The chameleon in Wong
by Faridul Anwar Farinordin
Anthony Wong, who stars as Ghost in 'Matrix Reloaded' is no stereotype of an Asian actor. His love of diverse roles on stage and in cinema matches his love of good food. FARIDUL ANWAR FARINORDIN writes.
ANTHONY Wong appreciates good food. Just ask this well-built Australian actor, who stars as Ghost in the current blockbuster The Matrix Reloaded, to list down eateries in his Sydney neighbourhood and temporary Los Angeles home and he will would be happy to write them down for you - including their respective website addresses! And it is also because of food, apart from giving Press interviews to promote the movie, that brought him to Malaysia.
"The food here is incredible," he said in a heavy Australian accent during an interview with Life & Times, recently, referring to places he visited since his arrival in the country such as Penang, Ipoh and Kuala Kangsar. He was in Malaysia "mainly for a holiday because I've heard so much about it and its food" but added he was here and came to the country for the first time in 1998 to do a TV series Tanamera: Lion of Singapore, which was shot in Singapore and Kota Tinggi in Johor.
It didn't take long for him to finally ask: "What are the places where I can find good hawker food here? Where can I get good satay? How far is Kajang from here? Can you tell me where Jalan Alor (hawker food haven in KL) is? Yes, food and acting play a great role in Wong's life. Growing up with his two sisters, his parents run a Chinese restaurant in Sydney. He took up acting lessons as a part-time course while studying at Macquarie University, Sydney, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in political science, in 1986.
To date, Wong is one of Australia's most acclaimed and diverse actors and a veteran performer with more than 30 Australian and international hit TV programmes, films and stage productions to his name. He is also an accomplished singer, writer, and stand-up comedian.
In 1992, he won the Victorian Green Room Best Actor Award (theatre) for his performance as a Filipino transvestite in Sex Diary of an Infidel, which also netted him a Sydney Critics Circle Award nomination. He made his Hollywood debut in The Matrix Reloaded and will reprise his role as the weapons expert Ghost in The Matrix Revolutions later this year.
"Being an Asian actor, I don't have the same scope of roles that a Caucasian has. So I have to be more diverse and competitive. I would like to think that as an actor I am an all-rounder," said Wong the actor who also specialises in different English accents including American, British-Cockney, Italian, Greek and Canadian. When he first got the role in Matrix Reloaded, "I was shocked that I was not involved in it a bit more. My role wasn't that big. I asked the Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry, the directors) and they said they have so many characters they want to develop but couldn't do it in one movie. Otherwise, the film would have 40 story lines.
"So they decided to tell the story through other mediums - the Enter The Matrix video games and the Animatrix anime series. Each medium tells the story of different characters. Well, I got to play a much bigger role in the third instalment and the video games." A former reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald newspapers, Wong said he finds it easier to establish a rapport with journalists during interviews because "I have been on the other side, so I know how it's like to get a good story".
"A lot of actors are very suspicious of the media during interviews. They constantly wonder what interviewers are really trying to get out of them - you know, that kind of attitude," he said, adding "I've always loved journalism and having a background in the field surely helps me in doing research for my roles." But Wong said he didn't get to do much research for getting into his role as the weapons expert Ghost, whom he referred to as a "Zen Buddhist Aztec killer - one part Chow Yun-fat and one part Dalai Lama".
"Except for the main stars - Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Ann Moss - other cast members in Reloaded did not receive the full script when they received the offer to play the characters. Basically, we accepted the roles then on faith that they would be great roles. I didn't don't know whether I was going to got to play a prostitute, a priest or a panda bear! "It was only when I arrived in San Francisco (the movie location) that I saw the full script for the first time, so I couldn't prepare much for the role. To me, it was quite scary to arrive in the US for my first blockbuster Hollywood project without doing a full research on my role." Although Wong finally received his scripts both for Reloaded, Revolutions and the game, he said other actors, such as Helmut Bakaitis who played the role of The Architect, only received the script for the scenes they were in. "In the movie, The Architect is the father of the Matrix, the creator if you like, and they didn't even let him see the full script - that's how secretive they were," he said, adding "our names were printed on in every single page on the script in big letters, so if it one goes missing, or was stolen, they could trace it back to the owners! Referring to the cast as a "close-knit family", Wong said events that took place during the filming of the movie bonded the actors and crew together.
"While making the movie, we lost singer/actress Aaliyah, who died after shooting a few scenes for the movie, and Gloria Foster who played The Oracle. The circumstances humanised everything and unified us all as a cast. Also, Jada Pinkett Smith (who played Niobe) brought her husband Will and children along, so that mellowed everybody (having children on the set)." Did he get to hang out with Keanu and Fishburne? "Yes, Keanu and I always played ping pong together - he is actually a very shy man and so down-to-earth. Fishburne is also very friendly. You know, before meeting them, I had heard a lot of bad stuff about Hollywood stars and their eccentricities but I didn't experience any of that while making this movie." Wong named Ang Lee as his hero because "he could've been stereotyped as an Asian director and asked to do kungfu movies, but instead he transcended that by doing different genres of movies (Sense and Sensibility, Hulk, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)".
"My goal is to do more work where I get to portray different sides of my personalities. To me, acting allows me to tap into all aspects of the human condition/psyche. It's a humbling experience. Just when you think you know it all, you'll get a completely different perspective on life once you step into someone else's shoes." Currently commuting between Sydney and Los Angeles where he is staying at a friend's apartment (and visiting good restaurants there regularly), Wong's next move is to make it big in Hollywood. "Following the success of Reloaded, people started to know me. So I have to base myself in California to allow me to take up more acting jobs there," said Wong who hopes to take on more challenging film roles in film as well as Broadway shows in New York.
One thing is for sure, he doesn't want "stereotypical straitjacket" Asian roles which he has spent years trying to break free from by doing all sorts of performances from a stand-up comedy to musicals, as well as taking up various unconventional characters ranging in roles from a transsexual to a priest.
"In September, I will start doing promotional work activities for Revolutions. It's quite sad that I haven't seen much of my family, but I guess I have to go with the flow. You have to grab the moment to make it in the showbiz industry," he said, adding that his current project is a theatre production in Melbourne called Coup d'Etat.
With the growing interest to cast Australian actors such as Eric Bana, Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger and Hugo Weaving in Hollywood, does he see an opportunity to make it big there? "A director once told me that the audience likes to see Aussie men because they are a lot rawer than the American men - they scratch their armpits during interviews and so on. There is a certain rugged masculinity about them, compared to the Americans who are more interested in their physical appearances.
Although Wong is "certainly not a prototype of that", he hoped that his eclectic acting abilities will do much of the talking. And he may just succeed.