‘Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’ Star BD Wong Was Told ‘Asian People Aren’t Funny’ Early in His Career

Early on in his career, BD Wong wasn’t allowed to “be funny.”

“I grew up as a young actor feeling like casting directors and producers would say to us, a way’s back, ‘Asian people are not funny,’” Wong said during a live interview on the “Variety After-Show,” streamed via Variety’s Instagram, getting emotional. “They would — I’m gonna cry by saying it. This is a thing that would happen. And we had, for many years, a reputation of not being able to break through that misnomer.” 

Consider it broken. As Awkwafina’s generously coiffed dad Wally in “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens,” the Tony Award winner is part of an all-star, multi-generational comedic cast that includes Awkwafina in the title role of Nora, Lori Tan Chinn as Nora’s grandmother and “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bowen Yang as Nora’s over-achieving cousin Edmund. 

The show, which aired its freshman season finale Wednesday night, is inspired by Awkwafina’s (real name Nora Lum) own experience as a Chinese-Korean American growing up in Flushing, N.Y., raised by a single dad and her grandmother. And while heavy on the raunch and Awkwafina’s own quirky comedic sense, it doesn’t shy away from many of the dual-culture issues familiar to many first- or second-generation Americans. 

In the season finale, for example, Nora travels to China as the American representative for her cousin’s digital app, only to find herself at odds with her Chinese co-workers and the non-Chinese ex-pats she meets; she ultimately returns to Queens, where she feels most at home. The tension of being both American and Asian — especially upon visiting one’s ancestral homeland — is one that resonated with Wong. 

“There’s a kind of disillusionment that can happen and yet there is also a kind of enlightenment that you can experience because of it,” said Wong, adding that it’s particularly relevant now as Asian Americans struggle with bigotry and risks of being physically and verbally assaulted because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Mulan” actor Tzi Ma recently revealed to Variety that he was verbally attacked at a Whole Foods grocery store in Pasadena, Calif. Wong — who is based in New York City — said while he has not been targeted, he has plenty of friends who have been and appreciates those like Ma sharing their stories. And when he does venture outside of his home — which is rare these days — he only feels a “qualified kind of safe.” 

“I shouldn’t have to feel apprehensive about looking people in the eye,” said Wong. 

Ironically, then, it’s the calming presence of one of his many film, television and stage roles that Wong said he is recognized the most for: Dr. George Huang on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which he played for 11 years. 

Wong admitted he used to grow impatient with people who called Huang their favorite, only because he did not feel Huang was ever given much to do outside the context of helping to solve cases. He has since come around to the merits of the FBI agent/forensic psychiatrist with the soothing bedside manner.

“They like his voice. They like the way he talks…He’s the order part of ‘Law & Order,’ right? He brings a sense of, like, calm to the situation by explaining something that seems completely crazy,” said Wong. He added with a laugh, “His personality relaxes them. My personality would never actually relax them.”

Watch the full “Variety After-Show” with BD Wong above.

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