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Benedict Wong is on a journey through the multiverse. After roles in Sunshine, The Martian and Black Mirror, the British actor has made a name for himself in the sci-fi genre, a trend that continues with Ang Lee and Will Smith’s new clone assassin movie, Gemini Man.
After a FaceTime conversation with Lee, Wong was offered the role of Baron, a friend and fellow soldier to Smith’s Henry Brogan, and soon found himself on a four-month-long shoot across the world.
Next year, Wong will reprise his best-known role as Wong in Marvel Studios’ first horror film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. During his Marvel tenure, Wong has shared the stage with Robert Downey Jr., one of the highest-paid movie stars in the world. RDJ is also known for bringing his own chef to set and sharing the wealth with his Avengers castmates. On Gemini Man, Wong got to experience the generosity of Smith, another one of Hollywood’s biggest (and most unselfish) stars.
“Well, it’s not ‘Burgers Assemble’ like Robert, but the generosity of Will, wherever we were, no one was ever hungry,” Wong tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There were food trucks aplenty in Savannah as well as wonderful dinner parties in Cartagena, and the same in Budapest. He put on a lovely spread, as we say in England.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Wong weighs in on how studying kung fu as a child helped him during Avengers: Infinity War and his thoughts on starring in the new Doctor Strange movie despite being afraid of horror films.
I noticed your manager refers to you as Benny, and that got me thinking about that other Benedict you work with quite often. I presume Benny is how you’re distinguished from each other on set?
There you go — you have it there. It’s a shorthand; people often call me Benny. As long as it’s Benedict on the checks, I don’t mind, you know? (Laughs)
Cumberbatch doesn’t strike me as a Benny.
No, he goes by Sir Benedict. (Laughs)
You’ve done a great deal of science fiction in your career. Do you seek it out because you’re a fan, or does it come your way because a lot of people first got to know you via Sunshine and now associate you with the genre?
Hey, I’m a massive fan of sci-fi, ever since that long two-hour queue to see Star Wars when I was seven years old. Then you end up playing with Star Wars figures and putting on a John Williams vinyl. So I’ve got a deep love for deep space, and it seems to come my way. I’m a bit more discerning now, so it definitely is something that really resonates with me, and I’ve been lucky to be in Sunshine, Moon, The Martian, Annihilation, Black Mirror … I’ve worked with some incredible directors and writers.
I only ask because Hollywood has long had a habit of offering actors the same type of role that first introduced them to a wider audience.
Yeah, it’s just sort of turned out that way. Obviously, I do like to mix it up. Nothing beats playing Kublai Khan in the 13th century [on Marco Polo]. That’s a good place to juxtapose.
Regarding Gemini Man, is it true that you were only supposed to shoot for two weeks and then your role expanded to four months?
I actually thought I was only going to be out in Savannah, Georgia, for two weeks — the first leg of it. Apparently not — it just ended up rolling on. So I just continued the journey from Savannah to Cartagena, Colombia, and then to Budapest.
What’d you think of Colombia?
It’s beautiful; it’s a stunning place. We shot in the Old Town [of Cartagena]. The guys were filming the motorbike sequence for a couple weeks there. The crew deserves full credit for working 16- to 17-hour days in the searing heat just to get the shots. That’s what’s so beautiful about this movie’s frame rate; you can really feel like you’re there. It’s that immersive, I think.
You’ve worked with plenty of our biggest movie stars, which means the off-set amenities are greater than usual. Downey, as you know, has his own chef and will make elaborate meals for his castmates. So what is Will Smith’s version of that type of luxury?
Well, it’s not “Burgers Assemble” like Robert, but the generosity of Will, wherever we were, no one was ever hungry. There were food trucks aplenty in Savannah, as well as wonderful dinner parties in Cartagena, and the same in Budapest. He put on a lovely spread, as we say in England.
Did you audition for this part, or was it offered to you?
It was offered to me, yeah. I just got a message from my manager that Ang Lee wanted to speak to me on FaceTime. So, absolutely, you take that call, and it was great to have a little chat with him about this. You never quite know whether or not you’re actually being offered a job. We just kind of talked about the character, and that was it before hearing, “Hey, nice to meet you.” And then a week later, they wanted me to come out. That was it.
Did you have time to talk to any pilots who’ve worked in black ops or anything like that?
I didn’t. Really, if I’m honest, everything quickly moved at such a rate…. When you mentioned Sunshine, part of the rehearsal period with Danny [Boyle] was at London Heathrow’s multimillion-dollar flight simulator. So I remembered a little bit about that, but ultimately, the action of it — Baron’s loyalty and guarding Will’s character’s six — was his job.
When it comes to shooting in a high frame rate, what’s the key difference from your vantage point on set?
At this frame rate, it draws in so much information. So it was a mixture of not being too big and emanating quietly. (Laughs)
How complicated was shooting the clone scenes? I believe you shot several renditions on set with Will and his double and then concluded with a performance capture session at the end?
Yeah, for example, we would be shooting at Glennville in a barn, and the standard way of shooting “Old Will” would be to shoot the scene with Victor [Hugo], Will’s body double playing Junior. We would shoot that scene, and maybe a month later, we’d be in a Budapest studio with the markings of the barn floor plan laid out exactly to scale. Will would switch roles between Henry and Junior, and then we would look at the footage of what we shot in Glennville in order to emulate our movements again.
One of my favorite moments is when you kiss the nose of the plane and say, “Like so many of my encounters, it was short and sweet. Thanks, baby.” Is this one of the stranger bits of business you’ve done in your career?
He just has that affinity for planes, doesn’t he? He loves to be flying a G6. He’s happy to have that “planegasm.” After their tours of duty, Will’s character, Henry Brogan, opted to be an assassin, and Baron went for the quieter life. As soon as the call came, they are brothers in arms again, and Baron drops everything to help.
As an actor, are you worried that technology is getting closer and closer to creating entire performances from scratch?
I don’t really think that’ll happen. We’re watching it to some degree when we’re playing video games, aren’t we? In that case, we are using the voice of actors, but as much as artificial intelligence would love to emulate that, you can’t emulate the moment, you know?
Do you notice any commonalities among our greatest filmmakers, such as Ang Lee, Danny Boyle or Ridley Scott?
With these guys, it’s all about “the devil is in the details.” They watch things like a hawk. They don’t miss a beat with it.
Was your involvement in Luke Scott’s Blade Runner 2049 short film, 2036: Nexus Dawn, a by-product of your association with the Scott brothers?
I guess so. I got my first film break working with Tony Scott on Spy Game. Obviously, I worked with Ridley on Prometheus and The Martian. I also worked with him on The Counselor, but I was on the [cutting-room] floor for that one. Working with Luke as well was a wonderful experience. During rehearsals, we’d talk about cloning. So he’s like a chip off the old block. (Laughs) I remember looking at him, thinking, “He’s quite like a young Ridley” in terms of his process, but with his own finesses as well.
Scott Derrickson said that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will be the first bona fide horror movie in the MCU. Are you looking forward to playing with a different kind of tone compared to most Marvel Studios films?
Oh, yeah! I’m really looking forward to embracing that. I’m not a fan of horror, per se. I’m not really into getting shocked very quickly. So it’ll be really fascinating how that will work for me. Obviously, I’ll be in the mechanism of making it, so I should be fine. But, yeah, we’ll see how we go with it.
How long did it take for you to get used to performing Wong’s hand movements without feeling somewhat self-conscious? Obviously, the CG adds a lot to them in post-production.
When I first read that one scene in Infinity War, the nerd in me was jumping up and down as Wong was allowed to show his superpowers. I just did my own thing, to be honest. I just used some of my old moves. From the age of eight to 16, I went to kung fu school. I traded with my mom because I was forced to go to Chinese school on Sunday. My payoff to do it was that I could go to kung fu school after. So one of those moves is a sort of tiger move, really, and I just incorporated that into the film, which no one seemed to mind. I was always a little bit self-conscious with the VFX team, who were constantly shouting instructions like, “You’re doing it right now!” Until they input the stunning visual wizardry, I look like I’m clearing giant spider cobwebs. You’re very vulnerable.
Wong saved Tony Stark’s life in Infinity War when he portaled Cull Obsidian to Antarctica or wherever. As a thank you, Tony invited Wong to his wedding. I found this interesting, since Wong ended up going to Tony’s “wedding,” only it was production’s code name for his funeral.
Yeah, I think we caught on when everyone was wearing black at the costume fitting. That was quite the one-shot that particular day.
In between takes, was everyone in good spirits despite the somber material?
Yeah. Obviously, it was somber during the takes, but there was quite a bit of excitement about what was going down.
Wong discovered Beyonce in the first Doctor Strange film. What pop star would you like Wong to discover in the next movie?
I don’t really know, to be honest, but, yeah, he was quite partial to Beyonce, wasn’t he?
Do you have a rough idea of when you’ll begin shooting Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness?
I’m the last person to ask about dates. It’ll be sometime next year.
I’ve noticed for a while that once you’re in the Disney family, they’re really good about providing even more opportunities. Do you think your existing relationship with Disney helped fast-track your Lady and the Tramp casting?
I don’t think so. I think they just came to me independently with that. If that was the case, I’m due for some more Disney jobs. (Laughs) To play the bulldog in Lady and the Tramp was a lovely opportunity.
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