You know BD Wong as the stoic psychiatrist Dr. George Huang on Law & Order: SVU, or for his enthralling performance as Whiterose on Mr. Robot (for which he earned an Emmy nod). But until you see Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, you haven’t fully seen just how versatile — and lovable — the veteran actor truly is.
Comedy Central’s newest series is based on Awkwafina’s (real name Nora Lum) life, back when she was a slacker stoner living with her dad Wally and grandma (played by the inimitable Lori Tan Chinn) and before she became a famous actress and rapper.
While the show follows Nora’s zany ways (The identity fraud! The drugs! A whole episode on queefing!), it really takes off when things center around her family, which also includes her techy cousin Edmund, portrayed by Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang.
Wong’s earnest and layered performance as Wally is the show’s secret weapon. He’s sweet and supportive, fretful and hilariously frank all at once. He smiles as easily as he snarks. In one episode, Wally comforts his self-loathing daughter by telling her, “You are so not mediocre,” just seconds after he makes fun of her for impulsively changing her hair. “You looked like Tommy Chong, you looked like s—,” he says.
“Different than anything I’ve ever done”
Already a huge fan of Awkwafina, it wasn’t hard to get Wong on board. “I just jumped at the chance to do it,” he tells EW. “She has the kind of creative energy that is very refreshing to me and trustworthy. I really trust her. As an artist, as a creative person, as a personality. I think, ‘Oh ok, anything that person wants to do, no matter what it is, I’ll be up for that.'”
The role was also a good fit for Wong, who wanted to try something different from the serious roles he’s known for. “[Actors], we’re so hungry to have a creative experience that’s refreshing to us and this was to me, super refreshing, very different than anything I’ve ever done before. In process, in content, in tone and all that,” he explains.
For one, Wally actually gets to have a love life and romantic interest on the show, which many of Wong’s previous characters on television did not. That’s not uncommon for Asian Americans on TV; as research shows, Asian American and Pacific Islanders often have limited screen time and rarely get to have personal lives outside of the main protagonist’s storyline. That was certainly the case for Dr. Huang on SVU.
“That was really new for me and I really appreciated that,” Wong says of the new role, adding that he’d “never had that experience before.”
Additionally, Wong says the loose environment on set allowed the actors to improvise and personalize their characters, versus the “auteur-driven” projects he’s been on previously that are focused on one person’s vision.
Many fans will be delighted at the who’s who of Asian pop-culture on the show, with guest stints from the likes of Harry Shum Jr., Jamie Chung, Simu Liu, and of course, Ming-Na Wen. While many audiences haven’t seen so many Asian stars on screen all at once (or even on one show), for Wong, it’s a family reunion.
Wong was Shang to Wen’s Mulan in the Disney animated film, and the two have gone on to appear in numerous projects together, like Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl and SVU, on which Wen played Wong’s onscreen sister.
“It was nice. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. And we always have a thing whenever I see her like, ‘Oh, yes, we did that thing together,'” he says. “It’s the kind of thing that became a whole other thing. And so when we see each other, we’re really always very positive. I love it.”
Wong also describes Chinn as his aunt of sorts, as she’s looked out for him since they co-starred in the 1988 play M. Butterfly, which scored Wong a Tony Award. He also says Deborah Craig, who appeared as Nancy the realtor in one episode, is one of his closest friends.
The actor is humble when discussing what he brought to the table as Wally, emphasizing it wasn’t hard to play someone as nice and adoring of his daughter as Awkwafina’s real-life dad Wally, whom he got to meet. When asked how he’d respond if audiences resonated with his character, Wong brings it back to Wally.
“You always want that. You always want someone to notice you or to appreciate the specific bits of what you’re doing or to see themselves in it, or to like the person, and so I would love that if that were the case,” he says. “The audience meeting Wally in the show allows them to understand her a little bit because when it comes down to it, he’s a very sweet person and he’s really on her side — even though you know they have snarky moments with each other — that he really does love her very, very much.”
Ultimately, Wong hopes the audience knows the characters on the show are coming from a place of truth and based on real people and stories as opposed to broad generalizations.
“I hope that the community, the Asian-American community sees it that way, the way that I see it, and they understand that the Nora character that she’s playing is a very refreshing, warts-and-all character,” he says. “That is really wonderful because it’s related to the truth to who Nora actually is, but that’s it. It’s not really based on anything else. It’s not based on any stereotypes or anything like that. And that’s wonderful to see. I want people to notice that.”
Now that the show’s been renewed for a second season (before it even premieres!), Wong discusses the possibility of playing Wally for a few more installments: “Oh yeah, for sure. Definitely.”
Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens debuts Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 10:30 p.m. ET on Comedy Central.