An Interview with 2021 Poitras Gleim Lecturer BD Wong on Acting, Directing, and Activism

The Dickinsonian sat down with Dickinson’s 2021 Poitras Gleim Lecturer BD Wong. Wong is an actor and director whose successful career in film, TV, and Broadway has earned him many accolades. He spoke with us about his experience in the performance industry over a conference call on Friday, April 2. On Monday, April 5 at 7 p.m EST, Wong conducted his lecture over Zoom with Dr. Amer Ahmed, Dickinson’s interim executive director of Equity and Inclusivity, as the moderator. The following interview is edited for clarity.

TD: You’ve been involved with television, film, and Broadway. We are curious about how your roles have changed as your career has evolved over the many years that you’ve been in acting and performance.

You know, I think the whole process of one’s career, you’re always looking, hopefully, for the quality of the roles and maybe even the size of the roles to improve as you kind of pay your dues and go for it. And I have noticed, most recently, the most satisfaction and the most enjoyment from the roles I’ve been fortunate enough to play and and and I have felt, but I look back at that there really is kind of a trajectory of gaps. And, you know, it’s not always completely concrete but it kind of ebbs and flows, but I really am enjoying the world right now more than ever and that’s really nice to be always challenged and always interested in what you’re doing.

TD: Having spent a number of years in the industry, how do you think the industry has changed or evolved since you started, whether it be for better or worse?

The main change is the gradual emergence of digital media and social media. And so I’ve lived through the birth of all of those things and watch how they kind of found their place, and continue to find their place and when I grew up and I went when I was a young kid there was no cable and there were like three or four channels on the TV, and the content was driven by the limitations of the air time that was available for a show. So there was a very different structure, as far as how that content was created and what the content was. So over the years, we’ve seen this kind of exponential growth of the industry in all different categories really even in theater too. The mechanism for creating content has grown and changed in all areas and I think that it’s interesting. I could talk for hours about how and why this is and what causes it but I have to answer your question. I have noticed that the industry is largely affected and, and influenced and changed and evolved, because of the needs of consumers that change and also the way that we make these things. We make a lot of stuff digitally and we use it–there’s so many different ways to answer this question. For example, we used to shoot everything on film and we don’t shoot anything on film anymore. It’s very rare that we use film to shoot. And that’s a whole completely different technical economical and artistic world is very different and it changes the content and it changes the sensibility of the filmmakers, so there’s that aspect of it and then there’s social media and is the fact that there’s cable and then that the fact that there’s all these different kinds of platforms like YouTube and Tik Tok and Instagram, which are all legitimate kinds of platforms where people can express themselves and, you know, are becoming areas that require our attention that’s why it’s being taken seriously as performing arts. So, the world is now full of all these different kinds of performing opportunities, and anybody who wants to perform can perform and be and find a great audience if they’re properly, you know, hooked up. So, that is the one really big difference is that when I was a young kid if I wanted thousands of people to see me do anything there really just wasn’t any kind of outlet for that and now lots of young people have that and that’s kind of amazing.

TD: How has COVID had an impact or changed the industry and performing arts?

The first thing I would say is that COVID has forced performing artists and artists and theatre artists and writers and producers to re-evaluate how to reach an audience without reaching them in real time. It’s been quite exciting. I myself have experienced the strong need to perform in the middle of last summer, and made a theatrical short film. Furthermore, I think what really remains to be seen is that we don’t know how the industry is actually going to be affected by COVID until we get back to a sense of normalcy. In other words, when theaters get back to operating fully and when audiences start gathering again. How will that affect what’s being produced and what’s being presented? Will our choices be different? Will we be more open to staying home and watching something that’s on the TV because we become used to it, or will we want to have nothing to do with that anymore. You know, it’s kind of hard to tell what it’s going to be like and that’s kind of an exciting and interesting thing to wonder about, and we’ll have the answer before we know it I bet. But right now it’s not knowable actually how the industry works, because the industry is completely shut down. So since the industry is completely shut down, we don’t know how it was really affected except that it got shut down. What the really interesting question is ‘okay when people start writing again and producing again and gathering and watching things again, what will be the payment what will be different’ And, you know, this is one of those examples of how when you’re in the middle of his job history or historic event you don’t know exactly how other people will look at it, you know, when they look back.

TD: In doing our research for this interview, we came across on the 2003 interview you did with The Advocate. In the interview, you talked about how other people’s expectations shaped who you were at the time. You discussed how although you had made strides in your expectations for yourself, they were mainly a matter of who you were as a parent and presenting the best version of yourself for your child. As we’re college students trying to figure out who we are and what it means to be the best version of ourselves, how have your expectations of yourself and how you define yourself changed throughout your career?

I think that’s very true. And that is true and that’s true of lots of people and, not to be very general, but I think it’s true of a lot of Asian American kids that their parents, in particular, are very influential in their choices and their and their thoughts about what they will do with their lives. Not always, but there’s a kind of a thread of a cultural reverence for elders and parents that causes Asian American kids to really really think very seriously about whether their parents approve of what they’re doing or not, and that definitely was true for me. And I think I say that now I don’t have that I mean I really have kind of done for many years. I don’t know if I said this in this interview or not, but I told people for many years that when I went shopping for underwear when I was a grown man, you know I was like in my 30s or even 40s, I would have a thought in my mind, “will my mom approve of the underwear?” And my mom would never see the underwear she would ever see me wearing and she would, you know, and none of that but in my mind I was trained to kind of think of stuff with the way that my parents raised me and stuff. And I don’t feel that way as much anymore. I feel a little bit more, what’s the word, autonomous, you know I feel like I’m more of my own person, that I make my own choices, and that I’ve had to become a more self possessed person. And then when I became a parent I could no longer defer, I had to kind of take on a more a role of in which I had a had an identity that could be, you know, either accepted or rejected by my child, you know like, whether they would want to be like me or not, but I couldn’t be like any longer deferring to other people when I was trying to be a role model to a specific person. That’s how I feel about it, like I felt like parenthood really opened the doors for me to be a stronger person and have a stronger sense of my values and stuff. 

TD: You have been getting more involved with directing and with Awkwarfina in particular. We’re curious about how you transitioned from being in front of the screen to behind it.

Well, I will say that when I was in high school, one of the reasons why I became an actor in the first place was because I had a really very strong and crucial relationship with my high school drama teacher. And, to make a long story short, she was extremely influential in giving me confidence and a sense of perspective about what was possible for me, and also to touch on a previous question, you know she really engaged in my parents and the conversation my future, and help to allay their fears and what in life as an actor might actually be on top of all that, so she originally was the only person ever to really plant the seed in my mind that I was more than an actor or a different thing. I was an actor and that has always been my kind of core identity. The strongest kind of impulse that I would have to be able to identify myself as was an actor. She [my high school teacher] encouraged me to be a designer and a choreographer and director, and a writer and it all started way way back then and these ideas that I could or should wear different hats has always been with me and I’ve always carried that through my professional life and my non professional creative life, you know, and you know like doing everything I do I, I tried to access all different aspects of my own creativity. And I think it’s because I was reasonably successful as an actor, that I have not concentrated on things like being a director because directing is one of the most satisfying things that I have found that I have ever done. So it’s a little interesting that it’s taken me this long to really kind of direct with any kind of regularity and I’m glad that I have the space in my life now to be able to do that and not feel like I have to concentrate only on acting or to take acting roles in order to perpetuate more acting and make those kinds of choices because when you’re building your career you kind of have to concentrate on one thing sometimes. So I found it tremendously satisfying and gratifying that I’ve been able to do this and I really am liking this time period where I’m kind of bouncing around doing lots of different things. This particular Awkwarfina episode is an episode that I was also in. So there’s this kind of added madness that I find really really exhilarating, which is actually trying to direct yourself. You know, it’s enough to try to make sure that when the cameras are rolling you’re giving the performance that you want to be giving, but then on top of that to be worrying about whether the camera is positioned properly and whether you’re seeing what you want to be seeing whether the other actors in the scene and you’re doing what they should be doing. And whether every little detail is being taken care of. I think some people would just hate doing it but I really found it really really fun and a little scary. A little kind of like a high wire act or something. You know, you don’t want to fall and ruin everything and the other thing about directing is that there’s a lot more pressure on you. Everyone’s looking to you and you have a great responsibility to pull everyone together and to get everything done on time and on time means that they won’t have to spend extra money going over and over time and all that stuff. So I’m having these interesting experiences that other people that haven’t and I’m really lucky and grateful to be able to have them because they really bring depth to your experience, and they are a great education in any number of different things. It has just been a gradual evolution over the years how I have eventually, it was always kind of inevitable that I would direct, but it took longer than most people to establish a directing career because I was doing something else, but now I do feel like I’m making up for lost time with all of the potential of things that I could be directing that I hope that I will be able to, as time goes by that time can, I can put on.

TD: Why do you think it’s important to speak with smaller institutions like Dickinson?

I think this is because of what I said before that I had this relationship with this teacher. She was a wonderful teacher, she loves teaching, she didn’t have a huge budget for the school production. She always lent her clothes to wear in the show and stuff and with that kind of teacher, you know, she kind of went the extra distance. My takeaway from that was how all of my classmates, but how I in particular, benefited from her extra care and the extra effort and time that you put into it. And as soon as I had the first opportunity many years ago, I started visiting colleges and speaking. When I found this I understood how she felt, you know that you had this opportunity for people who were open to listening, and who were interested in different perspectives, or who were curious. And to answer their questions or to inspire their to create some kind of inspiration or something and I don’t think that I’m doing anything particularly great but I just like doing it and I do like seeing that every once in a while someone’s  thoughts about one thing or another shift or open up into something else that would not have happened without the conversation that you’re having with them. So, the best place to do this is when people are in an educational institution because learning and growing and finding your own independence and being on the threshold of what people call real life, and all that are all the purpose of why you’re there. So I think it’s the perfect place. It’s because you can really create a dialogue in a place like this, opening someone’s mind to something that wasn’t open before. And that might be a big political topics or something, you know, they could be closed minded about something and then you kind of convince them or talk them into where and make them understand in some empathic way why, you know, for example, somebody who’s arguing or questioning, some kind of political movement or something like that and then you say, well, let’s talk about that movement, and let’s talk about where those people are really coming from, and then you explain something that was not clear to the person before. And then you see them have a moment where they think “that really makes sense to me and I didn’t really think about it that way before,” that’s worth everything to me. I think that’s really wonderful and to have the opportunity to do that even if it only happens once every in a blue moon is worth it. I love it, I love doing it. I love answering questions.

TD: As a member of the AAPI community, why do you think it’s so important for us to recognize the lack of representation that has been pretty consistent in film and media?

Let’s see. I don’t want to go on too long because I could talk for hours but what I will say is this, this is exactly one of the things that I was just mentioning to you in the last question which is that was one of them some questions about how, in order to kind of understand an issue or to really kind of ruminate on an issue you sometimes have to convince someone to be in someone else’s shoes, and to me now that’s one of the main things that’s missing from everyday life. From our everyday lives is a real, true sense of empathy like we really do try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and it is through that. That’s kind of understanding that we will be able to resolve a lot of differences that are bubbling under the surface all the time. So recently we have this kind of national awareness on a topic that throughout my entire life has never really been discussed. And that is, this kind of sentiment of anti-Asian hatred. There have been a lot of incidents, and they were having characterizations of COVID-19 coming from China and blaming Chinese people, and taking it out on Asian people in general, particularly for some reason older people and lots of rather have either violent, or abusive situations which occurred which kind of wer frighteningly common, and then a few weeks ago, a shooting in Atlanta in which a majority of the victims were Asian, for whatever reason, and that that caused a kind of created a catalyst for people can really finally speak out and demand that people understand or look at where this is coming from and what it is. And so life needs to move that and like Black Lives Matter, people were talking about something that has never been talked about before, and they were talking about it because of a particularly heinous example of this. And the example of it created attention, like okay we have a wide range of people who feel and think a wide range of things we have people who are in this case, predisposed to understanding what this is all about possibly because they already are Asian. And then we have what we call allies, and people who are necessarily not Asian, who are understanding and empathetic and they don’t have to be able to understand the pain or the suffering of another group of people. Then we have on the other end people who are staunchly against it or sometimes rather ignorant about something or actually are part of the problem because they’re anti-Asian, but then between those first two categories, and the third category I mentioned, is the fourth category of people who can go either way. And part of the key to reaching those people is having them understand where this all comes from and the depth of the pain of it and the roots of it and the history of it. And this is a long answer to explain that a big part of it in my estimation is the way that was represented in the media, our lack of representation is a direct result of a direct conspiracy for, and the fact that we’re misunderstood and it’s treated. There’s lots of different kinds of people: women ,all people of color in different ways, gay people, transgender people, certainly, who are treated in misunderstood. And the key to understanding them or understanding what they’re going through or or or creating a situation in which they are not mistreated is education and emphasis. And we think of the entertainment industry and the media as simply that, but there really are teaching tools, and they really are extremely influential in creating the attitude about any group of people that are pervasive in our country. For example, if there are enough poor representations of trans people in the media and no other representation then a person in a remote area or someone where there aren’t a lot of trans people will no doubt gain a particular understanding. And so many of us have always felt that includes diversity and representation. What we’re actually fighting for is the ability to tell the story properly or at least in a three dimensional way, or at least in a way in which there are lots of different choices to choose from so that people are not stereotyping people by having only one choice you know stereotypes are just basically the thing that everyone gravitates to because they think it’s the one factor. When it’s really much, there’s much more to a race of people. So that’s why representation is becoming increasingly more important and why we talk about it so much–because we are directly related to the way that we are this. These other issues are not separate. People think “oh, yes, here the issue was the representation and the lack of representation. And then here the issue of Asian hatred, but they seem kind of different.” That’s why I think it’s important. I think it’s important because they’re really related to these other things and I think, sadly enough, the preponderance of this kind of hatred, which is really fueled by ignorance, is a perfect example of why representation really does matter.