Tony Award-winning actor BD Wong shared his experiences as both an Asian American and gay man for Elon University’s speaker series on Jan. 11. Wong served as the Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative address speaker.
Wong discussed growing up feeling trapped within his identities, as specifically within the television and film industry, he mostly saw people who looked the same as each other, yet who did not look like him. Despite this lack of representation in the beginning of his career, he was moved to tears when speaking about his optimism for the future of the film industry and the future in general.
“If I was in your position and some old person was up on the stage and said, can you give me advice? They would have some crazy, somewhat discouraging thing to say. You know, somehow rise above them, be inspiring or whatever,” Wong said. “And I'm saying no, it's actually a pretty good time and it's a good time because of individualism.”
Wong said in the beginning of his career he tried to make himself as American as possible and didn’t feel connected to his other identities. He was only able to feel connected to this part of himself later, after his breakout role in M. Butterfly, where for the first time when he looked over a script he saw an Asian character listed on the first page.
Before his speech, Wong recalled his early experiences as an actor and how crucial nontraditional casting has been for him in an interview with Elon News Network reporter Caitlin Rundle. For the full interview, tune in to the Elon News Network broadcast on Jan. 17 at 6 p.m.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I’d love to first start talking about a drama teacher that you talked about being “colorblind.” I would love to just know that at a time of such critical development at your young age, how important was it to have a person like that in your life influencing you at that point?
“I was lucky because here I am an actor now, and the direct path to becoming an actor is because of this teacher that I had. She was extremely aggressive with me about my potential and about not being lazy about it and about exploring it and trying to cultivate it. I give her a lot of credit for establishing a sense of confidence that I wouldn't normally have had, and I know this because later on I went into another educational environment in college and I didn't experience that; all of a sudden, I became a much different person. I felt invisible and I felt undervalued.
I really value her care and technique as a teacher in drawing me out, and part of that was giving me opportunities in an educational context. She had students, I was not the only one who had lots of potential and she tried to give them experiences that felt right for them, challenged them, drew them out, helped them work on things that they needed to work on or could benefit from working on. That's the magic of teaching to me, and one of those things was giving me opportunities that might not have been afforded to me, and that is the playing of roles regardless of my race. My race has always played a huge role in my own opportunities and what's available to me, what's not available to me. It’s a constant reminder in a business that I work in and that I love, that there are limitations racially in some people's eyes, and she didn't have those limitations she gave me parts that were more neutral racially and should be more neutral and should be thought it was more neutral.
I played the Music Man, nobody cares what race the Music Man is really and so that's an example of what I'm talking about. She gave me those opportunities and I blossomed from them. I found myself as a performer and as a young aspiring actor in those experiences. And so to me, that speaks to the value of thinking outside of the box when it comes to casting and, and particularly in regards to an in an educational context.”
Can you go a little more in depth with what this idea of non-traditional casting means to you?
“Yes, they're all very intimidating terms. Traditional casting is very narrow minded casting. Non-traditional casting is anything that takes you outside of that narrow box. That includes how abled people are, it has to do with their race, it has to do with their gender, it has to do with all kinds of things, and then opening those opportunities for other people particularly in the business of the entertainment industry, in the community theater, it's one thing, but then in the business where you're talking about opportunities and gainful employment and making a living, you want to try to make the playing field as equitable as possible. Because a lot of the traditional thought has been very majority driven, and those majority faces have filled our television screens and our movie screens from very early on in the business, it has taken a lot to push through and allow people to see that it doesn't always have to be the same.”
You're the first Asian American to win a Tony Award for a featured actor. After looking back on that now, what do you think of the importance of not only that role, but more than that what has it meant for the theatrical and educating the community as a whole?
“I think about this every once in a while and the things that are going on in the world make you think different things. Sometimes you're very cynical, sometimes you're not, and you're very positive about things, generally that experience is a very positive experience for me, particularly in light of the fact that it was my debut. The moment of M Butterfly in the timeline of the theater was that the playwright himself David Bohm was also the first Asian American playwright to ever win or ever be nominated for a Tony award. There was a sense of groundbreaking that was happening. And I guess since that time, I always celebrate, and I really am very proud of my involvement. I've also grown rather cynical about the long lastingness of those kinds of events. I've lived long enough now to see the ups and downs of race in our business.
I had a tendency to think that when something groundbreaking happened, something was fixed. That was a very naive way to look at things. Everything is a bump or a blip or a moment that contributes in great ways or in varying degrees of greatness, with the landscape of whatever we're doing. I have more of a context now of what that was. I am a young guy in this thing and I think I've changed the world or something like that, but really opportunities for either of us in a mainstream way, it's still convincing that needs to happen to make the channel completely open.
I think now with some of the work that I've been able to do in recent years, there are younger people in the business and younger stars and there is more of a sense of the channels being open. I feel that there are actually really positive things to be said about it at the time. I recontextualized exactly what was earth shattering about that moment. It certainly was a big thing for me and my own personal life.”
How important do you think that concept is of just being seen and being able to give opportunities to people who maybe have not had these breaks yet that you have been able to have?
“Thank you for bringing this up, because this is the cycle of our inability to get out of our own bad habits that crosses way outside of the entertainment industry. The reason why they're hard to break is because people don't give an opportunity so that the opportunity can beget another opportunity.
The door is so closed that what little is able to pass through never is able to beget more and I think many of us have seen and felt and believed very strongly advocate for as actors. And it's rarely been proven to me, in my own experience as a teacher and as a person in the industry, that younger people need the experience so that they can actually get better so that they can compete. There was a time in the world when you would say well, why don't you have more Asian people in your show? And they'll say, well, there really aren't any or they're not good enough. Those two things are very dangerous ideas, there are plenty and many of them are young enough to just need experience to be able to compete in a very competitive business.
A lot of successful actors will tell you that their real training is by doing what they're doing. Those opportunities become absolutely essential in their being able to be good, better and then best.”
In your experience, how do we start to kind of break that mindset? Are you seeing trends in the industry right now? Are there steps being made to kind of reach out to people that you're talking about?
“There are lots of steps being taken. There are a lot of things that I see now that I didn't see when I was younger. First of all, something needs to be embraced for it to happen or for other people to make it happen. You just have to understand the concept of how experience begets more experience and experience. I see now, gay sensibility from the audience, that there's an acceptance of Asian people. For example, I'm Asian, so I talk about Asian people, right? So we're talking about all different colors of people, but because I'm Asian, I perceive more Asian people on television in a way that is very encouraging to me, because there was a time when I thought, oh, there's an Asian person on television, you'd call everyone in the house to come look at them because they were so rare.
Now there is much more variety of the kinds of Asian characters that you see in television. There was a time when Asian people could not be in a television commercial if it was perceived by the people selling the product that white people were buying our products, so therefore you can put an Asian person selling that product because they would buy it from an Asian person. Now there's much more of a sense of what an American family looks like and it's many different permutations. It's really fascinating to me, watching that evolution because it's always one step forward, three steps back, but seeing things that I never saw before when I was a young person is very encouraging.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your address, what you hope students take away from it?
“A lot of these remarks come very spontaneously to me with a kind of structure and so I’m even just at this moment, thinking about some of it. This is a position at Elon that is inspired by Martin Luther King Day, so there have been a variety of different people who have spoken on this day and I'm one of them and now I'm looking at it in context of my own life and my own understanding of how I fit into MLK Day.
There was a time in my life where I thought I was completely outside the argument or the discussion of civil rights, like that was for white people and black people, and that I wasn't involved in that. And now this discussion of racial equality becomes more complex and more varied and more nuanced. You understand how the racism of one race of people affects and is a part of someone else's, you don't compartmentalize it anymore, you realize we're all part of it. There is no such thing really as white and black, as the only major component to it, we all kind of have our own weird role in it. They’re all very interesting and they may take a lot of deep discussion to kind of unearth.
I'm prouder or happier of the fact that I can participate in this discussion now. I bring to my experience as a person in an industry which highlights racism in a very weird way, like you can have discussions about racism at large when you start with a conversation about racism in entertainment, because I think people can relate to it and understand what I'm talking about. It’s not even on a life threatening kind of scale, it's just racism, and less dramatic and less traumatic, but helpful for the discussion. That’s where I'm coming from as an example of a person in a certain industry, who is neither white nor black, and who experiences racism in a daily way nethertheless.”