A few things may surprise you about Benedict Wong—the actor who plays Wong, a master of the mystic arts alongside Dr. Stephen Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). He has a full head of luscious dark locks, speaks in a perfectly delightful British accent, and can do a spot-on Sean Bean impression, which he treated co-goers to on Friday in Hilton’s Grand East Ballroom. Truly, the man is a wizard—at least of the voice and effortless charm.
Entering with a hearty “Hello, Dragon Con!,” Wong regaled the audience with stories from some of his best, and most recent, work, including the television series Marco Polo and movies Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War, Sunshine, and The Martian, calling himself a “25-year overnight success” who has “learned and learned and learned” and found joy in his art, regardless of genre or medium. And, sorry, no spoilers on the Avengers’ next chapter, Wong joking that he leaves that to Spider-Man actor Tom Holland.
Fresh on congoers mind, given the box-office success of Crazy Rich Asians, was diversity in film and how Wong, whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong, feels about the history of white-washing of parts, such as the character of I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the future of cinema.
“I do sympathize with the actors,” he said, reminding the audience that “decisions are made by the people upstairs, and they should answer. Not the actors.” Yet, as a thespian he questions things, such as being offered a role in the period piece The Personal History of David Copperfield, an upcoming film in which Indian-British actor Dev Patel plays the normally white title character.
“Am I allowed to do that?” he asked himself. Yes, he ultimately decided, following up by saying that it’s “nice to see something fresh, and audiences are down to see it.” He reminded the audience that it’s not just about diversity—more actors of varying backgrounds—but also the caliber of the characters, as Asians in film have evolved from screaming background props easily killed to leads or vital players with points of view. “I hope it does. That it becomes a part of our fabric,” he said when asked if this trend will continue, following later with, “It’s going to get better. The proof is in the pudding.”
Wong—who once played a gangster six times in a single year—decided five years ago to take control of his career by becoming his own agent, saying that he was “waiting for a big role, knowing I could do it,” but just not getting the chance. He started by being offered two plays, which overlapped in schedule. He desperately wanted both, so, as his own agent, he told the productions to work out the schedule or else he’d have to turn one down. They did. He then worked night and day for months during a period in which he said, “I felt like an artist again… it was just nourishing my soul.” One of the plays, Chimerica, was nominated for five Olivier Awards, winning for best new play.
Next came the role of legendary Mongolian leader Kublai Khan in the two seasons of Netflix’s Marco Polo. For that, he learned to fight, ride, and “be a presence,” gaining 40 pounds. “All I did was throw everything at it,” he said of preparing, and persevering, on a set that had him filming across east and central Asia in breathtaking landscapes like “verdant green mountains.”
Wong talked ardently about being an actor, telling those who aspire to it to “speak up. It’s your passion. Make it your passion.” Wong, who began acting at 19 and once dreamt of working at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, gave himself until 24 to find success. If he didn’t, he would consider getting “a proper job.” He emphasized that it is not, nor should be, about fame. It’s about the craft and experiences, even if that means ushering just to see shows for free as every gig comprises your “alchemy.”
“Just be conscious of the action. Don’t think of the fruit,” he urged, saying that bit-by-bit it all starts to add up to something. Wong also said he doesn’t overanalyze—whether it’s comedy or sci-fi—and is just happy to “connect with an audience.”
When asked about his experience on Sunshine—a 2007 sci-fi film by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and starring Chris Evans, who’s Captain America in the MCU—he joked that “I don’t know what happened to all those actors,” before talking about how they had a “unified, shared experience” that bonded them.
Of course, everyone wanted to know more about his time in the MCU, with someone asking about how it was to work with another Benedict (Cumberbatch) in Doctor Strange. He joked that whenever someone on set said “That was amazing, Benedict,” he thanked them and every time someone said, “Do it again, Benedict,” he ignored the request. He talked about lunching with Robert Downey, Jr., the fun of working with Mark Ruffalo, modernizing his character to be more sarcastic and curmudgeon-y, and how amazing it is to see visual effects added to a scene filmed against a green screen. He called himself a “a bloody big kid” amazed to be a part of this world.
“It was just nuts that I was in it,” he said, saying that seeing the final cut of Avengers: Infinity War was “a real surprise” to him as well. The actors are only given their pages and dialogue, not a whole script, like how Shakespearean plays were done in back in the day.
He landed the role of Wong after learning about it while filming The Martian. Lobbying on his own behalf, he started a campaign he called “Wong for Wong,” which became “Wong is Wong” when he won it—which involved having that other Benedict sign off on his casting. His first day of filming on Doctor Strange, he was so jet lagged, he was sure that his less-than-stellar performance made the powers-that-be question their choice. As we all know, it turned out to be a great decision, especially since he does a flawless Chinese accent, which he picked up from his family still in Hong Kong.
Wong, who said he’d love to direct one day, has some exciting things coming up, including voice work in the Lady and the Tramp, as the bulldog. And, maybe, just maybe, he’ll make an appearance in that next, untitled Avengers movie.
Displaying the same charm he walked in with, Wong left the stage after giving the audience a gem of encouragement.
“It’s never too late to get into anything,” he said. “Stay passionate. It will always keep you alive.”