Wong explains how his 11 years on ‘Law & Order: SVU’ set him back as a character actor and how the USA series brought him back to the world he loves.
If there’s a turning point in BD Wong’s long stage and screen career, it’s when his 11-season run as Dr. George Huang on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit came to a close at the end of the long-running drama’s 12th season. Although he has since guest-starred in a handful of episodes, Wong’s tenure as a forensic psychiatrist was over, allowing the now-56-year-old to return to being a character actor. That set him on a path that would lead to Mr. Robot, which earned Wong his first-ever Primetime Emmy nomination.
“I played this very middle-of-the-road kind of guy,” Wong says of Dr. Huang. While the role -- and a consistent paycheck -- was certainly beneficial to his life at the time, it left him creatively unsatisfied. “You feel like an ingrate to complain about it, but the fact is that it was not the most interesting work, and for 11 years that had to be OK. I was like, ‘I’m going to have to be OK with this because I want to sustain this very badly.’”
Admittedly, there was a short dry spell following SVU -- he played another therapist on the short-lived Awake, which furthered his feelings of an arrested development -- before he started picking up character work again. But he soon landed simultaneous roles as Whiterose on Mr. Robot and Professor Hugo Strange on Gotham. “They couldn’t have been more different from one another and they couldn’t have been more welcome to me as a creative person,” Wong says.
And it’s Wong’s role on Mr. Robot that’s earned him increasing notoriety. On creator Sam Esmail’s USA series about a cybersecurity engineer-turned-hacker who joins a group of hacktivists with the goal of bringing down corporate America, the actor plays Whiterose, a transgender leader of the Dark Army, who made a brief but powerful appearance in the first season. In the season two episode “eps2.3_logic-b0mb.hc,” Whiterose returns, but is seen presenting as male, disguised as the Chinese minister of state security. It’s especially shocking, since it reveals the layers of complexity of the Dark Army’s reach and mission, but Wong says it’s also a tormented moment for Whiterose.
“She’s interfacing in public as a man. It’s not comfortable for her,” Wong explains, adding: “I didn't fully understand that exactly, because Sam didn't necessarily write that discomfort into the show or the part, but I realize now, as a writer, and it's almost a theatrical concept. What he's really doing is he's forcing a discussion about gender politics through the use of this character, meaning that in this male-dominated world, a powerful woman almost has to figure out a way to get what she wants by presenting herself as a man and she herself recognizes that.”
In fact, it was in season two that Wong finally came to understand more of who Whiterose is, appreciating her internal conflict as she plays both sides. And now that Wong has been upped to a series regular in season three, he’ll have more time to explore her complexities. “Season three is vastly different from season two, which was vastly different from season one. And the character evolves in infinitely interesting ways,” he says of the role, which he’s been busy filming throughout the summer.
And despite being promoted from guest star, he promises that Whiterose won’t suddenly become overexposed. “Sam always said from the very beginning that Whiterose should only be utilized on the show in very small doses to maximize her impact, and he stuck to that for all three seasons. So even becoming a series regular, he’s still stuck to it,” Wong says, offering a cryptic interpretation of season three, which returns to USA on Oct. 11. “I don’t doubt he’ll continue to stick to it. I’m not going to tell you how because I can’t, but he has stuck to it. It’s very cool that he has done that because he’s protecting her impact by doing that.”
Beyond Mr. Robot, Wong will next be seen onscreen in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which sees him reprising his role as Dr. Henry Wu, a geneticist who first appeared in Jurassic Park. Returning to the franchise after seemingly disappearing in the first film, Dr. Wu was seen again in Jurassic World with a decidedly darker persona. Wong sees this as both a positive and negative, knowing that the character offers a bridge between the two franchises.
“By nature of the fact that he was brought back in the first place was a win for the character,” Wong says. However, he’s previously lamented the fact that Dr. Wu never got any closure in the first film, telling GQ: “I was really bummed out, because I felt that they had given a short shrift to this character that was really great. To be quite honest, I felt that they didn't value the ethnic part because they didn't have some spectacular ethnic actor that they could put in the part and make it shiny.” (In Michael Crichton’s book, Dr. Wu meets with a horrific death by a velociraptor as he attempts to restore power to the park.)
When asked about how being Asian might have played into it, he suggests asking director Steven Spielberg what he thinks. “I don’t know what he would say,” Wong says, adding that his character has evolved since returning to the franchise. “He is growing as a character in ways that are careful. They’re not going to all of a sudden make him a major character in the franchise. We touch base with him in a way that’s very consistent.”
As for his character’s fate -- if he’ll ever get his moment like he did in the novel -- Wong can only say that Dr. Wu “plays a very specific function. If you’ve read the book and you’re still looking for that, I feel that hasn’t happened.”
While fans have to wait till June 2018 to learn more about where Dr. Wu is headed, they will soon find out if he’ll take home the Emmy award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, which sees him up against Hank Azaria, Brian Tyree Henry, Gerald McRaney, Ben Mendelsohn and Denis O’Hare. Presented at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards, the winner will be announced on Sept. 10.
“I have to say, post-SVU, I feel like I became eligible to be in this category and I didn’t really feel that way before,” Wong says. “I’m happy with that feeling.”