More than a year after Crazy Rich Asians exploded into cinemas, prompting a veritable craze (along with seemingly hundreds of thinkpieces rightly wondering why the hell it took Hollywood so long to make a movie about Asians), the film’s breakout star unquestionably remains Calvin Wong.
You know. Calvin Wong.
He played P.T. Goh? Awkwafina’s brother? The quiet one?
[Sigh.] OK, the really awkward guy who did the little chair dance, and scarfed down those noodles, and kept snapping creepy, unasked-for photos of women, and made the funny little heart-shaped hand sign that one time. Y’know, that guy.
See, now you remember.
Wong may not have gotten a lot of screen time, or lines for that matter, but he made an undeniable impression with his portrayal of the misunderstood heir, and now he’s back on screens with his portrayal of another inept scion, this time in the KL Gangster Underworld spin-off Rise to Power.
Wong, a native KL son, recently made time in his busy schedule to chat with Coconuts KL about life after CRA, his latest projects, board games, and a little bundle of joy called Khazrak.
(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
So, where are you from?
Kuala Lumpur. I grew up and have lived here my whole life. I now live in Petaling Jaya with my girlfriend Dee and Khazrak.
She’s our one-eyed cat. Our friend found her in a tree. She was a bit sick and needed someone to take care of her, so we agreed to look after her for a while. Then she stole our hearts lah. We’ve had her for six months. She can see a bit from her good eye, but often bumps into things… At full speed.
What have you been doing since Crazy Rich Asians?
I actually just shot a [film spin-off of a] six episode series called KL Gangster Underworld. It’s now on iflix. I play this gangster, but I’m not a really good gangster. I mean you’ve seen me… Beating people up is slightly outside my comfort zone. So my character has to deal with being a terrible mob boss. There are some funny scenes, but it’s mostly a serious drama about territory wars in KL.
How did you land that role?
My mindset at the moment is any role is a good one. They come infrequently enough that I’m always going to at least audition for them. For KL Gangster Underworld, they had seen me in Crazy Rich Asians and the role was offered to me directly. They wanted an incompetent underworld boss and they got one!
Tell me about your Crazy Rich Asians audition.
When they cast me for Crazy Rich Asians, they wanted me to play Bernard, and I was like, “Hahaha! I will give you the best audition I can, but that’s not happening.” They asked me to read one of Bernard’s scenes, and in it he’s being an over-the-top asshole, and I’m not sure how much of an over-the-top asshole I can do, but let’s do two or three takes and try lah. It didn’t go well. Even I knew I bombed it.
Were you surprised when you heard back from Warner Brothers?
Yes! Because it was an awful audition for Bernard! I learnt later that when they watched my tape, they said, “Hey, this guy would make an amazing P.T.!” And they were all like, “Yeah!” But when I got the email from Warner Brothers saying, “Hi we’d like to offer you the role,” I was like “Huh?! Wh-uuut?!” Then I saw. Oh okay, it’s for P.T.
How did you channel the nerdy, socially awkward vibe for the role of P.T. Goh?
Honestly, that’s just me. I didn’t really prepare for the role, because my script had no lines. I thought I’d show up and be there for a bit and then leave. But it turns out they had many plans for me. [laughs] P.T. comes across as mildly creepy, but the thing about him is that he is strange, but ultimately harmless. He’s inexperienced socially because his wealth isolates him, and he hasn’t had any real experience talking to people.
Did you improvise?
In the script I have no lines, and don’t have that many scenes. What happened was, while we were shooting, Jon Chu, the director, would be telling me, “Say this!” or, “Do that!” So eventually, that’s how I got the lines. And he kept saying “Hey, let’s bring Calvin in” for scenes where I wasn’t meant to be in, like the one when Rachel says goodbye to Peik Lin. They flew me out to Singapore for 20 minutes of me standing there in the doorway saying “I love you” and doing the heart-sign.
How has your life changed since Crazy Rich Asians?
The biggest change is that people recognize me on the street. The latest one was last week. I was out with my girlfriend, and while I was in the bathroom, someone asked, “Excuse me, is that the guy from Crazy Rich Asians? Can we get a photo?” That happens all the time. Also, another big change for me is that my mom has reduced the amount that she bothers me about having a real job. Before she would message me to say, “Are you OK? Do you need me to introduce you to anyone? How much did you bring in this month?” [laughs] She’s a very concerned parent.
What’s the funniest fan interaction you’ve ever had?
My girlfriend and I were at the supermarket and then she tells me “Don’t look, but those kids over there are Googling you.” And I’m like “How do you know?” And she says “Because they stared at you and then immediately looked at their phones and started scrolling rapidly”. Then later, as we’re going down the escalator, we see the kids on the escalator going up and they’re still staring at me. So there we are, holding the groceries, staring at each other. And out of nowhere I did the heart sign to them. And they just screamed! It echoed in the whole mall.
What’s the craziest thing you learned from your experience in Crazy Rich Asians?
How much money gets thrown around in a Hollywood production. Just ridiculous amounts. Because I worked on local films before and obviously here, when it comes to makan everybody is like “OK, here’s your styrofoam packet of chicken rice”. And if you need a break there’s a tarp with a standing fan that the director brought from his house. And you make do with what you have lah. With Warner Brothers, it’s like, “Welcome, Calvin! You have a trailer! It’s fully air-conditioned! And there’s a mini bar full of snacks! En-joooy!” And the very first day I was on set, the assistant director took me to see the container ship set where Bernard’s party takes place. They had built this entire, massive container ship set. And she says off-handedly “Oh, you just missed the helicopter.” And that was the first time I grasped the scale of the movie I was in.
Funniest moment meeting a co-star?
There was a Lamborghini on set, it rolled up and Akwafina got out of the driver seat and she was like “Oh my God! I just drove a Lamborghini!” That was the first time I met her. I didn’t know her at all before. When she told me that she just finished shooting Ocean’s 8, I was like “Oh my God, you’re in an Ocean’s movie!” and she was like “I knooow, right?!” She’s a really nice person. It’s still weird to call her Akwafina, because she told everyone to call her Nora. I only found out her name is Akwafina after I Googled the movie.
Will P.T. Goh be in the sequel?
Well, the producers of the film and the director want me to be in the sequel. But, I honestly don’t know who will be in it because the story is moving to China. So I’m not sure how much of Singapore and Malaysia there’s going to be. Obviously, I would love to be in every single Crazy Rich Asians that they do, forever and ever.
Did you provide any cultural decoding to your American co-stars about Malaysian and Singaporean cultures?
Sometimes Ken Jeong would ask me, “How do you pronounce this?” and I would say, like, “jiaaak” [“eat” in Hokkien], but that was the extent of it.
What’s a lesser known fact about yourself that you wish to broadcast to the universe?
That I designed my own card game called Light Saber Card Game. It’s inspired by Star Wars.
How’d you get into board games?
Everybody plays Monopoly or Uno with their family at some point in their life. But what got me into the hobby aspect of the board games was Risk 2210. I started getting really involved in online communities like Board Game Geek and that’s how I began writing for the industry. Through my work as a writer, I’ve been going to Spiel, the biggest board game convention in the world. It’s an amazing place where you meet all these people who share your passion, including those you only knew online. It’s great.
Has your Crazy Rich Asians recognition helped your board games career in any way?
Generally speaking, the worlds of board games writing and acting do not overlap! I’ve been focusing on writing because of the general difficulty of being cast in Hollywood films when you don’t live in Hollywood.
What is your desert island board game?
There’s a card game called Android Netrunner, which is my favorite game of all time and forever. It’s the best game ever designed. Ever. It’s a cyberpunk game where one player is a hacker and the other is a corporation. It’s also 100 percent laser focused on being inclusive and diverse… You know when you think about cyberpunk, you think Tokyo or New York, your standard mega-metropolises. But this game was like nope, let’s go to Mumbai and Uganda. I love it.
In your opinion why has Crazy Rich Asians been so meaningful to so many Asian communities around the world?
Definitely because we could see ourselves, our cultures, languages, dialects… our quirks and all the little things being shown. I think that’s really important. And also having a story that is quintessentially ours… It’s universal for sure, but it’s also a story that is 100 percent us… that really helps. It’s always good to be seen. It’s always good to be recognized. [French philosopher Louis] Althusser talks about being hailed. I think that’s a deeply human need that we have.