Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
It’s a good time to be BD Wong.
Known by millions for playing Doctor Huang on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and as Father Mukada on Oz, he’s enjoying a string of high profile roles.
What began with a return to playing a nefarious scientist giving life to extinct and mutated dinosaurs in Jurassic World, Wong continues his reign with a turn as the Dr. Hugo Strange, a sadistic psychiatrist in Gotham, and as Whiterose, the enigmatic leader of a hacking collective, in Sam Esmail’s hacker drama, Mr. Robot.
Whiterose may be one of the most challenging roles of Wong’s career to date. The character operates with an unrevealed agenda, is herself a mystery, and is featured on a show that prides itself on slow and deliberate revelations.
Whiterose is only seen twice in the entirety of the Mr. Robot’s first season – once, as a time-obsessed woman who assists in taking down a conglomerate, and then again, as man who rubs elbows with the establishment – making her one of the most intriguing characters on television today.
Who is Whiterose to you?
I go back to Sam Esmail, because you only get as much information as he’s willing to give -- which is mysterious and wonderful, but also maddening at the same time.
To me, she’s a transwoman in a man’s world. I think that’s a source of a certain amount of conflict for her. In my own opinion, she has the ability to interface in a man’s world apparently as a man, and that makes her different from other oppressed female characters, actually.
The audience first meets Whiterose as a time-driven hacker, which is her true self, then we see her dressed a man. How hard was it to find that character? Especially since the second time we see her is in disguise and we don’t really get a sense of her background or much else?
That’s a really good question, because it really wasn’t that comfortable for me.
I found her big debut scene to be rather challenging because there was not a lot of backstory for me. There was not a deep knowledge of all of the other characters in the story. I felt at somewhat of a disadvantage, because all of the regulars on the show are there throughout the show’s shooting, the development of their characters and plots, including my character’s involvement.
Sam wrote a very good scene and he made very clear what her trip is as far as [hacking] time is concerned. The clues that he wrote for her character were playable traits.
When playing characters in disguise, I find that it can be kind of a trap, and you owe it to yourself, from a performance standpoint, to try to integrate these two people. The trap, and the amateurish way to do it, is to make them so far afield from one another that they bear no resemblance to each other.
You often get kudos for that because people find that they can wrap their minds around it, and the difference delights them. But for me, I find it more interesting to try to find a thread between them that is shared and then to branch off from that thread in two different directions.
How are you enjoying playing characters like Whiterose and Hugo Strange, who are characters that provide a storyline’s momentum? Or do you prefer the kinds of roles you played on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and on Oz, where you played more of a supporting role?
I much prefer to be the person that people are talking about. I think that’s because I haven’t had that much experience doing that. I just have played more roles supporting other things or other people, and so this was an opportunity for me to play someone who upon whom the focused was placed, and I really enjoyed that.
I enjoyed that the fans really dug Whiterose, and I really liked things leading up to her. You know, there was an anticipation of her [appearance]. We didn’t know at all that she would be a “her” before she came on and all that stuff, and that made it really fun for me. I enjoyed it immensely!
What’s most important to me is variety. It’s not necessarily whether the focus is on you or not, it’s that you’re not just always doing the same thing. Playing this character was most interesting to me because it was somewhat new to me, actually.
If I only played characters like this I’d probably be bored of it really quickly, but I think it’s partly because there was something new about it that I really liked it.
Was it stressful trying to make the same impact in two scenes for Whiterose, as opposed to the room you had through your story arc in Gotham?
It’s great when you can relax into a scene and play the scene properly without having to worry about making a mistake, or making the wrong choices because you have the luxury of the length of the scene.
What came about as a result of Whiterose’s material was a real pressure that comes from having to get every moment right - the beat of it absolutely right - and not being able to afford any moment where the audience loses interest in you.
With Gotham, I maybe did 40 scenes and out of nine episodes. Out of all of those 40 there are a lot that I really like, but there are some that I don’t like as much. That happens, but it’s a little bit of a luxury to be able to say “Oh, that’s ok because the overall impact of the character is what I wanted to make”.
With Whiterose there is no wiggle room at all. You not only try to nail your performance, but you also have to hope that the director and the editor are on your side, that they are looking at it the way that you are, and that they’re not doing something that you’re not trying to do and vice versa. That is the kind of pressure that is really stressful.
She is a highly technical kind of part. In the female identity scenes, there are always all these distracting things to deal with like the props, false fingernails, and hair. However, it’s a super fun job. I couldn’t love this job more! I couldn’t love this show more.
One thing good about not being told everything that happens on this show when being on in a guest star capacity is that I can actually watch the show as a fan, appreciate it and fall in love with it like the regular fans do.
That was certainly my experience in season one. I was just in these two scenes and I saw none of the other material. Then, I saw the show and I was really so proud to be on it because I just thought it was one of the best shows that I’ve seen in years.
How prepped were you for your first scene?
I came in completely in the dark. I had a guy come to my dressing room before I shot the scene who tried to talk me through the season. I did not understand half of what he was saying. It was too complicated with all of these relationships and stuff like that.
When I walked onto the set I felt like I didn’t know what I was actually saying half of the time. And you have to understand that I work really hard, most actors work really hard, to really know inside and out where the characters are coming from.
I was really a substantial percentage less informed in the first scene in Mr. Robot, and I felt very frustrated by it and didn't like it at all. And then the second scene we did, which was the big season finale scene at the end of the season, I got more out of Sam, but I didn’t really get much more out of him.
As the show’s creator and mastermind, Sam’s prerogative is to keep things close to the vest. For some of the actors, I think there is a price to be paid for that, particularly for the guest star actors who are not deeply entrenched in the ongoing evolution of the series regulars.
It’s really interesting to be in [my] position because I have a great deal of trust in Sam, because his credibility is so high for me that I often want to say, “You know what, I totally trust you. I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know what this really means, but I’m just going with what you’re saying. I’m going to just go with it and I know that you’ll tell me if what I’m doing isn’t true to what you actually want.”
I have so much respect for him. It doesn’t compare to any other show creator that I’ve ever worked with before, really.
Are you kept in the dark about the other events that happen with the other characters that don’t involve Whiterose?
(laughing) How can I say this without getting fired? No, I can be completely candid about this, I’m joking really.
What I really want to say is that Sam would love for nobody to know what is going on. And we understand that. As the keeper of the story, he holds very tight to details that may not play out until season three or four or five. He has a lot of things probably mapped out in his head and he’s not going to tell you everything.
Let’s make sure you keep your job with this next question. Your two Season One scenes take place with characters in directly opposing camps, making you a fulcrum character placed in center of things. Do you see that dynamic carrying over to Season Two for Whiterose?
Here’s what Sam says about the character. First of all, he was really complimentary to me about being on the show, and when everyone asked if I was coming back, he unhesitatingly said I would be on the second season.
And in regards to Whiterose, he said, “I want to be careful about how much to expose this character.” Meaning, he felt the character is most effective in smaller doses. I agree with him. Sam’s kind of adhered to that. The character does retain mystery that she has in the first season, I think, even though there is a little more stuff getting fleshed out.
Given the recent spotlight that’s been placed on transgendered people and rights, do you feel an even greater pressure playing Whiterose today than you might have five years ago or when you were in M. Butterfly? Do you feel a representational pressure or do you just see this as a role and who she happens to be?
I feel both tremendous pressure and tremendous guilt, actually, because I really feel in a perfect world that a trans-actor would play this part.
I think there are some extenuating circumstances, because Whiterose interfaces in a man’s world as a man, and so there needed to be that taken into consideration. Be that as it may, the way that I see it in some ways is that as a member of multiple minority groups, one of them being the fact that I’m Asian-American, I felt kind of like I cashed in a chip.
As an Asian-American, I don’t have a disposable amount of opportunities. I really felt like I could not afford to turn down this job on a moral principal. I don’t feel good about that. I don’t like that that’s my reality. And so I would like to take the opportunity to say that in a perfect world that a trans-actor should play this part.
As people are with Asian people, Asian actors, and Asian characters, it’s real easy, comfortable, and attractive to non-Asian people to put on their Asian-ness, to play Asian characters, and immerse themselves in Asian stories.
I think people feel that way about trans-characters, [that] there’s an exoticness to them that makes us all want to – and a fascination with them – that makes us all want to wear them like a costume. It’s not a very healthy or progressive or enlightened state of artistic being.
I’m looking for an opportunity, some day, for this playing field to be more evened out. So that people can understand even better what it means to be trans, even better, when a transperson illuminates a trans role, the way that I feel an Asian actor can illuminate an Asian role better than a non-Asian person.
I feel a real desire to be consistent in this philosophy, and I wasn’t able to do that when I took this job, but I also have, hopefully, in my future, opportunities to somehow pay that forward.