Metro Weekly

BD Wong on ‘Nora from Queens’ and the powerful representation of ‘Shang-Chi’

A powerful advocate for representation in TV and movies, BD Wong makes his TV directing debut on "Awkwafina is Nora from Queens"

BD Wong -- Photo: JSquared
BD Wong — Photo: JSquared Photography/Contour by Getty Images

BD Wong appears serenely relaxed, reclined in front of his computer camera singing the praises of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The 61-year old Tony winner, known for roles on series like Oz and Law & Order: SVU, and in the Jurassic Park film franchise, among countless other screen and stage credits, doesn’t have a part in the new Marvel blockbuster. Yet he’s as excited as anyone for the whole world to see the mold-shattering film, featuring a virtually all-Asian cast, led by Asian-American director Destin Daniel Cretton.

“I feel much more strongly about this movie than any of the other milestone movies that have come out,” Wong shares. “Even Crazy Rich Asians, which I loved and thought was really important. Even The Joy Luck Club, which I loved, and which was really important.”

Publicly out before everybody was out, Wong, who is of Chinese descent, married since 2018 to husband Richert Schnorr, and accustomed to marking milestones of representation, notes one quality that seems to distinguish Shang-Chi. “This movie has a fearlessness about it, and it’s not trying, somehow, I felt. Even Crazy Rich Asians has got ‘Asians’ in the title, and is selling that in a positive way. It’s great. It’s important and all that. But this is just like, ‘Oh yeah, Shang-Chi, he’s the Chinese one, and this is his story.’ And it’s just a fact. It’s simple.”

A matter-of-fact fearlessness might also characterize several turns in Wong’s life and career — from his 1988 breakthrough on Broadway in M. Butterfly, to his proud role as dad to 21-year old Jackson Foo Wong, and advocate for LGBTQ organizations like the Ali Forney Center. Recently, having amassed a list of acting credits literally longer than your arm, Wong took another bold step, directing his first episode of television, a season-two flashback episode of Comedy Central’s Awkwafina is Nora from Queens.

Wong also co-stars in the series, alongside co-creator-producer (and Shang-Chi leading lady) Awkwafina, who plays hapless hipster Nora, trying to find herself while sharing an apartment in Queens with dad Wally (Wong) and her livewire Grandma (Lori Tan Chinn). Wong’s directorial debut episode offered the multi-tasking director and his castmates a chance to go deeper into their comic portrayals of characters not-so-loosely based on Awkwafina’s actual life.

Having spent some time with the real Wally, Wong makes the point that he’s not strictly recreating the man for television. It is partly him, the real him, whom I’ve met twice or something like that, but who I’ve seen video of, and who has a vibe which is distinctive,” he says.

“Awkwafina herself says she feels really comfortable with me in the part, because even though I’m not like him, it feels like him to her. She doesn’t really get into detail about it, but she’s very supportive of what I’m doing, even though I’m not doing her dad. And then there’s the other Queens dads of television history, Ray Romano and Kevin James. And you just kind of process them. You don’t imitate them. You put them into your Play-Doh fun factory, and then whatever squeezes out on the other side is kind of influenced by them in some way or other.”

Intent on bringing more directing gigs into the fun factory, Wong’s writing a film script for the purpose of giving himself the experience of directing a movie. “I really want to do that,” he says. “And I hope that I’ll be able to do that.” But Wong, who has worked “on a lot of episodic television,” had never previously wanted to direct television, noting that he saw it as a kind of corporate job.

“And yet this job, when Awkwafina asked me to do it, I was so moved and excited, because I have always been treated like a member of this family, like I was a collaborator in the creation of this show, more than most actors would be on other shows, you know? So I felt more comfortable putting that hat on, because I knew that I could call them up and, more than your average director that was just coming in to do the show would do, I could call Teresa Hsiao, the head writer, or Awkwafina herself up, and say, ‘How is this? Is this going okay with you guys? And can I do this? And can I do that?’ And then I felt more creative as a result of that.”

BD Wong -- Photo: Pari Dukovic for Comedy Central
BD Wong — Photo: Pari Dukovic for Comedy Central

METRO WEEKLY: I would like to report that you’re wearing lovely nail polish today. Do you regularly?

BD WONG: The longish version of the story is that I have been going to the same manicure lady for years now, and she’s really great. I love her. She’s kind of an older lady who is very wise, and she’s always trying to get me to wear polish and encouraging me. I said, “Actually I’m not averse to wearing polish. I’d love to wear polish. Maybe this summer I’ll put some polish on for something.” And she says, “That’s good.” She’s this South Asian, Indian lady. And she’s wonderful.

I was going to my niece’s wedding a few weeks ago, and I said, “You know what? I want you to put polish on.” She was so excited. I was so happy to put polish on, almost because it made her so excited. I went to the wedding, and it was this blue sparkly polish. And then I got a job on this movie, the Blues Clues movie. And I said, I’m going to wear polish again for this character. I’m playing the director of a play. And so I thought, well, I’ll do it. So then I went and got a polish change, and this is why I have this polish on. It’s not black. It’s actually kind of dark green.

MW: I can see the quiet tone of it. It’s really cool-looking. How often do you get to incorporate something that you’re doing for your person into a character that you happen to be playing?

WONG: Well, this is a good example of me kind of finding a version of it. I knew I didn’t want to wear the blue sparkly nails in the movie, but I thought the nails themselves are kind of this artsy thing that will really work well for this character. And because I’m in the mood now, I’m wearing polish. And because I do like to try to make the character different. I like to find something. As I get older, it gets harder to reach into the bag of tricks, and find something that’s different about them. I love being a character actor, which means that I try to transform as much as possible, and so this is an example of me going, “Oh, this actually is something I haven’t done before that will be nice for it.” So I just kind of went for it.

There’s always something. You’re always using some part of you. Partly what makes your performance good is that you’re using some part of you, but this was a very specific example of how something actually was in real life that transferred over.

MW: You’ve been doing this a long time — just reading your IMDb, there’s so much work there. You’ve done so many episodes of TV, a lot, I couldn’t even count. I was going to ask, how do you keep that fresh every day?

WONG: Well, I do feel lucky to have motion in the flow of what I’m doing and my career, and I’m at a point now where I don’t worry so much. I mean, I get bored of not working when I’m in-between jobs, but I don’t ever worry that I’m not going to work. So I’m relaxed about it more. And that means that the things that I’m doing are interesting enough that they fuel me. The one time that I got a little bit burnt out was on Law & Order: SVU. It strikes me as almost the opposite of what I should be doing as an actor. How on earth could you imagine playing the same character for 11 years?

That goes against everything that I know about myself and acting, because what happens is when you’re done with the character, you discard, you say goodbye to them, and then you move on to someone else. And so to have one character dominating your life for 11 years is kind of odd, actually. Once I made the decision that I didn’t want to do a long run of a character like that anymore, things became immediately easier to maintain in the freshness department, because you’re never burnt out. It’s always like, “Okay, now I’m done with that, let’s do something new.” And it’s always really fun and exciting.

Cast of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens
Cast of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens

MW: Now, onto the fun and exciting season two of Nora. I’ve just watched the eight episodes they sent me, so they’re very fresh. The season starts out going in wacky genre directions, with fantasy and sci-fi.

WONG: Time travel.

MW: What did you think of those scripts when you first read them?

WONG: My main recollection is about when we’d get together to do this big table reading, where we all read the scripts together for the first time, for the network and for the producers and for the writers and for us. And in this context, as you won’t be surprised, it was a Zoom. So here we are, all in a Zoom reading the first five scripts. And then the second five scripts on the second day. And being really excited about it, because I think that with all good shows, the second season of a show could go either way.

It is all about the writers of the show, the creators of the show, deciding what the identity of that show really is, and pushing it towards that end and aiming towards that. I think people don’t really understand how tricky it is to make a show, because of all these different elements that need to come together, and deciding what the show is, and creating the characters and steering them in a direction, and writing stories and having arcs. All that stuff is really hard, challenging writing. I mean, even for a show that is a little half-hour show, like our show, there’s a fair amount of intellect that goes into it.

I have always felt and maintained, and am happy to say, that I feel like our second season is deeper and even better than the first season. The first season, there were shades of Broad City. And Broad City, of course, originated as a web series, so there was this kind of little engine that could feeling to it. But I think we’ve gotten into more of the emotional life of the characters, particularly the main character and her relationships to everybody in a way that’s very satisfying to me. So I’m really into it.

As far as any genre departures we might be making or creativity that they’re taking, there is a core. One, giving her the proper opportunity to be her, which is really crucial. And two, there’s an opportunity for the characters to grow and to get to know each other and for us to get to know them, and for them to deepen emotionally, that we didn’t have in season one, which I always find to be a thing that I’m looking for in a season two.

That’s the season two that I found in The Comeback, starring Lisa Kudrow. The second season was amazingly deeper, and you didn’t think you could get any better than the first season. I’m a big fan of PEN15, and that second season of PEN15 is mind-blowing to me. I think that the work that those ladies did on that show is incredible. Fleabag, the second season of Fleabag is incredible. Didn’t think it could get better. And so I’m happy to say, I think that for our show — and our show is very different than all those other shows — but there was an attempt to go deeper. And I think that we did well doing that.

BD Wong -- Photo: Zach Dilgard
BD Wong — Photo: Zach Dilgard

MW: I agree with you that Nora season two goes deeper. Specifically, episode seven, “Tales from the Blackout,” which you directed. You talked about how the creators and writers set the sensibility of the show. What did you have to do differently as director of an episode that you’re also performing in, to make sure you’re capturing that sensibility, plus the drama?

WONG: Gosh, I loved directing the show. I would direct it again in a second, and I’ll embrace the opportunity to direct again, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy because, well, the obvious thing is that you’re in it and the camera’s on you. And then you’re having to look at a monitor of the camera being on you. And then you’re having to make a decision about whether that’s right. And then you have to kind of put that down, and you have someone else say action so that you don’t have to do it for yourself. And then they say action, and you start doing the scene as the actor. Then after it’s done, you have to kind of flip back over to, “Okay. So was that good? And is that what we wanted?” as the director and try to evaluate that.

It’s really, really hard. I don’t think I’m complaining in an overtly dramatic way. It’s just, they don’t go together, these two things, and you’re doing both of them at the same time. Even things like, for example, you’re all dressed up in these ridiculous seventies clothes, and you have to keep them on because you’re directing the rest of the actors and other scenes. Things that people might not think about.

It’s ultimately super-satisfying, because whenever you do something that’s kind of tricky and you get over to the other side of it, you feel like, “Well, okay, nobody died. Nobody lost an eye. So I feel pretty good about that.”

You’re also dealing, in a way in which you aren’t as an actor, as the person whose sole responsibility is to please the network and the creators of the show. And so you must. You’re completely a fool if you don’t give over to that. That’s not easy for me because I’m always kind of self-expressive — “This is what I want.” I’m very clear about the things that I like. And sometimes the things that you like are not quite what they like. And so you have to go, “Oh, that’s for them. This is for them. And this is what they want. And this is what this show is. This is what this episode is dictating that you do for the show for it to be right.” It’s not a movie, you know what I mean? A movie director is allowed to and encouraged to be self-expressive, and make choices that are bold and very specific to her or his style. For this, it’s like, “No, it’s actually kind of a formula. This is the show, don’t depart from the style of the show. Don’t mess with it, and don’t mess it up.”

It’s hard. And yet, at the same time, it was the kind of hard that I really like. I like hard, actually. I always make things harder than they need to be. I’m always constantly accused of making things harder than they need to be. And I think that they’re made just as hard as they should be, because at the end of it, there’s always something better that comes out of making something a little harder.

MW: The character Nora describes herself as a 28-year old fuck-up. And that’s how she’s seen by almost every other character on the show. But, obviously, in real life, Awkwafina is writing and producing the show, she’s performing in major motion pictures. What is she like as a boss?

WONG: She’s an incredible boss. She has created an almost unprecedented inclusive crew, female directors, female crew behind the camera, that you don’t realize how starved you are for it until you actually have it. All these women and people of color, both, in influential positions. There’s this myth that somehow people aren’t as good. It’s like the crazy things that your mind does when you ask yourself, “Why is everyone a white man?” Then you realize the reasons for that are just simply because that’s the way it is. And there’s no, like, “White men are better at everything.” You could actually convince yourself of, “Well, they have more experience and blah, blah, blah.” So then when you actually throw people into it — people who do have experience, they’re not completely inexperienced, but under other levels of scrutiny, they might not be given the opportunity because it’s just such an incredibly crazy business. And then you put them in there, and you realize, “Oh, this is really much easier to fix than we thought it was. Much easier. And we’re all just assholes, because we’re not actually actively doing it every day.”

But [Awkwafina] is not like that. That was almost her bottom line, I think. And so I’m really proud of the show for that reason alone almost, because I’ve been in a lot of TV shows and it just isn’t that way. And you’re always asking yourself, “Why is it, and what will it take?” It will take one person to just say no. And that’s amazing to me, and really inspiring to me, actually, as I make decisions about various things in my life. And then also what she’s like as a boss is she’s absolutely kind of just cut-and-dried honest about everything. She’s never mean about it.

MW: That’s hard to pull off.

WONG: She’s just so likable of a person, and such a real person. Therefore, when she’s kind of like, “I don’t like that.” You go, “Okay. I get it. Yeah, I get it.” I mean, that’s not personal. You’re not telling me that you don’t like me. However, she is very mindful of people’s feelings. The idea that she would reject someone and hurt their feelings, you can see is a big conflict for her. And that’s a nice quality to have, actually, when you’re running the ship.

What also complicates the whole thing is that it’s her life. On the first day that I was shooting, she came in and said, “What are you wearing? That’s not right at all. He would never wear that.” And here I had gone through with the costume designer the whole series of fittings to come up with these looks, and she was busy doing something else and didn’t really weigh in. And then she walks on the set and says, “Take that off. That’s not right at all. He would never wear that.” And you realize, oh, one, it’s absolutely essential that she approve of what you’re wearing. And two, this is a real person. This is a real person who lives, and must be honored and must be respected. I don’t dress identically to the way he does, but I don’t wear things he wouldn’t wear, either.

MW: How would you describe the family dynamic? Because Nora, Wally, and Grandma seem like an unconventional unit for TV, and also compared to the image that we normally see of Asian families in the media. How would you describe what this household is about?

WONG: Well, it’s a keen concept to build a show on because of all the things that you said, right? Because we haven’t seen it quite like that before, the reality of it. Not making something up turns out to be helpful in striking a chord of truth for people. And you can be the most creative writer in the world and you’re making something up, you’re still making it up, and on some level, maybe the audience can perceive that. For this, there’s something that’s real about this grandma and this dad, and the fact that the mother passed away very young and that the daughter grew up without her.

And so for whatever reason that she’s lost — which is the main hook of the show, that this young woman is lost — the fact that it comes from a place of real life helps us to buy it and to feel moved by it. I watch it, and I actually find — because I know her and because I know the real story and how it relates to the real story, even though she’s doing all this crazy time travel and stuff — I’m actually moved by her awkward trying to figure it all out as a young person in today’s world. And I’m also tremendously moved because of something you mentioned, which is, as we all know, she turned out to be this incredible person who’s better than most of the rest of us. [Laughs.]

BD Wong -- Photo: Zach Dilgard
BD Wong — Photo: Zach Dilgard

MW: I want to get to Jurassic World: Dominion, your fourth Jurassic Park movie, which you shot last year. Your character, Dr. Henry Wu, had a very different trajectory in the original novel than he’s had in the movie franchise. How are you feeling about the revival of Henry Wu that started with Jurassic World?

WONG: Okay, so last night I saw Shang-Chi. Highly recommend it. Like super good and the whole intricacy of the Marvel universe, and how the characters come in and out of it, is amazing. So this is like a precursor to that in a way that is very satisfying to me. The way when you see your average screening of the movie, and the first scene that I’m in, the character, there’s this weird kind of audible reaction that people have, recognizing somebody and seeing them. There’s just some kind of touchstone that they feel. And so it was really keen for the filmmakers to dig him up, almost literally kind of dig him up. It feels like participating in popular culture. It feels like, “Oh yeah, this is me when I’m participating in popular culture.”

And that’s a cool feeling. I like that. I aspire to that. I think that’s really neat. And I was really grumpy about what happened to him in the first movie. I thought they were really being kind of narrow-minded about what they did with that character, who was an unquestionably Asian-American character in the book. And then all of a sudden it became a major motion picture, as you call it, and he disappeared. And so as an Asian-American, who was always starved for representation as an audience member — not as an actor, as an audience member — or looking for people that look like me, all the stuff you hear a million times now, and the whole discussion about representation, I felt robbed.

I thought, “This isn’t right.” You can’t always cry racism, you can’t always call them out, and you can’t always know why something happens. But that was always in the back of my mind. I felt short-changed. And then I was so short-changed that they didn’t even deal with what happened to that person at the end of the first movie. And that was the door that was left open, actually. Because they didn’t even bother to tie up the loose ends, he ended up being able to be repurposed. So it feels great for me. And then in this fourth movie, all of the regulars from the original Jurassic Park are back, the adult regulars, and —

MW: As in Laura Dern, too?

WONG: Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Neill. And they have big parts. They’re not just doing little cameos. They’re the main characters, with Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt. So there’s five leads in this movie now. Well, six. And they are all hearkening back to the original Jurassic Park in a way that will satisfy the fans in a huge way.

MW: Technically speaking, what’s different about shooting these movies now than with Spielberg thirty years ago?

WONG: Not much, because Spielberg established this aesthetic for the original movie that has been preserved, which is a combination of state-of-the-art CGI and actual puppetry and live-action. And when you combine the two of them, to me, it’s really the best of all possible worlds, because nothing ever looks that phony.

Even in big Marvel movies, the really gigantic ones, where crazy impossible things are happening, if you have any sense of what CGI looks like, you’re aware that it’s CGI. You know that that can’t actually be happening and being filmed in a camera, that it’s probably CGI. In Jurassic movies, that’s much less of an issue. There’ll be times when you’ll see something that’s CGI, but then there’s also the times when an actor is actually interacting and acting with an actual object. And that’s really great because it gives it an identity that’s unique to this particular franchise.

BD Wong — Photo: JSquared Photography/Contour by Getty Images

MW: Going back to Shang-Chi and what you were saying regarding representation. Do you see the scale of it — that budget, the distribution, and promotion — as a significant step for Asian actors in Hollywood, belated as it may be?

WONG: Yeah, I do. Because of what I was just saying. There was a time in my life when I remember where they were like, “No, no, there’s no value in this Asian character, no value in it at all. I can’t make money off this Asian character, so I’m going to cut him out. I’m going to reduce him severely.” [Wu] was a major character in the book. He’s become more of that major character that he was in the book thanks to Colin Trevorrow bringing him back, and putting a lot of heart and care into bringing him back in a way that was of some substance. But I remember that feeling. And I saw [Shang-Chi] last night, and I was like, this is a completely different feeling. This is an embracing of the fact that they’re Asian in a way that’s not pandering and is not over-describing it at all. In fact, they don’t talk about it at all. It’s a little bit like the way we are on Nora from Queens, where we’re Asian but we’re not constantly talking about it, or that’s not the reason for our existence, actually.

You know, it’s not having to explain. It’s like the age-old thing about, “Well, if I’m going to have an Asian person in there, I’ll have to explain why they’re there.” That’s not the way real life works, right? This is that. This is a world in which — and part of it takes place in San Francisco — there’s this very organic Asian family in a very organic situation. And then there’s this incredible fantasy built around the whole thing, which is extremely complicated, very satisfying. I can’t support this movie more. And I’m not one to support a movie just to support it for its political value, because I really believe that the director made such classy choices about the positioning of the Asians in the movie, casting the best actors in the world who never pandered to their own Asian identity. They just are who they are. And it’s great. And it’s just very classy. It’s hard to explain, because you realize how often you see in other movies them making a point of everything, and there’s no point in this one. And so then the sum total experience or effect of it is quite powerful because it just lets it stand for itself, the history-making nature of that.

MW: So what do you think of the fact that this positive visibility is coming at a moment where, on the flip side, we have to have campaigns telling people to Stop Asian Hate?

WONG: I think it’s kind of lucky, actually. It’s just what we need at the time that we need it. And I don’t think it’s quantifiable. I don’t think you can say, “And this is going to do this,” but I think it’s going to.

I brought two of my young nephews — I’m not really their uncle, but they’re my friends’ kids — I brought them to see it. They’re not Asian. I know that they could just process the viability of the Asians as storytellers, and as legitimate characters in a movie, effortlessly without even thinking about it. They’ll never think about it. And they have that advantage that I didn’t have when I grew up. I had to look for it, and I had to question myself because I couldn’t find myself. So they will be able to say, “Oh yeah, Asian people, what’s the big deal? That’s not such a thing.” And there’s no question that the Asian people are the heroes of the movie, for the most part. There’s one villain and he’s a particular specific character, but even he’s got kind of a pathos or whatever. And so as the heroes of the movie, it couldn’t be more powerful, really.

MW: Back to Nora from Queens, and talking about season two going deeper. A running theme in these episodes was people saying or pondering the thought that New York City isn’t as alive as it used to be. That maybe Nora can’t find her place because this isn’t the place for her to be. Has New York changed, or is it just that the world feels different?

WONG: This is a great question. I mean, people do talk about it, and people certainly talk about it in terms of COVID. And certainly talk about whatever town they live in terms of COVID, because COVID has irreparably altered the reality of everything. But that’s not what we’re talking about in the show. For me, when they talk about that, they’re talking about something through the lens of their growing sense that they’re getting older. And that they are twentysomething characters who were 17 or whatever, and they’re now twentysomething, it’s ten years later. And they’re like, “Things change?” That’s the thing that you kind of realize after a certain point. I mean, I think my son, who is 21, is more hip to this than most young people are that, “Yeah, shit closes down and all that stuff, that restaurant’s not there anymore.”

But when you’re naive to it, when you don’t have an experience of COVID, if you’re those kind of idealistic young girls enjoying your life, dressing up as Charlie’s Angels, and then one day you have this wake-up call, you’re bound to blame it on the city itself. When in fact it’s really just a by-product of living. What you learn to do as a grown-up or when you get older is to go with the flow. And I’m learning it now as I’m experiencing change. I’m learning it now with people that I know in my generation, and a little bit older, passing away.

I remember my mother going to a lot of funerals, and feeling really sad for her and friends or relatives that are in her age group passing away, and her kind of seeing people passing away and realizing that that’s a thing. And now that people that are a little bit older than me are passing away, I think it’s a thing you have to accept. Once you can accept it, it makes it so much less painful. It’s just a, “Yes, okay. It’s what happens.” And so I think that’s the rude awakening that some of these characters are having in the show, and that it is not as much about New York.

New York is such a big character in the show. New York is the backdrop of the show, and has also got its own unique vibe, that its evolution is a part of the show, even though the other thing is true. So the two things happening at the same time are maybe what’s interesting. Yeah, sure. New York is changing, but everything changes. We change. And that’s the thing that they’re talking about even more than New York changing is, have we changed? Have we not changed? When she says, “You guys have not changed at all,” is that a bad thing? And is it true, and all the questions that that raises. So I liked that. And then the ninth and tenth episodes also deal with New York in that way, too, as I recall. I haven’t seen them. The ending beat of the show is really nice, I think, when it comes to New York’s identity, and the role that New York plays in the show and in her life and in her relationship to life. So that’s cool.

The fact is, I think it’s a combination of both things: Sure, New York is changing, but also they’re needing to learn that everything changes and that that’s the main lesson that she’s learning, is that shit happens and things change.

New episodes of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Comedy Central. Visit www.comedycentral.com.

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