Benedict Wong quietly — very quietly — steals a chunk of “Doctor Strange.” He plays Wong, a stern, stone-faced, intimidating guardian of the library of mystic books housed in Kamar-Taj, the headquarters for the film’s legion of goodly sorcerers. Wong was in the original Marvel comics, launched in 1963 and concerning an American neurosurgeon (played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch) who becomes a powerful magician. However, Wong was originally more of an Asian stereotype: basically a manservant whose most requested task involved making tea.
That had to be done away with for the splashy new movie. And so Wong — an English character actor whose CV includes “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Prometheus” and Kublai Khan on Netflix’s “Marco Polo” — wound up embodying a character with the same name but a very different function. For one thing, he makes for fine comic relief when paired with the more emotional Cumberbatch.
Wong, 45, talks to us about updating his character and mixing drama, blockbusters and comedy.
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Are you a comics person?
No. I grew up on adventure books. I read some Marvel comics. I didn’t see many Asian superheroes. I remember last year having lunch with Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and he was telling me he was doing “Doctor Strange.” I checked it out on the Internet, and there was a character named Wong. I thought, ‘I should do this, just for the ancestors. I should be playing this part by birthright.’
Wong became a very different character from the original comics, for obvious reasons. In the movie he’s more like a drill sergeant.
I guess it was a very different time then. When I was reading the source material, that element popped up and sort of irked me. During preparation, I would have chats with [Marvel film producer] Kevin Feige and Scott [Derrickson, director], and they were all on the same page: this needs to be updated. Hopefully people find it refreshing that we’ve got this character who stands alongside Strange, this cheese-and-chalk couple that come and go. It’s definitely the better version of him.
You can’t let those kinds of stereotypes fly now. We’ve been seeing more Asian characters on screens that are three-dimensional characters and not defined solely by their generic ethnicity.
And we’ve got to keep on going, breaking out of those boxes. Everyone’s being stereotyped, and I think audiences deserve to be educated so that we add a little color to the world. We just want to be playing positive roles. I’m in a very fortunate position. I also feel that many East Asian actors deserve a crack at the whip as well. Any actor of color asked by any journalist about diversity knows this is an ongoing conversation. Those questions also need to be asked for the gatekeepers: producers, casting directors. They need to be asked, “How can we solve this?” There’s a real frustration that’s happening.
Part of the discussion of diversity, I’d argue, is not only to give everyone work, but so that we simply have a diversity of material — that we’re not always seeing the same things, the same faces all the time.
It’s always good to move away from the formulaic. As an actor, that’s what you’re looking for in stories: something that hasn’t been done before. That’s where you’ll mine the gems. Other than that, it’s just dancing the same sort of rhythm.
You have a very diverse résumé. You’ve done big budget films as well as small ones, theater and TV, drama and comedy. You’re great, for instance, on an old episode of “Look Around You,” where you play a scientist who created a robotic doctor named “Medibot.”
[Laughs] Yeah, the medical episode. I like to mix it up in terms of genres. It’s difficult sometimes for actors, because you’re trying to pay the bills as well. I’ve been very fortunate. I feel very blessed.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge