STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Tony Winner B.D. Wong

STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Tony Winner B.D. Wong This month we talk with B.D. Wong, a Tony winner for M. Butterfly, whose stage roles include Charlie Brown's friend Linus and Charles Busch's object of desire (in Shanghai Moon).
B. D. Wong
B. D. Wong (Photo by Sarah Silver)

On TV, he portrayed prison chaplain Father Ray Mukada for the six seasons of the HBO series "Oz," and appears regularly as psychiatrist Dr. George Huang on NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." The actor details his experiences as a parent in a unique new book called "Following Foo," which hits stores May 13.

***

B.D. Wong leads a busy life. He has "no complaints," but admits that, at times, "it's hard to keep up" with everything. That now includes parenting. Wong and partner Richie Jackson had identical twins—the product of Wong's seed and the egg of Jackson's sister, their surrogate mother—who were born almost three months premature. The story of Jackson Foo and Boaz Dov Wong, born May 28, 2000, is told in "Following Foo (the electronic adventures of the Chestnut Man)," a HarperEntertainment publication.

It's as different a book as one is likely to come across—a crazy quilt of e-mails, which is how the project began, combined with stream (and dream) of consciousness, some straight narrative and an occasional poem. Quoted on the back cover, John Lithgow, who played opposite Wong in M. Butterfly, calls it "the story of two parents and the weeks following the difficult birth of their twin boys. But the tale and its telling are like nothing you have ever read: heartbreaking, hair-raising, hilarious, and ultimately exhilarating. In his first book, B.D. Wong befriends the world."

Says Wong, "Writing is an incredibly creatively empowering experience for me. It is the place where nobody tries to control what I'm doing. As an actor, I have casting issues. I'm a minority. I don't have trouble making a living, but as far as being on the food chain of the pecking order of actors, I'm not at the top of it. With the jobs that I do, there are always control issues with directors and producers. When you work on television, there's this huge kind of corporate collaboration that occurs, which can be really off-putting when you're a creative person. Theatre can be more empowering, because it's more [creatively] collaborative. "When you're writing, it's really unfettered. I worked very closely with an editor who made very gentle suggestions. There was no substantial rewriting done from my original vision. That gave me self-esteem. This is not a celebrity-tell-all book, or biography, or memoir. It attempts to have a creativity, and is as literary as I can make it." The book also contains e-mails from a number of celebrity friends, including Jayne Atkinson, Barbara Barrie, Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Joel Grey, David Henry Hwang, Alfred Molina and Debra Monk.

Wong notes that he'd like to continue writing. Does that include fiction? "Yeah, and screenwriting." It's been reported that he's working on a screenplay of "Following Foo." Screenwriting would allow Wong to create roles that wouldn't be a problem for him to get. "Exactly," he says. "I've seen it time and time again. Things change when people take the reins—and this is my moment for doing that." How is he enjoying parenthood? "It gets better and better. But I don't want people to know too much [about his experiences] before reading the book." A short book tour is planned "for late May and early June. It's a five-city thing, kind of quick and dirty. [Laughs]"

***

Born in San Francisco, Bradley Darryl Wong knew that he wanted to act "as an early teenager. I had studied the violin to a certain amount of success. At some point, I realized that I didn't really like the violin. I was only doing it because I could, and I was good at it, and everyone was encouraging me. But I didn't have a great love for it. When I was a freshman in high school, the drama teacher came to my class and asked that anyone who could play an instrument try out for the orchestra. They were doing Guys and Dolls.

"A young woman classmate said, 'You don't want to do that. That's no fun. My dad has a community-theatre group, and I'm in plays all the time. That's where you want to be.' I was secretly hoping that someone would make me go and try out for the play. I didn't have the guts to do that. It seemed so radical. I went with her. It changed my life totally. You could do something creative, and what I call 'alternative.' It's not in the main stream of choosing what your life path is. Everything aligned: I loved it, it loved me." However, Wong was not cast in a leading role. "The teacher didn't know me, and all these upperclassmen were getting parts.

"I showed up everyday, like a stray dog. She'd say, 'Oh, we need a policeman, or an emcee for the club.' By the end, I had a lot of stage time, because I had about six parts. That began a fantastic relationship with this drama teacher, who's no longer with us. She really changed my life. She infused in me a great love and respect for the theatre. I think I've changed a lot since high school, but what has not changed are all the things that she made me."

In 1982, Wong made his professional debut at Manhattan's Town Hall in Androcles and the Lion. "It was a great experience. That's how I got my Equity card." He was billed as Bradd (with two d's) Wong until the producers of M. Butterfly asked him to use initials instead of his first name, "because [the character's] gender was in question. I did it, with the idea of going back to Bradd, but the initials sort of stuck."

David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning play, set in 1960’s China, tells the story of the lengthy relationship between Rene Gallimard (John Lithgow), a French diplomat, and Song Liling (Wong), a singer in the Beijing Opera. The diplomat doesn't realize that the diva is a spy—or that she's really male. It was based on a true story, but Wong observes, "That's a very loose term. It is based on a three-sentence New York Times blurb about the story. David did no research on those two gentlemen and their situation. He read the blurb, which piqued his curiosity and made him ask a lot of questions. As an Asian-American man and writer, he answered those questions kind of allegorically—using their situation, though not their story.

"The play is about raising a lot of ideas; it is not a documentary for explaining what happened to these two guys, or an explanation of how something like this could happen. Anyone who sees, or reads, the play and asks afterwards, 'Yes, but how could it happen?' is totally missing the point. That, for me, is what makes the play so rich."

During the run, Wong played opposite four Gallimards: Lithgow, David Dukes, John Rubinstein and Tony Randall. I had interviewed Dukes, who received a better New York Times review than had Lithgow. The effect was bittersweet, Dukes explained, because Lithgow, a close friend, had given him all the director's notes that he could remember. As Wong recalls, "John said, 'I'll come in and see what you're doing and tell you my thoughts.' When you replace in a Broadway show, you can be very lost. John was very helpful. It never got better than John. That was a magnificent performance, and I don't think it was fully appreciated at the time."

Was director John Dexter as difficult as his reputation? According to Wong, "He was undeniably a very difficult person, and a very difficult director. To be more specific than that isn't really fair to him, being as he isn't around anymore. He really did live up to his reputation with select members of the company, including myself. The aspect of working with John Dexter was ultimately a positive one, because I learned so many things about myself, and about working with other people.

"There's a theme that recurs quite often in my book, which is when something bad happens, you have to figure out what you can make of it. [M. Butterfly] was probably one of the first times I experienced something that was hard. It took me many years to be able to put it in perspective. It added to the singularness of the experience: Being my Broadway debut, a great play, a great part. [Dexter's] contribution made it only more unique."

At the Roundabout, Wong played Ariel in a 1989 production of The Tempest. "That was a great experience. It was also a transition from a hugely successful play to the real world. That was the old Roundabout [on East 17th Street]. The Roundabout isn't anything like that anymore." At Philadelphia's American Music Theatre Festival in 1992, Wong appeared in Herringbone, in which he played "14 characters. It's a great, great show that I plan to do again someday."

He was Randall Lee in David Henry Hwang's 1993 Broadway comedy, Face Value, which closed following eight previews and never officially opened. Directed by Jerry Zaks, the cast included Jane Krakowski and Mark Linn-Baker. "It was a whirlwind," recalls Wong. "They had fired an actor. I came in at the last minute, and then the show closed." In 1995, at the Public Theatre, Wong did A Language of Their Own. A 1998 revival of As Thousands Cheer (the 1933 Irving Berlin-Moss Hart revue) introduced him to Off-Broadway's Drama Dept. "I fit in well with them. I'm happy to have a company that I perform with, semi-regularly. They're full of the same joy of putting on plays that my high-school drama teacher was." Wong's most recent Broadway experience occurred in the 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which he played Linus. "I loved that. It doesn't get any better than being in a Broadway musical. To be on a Broadway stage and sing a song for an audience is something that I wish for everyone at some time in their lives."

Earlier this year, Wong played Gen. Gong Fei, opposite Charles Busch's Lady Sylvia, in the Drama Dept. production of Busch's comedy, Shanghai Moon. "[The general] was an opium-smoking womanizer. In a play by Charles Busch, there's always this man who is someone she plays against. The whole thing was about the heat between them."

Thus far, the comedy is Wong's most satisfying stage experience. "I look back on it as a time I was myself—unbridled, as I was in high school. It was an all-around, terrific, well-rounded, complete professional experience. How can I compare that to M.Butterfly, which changed my life completely? I can't. But as far as how I felt in my own body, I would prefer the way I felt during Shanghai Moon. I'm more settled into myself now. A little play at the Drama Dept. can do everything that a huge Broadway show that you get a Tony Award for does for you—for your self-esteem, your sense of freedom as an artist, your sense of creativity, everything."

Of his movie roles, Wong says that he's "fond of the two 'Father of the Bride' movies." In the 1991 and '95 features, starring Steve Martin, Wong played Howard Weinstein, who assists Martin Short's somewhat eccentric wedding planner, Franck Eggelhoffer. Wong also likes "the last movie I did," 2002's "The Salton Sea," in which he played a character called Bubba. "I've played roles that Asian-Americans wouldn't ordinarily have been offered," he says.

Among his TV credits are guest appearances on series ranging from "Sesame Street" to "The X-Files." On the 1994-95 ABC sitcom "All American Girl," Wong played Stuart Kim, the older brother of the show's heroine (Margaret Cho). Of course, they preceded his characters in "Oz" and "SVU."

Playing the priest on "Oz," he says, "was a fantastic experience. I was very lucky. Tom Fontana [the show's creator] came to see me, and said, 'I'm doing this new show. I want you in it, and this is the part I'm writing for you.' I didn't fully understand what he meant, or the richness of it, when he said I'd be a Catholic priest. It was definitely the most satisfying television experience I've ever had, because, emotionally, the character was quite three-dimensional. An acting experience that goes on for six years can be wonderful, or horrendous. It was incredibly wonderful! The material got better and better, as seasons went on." He adds, "It's such an interesting lifestyle to be an actor, and not have to go to the same place at the same time every day."

He enjoys his role as the police psychiatrist on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which allows him creative freedom, such as the opportunity to do Shanghai Moon. "Very often, I'd be rushing in a car from New Jersey [where the series shoots] and getting to the theatre right before the curtain. I'd throw my costume on and go on. There was a kind of thrill about it. It was so much fun to be doing a great play that I really loved and, at the same time, keeping my other job.

"I don't envy Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay [the "SVU" stars; Meloni was also a regular on "Oz"]. They work incredibly grueling hours; they're in every scene. They make a lot of personal sacrifices to do the series. [Shooting] can go to three o'clock in the morning. I go in and out, and do my scenes."

Do Dr. Huang and Mr. Wong share any similarities? "I don't think an actor is being honest if he says there aren't any. I can see it in extreme cases—if you were playing Jeffrey Dahmer [the cannibalistic serial killer], or someone like that. [Huang] doesn't have my sense of humor, but he does have a way of analyzing things, and I love to figure things out thoroughly. He also has a certain passion for words." That last comment brings us full circle, as if his mind were "Following Foo." Concludes B.D. Wong, "I hope that people enjoy the book, and that I can continue to write." Author! Author!

***

END QUIZ: The original "Father of the Bride" (1950) movie starred Spencer Tracy. Who played his role in the 1961-62 TV series: a) Stuart Erwin; b) Robert Young; c) Leon Ames? (Answer: Next column, June 8)

The April 13 question was: In 1988, Richard Kiley and Jason Robards both won Emmys. Kiley was Lead Actor in a Series for "A Year in the Life," and Robards was Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for which of the following telecasts: a) "Inherit the Wind"; b) "Hughie"; c) "Ah, Wilderness!"? The answer is a).

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.