On the next episode of the Fox series Gotham, called “Wrath of the Villains: A Dead Man Feels No Cold,” James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) are continuing their search for Victor Fries (Nathan Darrow), aka Mr. Freeze. At the same time, Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is being subjected to experimental tests by Hugo Strange (BD Wong), who has a mysterious master plan.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor BD Wong talked about how much fun he’s having with playing such a devious individual, working on such a secretive project, being the villain to the villains, adapting Hugo Strange’s look, being a classic mad scientist, the unusual dynamic between Strange and Ms. Peabody (Tonya Pinkins), and why he hopes the fans in the Twitter universe will begin to side with his character. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
How much fun are you having, playing Hugo Strange?
BD WONG: I am enjoying all of it. It’s really fun to be a fan of the show. I caught up with the show before I walked onto the set, and then I walked into my first episode with Robin Lord Taylor, who is Penguin and who is wonderful. It was really, really fun. That show is really fun for actors.
How did you come to this role, and did you always know that you would be playing Hugo Strange, or were they very secretive about that?
WONG: The two jobs that I have these days – I have a job on Mr. Robot and on Gotham – are extremely secretive about what they’re doing, in a similar kind of way. They did come to me and say that they were looking for somebody to play Hugo Strange, but they didn’t say much else about it, at all. It started out being an 8-episode arc that is now a 9-episode arc, but they wouldn’t say exactly what was going to happen. I still don’t really know what’s going to happen, and that makes it fun. I literally know what’s happening as I’m shooting it. Where we actually end up is completely up in the air to me. So, my research and looking back into Hugo Strange is was all I really had to go on when it came to knowing where it was going to go. It was way better than my expectations of what this character could be, as it evolved.
What is the appeal of a character like Hugo Strange? Do you like the fact that his agenda is a bit mysterious?
WONG: Yes, I think mystery is only an actor’s friend. If you understand how to find the pocket of the mystery in any character that you’re playing, then you’re going to be that much further ahead of the game and the audience will be leaning forward, trying to figure you out. The downside of that is that you can overdo it and be so cryptic that people don’t care anymore. You want to try to find a balance that works for the character. This character is not necessarily as mysterious as he is very colorfully bad. He’s bad, but he also loves being bad and enjoys what he’s doing. He really digs what he’s doing. He’s much more villainous than other characters that I’ve played. I’ve played characters who are antagonists or who are considered villains, but this guy is derived from the comic books, so it’s much more of a real comic book villain, and that makes it really fun. I’m at the right stage in my life where it feels fun to just let go and play and enjoy it.
When you’re the villain to the villains, do you worry about finding justifications for his actions, as an actor, or do you personally just revel in that villainy?
WONG: That’s what I mean when I said that I’m in a different stage in my life now. It’s also very well written with a great expressive language to it. The show has got a heightened reality that everybody is completely on board with. I really like it. I have no problem with it. I’m still at liberty, as the actor, to come into a scene and say, “I have a question about this line,” or “I have a question about why I’m doing this.” You always ask those questions, and very often they lead to some kind of alteration of what you’re saying, or actions are changed. Those are minor things. When I’m reading the whole arc, I totally understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, what’s come about because of what he’s done, or the role that he’s playing in the whole proceeding.
Hugo Strange has a very specific look. How do you feel about his appearance, and did you get a say in that?
WONG: I absolutely did. It was a real collaboration. I really enjoyed that day where we put on nine or ten different looks, with crazy different facial hair. There was a blonde Hugo Strange. There were all of these different manifestations of it. At the end of it, I really lobbied for a look that was the most classically Hugo Strange and that looked the most like the comics, from the ‘40s until recently. The fun part of it for me was adapting that look to me. Originally, Hugo Strange was drawn as a Caucasian guy. That’s always an opportunity for somebody like me to try to make something your own without it being false and without it feeling like a misstep. And so, I really loved trying to adapt all of the elements of his look to my face and my body to see if we could serve up something that feels like Hugo Strange to people, even though I don’t think my core essence isn’t necessarily what people might think he is.
Does Hugo Strange have an agenda and a clear purpose for what he’s doing?
WONG: Yes, he does. He really is a classic mad scientist. In all of the great mad scientists, like Frankenstein and a character I recently played a modern version of in the Jurassic movies, there’s a person that’s really into a certain thing in science, is trying to master that thing, and is no more happy than when he has mastered it, at the cost of everything else, whether it’s other people’s lives or unhappiness, or whatever it is. He’s hellbent on making this thing that’s something related to science happen, and you see that all the time. You even see it in other science-related characters in the Batman world. It’s a real common thing. First of all, it’s fun to play a smart person who really knows what they’re doing. You can’t take that away from them. No matter how bad their choices are or how bad their behavior is, you can’t take away from them that they’re smart or that they’re able to wiggle out from any number of situations that can get them in trouble. That’s what’s fun about the potential relationship between James Gordon and Hugo Strange. There’s a real who’s going to win kind of thing. They both have cross-purposes. Hopefully, that makes for good television.
We see him take a particular interest in Penguin and in what Mr. Freeze is doing. Is he looking for something specific in people, or does he just get inspired when he sees what they’re doing?
WONG: It’s not random. As it goes along, there’s a consistency, and the consistency is that he’s really super-obsessed with reanimation. Victor Fries’ fascination with reanimation is something that Strange is really interested in. Without going into great detail about it, that tends to be his reason for living, in some ways. His relationship with Penguin is more about Penguin’s arc than what he’s into. So, he’s into reanimation and he’s into manipulating people psychologically, and then turning them out into the world. You might see that as a recurring theme, as the season evolves. He takes delight in that. He likes doing that. He’s empowered by that.
There’s such a great dynamic between Hugo Strange and Ms. Peabody, as one of the very few people that he can trust. What is it about her that he finds a trust in, that he doesn’t have with other people?
WONG: I love that relationship. We’ll be shooting late into the night and Tonya [Pinkins] is always there next to me. We just have a really good time, trying to figure out their twisted interplay. It obviously goes back a long way, even though it’s never discussed. He does trust her, and she’s very challenging to them. In some ways, they have a different version of a sado-masochistic relationship. They actually really like and respect each other, but they’re always been mean to each other, too, and they put each other down or dismiss each other’s ideas. It’s really grown. We have found a rhythm that we really like, and I just look forward to all of those scenes with her because we have a really good time. It’s the kind of really intimate relationship where you’ve known somebody a long time and you push each other’s buttons. It’s so much fun, and it gets even better.
It’s fascinating to read the fan reactions to your character, where people are actually upset that Hugo Strange is hurting people that are bad guys and who keep murdering people. How mad do you think those fans are going to get with your character’s actions?
WONG: I love that you’re bringing that up. I’m a very competitive person, and the goal is for them to like you, too. I’m not young and cute, like Robin and Cory [Michael Smith]. They have a lot of female fans who really love them, for good reasons, but I’m not necessarily bringing that to the table, in the same way that they are. But, I think that there’s an opportunity for people to oddly like this character. I don’t know, for sure. You never know until it gets put out there in the world. The villains climb all over each other trying to win, and the audience is always going to take a side. You just hope that a good portion of the audience is saying that they like you and that they’re rooting for you. I’m waiting for the tide to turn, frankly, in the Twitter universe. I can only defend my actions towards these horrible people.
Gotham airs on Monday nights on Fox.