Interview | Benedict Wong on the Mysteries of ‘Doctor Strange’
Benedict Wong co-stars as a guy named Wong, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch no less, in Doctor Strange, the latest superhero blockbuster from Marvel Studios. Apparently it was written in the stars. The British actor, who recently appeared in The Martian and co-stars on the Netflix series Marco Polo, plays a sorcerer in the film, but he’s also a librarian, a drill sergeant and a fan of Beyoncé.
It’s a role that Benedict Wong brings to life without much backstory, and so we sat down with the actor to learn more about where Wong came from, and whether he’s really been a fan of Beyoncé all along. Alas, I wish we had more concrete answers to offer you about all of these topics, but Benedict Wong is also man of mystery and he seems to believe in keeping that some of that mystery alive for the part he plays in Doctor Strange, as well.
Crave: Doctor Strange isn’t considered one of the more popular Marvel characters in history. Was he a character you were terribly familiar with before the movie came along?
Benedict Wong: I always remembered something… I was always collecting Spider-Man comics when I was a kid, when I was like 13, and when they had these crossovers I would see The Human Torch flying around, or the Fantastic Four. Yeah, you would see Doctor Strange there but I never knew who that guy actually was. I don’t know, dealing with the sort of hidden magic, I wasn’t quite ready for that. [Laughs.] Yeah, so definitely, coming across him now, I think it’s a great opportunity to be introduced to this. Especially Cumberbatch doing it.
Everyone likes The Batch.
There’s a recurring gag in the movie where he’s trying to make Wong laugh, and you never do. Was that something that happened on the set? Is Benedict Cumberbatch a funny guy or were you trying to be stone-faced the entire time?
Yeah, yeah, you know, you had your sort of inner smirk as an actor, but I think it plays quite well, the stoicism of Wong. There’s a real seriousness to him. I mean he’s the drill sergeant. If anything we’re tucking all ‘60s stereotypes in bed and leaving them there, you know? Because as an actor you just think, how can we make this more, as an update, something that feels relevant? Especially in terms of when we’re discussing with race as well, and the role models, and what that plays, you know?
You describe him as a drill sergeant but to me he seems like the quintessential librarian. Try making a librarian laugh and see how far it gets you.
Okay, yeah. Great!
Did you study library science to research this or were there different things you had to…?
No, I didn’t. I’m glad you saw that. He’s not your average librarian.
Unless I don’t know librarians…
Overdue books are fined with broken fingers, I think. So I think he does things in his own way.
You’re talking about putting many of the old clichés to bed and just making Wong a rich character is part of that. But he doesn’t get a lot of screen time. What are your thoughts on Wong? What do we not know about Wong? Where does Wong come from?
We don’t really know a great deal about him and I think there lies the opportunity for that to unfold. First we see that he is the drill sergeant, kind of training everybody. Maybe there’s a real serious to him because he understands the severity that lies ahead within this multiverse, whilst we’re obviously on this journey of the arrogant neurosurgeon losing his ability to heal, trying to find himself to regain this power, this control, when he really realizes he has to relinquish and all of a sudden finds this ability with this mystic powers. That clicks on, which is something that everybody finds and discovers.
Right, but drill sergeants I think sometimes get a bum rap because they have to do everything everyone else is doing, but they don’t get to have an attitude about it. They’ve been through it before. They’ve been through their own boot camp. Wong must have been through his own boot camp.
Did you think to yourself, where did Wong come from before he came here, and what demon is he personally fighting?
Well, I mean I think you probably have that lineage of previous, other Wongs that are training. There may have been that kind of distant training, of you are destined. Be prepared. There’s a real foundation from that probably, from his ancestors.
So Wong is part of a long line?
Yeah, I think he has that.
You’ve been in a lot of sci-fi movies before this…
I have, yeah. [Laughs.]
This is broad fantasy in many regards, even though it’s steeped in science. Is that coincidence or do you have a preference?
It is a coincidence. I don’t know how long, but I love the sci-fi genre. I love good sci-fi, you know. Intelligent sci-fi. That’s why I might [have] a sci-fi dowling stick that looks for, is this the one that I’d rather be in? It’s just happened that way, I think. I think roles on Earth for me were not right. So generally in space, and then now a little bit back down to Earth, yeah.
Down to Earth, but mind-expanding.
Yes. Oh yeah, in the movie we’re going even further, aren’t we?
What are your thoughts on the film’s complex mythology? I imagine a lot of people in the audience are going to get it, and a lot of people are going to be like, “Multiverses? Eh, you’re just doing magic. Say you’re doing magic and that will be enough for me.” But they go into a lot of detail.
What are your thoughts on that complexity? Do you think those nuts and bolts are important to the story, or do you think we’re getting into something more philosophical and broad?
I think so. I like the fact that Strange, in a way, is partly this journeyman [but] he’s also challenging what’s happening around him. Even at that point where he’s having the tea and he thinks he’s being drugged or he’s on some sort of [substance], he’s logically trying to find the logic in this. And then within this realm we’re saying there is no logic to this! [Laughs.] Don’t think too hard. I don’t know, by not wrestling with it, and wrestling with it, it allows us to let the audience move into this. The idea of magic is that you believe in magic, in some ways, and I think that’s what we’re trying to draw the audience to, I think.
The way magic works in Doctor Strange is very physical. Everyone is using their hands, they’re doing tai chi or some form of kata. Can you tell me about that process? How did they train you, and what did they tell you about how you were creating things with hand motions that would ultimately be created in CG?
Well, I did only a small amount, a little training with everyone by doing the katas and just watching the moves. I’ve done little bits of kung fu lessons when I was a kid, and I always understood the idea of chi energy. I think it’s really interesting how they’re incorporating that kind of element, of chi energy as well, and mixing that, melding this with this whole new world of sorcery as well. So yeah…
I feel like some actors are particularly physical in their craft. Would you say that’s you? Is that a very important part of how you particularly work, or do you come at it from a different angle?
Yeah, well, I mean when I first joined on Strange I wasn’t long straight off from the Marco Polo gig I just did, playing Kublai Khan. So in terms of physicality, changing my physicality, I’ve already put on my 40 lbs. for that role! [Laughs.]
Yeah, so obviously I’m contracted. It’s ongoing. But I mean, the idea of playing that man, it lends to that. So yeah, I think physicality is important. How you stand, yeah…
There was one lingering question I have about Wong. At one point in the film Doctor Strange jokes, or question whether or not Wong is familiar with Beyoncé.
Later in the film, we see that Wong is listening to Beyoncé.
Are we to interpret that Wong knew about Beyoncé the entire time, or was Wong introduced to Beyoncé by Doctor Strange?
Well, this is it, isn’t it? Well, let’s have a look. We’ll see in the sequel! [Laughs.]
Leave that a mystery?
Well, yes, this is all full of mysticism, and that too is one of the ongoing questions.
Top Photo: Mike Marsland/Mike Marsland/WireImage
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.