Sweeping floors to sweeping vistas
British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong had a humble start in theatres but is now starring in Netflix and silver-screen hits
At the age of 45, Benedict Wong is only just starting to find his footing in Hollywood.
The British-Chinese actor, whose parents are originally from Hong Kong, reprises his lead role as Mongol leader Kublai Khan in the second season of Netflix historical drama Marco Polo, which is currently available on the streaming service.
He has also appeared on the big screen in English director Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012) and The Martian (2015), and will join the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the upcoming superhero flick Doctor Strange as the titular hero's (Benedict Cumberbatch) sidekick Wong, a master of sorcery.
Despite his career taking flight, Wong said he never intended to reach his current level of success.
"When I started acting about 25 years (ago), my goal was never really to be in Hollywood movies or anything," he told M over the phone from London.
"I started off literally sweeping the floors at the theatre (and) collecting tickets... It allowed me to watch touring shows and learn my stagecraft."
Yet he admitted his ethnicity has been an obstacle in his ascent as an actor.
He said: "When you sort of enter into the profession, you have a tendency to hit this glass ceiling... Sometimes people just judge the cover of a book, not the content."
But he added that the climate for Asian actors has improved and that it is "very healthy" to see US TV comedies led by Asian actors, such as Fresh Off The Boat and Dr. Ken.
A fan of Marvel comics, Wong is excited about being cast in Doctor Strange, which opens here on Nov 3.
"It's a real honour to be a part of the Marvel (Cinematic) Universe... (From) the production value of Marvel, you know you're joining something very special," he said.
"I just like being a part of telling great stories. I just see myself as a cog in the machine of telling the story."
RISING STAR: Benedict Wong (above) as Mongol leader Kublai Khan in Marco Polo 2 . PHOTOS: NETFLIX, YOUTUBE
Doctor Strange was the subject of controversy when English actress Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One, a Celtic mystic character usually portrayed as an East Asian man.
Wong said: "For the record, she is not playing someone who is East Asian, while I'm East Asian and playing an East Asian character, and I can say that (my character is) not a manservant or making tea."
He added: "For the Ancient One, there's no one quite like Tilda Swinton who has that timeless quality. She's perfect, and I think people will see that in the film."
With the vast majority of cast members being Asian on Marco Polo, such as Joan Chen, Michelle Yeoh and even Singapore's very own Chin Han, Wong was proud to be on a production that embraced diversity.
He felt that it was "refreshing" and called it a "fantastic experience".
He also spoke highly of Chin Han, who plays Jia Sidao, the chancellor to the Song Emperors.
Wong said: "He's a very special actor... It's a real joy to work with him in the scenes that we have together.
"But also, I think there's a lot of (other) fantastic actors in Singapore as well... People like Adrian Pang and Lim Kay Siu."
Wong worked with Pang in the 2001 US action film Spy Game and with Lim in the 1995 US telemovie Night Watch.
He said: "There's a wealth of talent in Singapore, and (Singaporeans) should be proud."