing their minds. Fantastic. Thank you, Scott.

If anything, it feels like Wong will be more prominent in the sequel. He’s practically a partner to Strange by the end of it.
The chalk and cheese, the odd couple. There’s a beautiful yin and yang to these two. Strange has these powers and still a bit of arrogance, and then you’ve got no-nonsense Wong batting him down occasionally. They both need each other as we combat these dark forces in this multiverse. It’s fantastic to have this new broad canvas in these movies that we can enter into. As an origin story, I think this is a cracking one.

You don’t have an agent, but I know that Marvel likes to sign its actors for multiple movies. How many have you been told they want you to do?
There’s a few, now. The Russo brothers want me involved in Infinity War. They need some Wong!

Who doesn’t need some Wong?
When we were doing additional shoots, I kept thinking of Christopher Walken’s line from Saturday Night Live, “This needs more cowbell.” I would say, “I think this needs more Wong.” [Laughs.]

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Benedict Wong on Doctor Strange, The Avengers