How 'Doctor Strange' star Benedict Wong is still smashing Hollywood traditions

British actor returns as the lovable sorcerer in the Marvel superhero franchise

Benedict Wong at the premiere of 'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' in Los Angeles. AP
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It’s been a long road for Benedict Wong from the community theatre scene of the early '90s in the Manchester suburb of Salford, to working with some of the biggest directors in Hollywood, including the likes of Stephen Frears, the Russo Brothers and Ridley Scott.

This weekend, Wong returns to screens as a part of the Marvel Universe, reprising his role as Wong in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Yet, despite a CV that already contains a who's who of Hollywood royalty, he can’t hide his excitement at working with the horror film giant that is Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi.

“I think it's a masterstroke that we've got Sam, who is a legend in the horror genre, but also one of the original gurus of the Marvel Universe with his Spider-Man trilogy,” Wong tells The National. “I was on a conference call with him when we first started — talk about meeting your heroes — I didn't even have the script yet, but I had Sam Raimi on the line describing the story to me, telling me I was about to become a sorcerer with a super brain.

"It’s like a huge Christmas present, just giddy excitement. And, you know, he’s perfect to helm.”

Wong is under no illusions about the momentous journey he’s undertaken. His first professional acting job came in a 1993 BBC radio play, Kai Mei Sauce, predictably set in a Chinese restaurant, and Wong came into the industry at a time when roles for Asian actors were, to put it mildly, limited.

“It's been a 30-year success,” he says. “There’s been a lot of battling how the business compartmentalises you as a waiter or a gangster. But you keep doing the jobs you have to do. You don’t necessarily want to do them, but you have to earn money and work on yourself. It's a tough climb.”

Insanely likeable and upbeat, Wong insists that he never let the stereotyping beat him, and even finds positives in some of the challenges he faced early on.

“Those are the experiences, but when a lot of that is pain, you can draw from those pains, and just let it all burst out on the screen. So in a strange way, I'm really grateful for those experiences," he says.

Thankfully, things have improved in Hollywood, and indeed in British cinema, as diversity has become the watchword in recent years. The 2018 comedy Crazy Rich Asians is widely cited as the first Hollywood movie to give real lead roles to Asian actors. However, Marvel has been no slouch in this respect, with both Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals giving Asian audiences superheroes to call their own.

It’s no surprise that in Marvel’s latest film, Wong won’t be playing the loveable Asian sidekick of Doctor Strange, and he definitely won’t be a waiter serving up tea to the mystical inhabitants of Kamar-Taj.

“Even when we first started with Doctor Strange, we wanted to do away with this servile character,” Wong explains. “I mean, I’m a huge nerd and a big fan of the comics, but times change, so we created this kind of no-nonsense, midfield-general librarian. Now the character has progressed even further through the films, and he’s the Sorcerer Supreme, standing toe-to-toe with Doctor Strange. It's fabulous.”

Wong is rightly delighted at the progress that has been made with the representation of minority groups in Hollywood, but there’s one further barrier he hopes to see broken down; and it’s one that so far hasn’t received anything like the sort of global attention attracted by movements such as Oscars So White and Times Up.

As a working-class Manchester boy trying to break into a British industry dominated by the chisel-jawed products of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Wong was hampered not only by his Asian heritage, but also by his Northern roots. It may sound trivial, but it’s clearly an issue that Wong feels strongly about.

“I didn't go to drama school, I finished the performing arts course at Salford College, and then I joined a co-operative, where actors represented each other and learnt about the business. I just tried out in the field, and if I grazed my knees, I'd get back up,” he recalls.

“But the real heartbreak was that I couldn't get employed in Manchester. It genuinely broke my heart to have to leave Manchester, which I love, and go to London because there was no work for me in Manchester. That shouldn't be the case, and it has to change.”

Wong has already played a pivotal role in changing Hollywood attitudes towards Asian actors, so perhaps next time he’s on home turf we shouldn’t be surprised if the actor finds himself at the forefront of the next social media campaign — 'Baftas so Southern' has a nice ring to it.

Until then, he is back to saving the world alongside Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor, and he thinks that’s something we’ll all enjoy.

“I’m always ready to answer the phone when the MCU calls,” he says. “And this time around, you’re going to see everything that Wong’s been building towards in the previous films converge into something wonderful.”

It sounds, quite literally, magic.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in UAE cinemas from May 5

Updated: May 04, 2022, 9:06 AM