In addition to playing the world-straddling leader Kublai Khan in Netflix’s big, expensive period action series, Marco Polo, Benedict Wong has carved out a niche in quality UK sci-fi films. He followed Danny Boyle’s Sunshine with Duncan Jones’ Moon, worked twice with Ridley Scott in The Martian and Prometheus, and recently came aboard Alex Garland’s next picture, Annihilation. Before that comes to cinemas, he’ll be seen alongside the UK’s other acting Benedict in Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
Many, of course, will fondly remember Wong as Errol, the optimistic innocent to Sean Lock’s cynical misanthropist Vince in cult BBC comedy series 15 Storeys High, or even for a one-time appearance in The IT Crowd.
We chatted to him about playing the would-be CEO of the world in Marco Polo, working with Ridley Scott, and his plans to write a feature film from the rarely-heard British-Chinese perspective…
Your Marco Polo character wants to be the emperor of the world. How do you get inside the mind of an ego that size?
You just sort of follow his actions. He’s continuing the legacy of his grandfather Ghengis Khan to receive the message from the sky god Tengri to unite everything under the blue sky and that’s what drives him really to expansion. But through that though, he’s sort of breaking off from his old traditions of Mongolia and becoming this global CEO of the world, much to the dismay of the traditionalists who feel that he’s breaking away.
He often seems right on the edge of his temper, as if he’s always this close to smashing someone’s head in with a club. How do you get yourself worked up to that level of fierceness?
[Laughs] You just place yourself within this thing where no-one can do a better job than you and you’re having to make sure that everybody is doing their job but yet in your eyes it’s like, ‘No, that’s not good enough’. He never takes no for an answer.
How do you get into the mind of feeling like that? I’m an actor, that’s my job. Obviously you try different tricks, using things from your own life and putting them into those circumstances and that’s the joy of playing the part. You just do different things in different scenes.
His physicality, the costumes, the armour, the throne must all play a part in creating a man who sees himself in mythic terms?
Yeah. I mean, it does most of the work, doesn’t it? You’re sat in a position of power and you’re at the top of the table.
The costumes, designed by Tim Yip and Jo Korer, are stunning. The whole design gives everything this real opulence. It’s just on such an epic level, when you’re playing this character, everything else surrounding him dictates his power – the throne, the people bowing, his huge palace, the guards, everything. The fear in the villagers, the people who are in accordance with him, he’s at the top of the one per cent.
How practical are the costumes? Especially when you’re working on horseback and in say, the sword fight with his brother at the end of episode two. I mean, the Lord Of The Rings guys are still complaining about how uncomfortable it was to run up mountains in all that gear, but compared to Kublai Khan’s get-up, that looked like a walk in the park.
God, I mean, it was gruelling out there in Kazakhstan. That fight scene was a hot day with very heavy armour on a horse that didn’t expect that amount of weight – it was almost like a live version of Buckaroo! And then having to fight, it was a really gruelling day.
But the location just looked fantastic, we drove five and a half hours from Almaty Airport to the flatlands and hills, and it was just an incredible backdrop to have a battle. We did a lot of training and fighting with [Stunt Coordinator] Brett Chan.
Will we see some more action from your character in season two? Is he getting off that throne?
We’ll have to see. In season two the fighting looks incredible. Hundred Eyes is a fantastic role and we get to see Tom Wu’s amazing martial arts skills. Also Michelle Yeoh is joining us, so it’s going to be a very interesting season. I think people will be pleased with it.
Where does season two find your character?
The story moves on now where Kublai, having taken down the wall, is slowly finding out it’s a battle as I said, with the traditionalists who are not pleased with his modernisation. Moving forward, it’s all about those reactions really and potentially holding elections for a new Khan. You see his power slipping away from him and it’s about who he can trust, who are his allies, that’s going to make a very interesting season.
He’ll be playing more chess then?
When he’s playing chess he’s always strategizing. He’s playing chess but he’s probably thinking about other things as well.
At the risk of sounding prurient, can you tell us about filming a scene like the orgy in season one, episode six. That must present specific challenges as an actor. You’re naked, there’s someone on top of you, there are nude women parading around the bed…
It’s very nerve-wracking, isn’t it? It’s not a usual scene to be involved in. I kind of think it’s a bit of a dance, trying to get everyone in the right positions.
What I liked about that scene was that there was a real storytelling angle in there, it’s not about everyone being naked really, there was a really good angle about telling the story. It was a very nervous day though, with everyone being naked. I tried to convince the crew to join us in solidarity but they didn’t really get the memo!
Marco Polo has some fantastic martial arts scenes, as you say, but that’s not something your character takes part in. A character like Wong in Doctor Strange though, is a martial artist, so that must have required a physical transformation between roles?
There isn’t any martial arts for Wong in Doctor Strange actually, he’s more of a drill sergeant to the Kamar-Taj, so he’s one of the masters of sorcery.
Do you now have a Marvel contract for a hundred movies?
[Laughs.] I don’t really know about that! That would be nice. No, we’ll start off with the first one. I’m just happy nearly completing Doctor Strange. I’m very excited to see what happens.
Playing Wong the character, I’m certainly not going to be the tea-making manservant, we’re heading in a different direction. He’s more of a drill-sergeant.
Are you a fan of the Kung-Fu and martial arts genre in general?
Yeah, I’ve always watched Bruce Lee films like Enter The Dragon. I remember getting my mum to drive me to watch a Jackie Chan film when I was like eleven and trying to tell them I was fifteen. I’m a fan of the martial arts genre but of many different genres as well.
Science-fiction, for instance. There’s a really strong thread of UK sci-fi in the films you’ve made with Sunshine, Moon, Prometheus and The Martian. Is that by design?
No, it’s just I seem to have been working a lot in space really!
It’s an honour to be involved in telling great stories and it just so happens a lot of those are sci-fi stories. I love working with wonderful auteurs like Danny [Boyle] and of course Ridley [Scott]. I’ve been working with Alex Garland on Annihilation as well and I’m very lucky to be involved.
Have you been approached for those roles or did you go through the usual audition process?
Yeah, you do the usual thing, you audition. I remember for Ridley with Prometheus, everybody was queuing for an hour and forty minutes or so, you go through all the usual audition process. And God, what’s an hour and forty minutes when you get to work with someone as good as Ridley?
Can you give us on this side of the screen a flavour of what it’s like, say, to walk onto a Ridley Scott set, especially when he’s making a sci-fi?
Again, you’re surrounded by amazing people, it’s kind of this fantastic machine when you come on set. I walked into the studios and they’d built this huge spaceship that you walk on with hydraulics underneath. We were doing a ten-minute scene, just playing one long scene and it was a real joy to be a part of.
Ridley Scott is known to be very communicative with his actors but to keep things moving and at a good pace, not to over-elaborate…
Yeah. It was great to be reunited with him in The Martian and also working on Prometheus. He shoots at quite a pace with multi-cameras, he allows you to try different things and if he likes it he uses it, if he doesn’t it’s on the pixellated cutting room floor.
I’m a massive fan of Blade Runner, and watching that on Imax was incredible. Ridley’s a fantastic visual director, he starts off storyboarding and you see all the beautiful storyboards that he draws… he’s seeing it all before he’s shooting it.
Finally, can we talk about your work in another genre – comedy? Whenever I go to a budget supermarket, I always keep an eye out for a can of Blue Rat.
How do you feel about 15 Storeys High now, looking back?
It was great. How long was it, about 15 years ago now? I loved being challenged and finding that sort of great material. It was great working with Sean Lock and the way it was shot… I’m really proud to have been a part of that. In any genre, that’s what you do, try and find the good stories be it comedy or something else.
Talking about cult comedy like 15 Storeys High, which is really fondly thought of by its fans, you were also in just one episode of The IT Crowd but it’s among a lot of people’s favourite episodes. What are your memories of that job?
We had a lot of fun with Prime. It was good to work on. Graham [Linehan] was saying ‘you never want to come on and do anything’ and I said ‘well, write us a part and I’ll do it’.
Are you good at Countdown? Can you get the conundrums?
Only every now and then! If I shake my head from side to side, I can get them.
It says on IMDb that your second ever role was in Last Of The Summer Wine.
[Laughs] I think so, yeah. I don’t know about the second one, but that was with Blakey from On The Buses!
Was it easy to find TV jobs when you were an up-and-coming actor?
It was difficult starting out. You sometimes found you were hitting a bit of a glass ceiling with people’s perceptions of who you are and what characters you could play. I ended up playing a lot of East Asian parts yet not playing anyone from Salford. When you’d get those opportunities, like 15 Storeys, you had to grab them.
You’ve talked in the past about being quite dispirited with the lack of variety in the roles available to you that you almost quit acting altogether?
Yeah. I did. When I was a young actor in Manchester I somehow couldn’t get employed in Manchester, despite being from Salford. No-one could really explain it to me why my peers were happily getting auditions and it just wasn’t there. It was these little disheartening moments where you think, oh right, this town’s not for me.
Is it still your aim to write your own series?
I’m probably looking more into jotting things down potentially to write a film. It’s about creating work and finding a voice that I don’t really see.
What is that voice?
I want to write about the British-Chinese experience. We’ll see what happens. It’s early stages. That’s a little mini passion project whilst busying myself with everything else.
Benedict Wong, thank you very much!
Marco Polo season 2 arrives on Netflix on Friday the 1st of July.