Born and raised in San Francisco’s Sunset neighborhood, BD Wong has become a force to be reckoned with both in Hollywood and on TV. Many know him from his role as Dr. George Huang on Law & Order SVU, but recently he's showed up in popular shows like Mr. Robot, American Horror Story and Netflix's Bird Box.
The actor jumped at the opportunity to return to the local stage in Bay Area playwright Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap at ACT’s Geary Theater. Set in 1989, the play revolves around Manford Lum, a renowned sidewalk basketball player from San Francisco’s Chinatown who talks his way onto a college team invited to an exhibition game in China. The smack-talking American coach prepares to take on his protégé, played by Wong, but Lum’s actions– and world events–steal the show.
What’s your Bay Area origin story?
I was born and raised in San Francisco. My childhood home was out on 40th Ave in the Sunset. My mom and brother are still living there.
I grew up with the Geary and aspiring to be an actor because of the performances I saw there. Performing on that stage is very personal. It is a deep kind of gratification, like being drafted by your home team. It’s incredible.
How did this opportunity in The Great Leap come about?
I did the Great Leap last year off-Broadway in New York. Then I found out they were programming it in San Francisco at ACT. I called and asked about it, and they asked if I would consider doing it again. It was an opportunity to do the same play in a much bigger space; there’s a completely different orientation to the audience. As an actor, it is so rare to do the same part in a different production. It just never happens.
Do your friends call you BD, Brad or Darryl?
Friends from high school call me Brad. Some have crossed over. I don’t make anybody call me anything in particular. Now, it's kind of all mushed together. I have a group text going on with my friends from high school who are all coming to see the play, and they mostly call me Brad.
What is it like doing live performance versus television or film?
You know how people prefer to talk in person about some topics? Because nothing can replace the intimacy or quality of communication when the conversation is with someone in the same room. Same with theater. Experiencing theater is a mutually beneficial experience for both the actor and audience.
With TV, it’s one-sided and the actor is kind of cut off from that intimate quality of communication. The actor doesn’t get the other side of the conversation. I’m not there when you are watching my performance. I don’t get to enjoy you enjoying it. It’s like being at a party and getting a laugh. There is a human contact that doesn’t happen, say, when you post the same joke on Facebook.
I like all kinds of storytelling so try to act in as many mediums as I can. It’s fun and I’m lucky to be able to be hired in any of these. But there is something really great when the audience is there, enjoying your presence with you.
Is your family planning to attend your performances?
I’m doing this in large part for my mom. I know she likes to have these kinds of experiences. She is very excitedly making plans to see the play. I’m sure the staff of the theater will know her very well. They will find her a chair to sit in so she can just watch the second act of the show. She sets up little groups to come. I’m really into that and watching her have these experiences; it’s a lot of fun for our family.
What are your favorite theater programs in the city?
I had a really intense and wonderful relationship with my drama teacher at Lincoln High. She is the reason I even considered a professional career, because she believed in me and helped eradicate any doubts I had about acting. She helped convince my parents that I should go and do it.
I saw a lot of the musicals at Lowell. The drama department was really strong and got to see all the productions. My nieces have gone through San Francisco Arts Education Project which is a great program. I also gave commencement speech at the Oakland School of the Arts (in 2016); that's an incredible school.
I was a very active as a subscriber to the Curran’s Best of Broadway program (launched in 1976). After high school, I was an usher at the Golden Gate and went to the Orpheum at the Best of Broadway series.
When people recognize you in the city, what do they say to you?
People know me from all different things. I find it very uncomfortable sometimes, I don’t always know how to interact with strangers. This holiday season was full of people who have seen Bird Box. That is one of the more “seen” movies that I’ve done.; it attracted an intense viewership.
See BD Wong in The Great Leap at ACT’s Geary Theater, March 6-31, 2019.