BD Knows Best

SCU’s 2021-22 Sinatra Artist-in-Residence on being grateful, getting your due, and dinosaurs.

Bd Wong At Scu
Bd Wong At Scu
Bd Wong At Scu

Is there any role BD Wong can’t inhabit? His debut on Broadway earned him a Tony. He was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of a trans hacker on Mr. Robot. He’s done drama, horror, goofball comedy, and edge-of-your-seat action. He’s written and directed musicals, so yeah, he sings. Oh, and by the way, he’s an activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights.

And, as Santa Clara University’s 2021-2022 Frank Sinatra Chair in the Performing Arts, he’s taken on another favorite role: educator.

As part of his residency this past winter quarter, Wong directed A Seat at the Table, a play written by SCU junior Vicky Pham ’23 that tackled some heavy themes such as anti-Asian American hate and performative “wokeness.”

“Having the opportunity to work with BD was an immense privilege,” says Pham. “Because many of the topics in the play are often uncomfortable to talk about, I was so impressed whenever BD was able to recognize that discomfort and encourage the actors to channel that feeling into their performance. I think his ability to do this truly speaks to his empathy and expertise.”

Santa Clara Magazine sat down with Wong to discuss the idea of being grateful for having a seat at that table while acknowledging that everyone deserves a chair.

(The following has been edited for clarity.)

Bd Wong At Scu
Bd Wong At Scu
Bd Wong At Scu

Santa Clara Magazine: How has your experience been working with young people at SCU? Your first time here in the fall, you called it “simultaneously stimulating and exhausting.”

BD Wong: It’s been a 100% fantastic experience. I really have interfaced a lot more, and more intimately, with students. I get to be a public speaker and transition to attending classes or speaking to classes, and then it became about teaching, and then it became a combination of all the things. And this residency allows me to explore all of those things—that’s the identity of this residency actually—which is quite wonderful for somebody like me that enjoys doing it all.

But it’s not for the faint of heart! It’s really very intense… actually this time I wouldn’t say “exhausting” since we’ve adjusted the rhythm to be tailored to my sensibility. Like, this time I’m performing with students and working with them in a theatrical context and directing them. And that’s a big part of the enjoyment for me, is getting into the educational process.

SCM: As the Sinatra Chair, you get to visit all these different departments and classes, which is an opportunity to think about and explore all the different facets of yourself. Have you come to any realizations, surprises?

Wong: I feel like every day is a kind of learning experience for me, or an opening. I think as I go along in life, as we all go along in life, we figure out what we actually like and what we actually know and sometimes it’s surprising that it takes us so long to figure out who we are.

To correspond this to something that’s kind of personal, I’m writing a lot more now. I’m working on a musical that will have its first production in August in Maine, based on the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. It’s about this man’s struggle with his relationship to teaching [when he thought he’d be a famous composer]. And throughout the movie and in the musical, he comes to understand how valuable teaching is, what it means to him, and how good he is at it. And I’m not sure about the “how good he is at it” part, but I do relate to the growing understanding that teaching, or mentoring, or interacting with younger people who are just starting out in something that you’ve already spent a few years in, is important.

It’s been very emotional actually because I’ve had some great teachers, and their influence has stayed with me. I consciously make an effort to draw from it…In situations I’ll think, now wait, I’ve learned something about this, how did I learn it and what did it make me think about? What crossroads did it take me to? And so this experience has absolutely made me think about the teacher in me, and I love that part of my identity.

SCM: What has it been like as a performer learning new ways to collaborate with others to create art over these past few years?

Wong: I have nothing good to say about the pandemic except that this is what happens in life: Challenging circumstances bring about great creativity and show you things that you didn’t expect to be shown. For example, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a young Asian American, brand new playwright at Santa Clara who wrote a beautiful play [A Seat at the Table by Vicky Pham ’23] in response to the violence against Asian Americans in this country. It’s this really fantastical scenario where a character goes to heaven and because it was presented as a reading [virtually over Zoom], it was kind of like a radio play where the playwright can do or say anything they want. Like, she has a stage direction for a dinner table that goes on forever—something you clearly could never do on the stage but on Zoom, you’re able to evoke for the audience absolutely anything. That’s an example, to me, of how people make lemonade out of lemons, and how it’s kind of remarkable that the human ability to pivot serves creators quite well.

SCM: A Seat at the Table characterizes performative activism and allyship—literally, in the form of two characters who pretend to be friendlier with a victim than they actually were, and post about it on social media.

Wong: I absolutely subscribe to and agree with [the playwright’s] cynicism. People adopt hashtags and very dramatic presentations of virtue signaling in order to bond with other people, or to influence them. Or just to feel like they’re part of something bigger. And that’s not the reason why you should do it—to feel like you’re part of something—but your heart can be in the right place. So it’s a very interesting thing to analyze, and I think the playwright’s done great by introducing that as a concept. That’s what good writers do, is take things that enrage them and position them so the audience can think about them and talk about them, and ask questions.

SCM: You’ve been asked often about diversity, or lack thereof, in Hollywood, specifically regarding the pigeonholing of Asian Americans—or LGBTQ or any other person from marginalized communities—into certain rigid character tropes. You were on a podcast recently where you discussed the idea that you should be “grateful” or otherwise indebted just to be given a seat at the table (no pun intended). And in that way, “grateful” becomes an ugly word.

Wong: Culturally, there is a sense of wanting to be grateful for whatever it is that you’ve got, that is good in your life. And I do agree with that concept, you know, generally speaking. But what I’ve realized, is self-generating your own material and making a voice for yourself, and then forcing yourself to find a way to have that voice be heard, is essential. Bowen [Yang, who hosts the podcast in question, Las Culturistas, and works with BD in the TV show Nora from Queens] is the perfect example of this. His point of view is very specific and he doesn’t pander to anybody else’s idea of what he should be, which is really hard to do when you’re trying to be accepted. I have spent my whole career trying to fit in. I’ve never done what he’s doing, I never dreamed of it… To make it today, requires a fair amount of strong individual identity.

SCM: And it’s also about the balance of being thankful for opportunities and success while also acknowledging the hard work and talent that got you here.

Wong: Just to bring it around to the [Sinatra] residency, maybe why it’s such a great thing for me is because I have real tools to share and they’re really applicable here. And I don’t have to compete with anybody else from a racial or LGBTQ perspective. I’m not in competition with anyone, it’s just me and as a result it’s a pure equation of doing what needs to be done. Unfortunately, in the media, in TV and film, it’s fraught with layers and layers and decades and decades of accommodations and compromises.

SCM: Before I let you go, it’s become a bit of a long running joke that your character in the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World franchise—the guy who invents the science that creates the monsters—somehow never dies. But now that final chapter is upon us, can we expect an equally epic ending for Dr. Henry Wu?

Wong: I can’t tell you! Really, I can’t—I signed a contract. So I’m actually not even being coy about it. But I will tell you when I was first cast in Jurassic Park more than 23 years ago, I was very bitter and resentful that the Asian guy doesn’t get his due—I’ve said this before in lots of interviews that his spectacular death that occurs in the novel, I was robbed of that experience as an actor… Fast forward to now, though, in Jurassic World Dominion, I think you’ll be happy with how it ends. I’m so grateful—there’s that word again—and I’m really happy with it.

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