ussell Wong has had a knack for stealing scenes from better-known actors with bigger roles. Many who saw Romeo Must Die (2000) thought that Wong's stylish rendition of a slick triad enforcer drew eyeballs away from Jet Li, the film's star. Wong's portrayal of the seductive good angel in Prophecy II, a 1998 film that went straight to video, has inspired a cult following. Asian Americans otherwise irked by The Joy Luck Club loved the snarling sex appeal Wong brought to the small role of an abusive, womanizing husband. Such fleeting triumphs stretch back two decades to Wong's earliest days as a young actor struggling to stay alive on bit parts.
They have made him that rarest of Hollywood creatures -- an Asian American actor cast for his sex appeal.
The pretty features, the brooding intensity and the kicker -- the sensitive, almost shy, quality of his eyes -- have reliably accelerated female hearts in every one of Wong's appearances. Disappointingly, those racing pulses haven't yet translated into the kinds of big roles in big films that catapult actors to stardom.
There have been opportunities. For one, Russell Wong is the only Asian American actor ever to star in two TV series. The fact that neither were on the big-four networks and neither lasted more than a season or two doesn't change the fact that some big names were impressed enough by Wong's magnetism to place substantial bets on him. The most recent was Black Sash, a WB series in which Wong starred as an unjustly disgraced former cop who teaches martial arts to troubled teens. Six episodes aired in early 2003. An outcry from loyal fans couldn't save it from its mid-May cancellation.
It struck fans as an echo of the The Vanishing Son series which aired on UPN during the 1994-95 season. Wong played an updated version of David Carradine's role in the Kung-Fu series of the 70s -- a Chinese martial artist wandering modern-day America and helping those in need. The big difference was that, unlike the monkish, outlandishly attired Kwai Chang Caine, Wong's character was available to female affection.
Russell Wong was born March 1, 1963 in Troy, New York to a Chinese restaurateur from Shandung province and an aspiring actress of Dutch, French, Canadian and Indian ancestry. Russell attended Santa Monica City College while training to become a dancer. His acting career began in 1983 when a Hong Kong talent scout invited him and younger brother Michael to Hong Kong for a screentest. Despite the fact that only a handful of his three-dozen film and TV appearances have been in sizeable roles, Wong's looks and chrarisma have won enthusiastic fans among Asians and non-Asians.
The actor's half-Chinese background and leading-man qualities inevitably invite comparison to the far more successful Keanu Reeves. They are close contemporaries. Reeves looks no less Asian than Wong and possesses no more visible acting talent. But as of late 2003 Reeves has starred in four dozen big-budget features, including some of the most successful of all time (The Matrix Trilogy, Speed). The only quantifiable difference? A non-Asian surname, on the one hand, and on the other, perhaps the most Asian of surnames.
Russell Wong names some factgors that may have held him back. In the end, however, he is reluctant to lay the striking contrast in their careers on anything but the quirkiness of the movie business. Besides, at 40, Wong truly believes he is just reaching his prime years as a leading man.
He has cause for optimism. A week before our interview he had wed award-winning Hong Kong fashion designer Flora Cheong-leen. The couple had met nearly 20 years earlier in Hong Kong when both were young actors and dancers. In attendance as bridesmaids were the teenage daughters each has from prior relationships. At about the time their engagement had been announced in July 2002, the couple launched the RGW (Russell Gerard Wong) men's fashion brand and a costume company for the film industry. Since then they have settled into a newly-acquired home in Encino. The day after the interview they planned to fly to Beijing to explore contacts that might produce quality vehicles for the next stage of Wong's acting career.
Russell Wong is as private as ever. He prefers to be the one doing the calling. Despite a reputation for aggressiveness during the first half of his career, he is startlingly soft-spoken and retiring. He ponders and addresses the questions posed to him without the slightest inclination to impress or to push an agenda. No trace of bitterness, irony or fatalism mars a beatific acceptance of the contours of his career. But as he discusses opportunities missed and the opportunities he is now setting out to create in partnership with his new wife, Wong's tone takes on an air of quiet confidence, as though truly on the precipice of a new career.
GS: We were disappointed that the Black Sash series was cancelled after only a half dozen episodes. Any chance of it being revived?
RW: I don't think so. It didn't get any traction.
GS: Do you have any thoughts on why?
RW: It's hard to say... I don't think they put enough money behind the publicity.
GS: How did you get involved in that project?
RW: One of the producers, Carlton Cuse, who had been the writer on Martial Law, tried to create a vehicle for me as a TV show. So collectively the producers agreed that I would be right for this role.
GS: What role are you playing in the soon-to-be-released Blackout Murder Mystery?
RW: I play a detective, a lieutenant on the San Francisco Police Department homicide division.
GS: Is it a juicy part?
RW: Not really. It's more of a supporting role.
GS: A while back you played the real-life Japanese American cyber-detective Tsutomu Shimomura in Takedown (2000). Was that role significant?
RW: There was this guy named Kevin Mitnik who was hacking into Pac Bell, hacking through the firewalls and security systems. Apparently he hacked into Shimomura's computer. Shimomura allegedly had government material that was highly confidential. The FBI had been looking for this Mitnik guy for a long time and hadn't been able to find him. But when Mitnik hacked into Shimomura's computer system he was able to run a forensic analysis of how he hacked in. He freezes computers and finds the bread crumbs. Bread crumbs are left when someone comes hacking into your computer. If he turns it off, the evidence will go out, but if he freezes it, it's preserved and he can do a forensic analysis. That was how Shimomura was able to help the FBI catch Mitnik.