BD Wong on 'Nora From Queens,' What Bowen Yang Means for Queer Rep.
To many viewers, it may seem inconsequential that BD Wong’s regular guy character Wally in the Comedy Central series Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens engages in a courtship/relationship with a woman. But for the renowned stage and screen actor, Nora’s dad Wally having a girlfriend is a signal of progress. Wong is a pioneer of Asian and gay representation, having played queer roles in M. Butterfly on Broadway, in the movies And the Band Played On and The Normal Heart, and in the USA series Mr. Robot. But he’s never truly been given a character with a love story, and it matters
“After a long line of playing very clinical doctors and scientists and stuff like that, that I’ve also enjoyed doing, [the Nora From Queens character] is something that scratches another edge,” Wong says. On the show, he begins dating Brenda (Jennifer Esposito), a woman he meets in a single-parent support group. “A relationship that a character has is their only opportunity to be a leading character, to be a character that’s important. If you don’t have a relationship or you don’t have a relationship to love, you’re bound to be relegated to the sidelines in any kind of project.”
The show centers on Awkwafina’s pot-smoking, jobless, lovable slacker Nora, who lives, you guessed it, in Queens, N.Y., with her grandma (Orange Is the New Black’s Lori Tan Chinn) and her dad (Wong’s laid-back tech-consultant, Wally). Now in its second season, the show is a stoner comedy of sorts — replete with trippy fantasy scenes in the vein of Broad City — that also investigates cultural issues around Asian identity. A flashback scene in season 2 reveals the anti-Asian racism Wally endured as a kid on the very block where the family still resides.
“Every second season of any show is made or broken by how deep it can go and get into the characters. I feel for a show, which is very light and very silly and kind of nutty, that we have achieved that in a way that really satisfies me,” Wong says.
A Tony and Emmy nominee, Wong has worked alongside towering thespians like John Lithgow and Rita Moreno (in Oz), but he can’t say enough about the Nora From Queens cast. He praises Awkwafina as a “force of nature.” As for his on-screen mom played by Chinn, their working relationship and subsequent friendship go back to Wong’s Broadway debut in 1988’s M. Butterfly. She was a “sister” then who looked out for him, and he now calls her an “auntie.” And with his love interest played by Esposito (Spin City, The Affair, NCIS), Wong says he felt like he “won the lottery.”
“I have never had a relationship with a woman or man in a show as a character. When you find out that you are going to have a relationship, you are very invested in who they pick to play opposite you,” Wong says. “Are they going to pick somebody cute? Are they going to pick somebody sexy? Because that says something about me. I thought, wow, when she showed up that day, that she was hot and funny and endearing and lovely. And then she is all those things in real life.”
BD Wong chats with the Advocate.
While Esposito’s casting as Wally’s girlfriend was validating in one way, Wong is admittedly emotional when discussing what it means to work on the series with a young star whose career mirrors and also diverges from his own. Saturday Night Live phenomenon Bowen Yang costars as Nora’s snobby cousin Edmund, who’s forced to move back to New York City after an embarrassing failure as a Silicon Valley tech guru. For Wong, Yang’s success is a sign of the times and future.
“Bowen is happening at a moment in which the time is ripe for a person like [him]. He is many things, but one of the things that he is, quite brilliantly, is an unashamed gay person who doesn’t try to mask up or try to cover up who he is or alter who he is to reach the audience,” Wong says.
“When I was younger, you didn’t do that. You did the opposite of that. You disguised who you were to get what you wanted. The lesson here is how you don’t have to do that anymore.”
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2021 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands December 1, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.