Benedict Wong on the Passion Behind ‘Nine Days’ and Heartache Over ‘Deadly Class’ [Interview]

Benedict Wong on the Passion Behind ‘Nine Days’ and Heartache Over ‘Deadly Class’ [Interview]

Unborn souls want to go to Earth. That’s the story of Edson Oda’s ambitious feature directorial debut, Nine Days. It’s an epic concept told with intimacy and simplicity. In the film, it’s Will’s (Winston Duke) job to decide which soul has the pleasure or displeasure of experiencing life on Earth. Will’s righthand man is Kyo, played by Benedict Wong.

Over the years, Wong has become well-known for his work in genre projects. Years ago, he stood out in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Since then, he’s gained recognition for his work with the likes of Ridley Scott, Marvel, and Ang Lee, appearing in films like The Martian and Doctor Strange. He’s one of those actors that’s always a delight to see on the big screen or, in the case of Marco Polo and Deadly Class, the small screen.

We sat down with Wong to talk about Nine Days, his career, and the untimely demise of Deadly Class.

How satisfying has the reception been for this movie?

It’s incredible. It’s been about 18 months, 20 months, just from the conception of reading a script like that to now. I’m 30 years in the business now, and you know the rarity of a gem of a script. Just like everybody else, I just went on a plane to Utah, and with little budget, told this amazing story, I think. You can do a lot with passion.

What I did find is just that this movie is having a real effect on audiences. They have their own personal moment of deeper inner reflection. And a couple of times at the Sundance screening, there was a war veteran suffering PTSD, came up, and he was saying, “I’m Will, that’s me.” There was an Asian family that were crying, and then the mother was like, “I’ve got to go, I need to speak to my son to tell him I love him.” For me, it was like, fuck, this movie is just moving into another chapter elsewhere offscreen. I’m bowled over by that, of how that affects people in a good way.

When you got to the line he’s never lived a life, did that at all change how you saw the character or wanted to play him?

Even though he’s never been alive, he’s still a romantic about life. He vicariously lives through these screens that he’s watching. And he wants to be at a wedding, and he’ll stand and be an audience member. But yeah, he’s kind of like the oldest character, but the biggest kid and innocent as well. But yeah, he’s a co-worker, he’s a devil’s advocate, he’ll put Will in his place. But as we slowly start to find out, he tries to pull him out from the fog.

For such a fantastical job, too, he has such a workman-like approach. 

I think so. As much as this is a high concept, unusual circumstance, you just got to play it for real as well. And it’s just like these two guys, they’re interviewing people for a chance of life on earth, whatever that means. You had to see it as a day-to-day job. I’m going in and I’m seeing these screens. It’s almost you view it as a couple of security guards manning some CCTV stations.

It’s a fantasy movie, but still, it’s a movie in which four people, for a very big scene, are seated at a dinner table. Since you’ve made large-scale fantasy movies, is it nice to have a day where you’re simply just seated at a table? 

It was great. It was a bit of a push at four in the morning. I’m just trying to get these lines out. I think that was probably one of the last scenes, really. Because we didn’t really criss-cross as much, but it was, yeah, it was a great night. Each day, it was like 24 days it took to make this film, and I think everyone was just deep in the trenches with everybody. It was just putting in a shift, I think.

You get a big laugh during that scene when you’re actually off-screen. 

I’m glad I got a laugh off-camera. Well, some don’t [stick around to act off-screen], but you do, you do. You give so much for your fellow actor. I just see it as a play, anyway. It’s just like these cameras happen to be there, and then I just try and see through them all. But yeah, we’re giving it our all. There were times where that particular camera team was on a circular track anyway, so it would just go all the way around. I quite enjoyed that.

What were some other special days for you making this movie?

There was a moment, I think, we were all driving in the desert, the salt flats, the sun setting, and just like driving away from that. Because you’re just so remote, and we’re just this like ragtag crew, just making this movie. It was a really beautiful moment, I felt.

But you know when you’re so knackered, and then you just put in a massive shift, you’re exhausted from it. Or when you have to just really buckle down, you are too tired, you’ve just got to keep pushing yourself, just get that shot or whatever. I think that’s the process. Now there are these fruits of the labor, that I’m seeing now, with audiences connecting to it. For me, that’s it, you just want many people to see this. And to some degree, going in cold, not knowing anything, and just to be a captive audience by this experience really.

So, in terms of getting the shots, does work on a movie this intimate feel the same as a Marvel production?

I’m a Marvel nerd. I love Spider-Man comics. I’m obviously playing a character called Wong. I really enjoy that fantastical, high-budget filmmaking. But then you got this flipside here, where we’ve got this incredible script, but very little money. All you have is passion. That is just like making the wheels turn as well. I think there’s merit in that as well. It’s quite a much more organic feel to it because in some ways, there are not that many different voices at the table. Do you know what I mean?

Yes. Very handmade.

Very handmade.

Speaking of comics, do you have a lot of good memories making Deadly Class? That show was a lot of fun.

Lots of great memories about that show and lots of heartaches. It was tough. I just think if we went on a streamer, we would have still been doing it. I mourn on that particular ensemble of casts because all of those kids were amazing, they were amazing. I was the granddad of the piece. But I was just seeing like, wow, that sort of John Hughes, this new brat pack. I thought, fuck, okay, we’ll just see where they go. But you know what, they’ll all do amazing. It’s just a shame that we can’t have them all together all at that same time. And they were brilliant, they were brilliant together. So yeah, so that was really, really sad. But we’ll see what happens. I’d like to make a feature film, or something like that, of Deadly Class. That’d be cool.

It was huge on Netflix overseas, too. 

Yeah, it was like the number one show everywhere.

Was getting to fight Henry Rollins as enjoyable as it looked? 

To fight the king of the mosh pit, is possibly one of those bucket lists notched [Laughs]. He’s a great guy. It’s so great to go toe-to-toe with him in a kind of fantastical way. He’s got incredible anecdotes [Laughs]. Lovely guy. And, again, I’m slightly heartbroken now, I can’t hang out with him as well. I think that would be quite a cool feature film, getting all the teachers from Deadly Class together to do a mission.

I think that show will keep finding its audience. 

Yeah. I’m from Generation X, and all that particular music as well in the 80s. When I went up into a few Comic-Con signings, and it’s like, you see a dad and his teenage kid coming up for signing the Deadly Class photo or something. It’s really heartwarming when you see the dad explaining to his kids that was me. They’ve been represented well, they’ve properly seen, I don’t think anyone’s visualized it as well as Deadly Class.

***

Nine Days is in theaters now.

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