Awkwafina’s ‘Nora From Queens’ Helped BD Wong Embrace His Inner Hunk
And you know what, it’s about time.
BD Wong and I had almost finished discussing his role as Awkwafina’s father on Comedy Central’s Nora From Queens, which aired its season finale on Wednesday, when our conversation took a bit of a turn. I’d just asked what, if anything, the actor might be looking forward to doing in Season 2. “This is late-breaking news,” he replied. “I’ve decided to—and I’m committing to this now that I’m telling you—be able to give them the option of taking my shirt off.”
“I’ve never done that before,” Wong continued. “Well, I have done that before, but it was a long time ago. And I’ve never done it before on my own terms.”
Wong clarified that no one has specifically requested that he make this possible. “In fact, I don’t even need to put it in their minds at all,” he quipped. The entire idea is a half-joke, Wong said. (Or, at least, it was until he said it aloud on the record; now he is obviously legally obligated.) Still, he said, it’s good to have a deadline, and at 59, he’s tired of feeling “middle-aged.”
It’s ironic, though, because Nora From Queens has also already allowed Wong to play a side of himself he’d never been able to bring to screen: His romantic side. In her own interview with The Daily Beast, executive producer Teresa Hsiao recalled the actor saying that in his decades-long career, he’d pretty much never had an on-screen love interest. “I just thought that was so interesting and kind of reflective of the way shows and films portray Asian men,” Hsiao said. “I thought that was kind of sad.”
Nora From Queens garnered a lot of comparisons to Broad City when it first premiered, for obvious reasons: It’s a New York-based series about an irreverent millennial with a penchant for weed smoking and general messiness. But the show’s secret weapon, as Hsiao and the writers room discovered as they broke the first season, was Nora’s fictional family: BD Wong as her father, Lori Tan Chinn as her grandmother, and Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang as her cousin Edmund. The cast’s chemistry makes up for a few slightly uneven introductory episodes, and by the finale, the series clicks together into a satisfying, heartwarming comedic half hour.
One of the show’s strengths is the casual specificity with which the show portrayhs its star’s upbringing. The décor and snacks were all selected with an eye toward authenticity, down to the type of peanuts used in a bowl for one particular scene. And yes, the show also finally gives BD Wong, a veritable “zaddy,” as Hsiao accurately called him, a real love interest. His character is an avid gym nut and IT specialist with few other hobbies—until he joins a support group for single parents, where he meets his girlfriend Brenda (Jennifer Esposito).
“I didn't realize that I really cared that much about it until I was doing it, and I thought, ‘Oh wow this is really fun and it actually kind of makes me feel...’” Wong trailed off for a moment. “I guess I feel a little bit less like a loser or something.”
Although he knows he’s certainly not the only child to feel this way, Wong recalls incidents like being the last kid picked for sports teams when he was young. For a long time, being an Asian actor in Hollywood was something like that; lead roles were scarce, and getting to be the romantic hero was even rarer. Wong joked that he might be a “poster boy” for that phenomenon, but said he’s relieved to see it’s started to change.
“We all carry this sense of wanting to belong and stuff like that,” he said. “And so I think this was one thing that really might have messed with my head about my own sense of belonging.”
Now, he said, “I feel like I’m part of a club that I wasn’t in before. I mean, I never really did this... I played Ian McKellen’s boyfriend in And the Band Played On... but it didn't have like romantic or sexual undertones. And so the sexual undertone part of it is actually an aspect of it that’s really kind of a big deal.”
The series has also allowed Wong to embrace his comedic side—especially in the finale, which finds Nora living overseas in China. With Nora away, her grandmother starts giving all her love and attention to an injured pigeon who lands on a windowsill in the family house—a development that doesn’t exactly thrill her son, who cowers in corners and even, at one point, lifts himself up onto a kitchen counter to be away from the “rat with wings.”
“Lori was amazing with the pigeon,” Hsiao said. “I wasn’t as thrilled. Obviously we wrote it and we were like, ‘Haha that’s so funny.’ And then we were like, ‘Oh no, we actually have to shoot it.’” But Chinn took to the bird immediately, Hsiao said, holding it (wrapped up for its safety) between takes. As for the pigeon himself? “He was really good,” Hsiao said. “You know, he only pooped a few times around the set.”
Added Wong, “It’s a novelty and it’s really fun to try to work around the improvisational skills of a pigeon.” That said, he confirmed that Chinn really did bond with the avian creature. “She was has all these little pigeon pins that she wears now,” Wong said. “She’s very into pigeon imagery. She’s a wonderful nut.”
Nora From Queens was set to return to production in mid-July, Hsiao said, but in light of the production delays associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic, she’s guessing the show’s second season will be among the projects that need to reschedule. That said, the show’s writers are working on the upcoming season now, and she did offer a hint regarding what’s ahead. Two things to look for: More developments between Nora and her childhood-friend-slash-current-crush, Daniel, played by Jaboukie Young-White, and (hopefully) more appearances from Grandma’s lifelong friend Shu Shu. The latter character has appeared in multiple episodes, but her most memorable appearance happened to be in the episode for which Hsiao is most proud—a flashback episode called “Grandma and Chill.”
The episode, eighth in the season, tells the story of how Grandma met her husband and immigrated to the U.S. It’s styled as a Korean drama parody, and features a cavalcade of swoon-worthy male leads. Shu Shu, initially enamored with Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, joins the ranks before escaping and reuniting with Grandma in the U.S. Their bond—and Stephanie Hsu’s comedic panache—make Shu Shu the breakout star of the episode.
Hsiao’s mother even enlisted her friend to talk to the writers’ room about her experience during the Cultural Revolution; her stories inspired Grandma’s (exaggerated) odyssey.
“It perfectly blends the idea of what we wanted for the show,” Hsiao said of the episode. “Something that was really genuine, something that was really crazy and wacky, but also has a lot of heart to it... You know, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to show Asian-American families on TV that are like this. Just being able to be given that kind of free rein to do that has been really nice.”