Doctor Strange: Benedict Wong on Updating the Character

Benedict Wong on breaking stereotypes, space-time continuums and more in Doctor Strange.

It’s safe to say that the character of Wong in the published comic book adventures of Doctor Strange was…let’s just say a product of his times. As first conceived in the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics, Wong was a manservant to the Sorcerer Supreme, a stereotypical Asian butler always ready with a pot of tea for his master. That’s exaggerating a bit, and Wong did eventually get a rich back history of his own, but the cliches have lingered in our cultural memory.

Flash forward to now and as Doctor Strange finally hits the big screen, the character of Wong has been heavily revised and updated. No longer a servant, he is the librarian of Kamar-Taj, charged with safeguarding the sacred volumes possessed by the Ancient One, and he’s also a formidable sorcerer in his own right. He’s also far from subservient to Strange, acting instead as a mentor and teacher to the arrogant yet eventually humbled surgeon.

Wong is played by British actor Benedict Wong, whose past credits include Dirty Pretty Things, Black Mirror, Prometheus, Moon, The Martian and more. When we spoke with Wong about his role in the film, he had not seen the finished version (the premiere was that night) but he had lots to say about Wong’s current incarnation, standing on set alongside the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch (Strange), Tida Swinton (the Ancient One) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), and his future with Marvel.

Den of Geek: So you haven’t seen it?

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Benedict Wong: No, so I’m looking forward to it.

When you watch the film yourself, is it easy or difficult for you to look at yourself on screen? Do you look at yourself and say, “Oh, I wish I’d done this differently,” or do you surprise yourself sometimes if something turned out the way you wanted it to?

You watch it and then you have to get used to seeing yourself. You’re kind of, “Uh, yeah, okay.” For me there are the moments. That’s all you do, is strive to get the moment really, play the moment, play the action, and in therein the moments happen. When you’re always watching it the first time, you’re always like…I kind of watch it just slightly crouched. I’m like, “Okay, okay, okay.” Again, you’re watching it and somehow in your brain, you reminisce or you have these memory time capsules that come and go, “Oh yeah, that was exactly when I was doing this, and that was happening at that time backstage,” so yeah, it’s fascinating to watch.

This was a character, Wong, who it’s safe to say was in need of a bit of an update from his original conception.

Absolutely.

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What are your thoughts on how they revised this character and made him much more of a 21st Century character, and not the manservant that he was first introduced as in the comics?

I’m so glad that we’ve put that to bed and left it in the ’60s. What we have done is we’ve created a Wong of our times. He’s a drill sergeant, there’s a real seriousness to him as he understands the severity of the multiverse, and what it takes to combat these dark forces. This librarian who’s not exactly your average librarian.

Overdue books are probably fined with broken fingers. This is a Wong we don’t mess around with. Within that, I think and I hope audiences find this refreshing, that we have a Wong that stands alongside Strange.

I’m really pleased with this whole production. This production really is about championing diversity. We have two strong female leads, Mads, Chiwetel, posh Benedict and not-so-posh Benedict. It has all the colors. I’m thrilled to be a part of this. Even when I was meeting Kevin and Scott in our consultation, I was saying, “Look, what about this?” They were fervently, absolutely saying, “We’re not doing that.” It was wonderful to hear.

When I was watching all these Marvel films, I was always looking and feeling crestfallen. Where were all the Asian superheroes? I was pretending in my mind that the Sub-Mariner was actually East Asian, because he looked East Asian. Somehow I was trying to look for a hero.

How did the part come to you?

Chiwetel, who’s a good friend of mine, we had lunch, I said, “What are you up to?” He was like, “Doing Doctor Strange.” Looking on the internet, I saw this picture of Strange, and then Wong on the side. I was like, “I can’t believe this.” It was almost like I was asking for this to happen, and it was like, “I have to simply get this by birthright and for the ancestors, they won’t live it down.”

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I was shooting Netflix’s Marco Polo. I was in Budapest, and I don’t have an agent at this moment, so they came to me. I went on tape in Budapest, and then in Slovakia, a few tweaks. By the time I was in Malaysia, the lovely Sarah Finn, the casting director, said “Congratulations, you’ve got the gig.” It was like, “Wow.” I had a mini-moment, and then I was dressed as Kublai Khan in armor, holding this secret, going, “I’m going to be in a Marvel movie. I can’t believe it,” while I was doing some beheadings. Yeah, it was a wonderful moment. I finished that gig, and then I flew back to London, dumped my bags. An hour later I was picked up by Marvel, in costume fittings, and pretty much the next day I was on set.

What’s it like, to walk on the Marvel set for the first time and be in that universe?

It doesn’t feel like any other — there’s a real special quality to that. I don’t know, my first take, I was in my own space-time continuum anyway, suffering from jet lag. They move mountains to allow schedules for me to be in this. I’m so grateful for that. I just remember Benedict making this elaborate spell, Chiwetel in the wings, and I’m suffering from jet lag. I’m running down stairs. We’re trying to chastise him about breaking the space-time continuum, I just couldn’t get any lines out. It was quite an interesting first day, but they sent me home, rested, back on again.

You just look around and you just look at the incredible production values that you’ve got. I’m a fan, but there are super-fans involved, that are making this. It’s so beautifully aligned. I’m blessed to be a part of it. I just think I’ve won some sort of competition. The 11-year-old kid in me that was collecting comic books was secretly investing in Marvel, and it’s returned back to me as an adult. It’s a wonderful feeling.

Who, when the cameras stop rolling, breaks out of character the quickest, and who stays in character the longest?

I’m the one that’s always trying to stay in character, because I’m holding on. Chiwetel and Benedict just slip in and out of it so easily. I’m like, “Okay, I’ve just got my serious game face on.” I watched the blooper reel, it’s hilarious. I can’t wait for people to see that. Even with the certain scenes that I wasn’t in with some of the other cast, it was so lovely to see everyone just having a laugh. It’s fun, this work is fun. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding.

The end of the movie says Doctor Strange will return. What about Wong?

I’m all ready to go. Wong’s definitely going to be in Avengers: Infinity War, so they’re requiring more Wong. You know that SNL scene, “I think this needs more cow bell”? They said, “I think this needs more Wong.” (laughs) So yeah, that’s happening in the Infinity Wars. It’s fantastic, we’re leading our audience into this multiverse. The possibilities are infinite. It’s a whole new broad canvas, and that’s exciting.

Doctor Strange comes out Friday (November 4).

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