For BD Wong, All the World's A Stage
As he openly admits, BD Wong can’t give a short answer. In fact, when his talk at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Thursday, September 15 went over the allotted time and his Q&A session was cut short, he threw his head back and wailed, “Come on!!” into his self-proclaimed “Janet Jackson world tour” microphone headset. This rambunctious behavior might come as a surprise to those who know Wong as Law & Order: SVU’s suited-up forensic psychiatrist Dr. George Huang. On the show, Wong coolly deals with some pretty heavy stuff, analyzing child murderers and diagnosing mental illness. His real-life persona is quite the opposite.
Sporting an argyle polo shirt and jeans, Wong owned the Ath dining room and made apparent his knack for performing. His stories of an eccentric childhood as the token theater kid, chorus star, and, yes, “gay knitter” lent a dramatic backdrop to his entrée into the world of acting. A particular impression of his “adorable and grating” child-self at the center of his school choral performance drew laughs a-plenty from his largely student audience.
While Wong anticipated the surprise of seeing himself in a comedic light—“I bet no one here thought Dr. Huang had a sense of humor”—much of his comedy existed to lighten the more serious matters at hand. His talk, titled “All the World’s A Stage: From Exclusion to Inclusion” addressed issues of race and identity with which Wong has grappled throughout his entire life and career.
Growing up as a third generation Chinese-American in San Francisco, Wong was able to explore his passion for acting and singing without fear of too much resistance from his parents. That is, as long as his acting habit didn’t turn into a career; in his family, “acting could ruin a person’s life,” recalled Wong jokingly. He enjoyed the attention of middle and high school teachers, and, in particular, one acting teacher who took a shine to him. “My high school career,” says Wong, “was informed by my relationship with this teacher, which was something that if I hadn’t had, I probably would not have found or discovered this part of myself quite so easily.” By his senior year in high school, says Wong, his teacher was choosing plays based on which leading role fit Wong best.
Needless to say, Wong was a confident kid. But this self-image soon landed him in an awkward position after auditioning for a community theater production near San Francisco. Expecting a lead role, Wong was instead cast as “Chinese man 1,” a small role in which the character is duped into switching clothes with the two leads. That day, says Wong, is one of the first times he was confronted with the reality of his identity as an Asian American actor.
To Wong, it isn’t just a matter of pigeonholing Asian American actors into stereotypical roles. As Wong puts it, “There’s lack of interest in Asian American people in general, which is a larger issue. That is quite alarming.”
If the interest isn’t there, Wong believes that no one with the means to finance, produce, or direct these projects will do so. Unfortunately, the sad truth of the matter, says Wong, is that “those performers with Asian faces don’t sell the tickets. There are plenty more Caucasian and even African-American-driven projects that are allowed to fail, but they do exist, as opposed to the Asian alternative, which is really non-existent in some ways.”
“Ultimately, what I think is going to happen,” says Wong, "is that Asian American stars or some Asian American-driven project is going to blow some of this out of the water. The quality of that thing, whatever it is, or the cord that it strikes, which will be universal, has yet to be discovered.”
Despite what he sees as an overwhelming problem facing Asian American actors, Wong has found much success in his performing career. Wong earned himself a Tony and four other awards for the role of Song Liling in the critically-acclaimed M. Butterfly. His film credits include Father of the Bride, The Freshman, Seven Years in Tibet, and Disney’s Mulan. Wong also gained considerable attention for his role as Father Ray Mukada on the cult television series Oz.
Living in New York, Wong has embraced his other full-time job as a parent of an 11 year-old son. Born 13 weeks early, his son battled for life and inspired Wong to write a memoir, Following Foo: The Electronic Adventures of the Chestnut Man, surrounding the epic journey. As an openly gay father, Wong, among others, was invited to participate in a White House Town Hall on fatherhood and feels strongly about the importance of responsible parenting. And, he says, it doesn’t hurt to live in New York while being a dad. “I think that New York is an incredible opportunity for a child to grow up there,” he explained. “The museums, the many things that are there that aren’t anywhere else in the world that my son can experience, I’m very proud of all of those things and I love trying to take advantage of them.”
Though the Big Apple holds a special place in his heart, Wong is rediscovering LA as he works on a new television series Awake to debut early next year. The show promises to be an exciting one, says Wong, and tells the story of a man who alternates between two realities after a tragic car accident. For Wong, his 11-year run with SVU was one of the “coolest” jobs he’s ever held, but he appears ready for new challenges. Perhaps Wong will make his third Ath appearance (he was here in 1994) soon enough, ready to take the stage once again and show us what he’s got.
B.D. Wong spoke at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum as part of the ongoing series "Shifting Perceptions: Celebrating the Spectrum of Leadership." The series is sponsored by the CMC Resident Assistants and ASCMC, with support from the Athenaeum and members of the CMC faculty. For more information on the speaker series and upcoming Athenaeum events, please visit http://www.claremontmckenna.edu/mmca/.