June 21, 2024

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Benedict Wong Talks 3 Body Problem, MCU Future, and Ridley Scott

9 min read

BENEDICT WONG HAS built a filmography playing characters who just know what’s up. Take the character of Wong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a sidekick turned “Sorcerer Supreme”: he’s a keeper of arcane wisdom and a knower of many secrets, sure, but it’s the way that actor-Wong plays sorcerer-Wong that makes him instrumental to the MCU. Whenever he’s called upon, a familiar face who switches between gravitas and dry humor, he grounds audiences back in the universe. He knows what audiences need to stay invested.

That attitude starts with knowing what he wants. I’m a bit of a maverick at heart,” he says, sipping on a coffee in the restaurant of his Manhattan hotel. “I don’t have an agent. I run my own business, and I sign my own deals. I signed my own Marvel deal.”

But in 2021, while in England filming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, he got on a Zoom call to talk about a role in Netflix’s adaptation of The Three-Body Problem—the first novel in the bestselling hard sci-fi trilogy from Chinese author Cixin Liu—and for a brief moment, he was disoriented. When the call began, he saw three faces: Game of Thrones showrunning team David Benioff and D.B Weiss, along with Alexander Woo, a writer on True Blood and co-creator of The Terror. His attention was piqued—three showrunners? That was all he needed to see to understand the scope and magnitude of this project.

The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem

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The person they wanted him to play was the ubiquitous, chain-smoking detective who goes by the nickname Da Shi. He’s a vital character in the vast ensemble of the books, with a role that the showrunners said would be altered and expanded for the series.

Benioff, Weiss, and Woo sent Wong an in-depth breakdown of their new version of Da Shi—now referred to mostly by the name Clarence—that sounded eerily familiar: his parents were from Hong Kong; after his birth, the family settled in Manchester in the ’70s; and after 20 years, he moved to London start his own life. I was like, ‘Guys, this sounds an awful lot like me,'” Wong remembers saying. “And then Alex confessed, ‘Yeah, we copied your Wikipedia page.'”

For some people, the high stakes could be scary. “People often ask: do you think of the pressure of all this? The Game of Thrones people, True Blood people, a big Netflix thing…” Wong says. “But I don’t. That’s not my focus.” Instead, he knew immediately that portraying this new, more familiar Da Shi would provide him with the opportunity to not only bring his entire self to the role, but to do it his own way.

Wong sat down with Men’s Health to talk about the process of adapting his character for 3 Body Problem, his approach to taking control of his life and career, and when we’ll see him again in the MCU.

a man looking at a computer

Netflix

MEN’S HEALTH: Da Shi in 3 Body Problem is a cold, brash, guy who’s always smoking cigarettes. How do you as an actor adapt that character to get people on his side?

BENEDICT WONG: Da Shi has a single-minded focus. He never loses the mark. And each action will inform who the guy is as a character, and what his motivations are. You see a glimpse of his life. You see him at home with his son, and he’s got his work laptop on. He eats something quick and convenient. He takes his job with him. He is his job, and he takes his job home, to the detriment of his family. But that element tells me this guy just cares about one thing: the greater good. So I play the action within those scenes, and I trust that the fruit of those scenes will come by itself.

MH: While your character isn’t a police detective like he is in the books, both have experience in counter terrorism. How did that factor into your preparation?

I managed to find someone in counter terrorism and talked about their home life. And they would say it’s an absolute fucking mess. Things don’t get done. There’s laundry everywhere. The art department let me have input on what it would be like inside Da Shi’s house. So I said,Can we just like throw stuff all over the place?” It’s important to build all those nuances.

I wanted to honor those CT operatives because time and time again, they kind of go, “Oh, it’s James Bond again, in a nice sweet tuxedo.” And it’s so far from all of that. They’ve got terrible, terrible diets. In the interior of the cars, there are bottles to piss in because they can’t leave the car on a stake out. They’ve got loads of things charging all their devices. They are constantly on the move. It’s not glamorous. And I like the unkemptness of it all.

benedict wong portrait

PIP/NETFLIX

MH: With all this in mind, how would you describe this version of Da Shi, or Clarence, and how that appealed to you?

BW: He’s like a sci-fi Columbo with a bit of a Liam Gallagher swagger. There’s a real brashness. Those of us from Manchester will put you in your place, and he’s very much like that as well. He’s someone that’s beyond authority, and all these organizations have just allowed him to bulldoze through the ranks because they know he gets results. You just leave him be. Let him do what he does.

MH: For most of the season, you’re often paired with Liam Cunningham.

BW: He’s my regular dance partner.

MH: He plays your boss, and his brusqueness makes Da Shi look like Miss Manners. For those who saw him in Game of Thrones, it’s going to cause some whiplash to see him go from a noble knight to…kind of an asshole.

BW: [Laughs] Yes, but he’s our asshole. I’ve known of Liam for such a long time. He’s a fucking phenomenal actor. And we just hit it off all over again. We had a lot of funny banter on set. I always say that we take our work seriously, and not ourselves. Within that, we have space to play with the laughter. After all, these characters are the unlikeliest duo. It’s an Irish commander and this gumshoe Mancunian Asian.

MH: But by the season finale, you’re set up to spend most of your time with actor Jovan Adepo, who plays an adaptation of a character from the second book of the trilogy, as your new dance partner.

BW: Da Shi becomes his protector, and in a way he becomes quite fatherly towards him at some point. It’s a tragedy that he can be fatherly to this kid, but he doesn’t have time for his own kid—all because this guy fits into his parameters of the time he has within his work.

behind the scenes

Netflix

MH: Has there been talk about a second season yet?

BW: Not yet. I think they have to see how the release of the first season goes.

MH: Would you want to return?

BW: Absolutely. It’s here to be told, it’s here to be told.

MH: What do you see as a throughline of your career over the years?

BW: It all harks back to when I decided to take charge of my own career. It came to a head, and my choices were: I properly quit or I take charge. And that was when I decided to rep myself and take charge of the situation. There’s a kind of bravery within that. Because you’re talking to people, you’re talking to theaters directly about the two shows you’re the lead in. [The London productions of Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre and #aiww: The Arrest of Ai WeiWei at the Hampstead Theatre, both of which ran in 2013.] Their dates originally overlapped by a week, but I managed to convince them to move the dates so I could play in both. One of them [Chimerica] went on to five Olivier Awards. Somehow I could move things, I could convince people. I was in charge of this career. All of that also showed me I could play leads.

MH: What are some of your career highlights?

BW: Working with directors like Ridley Scott has been wonderful. But I’m loving now being in this Da Shi phase. It feels more like I’m in an authentic version of myself, and it feels quite freeing.

MH: You mentioned Ridley Scott. You worked with him in Prometheus and The Martian. He’s 86 and as prolific as ever. Will you be working with him a third time?

BW: I’ve actually done three movies with him. I shot the The Counselor, but I ended up on the cutting room floor. But it’s good lesson to have, actually. You can star in something, but you’ve got to wait until the end to see if you’ve survived editing.

But Ridley is a wonderful man, and the way he works is incredible. He usually does three takes with multiple cameras. He captures everyone’s performance in real time, and just sits there at the back with nine screens going. It’s a bit like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth. He’s got this editing brain, where he’s already story-boarded for four or five weeks, so he really knows what he’s doing.

And his brother, Tony Scott, gave me my first-ever film job on Spy Game. I will always remember that film: it’s quite silhouetted, and there’s lots of cigar smoke.

benedict wong

Netflix

MH: Let’s talk about Marvel. You’ve been playing this character for 10 years now, and you’ve appeared in many MCU projects.

BW: You know, thank goodness for portals. I couldn’t just move into everyone else’s franchise without them. I’ve loved this character. I’m a massive Marvel comic book fan. I collected Spider-Man comics when I was a kid, and to meet Stan Lee and sidle up to him when I was at on of the premieres—I felt like a kid.

I went to him and I said, “You don’t know me, but…,” and he immediately said, “You’re Wong! And you’re great!” I’ll take it for either way he could’ve meant “Wong”!

It was a dream come true. And now that the character is Sorcerer Supreme, I feel like I’m being promoted through the ranks. It’s gone past the sidekick phase.

MH: It’s an interesting re-imagination of how Dr. Strange and Wong’s relationship was in the early comics.

BW: Instead of Sherlock and Watson, it’s two Sherlocks.

MH: Was it cool to see your Marvel costar Robert Downey Jr. up on the Oscar stage?

BW: Yeah, it was fantastic. Seeing Robert, and seeing Cillian [Murphy] as well. We did a film together, Sunshine, and that could do with a re-release. I don’t think anyone’s properly seen it.

benedict wong

Netflix

MH: When might we see Wong again? I know it’s not the most reliable source, but IMDb has you on the cast list for Avengers: Secret Wars.

BW: I saw that! I thought, Oh, is that what I’m doing? Thanks for telling me, IMDb. Why am I the last person to know?

But I loved the Secret Wars comics. I collected them all.

MH: The one in the ’80s?

BW: Yeah. And I even played a Dungeons & Dragons-style Secret Wars game at the time. I played as Spider-Man—I insisted on it. I can’t wait for Secret Wars, the Beyonder, and all of that. I’m thrilled that IMDb is telling me that I’m doing it.

MH: But do you know if you’re definitely returning?

BW: I’d like to think that IMDb doesn’t lie, you know?

This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.

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