Benedict Wong talks Doctor Strange casting and controversies

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Jan 8, 2019, 11:00 AM EST (Updated)

Actor Benedict Wong's Doctor Strange character of Wong, the ultra-serious librarian of Kamar-Taj, might as well be the new template for how to scene steal in a blockbuster film.

While the British actor is very well-known in his home country for his prowess in Shakespearean roles as well as myriad TV and film appearances, Wong is a relatively new face for U.S. audiences. Many got their first exposure to his thespian skills in Prometheus (2012) and Netflix's big-budget series Marco Polo ... but now millions more the world over know Wong as an official player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With Doctor Strange out on Digital HD this week and Blu-ray and DVD on Feb. 28, Wong spoke with us about what's it's been like for an old-school comics fan to suddenly find himself in a Marvel film.

It's no secret that big blockbusters usually start filming with a very changeable script, so how fleshed out was Wong when the process started?

Benedict Wong: I think we were definitely creating him together. Having gotten the job and looking at the source material, where certain aspects of the character in the '60s was so servile and a manservant, we put a lot of that to bed. It was a real credit to [director] Scott [Derrickson] and [producer] Kevin [Feige] for changing that. And I added a sardonic twist to Wong. He's got a cantankerous feel and he's little bit of a grump. There's a fierceness to him, but he understands what lies ahead. He's a drill sergeant and an intellectual mentor who is ready to guide [Strange] into where the darker forces lie.

I'm a fan of the Brit comedy, The IT Crowd, so I definitely saw some of the stern Countdown contestant Prime in your Wong.

(Laughs) Sweet Countdown!

In all seriousness, there's a wonderful balance of severity and wit to your performance. Did you find that sweet spot in rehearsals or in discussions with Scott?

Yeah, we played around with it a little bit. I was doing Marco Polo at the time [they were casting] so I auditioned and sent out a tape from Budapest. When I looked at the page, I thought about playing it in a different way. I think it makes for an interesting dynamic [with Strange] to be chalk and cheese. He almost quells Strange's ego and pats him down a little bit, which is very interesting to see in a superhero. It's sort of taking a peg down and I like what we did with it.

You and Benedict Cumberbatch both share the same first name. On set, did you go by One and Two or last names to avoid confusion?

(Laughs) We were fighting for first place. It was some initial neck cranes, but I have a shorthand as well. People call me Benny. And as long as they put Benedict on my paycheck, I don't care.

The core Doctor Strange cast in the Nepal setting was pretty much all British. How was it working with so many familiars?

Well, Benedict is bloody great. It's the first time we've worked together but we've known each other for some time. With Chiwetel [Ejiofor], I did Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and The Martian (2015). We all start in the theater in England. I remember seeing [Benedict] in Hedda Gabler (2005) and he was just incredible. There was a real intimacy at the Almeida Theatre, where I saw his production, and it was fantastic. It's amazing his meteoric rise. And I think he helmed our wonderful film with aplomb. It's such an honor and pleasure to be amongst an incredible cast which has a lot of diversity.

Many critics would disagree, especially the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One.

Well, we have two strong female leads with Tilda and Rachel [McAdams]. We have Mordo played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and then Mads Mikkelsen. They strengthened the role of Wong. And going back to Tilda's character, the true essence of The Ancient One, when it's all boiled down, is someone with a timeless, ethereal, otherworldly quality. There's no actor or actress who can play that but Tilda Swinton. It was a real master stroke and she's a wonderful actress and person. Marvel has thought long and hard about this, so it's not as if they are shooting from the hip.

In your personal life, you admit to being an avowed Spider-Man guy and Derrickson has already confirmed that Wong will have "a strong presence in the MCU" moving forward. So what did you respond to most in Tom Holland's take on the character in Avengers: Civil War?

Yeah! There was a real zest in that film with Tom Holland and Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther. They were the two standout characters for me. All credit to the other guys, but what a great way to introduce two characters. It's drawing back to the true essence of who Peter Parker is. He's just a kid trying to deal with his own teenage life and happens to have to be a man and a hero at night. And again, Black Panther is someone you haven't really heard about, as well as Doctor Strange, and even the Guardians of the Galaxy. I just love how Marvel is doing it and exploring these stories. We're lapping it up and loving it.

In the Avengers films, we often get juicy backstory on some of the supporting characters. Do you want Wong to get revealed more in Infinity War or do you like him enigmatic?

I think that will be interesting if we flip back through time. There is an enigmatic quality about Wong, because we don't know a great deal about him yet. It's definitely something we hope to explore, but only time will tell how it will unfold for Wong in the Marvel Universe.

Until then, remember: Sweet Countdown!!!!

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