BY CAITY WEAVER
In a show crammed with enigmas, Whiterose is Mr. Robot's sphinx. She's a hacker and a politician who schemes in Mandarin and lies in English. She wears a suit and tie to the office but is more comfortable at home in a fetching skirt set—not a character whose heels just any actor could fill. So to play the transgender Chinese government official/dark-web overlord, Mr. Robot enlisted male actor BD Wong, who's made a career out of popping up in unexpected places (from Broadway to Disney movies to those weekend-long Law & Order: SVU marathons), to embody the woman, the myth, the legend. GQ talked to Wong about the perils of learning Mandarin phonetically, the trouble of tracking down a super-secret Jurassic Park script, and the surprisingly lucrative benefit of being forgotten.
GQ: You don't speak Mandarin, but your Mr. Robot character does. How do you perform a scene in Mandarin if you don't speak Mandarin?
BD WONG: You painstakingly learn the lines phonetically, then learn what each word means, then understand how the word order is all different from your language.
Do people who speak Mandarin say, "You nailed it" ?
My performance in Mandarin is going to be most enjoyable to people who don't speak Mandarin. If I spoke Chinese at all, it would be Cantonese, because it's my family language, so that accent is in my ear. And I did a lot of work learning my first Mandarin scene before realizing I was speaking Mandarin with a Cantonese accent. I had to re-learn it, and I was really tentative and uncomfortable. And at the end of my first scene, I said to Sam [Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot], "Listen, can we go dub whatever is imperfect in the recording studio after?" I did that, but it's not perfect, because the rhythms are what you're stuck with when you're matching [your voice to the mouth on-screen]. So for my next Mandarin scene, I had a coach to help me overcome my Cantonese tendencies.
I made the mistake of going on Reddit and looking at what Chinese people had to say about my work. I was relieved to find out [that most of the criticism is] for the first scene, not for the second. I feel pretty good about the second scene.
Besides basic Mandarin, what skills have you honed as a perennial guest star?
It's a very weird, random kind of skill set. If somebody came to me and said, "I'm going to guest star on my first show, "Id tell them you have to do more preparation than you would as a series regular, because, one, your work is more concentrated—your screen time is lower, so you have less opportunity to mess up. And you don't want to be the squeaky wheel. If there is a problem on set, let it be the weather or the lead actor being temperamental.
It's like being a guest in someone's home. You want to be asked back.
If you're really a pain in the ass, they'll figure out a way to not let you come back. You could be there for like an eight-episode arc, and four episodes into it, they can go, "No, we cannot take this anymore. Let's just kill this person right now."
Mr. Robot has famously tight security to keep plot twists under wraps. Are you given full scripts, or do you just see your isolated scenes?
They want to just send me my scenes. The series regulars all know much more than I do. They have a sit-down with Sam before each season starts, and they get to be told what's going to happen to them. But if I really pitch a fit, which I do now, I get a script. They have a guy drive it up in a car, and I have to sign a paper. It's really, really strict security, and rightly so.
How does it compare to the security for the Jurassic Park movies?
I did an audition on videotape for Steven Spielberg in the early '90s. In the book, my character had a really spectacular arc, with this big death scene. Eventually I heard, "Steven Spielberg wants to give you this part. Your date on the movie is going to be such and such a date." I thought, How could this be one day? I think I should read the full script. Well, there was a whole thing about, "You have to go to Steven Spielberg's office and sit in the waiting room and read the script there, and then you have to hand it back." So I did. And of course I wanted to be in the movie no matter what.
The only other movie where that's happened was Jurassic World. "You cannot read the script, but you can drive out to Culver City, to an undisclosed location, to this secret production office, for a movie called Ebb Tide"—which was a code word for Jurassic Park IV—"and you can read the script there."
What was it like coming back to Jurassic Park after so many years? You basically turned into a recurring guest star.
After the first movie got made, I was really bummed out, because I felt that they had given a short shrift to this character that was really great. To be quite honest, I felt that they didn't value the ethnic part because they didn't have some spectacular ethnic actor that they could put in the part and make it shiny. And they didn't even resolve the [character's story]—everyone evacuated the [park], and they never told what happened to [my character]. That felt really lame.
But my friend, who is a big action-movie-franchise fan, said, "That's going to come back to you, because it was unresolved." And I was like, "I don't see that coming back to me. That disappeared." And what he said was exactly right. They made a second movie, and then they made a third movie, and then they used up all the characters that they could revisit [besides me].
Thank God they forgot about you the first time.
They were like, "Well, what else is there? Oh, this one person we didn't explain! What happened to him?" I got a call from Jurassic World director] Colin Trevorrow, and he said, "I want to bring this character back." I was like, "Sounds good to me!"