Actor and alumnus BD Wong returns to campus to share his story with students

Author: Jamie Oppenheim
March 15, 2024
Actor BD Wong sits in a chair on a stage across from a woman
Photo Credit: Photo by Corinne Allen

The Tony Award winner discussed the challenges he had to overcome as a queer Asian American actor

Award-winning actor and alumnus BD Wong recently returned to the stage at San Francisco State University not to perform, but to share insights gleaned from his decades-long career in film, theatre and television. A Tony Award winner for his groundbreaking role in “M. Butterfly” on Broadway, Wong is also known for appearances in films like “Mulan” and the “Jurassic Park” and “Father of the Bride” series.

While on campus at San Francisco State’s Little Theatre Tuesday, March 12, Wong answered questions from students and faculty as part of two forums, one hosted by Professor of Theatre and Dance Yutian Wong and the other by Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Amy Sueyoshi and Asian American Studies Professor Russell Jeung. Wong talked about his craft, shared advice for students hoping to launch careers in the arts and discussed the lessons he’s learned navigating the entertainment industry as a queer person of color.

Wong began acting in high school. The San Francisco native credited his high school drama teacher for instilling a sense of confidence in his ability to perform. Often cast as a lead in school productions, he never thought about his race. Then he came to SF State … where, unfortunately, he felt invisible. It was the late 1970s, and he was the only Asian American student in the theatre department. Faculty didn’t know how to serve him, he told students.

“They were certainly not programming anything that I could do that would have helped me assume my potential,” he said. “Nor were they transcending race and giving me roles that were not related to who I was as a person.”

Since then, the University has made a concerted effort when it comes to fostering a diverse, equitable and inclusive community. But Wong’s experience at the time caused him to drop out of college in 1980 and pursue theatre in New York City. Eight years later he made a huge splash in “M. Butterfly,” launching a career that would later include recurring roles in several TV series, including “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Oz” and “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens.” He accepted an honorary doctoral degree from SF State at the University’s 2022 Commencement, and he recently returned to San Francisco again to star in the play “Big Data” at the American Conservatory Theatre.

Though things have improved for Asian American actors since he began his career, Wong says he still wishes there were better parts and more representation. He’s had to learn to speak up and take action to open doors.

“Nothing good can happen from being passive, so I taught myself and started to enjoy fostering the conversation. It began with myself and then it bled into having this conversation with other Asian American actors who I could relate to and who could relate to me and that led to a form of activism,” he said. “It was small battles being won and them getting larger and larger. And today we have a presence that we simply didn’t have before. It’s partly because of this whole journey of micro-successes and discussions.”

Wong advises students starting out in the industry to be open to any role, whether it’s as an extra, a production assistant or a stand-in. It’s important to get exposure and to learn, he says.

“I did extra work, and it was really helpful to me just to be an observer on a set to watch the professional principal actors work with a camera,” he said. “I was in crowd scenes and stuff like that. That’s not fun, but I found it very valuable. I was fascinated by the process.”

Theatre Arts student Connor Diaz was in the audience Tuesday and found the event invaluable. “It was just really incredible to see someone in the industry explore all aspects of the craft,” Diaz said. “As a performer, I really want to invest myself in other people’s work. From someone with so much experience it was truly a gift to have that.”