USA's wildly popular series "Mr. Robot" explores the worlds of hackers and major corporations - and what happens when the two mix. Rami Malek stars as Elliott Alderson, a young programmer who works for a large corporation by day and an underground hacker group at night. But BD Wong, who plays transgender hacker Whiterose, steals the show in the second-half of the first season. NBC OUT chatted with Wong over email about the hit show, its upcoming second season and diverse representation in television.
What interested you in joining the cast of “Mr. Robot” and this character in particular?
Oh, my managers and agents know how to get me interested in just about anything! I really trust them. In this case, though, it was pretty easy. There’s a new show that everyone is talking about. The creator of the show wants you to play a pivotal role that has a huge reveal halfway through the season that is supposed to somehow blow the audience’s mind. No, you don’t have to audition. Like, duh!
I wasn’t sure where this show creator, Sam Esmail, was coming from when the idea of this character’s specific trans identity was floated. So I asked for a phone call with him and he made very clear that this was not an arbitrary, derivative choice, it was pretty deeply thought out and then I was on board.
Your character was revealed last season to be a transgender woman. What was the response to this revelation from your audience?
Well, it wasn’t really “revealed” as it was simply the way she was introduced - it’s her apparent reality, and it’s actually quite ordinary (I think this is an important thing to note). At this point, I can kinda divide my fans into two groups - people who are general fans attached to the projects I work on, and then more intense fans who follow what I am specifically doing more closely. It’s satisfying to see people from the first camp move into the second camp! The fans in the second camp are always really supportive that I try to play wildly different characters whenever possible, and with Whiterose I think they really loved seeing something like this that was out there separated from the other things I've done in the past.
Was there any negative response to you – a cisgender actor - playing a trans character, as opposed to a trans actress playing the role?
There are a lot of people, including me, who are burning to see trans actors (I prefer the gender neutral “actors” to refer to everyone who acts) illuminating trans roles and giving them truth that cisgender actors won’t have. This is exactly the same to me, an Asian American actor, as praying for the time when Caucasian producers and actors will refrain from re-appropriating Asian roles. So a few trans activists have spoken up, and I think that’s great. I feel kind of like, as a minority with limited opportunities, I did not have the luxury of being able to turn down this role based on my wish that in an ideal world a trans actor could illuminate this part with "authentic trans insight". I will also add for whatever it’s worth that Whiterose does have both female and male personae. So I did basically cash in that chip I got as a minority at the beginning of the game, decided to accept the role, and I also accept the responsibility and consequences of that. I hope that more trans actors will start being cast in trans roles and I hope that I can also continue to play a role in broadening opportunities for actors from all disenfranchised communities.
Whiterose is a complex character. Do you think there has been an increase in multidimensional roles for actors of color as well as LGBT actors?
I think that’s possibly a fair assessment, but there are still also a lot of lousy, one-dimensional roles for actors of color and LGBT actors as well. For all actors, really. It’s always a real mixed bag. Things are definitely not the same as when I was a kid wondering how the heck I fit into American culture, scouring the American media for representations of people who were like me and rarely finding them. It’s a little bit better now than that.
What more can be done in terms of increased representation in terms of sexuality, gender identity and ethnicity in television and film?
This is one of those things like a lot of things, where Education is Queen. A couple decades ago, people didn’t even really know about all the stuff we are talking about a little more now, stuff like “culturally re-appropriating” roles or “whitewashing,” so that indicates small steps forward. Really, the more some topic of questionable taste or integrity or exclusion becomes household language, the closer it can get to being eradicated. So we keep talking about these supposedly marginal issues until the point when your average Joanne is talking about them around the dinner table, and that’s when you will see some progress. Because it’s the ignorance about these things that keeps the topics in the dark and the ignorance about the topics keeps any hope of change at bay: How can we ever expect change to occur on any given issue if we don’t even know that issue exists? For example, the only hope for saving lives through gun control is constantly pointing out how guns are creating widespread harm before our very eyes, but look how hard even that point is to make even when we have tons of examples. But it’s still the right thing to do, to keep citing these examples. So...
Recently there have been campaigns like “Starring John Cho” that have made some noise about the lack of roles for Asian actors. What are your thoughts about that campaign in particular?
I’m really into it. It kind of speaks to what I was saying in the question above: It forces people to see that something is missing by supplying a version of that missing thing which can then make someone say, “Oh I see now how that thing is missing because it’s somewhat surprising to me to see it presented right here in front of me in this way; the supposed ‘irony' of this helps me to be able to identify the void.” Well, it’s two-fold. For the marginalized people it’s such a dream, and something we so want the rest of the world to embrace the way we do, it’s a celebration, in a way, of how far we’ve come and it kind of feels like we’re so close - if only we could just push it over the edge. For the less educated people, the non-marginalized or the privileged people who have no apparent reason to think about this on a day to day basis like we do, it’s possibly an important wake up call. You barely noticed that most movies starred only white people and that wasn’t weird at all to you until we slipped a guy who is popular to y’all with an Asian face in there and made you realize it isn’t that hard to believe that you might actually enjoy that movie, and that’s not a big deal at all, now is it? It demystifies the ignorant notion that white people will only pay to see white people in movies. I mean, that’s a really sickening thought if it were to be true, isn’t it? But who wouldn't wanna see John Cho in just about anything? He’s so goshdarn LIKE-ABLE! His like-ability factor transcends his race. That’s powerful; he’s the perfect poster child for this. So people might think it’s simply amusing or bitter or inconsequential, but it’s actually very insightful, effective, profound.
The second season of "Mr. Robot" premieres Wednesday, July 13, at 10 p.m. on USA.