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How Benedict Wong steered his career to ‘3 Body Problem’

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Benedict Wong rests his elbows on a table and splays his fingers wide on either side of his face
“The journey I’ve had, it’s some sort of Asian actor ‘Forrest Gump’ story,” says “3 Body Problem” actor Benedict Wong of his slow-build career.
(Jennifer McCord / For The Times)

In March, at the afterparty for the premiere of “3 Body Problem” at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Benedict Wong assumed his alter ego. The English actor, known for playing stoic but sly tough guys, morphed into DJ Obi-Wong, spinning electronic dance records, a wide smile on his face and a sleek virtual reality headset (actually a “3 Body” prop) perched on his head. He was clearly having a blast.

He has earned it. A little more than 10 years ago, Wong was wondering if he still had a career. He had lived on a diet of nondescript Asian background players and generic gangsters. He loved the theater, but it wasn’t paying the bills. He felt like his agents weren’t earning their keep. Today, he’s all over the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a mystic teacher (whose name also happens to be Wong) and playing a bloodhound-like detective in “3 Body Problem,” Netflix’s mind-bending sci-fi series. He’s become a welcome presence as a character actor in such movies as “The Martian” and “Annihilation,” and on the droll vampire series “What We Do in the Shadows.” He now represents himself, and he’s about to start his own production company, Big Boss Panda.

A man walks through the night streets in "3 Body Problem."
“When we read the books, he was who we imagined, and when we wrote the scripts, he was who we imagined. Yet it wasn’t until we watched him reading his lines for the first time that we truly experienced how fully he embodies that character,” the “3 Body Problem” series creators say of Benedict Wong and his Da Shi role.
(Ed Miller)

He’s feeling grateful. “The journey I’ve had, it’s some sort of Asian actor ‘Forrest Gump’ story,” he said in a recent video interview from his London home. “Forces can try and derail you and become an obstacle for you not to succeed. But they just become stepping stones. I feel like the luckiest man alive.”

Wong, 52, is blunt but happily digressive, playful but quite serious. He may feel lucky, but he was never given anything.

He grew up a working-class kid outside Manchester, the son of Hong Kong immigrants who ran fish-and-chips shops: “As a kid I was just carrying a giant colander, scooping up potatoes and putting them in a machine as they’re chopping them into chips, or chunky fries as you Americans might say.” He regularly worked nights and weekends. “It was its own cage for me, because that’s all I knew,” he said. “I kind of wanted to see the outside world.”

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The first book of Cixin Liu’s science fiction trilogy, “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,” gets a Netflix adaptation premiering Thursday.

March 20, 2024

He found escapes, taking in the clubs of Manchester, such as the Hacienda, immortalized in the 2002 film “24 Hour Party People” (the future DJ Obi-Wong was taking notes). He got a job sweeping floors for a fringe theater company, sneaked into other theaters around town and caught the acting bug, unable to afford drama school but eager to audition. He joined an actors’ co-op and informed his father of his new career plans. His dad wanted him to get a real job. “I told him to give me three years, and if it didn’t work out I’d do whatever he said,” Wong recalled. “It was that kind of dutiful Asian father-son relationship.”

Wong acted steadily, if not always to great personal or financial reward. He preferred good stage roles to lesser screen roles. On the screen, “I literally played six gangsters in one year. I turned the seventh one down, being all gangstered out. I do have my inner gangster chakra, but you don’t want to play that all the time.” Better parts would trickle in — Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” (2007). But the going was slow. Wong felt typecast as an Asian actor. And as a gangster. He’s a big guy, and he has the demeanor of someone familiar with the streets, but he knew he could do more with such qualities.

Benedict Wong poses with his hands pointed diagonally upward toward the light.
(Jennifer McCord / For The Times)

“There were months where it was just quite soul-destroying,” he said. “And then somehow the universe aligns and throws you a lifeline.”

One of those lifelines was “Doctor Strange” (2016). Wong’s friend and fellow “Dirty Pretty Things” cast member Chiwetel Ejiofor had signed on for “Strange” and told Wong, the actor, about Wong, the character. His first thought: “My luck is in. Come on, I must claim this by birthright, by name alone.” He was his own agent by then, and he got the part, which also meant a foothold in other Marvel projects, including “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021). He was now highly visible, flying under nobody’s radar.

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When “3 Body Problem” creators D.B. Weiss, David Benioff and Alexander Woo decided to adapt Cixin Liu’s sci-fi novel trilogy into a series, they knew immediately whom they wanted to play the enigmatic detective Da Shi.

“Benny was our first and only choice,” the series creators said in a joint email. “When we read the books, he was who we imagined, and when we wrote the scripts, he was who we imagined. Yet it wasn’t until we watched him reading his lines for the first time that we truly experienced how fully he embodies that character. He brings a humanity and wit to Da Shi that makes him endlessly watchable. Our show wouldn’t be nearly the same without him.”

Wong isn’t taking any more unwanted gangster roles. Soon he’ll be a Big Boss Panda. All that, and he knows how to move the crowd with a couple of turntables.

“I just keep looking for this exponential curve,” Wong said. “Onwards and upwards. And if it plateaus sometimes, you just have to keep moving.”

Benedict Wong holds his hand up.
(Jennifer McCord / For The Times)

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