With close to four decades of TV, movie and stage work under his belt, one would think that BD Wong has a treasure trove of sagely input ready to share with budding performers navigating the rough waters of showbiz.
Maybe. But the one person least likely to approach the veteran Chinese-American character actor — best known for his roles in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Disney’s Mulan (the animated one) — for any kind of advice is Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina.
“I don’t need to offer her advice,” the eternally youthful Wong, 60, tells 8days.sg over Zoom from New York of Awkwafina who plays his daughter on the Comedy Central series Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, now in its second season on Paramount Network.
“There’s no advice I can give her at all because her energy is very unique — I think I could learn from her!” the San Francisco-native enthuses, his face swelled with glowing pride. “She’s a creature of a very unique energy.”
People are drawn to her because “they are very interested in what she’s doing and what she will do next because her energy as a comedian is so strong and unique. Her voice is so strong,” the Tony-winning thesp for M. Butterfly adds. “And I love that about her.”
For Bradley Darryl Wong, playing the Crazy Rich Asians breakout’s blue-collar pops Wally on the semi-autobiographical Awkwafina is… is manna from heaven, a welcome change of scenery after years of dark, brooding drama (notably his turns on Gotham and Mr Robot).
While no stranger to the world of comedy — he was in the short-lived Margaret Cho-led All-American Girl in the early '90s — Wong finds Awkwafina is… more emotionally investing because of its authentic portrayal of the Asians.
In Season 2, Wong gets to take his emotional investment to the next level: directing — a career first. He had previously turned down offers to direct L&O:SVU because he felt he would be serving someone else’s vision. “The creativity can only go so far,” he laments.
“Nora [who is also the executive producer] offered this opportunity because she felt that I understood the dynamic of the characters — the father and daughter — that was very important in this particular episode [‘Tales from the Blackout’],” he says.
“So I was coming to it with a sensibility that other people didn’t really have — people who don’t really work on the show ever day and inhabit the characters every day. So all of these things lined up and I felt really comfortable doing it.”
From one milestone to another, our brief chat about Awkwafina invariably leads to her appearance in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first comic-book movie to feature an Asian lead and a predominantly Asian ensemble.
“Oh yeah, I loved that,” he says. “I enjoyed it very much and thought it was a very important movie, actually — the exposure, representation and everything was very, very well combined with this great story, execution, and cast.”
Just when I am about to ask Wong to elaborate, a disembodied voice cuts in, telling me that my 10 minutes is nearly up. Oh, shoot. I rummage nervously through my notes for the final question.
Maybe I can ask him about Jurassic World: Dominion, where he reprises the part of dino DNA specialist Dr Henry Wu? Or Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, the animated prequel series to the Steven Spielberg-produced 1984 creature feature?
I doubt he can share anything earth-shattering because of the NDAs. So I opt to ask instead about Executive Decision, the 1996 thriller where Kurt Russell’s CIA analyst and a Special Forces squad attempt to recover a hijacked airliner mid-air.
For Wong, playing Sgt Louie Jung, one of the badass elite soldiers in the movie — produced by action flick maestro Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) — was a rare excursion into the testosterone-driven genre in his CV (even more so for an Asian then).
“I love that movie,” Wong says, glowing again, probably relieved that it isn’t a Jurassic World-related question. “And it was a really important movie for me because I felt it was a very interesting world for me to be in, and to learn about.”
He especially has fond memories of boot-camp training with co-stars Russell, John Leguizamo and Joe Morton at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. “The actors were all competitive with each other in a good-natured way,” he recalls.
“If we had to climb a wall on a rope, we’d be like, ‘Are you gonna do it?’ ‘I’m gonna do it’. ‘Is the stuntman gonna do it? No, I’m gonna do it.’ Okay, I’ll do it.” And then you go and you do it, and you say, ‘Okay, I did it. Now it’s your turn.’”
And he had a blast with his cast-mates. “They’re all very distinctively different people,” he raves. “So whenever you put all those kinds of people together — and we were together a lot — it makes for a very interesting dynamics.”
Sadly, the same can’t be said about Steven Seagal, who had a small part (actually, it was so small that it was tantamount to a cameo) as the colonel in charge of the commandos. By all accounts, Seagal wasn’t exactly Mr Popular on set.
“It was a strange kind of dynamic,” he admits. “That was my first exposure to a person like that, [someone with the] scale of his fame, his entourage, pretty girls everywhere and all that stuff.”
Looking back, Wong says, “[Executive Decision] was a very popular then, a very interesting pre-9/11 movie about terrorists on an airplane. So right now, it’s a little uncomfortable, a little bit scary to watch.”
Awkwafina is Nora from Queens airs Wed, Paramount Network (Singtel TV Ch 418), 10pm. Jurassic World: Dominion opens in Singapore cinemas on June 9, 2022. Executive Decision is now streaming on Netflix.
Photos: Zach Dilgard/Comedy Central (Awafina is Nora from Queens), IMDB