Anthony Brandon Wong

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Transformer

Aussie actor Anthony Brandon Wong inspires through his work and through his activism
by Dann Dulin
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Photos by Simon Cardwell

Anthony Brandon Wong wants to live in the year 2160. “In that era, all the prejudices that we’ve lived with are gone. They’re remnants of the past and have been relegated to ancient history. Students log on to their high-tech flubo computers with transfibulators, or whatever you want to call them, and they read about Proposition 8 or AIDS stigma and they’re laughing, going, ‘Oh my god, can you believe people did that?!’” He continues. “All the prejudices are non-issues. You’ve got an Asian-American lesbian who is the President of the United States, your television is covered with people from every race, and HIV has been cured.”

How grand!

Could he have insight into the world’s future? Well, in a way, Anthony has been to the future, having played the character of Ghost, a Zen Buddhist assassin, in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The year 2160, however, is a long way off for us. But that’s fine with him because Anthony likes to revel in the moment by volunteering for AIDS organizations, performing at fundraisers, and donating to charities.

At this moment, it’s a summer afternoon in Anthony’s hometown of Sydney, Australia (winter in the U.S.A.), and he’s stationed in my top floor suite at The Cambridge Hotel located in the chic/edgy section of Surry Hills that has an all-embracing view of the city, including the iconic Sydney Opera House.

Anthony’s name or face may not beam up any familiar image, though you’ve probably seen him numerous times on the screen. But you see, it’s okay because that’s to his credit. He’s a character actor, a chameleon if you will, and his success depends on disappearing into diverse roles. Mr. Wong has played a smuggler (Flight of the Phoenix), Mao Tse-tung’s right hand man, Chou En-Lai (Hemingway and Gellhorn), an Elvis impersonator (Guns, Girls and Gambling), a womanizer stockbroker (Floating Life), a hostage journalist (Haywire), and a ruthless business tycoon (in the mini-series, Samurai Girl).

The multifaceted performer is also a cabaret singer, playwright, comedian, and a respected acting coach. He hints at taking time out from acting sometime this year to pursue a Bachelor of Music in Contemporary Music. “At the end of the day what we’re going to regret on our deathbed is not the fact that we didn’t put the washing out or that we didn’t check our e-mails,” he says. “What we’re going to regret is what we didn’t fulfill.” The man ascribes to new age philosophy. For many years he was a Louise Hay [A&U, April 2010] devotee and currently follows the teachings of Abraham-Hicks. He’s also an avid foodie and a passionate worldwide traveler. On the small screen, you may have freshly seen him in such red-hot shows as Hawaii Five-O, Glee, and NCIS.

Anthony relishes immersing himself in challenging characters. His first love is the theater, and he’s been active in the HIV/AIDS community. Meld these collectively and you have this actor portraying the lover of an HIV-positive character—in three separate plays! In two of those projects he loses his lover to the disease.

“Some of the most fulfilling roles of my career have been playing those characters,” he emphasizes with a reverent undertone, sitting next to me on a burnt charcoal colored sofa, dressed in dark stonewashed jeans and a casual collared short-sleeve wheaten-colored shirt, untucked and unbuttoned several notches from the embroidered top. “It’s interesting how it’s impacted my work through the years.” The first role was in 1990’s Blood and Honour produced by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and it was one of the first Australian works in the theater to deal with the epidemic. In that play his partner is a news anchor who not only comes out on national television as a gay man but as an HIV-positive individual as well. The next year Anthony appeared in People Like Us, which had a cast of nineteen people who acted, sang, and danced. The third project was a short film, The Reunion, which was presented at the Sydney Film Festival.

“While I was in Blood and Honour, Tim Conigrave and John Caleo came to see me. Tim wrote this very touching memoir, Holding The Man (1995), which was about his relationship with John. They were high school sweethearts and were together for fifteen years. They both were HIV-positive,” he informs, adding, “they both have now passed.” Tim’s book was made into a successful play that was staged all across Australia and eventually made it to the West End. (It had a smaller run in America.) “Their legacy lives on in this play and people are always sobbing at this play. It’s just so beautifully written. So tender, it’s funny…it guts you,” he blurts, quickly pounding his fist gently into his stomach. “It’s become a classic in Australian literature and in the Australian theatrical world as well.”

Anthony returns to his initial thought. “So Tim and John saw Blood and Honour, twice. After one performance, they were inspired to go home and stay up till the early hours and talk with each other about death. Both being HIV-positive, they had never discussed it. It was too painful losing a soul mate….” He takes a short swig from the bottled water he brought with him. “To me, you live for those moments as an actor. It’s an old cliché, but it’s so true, ‘If I can touch one person in my work, I’m happy.’ To know that it had that kind of effect on both of those men—and Tim mentions [this experience] in Holding The Man—it was so profoundly satisfying [for me].”

Anthony looks for projects that deal with tolerance and acceptance. Early in 2012, Anthony portrayed Dr. William Tam, the director of the Traditional Family Coalition in San Francisco in Dustin Lance Black’s Australian reading of his play 8, about the overturning of California’s Proposition 8. “At one point I have to say what Dr. Tam said in real life, ‘Homosexuality is akin to pedophilia and child abuse.’ All of a sudden you hear this audible gasp come up from the audience. Then the lawyer character asks Tam, ‘Where did you learn that?’ He answers, ‘It’s in the Internet!’ And the idiocy of that comment brought the biggest laugh of the night. He doesn’t even use correct grammar!” Anthony racks through his thick, slicked-back hair a couple of times, briefly staring objectively out through the huge glass sliding doors onto the skyscrapers, reminiscing. “That was such a great project to be involved with. It was done with some of Australia’s most renowned actors—major TV and film and theatre actors—and it was fantastic to be on that stage with some legends. There was a week of rehearsal and everyone performed it for free.”

“I always get very touched when you see people giving their time for a cause like that. It’s an honor to do something substantial like that as an actor,” he remarks firmly. “It’s fun to do blockbusters and action movies but when you get to tell a story about something profoundly important….” He nods his head in gratitude. “I live for those moments. It becomes bigger than yourself. If we’re not careful as actors we can become incredibly narcissistic. There’s so much to feed your ego in this business. So when you have a chance to do something that is not about you, it’s such a relief to forget yourself and give it over to something bigger. It’s always about something bigger, isn’t it?”
Anthony leans toward spirituality, even embracing when we first meet. There’s a monk’s reverence, a gentleman’s instinct, and a scientist’s keen focus about him, which radiates a balanced fervor. That’s what partly makes him successful at his craft.

When Anthony first landed in Hollywood from Down Under he struggled in the acting business, even though he had worked steadily in Australia for many years. “I went to dinner one night with Judith Light [A&U, July 2007] and she said, ‘Find a cause. Then you’ll feel your life has meaning.’ I’m paraphrasing but that’s essentially what she said. Judith mentioned Project Angel Food and some other charities, and one day her husband, Robert Desiderio, took me down to Project Angel Food.” Anthony connected with the organization and volunteered. “It was wise advice,” he notes, looking back.

Anthony has also been involved with Sydney’s AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON), fundraisers like Hot in Hollywood Charity Event to benefit AIDS Healthcare Foundation and Real Medicine, and he’s helped sponsor his manager in a cancer research walk as well. The topic of charity work ensues and includes the AIDS/LifeCycle. Anthony says he’s thought about riding in the demanding seven-day journey but deduces, “I don’t know if my butt cheeks could stand it!” He howls, folding his leg under the other. “I kind of like my groin and not having one after that could be a bit difficult. I mean, you could lose it!…But it is a good cause.”

Anthony first became aware of the epidemic in a bizarre fashion. “There were these appaaaalling fear-mongering television ads. They were of all these people who had HIV—children, women, pregnant women, men, people of all different races—that were bowling pins in a bowling alley. The Grim Reaper was the bowler and he threw the bowling ball down the alley and all the people would go flying!” balks a gobsmacked Anthony, his arm abruptly jolting toward the ceiling. “Horror music would pipe up and the voiceover would say [he mocks in a spooky, creepy voice], ‘Who’s next?’” He grabs his water bottle and holds it, resting it on the sofa. “It was really violent. These ads were so shocking that they became renowned around the world as a means of using shock tactics. The ad was so impressed into your subconscious. It was horrifying. Then it ended with, ‘Are…you…next?’ It was ignorant,” a wearied Anthony states flatly.

Being gay and Asian, Anthony is fully aware of his own community and its challenges.

There are many different Asian cultures, he says, and he’s careful not to stereotype. “I think the subject of sex and sexuality is a 565 resized to 3.8MBwebdifficult one to address in many Asian families, let alone bringing HIV/AIDS into that equation. Though I think over the years Asian families are dialoguing more,” he contends. “I remember reading a study of gay Asian men in terms of sex practices. I don’t know how true it is today, but it was quite an alarming study, where it said that many gay Asian men have low self esteem when it comes to finding a partner, which causes them to engage in unsafe sexual practices. ‘This guy will reject me if I use a condom,’ or ‘I’ll risk my life, or my partner’s life, because I’m so desperate for that boyfriend that I would engage in unsafe sex.’ This [kind of attitude] deeply concerns me….” The atmosphere becomes deathly silent.

What would he advise to reach these people? He ponders a moment then proffers with self-assurance, “Have the producers of a television show which has a massive youth audience tackle an HIV/AIDS storyline. How about Glee or True Blood? That’s why Chris Colfer has been so powerful in Glee because he’s a role model for many gay youth,” he points out. “Having a character deal with their HIV could be profoundly powerful. Imagine if the Twilight films dealt with that; you’ve got that demographic captive audience.” He pauses, scoots back into the sofa, and extends his arm across the top. “I wonder if video game producers would dare raise that issue? I know most video games are about violence and aggression but it’d be interesting because they’re so heavily watched and played,” insists Anthony, who lent his voice to the ever-popular Enter The Matrix video game, recreating his character Ghost, spending fifteen months on the project, doing live action and animated scenes. He’s a die-hard sci-fi fan.

Anthony recently looked at the epidemic from a new viewpoint. Several months ago he took a master acting class and was working on a scene from The Normal Heart. (“That play is such a fantastic piece of work! I’m so glad it got a revival on Broadway and now it’s being made into a film, directed by Ryan Murphy. That’s going to be a corker. I hope it kicks-ass at the Oscars. I would love to be in that film! Ryan Murphy are you listening?!” Anthony ripples with laughter.) In doing research for his role Anthony revisited Reports from the Holocaust by Larry Kramer. “It just brought back to me what those men and women at that time…, ” he stops, his dancing chestnut eyes look off and he continues, “it was a holocaust…wasn’t it? The absolute fear of going to a doctor and them saying, ‘We don’t know anything so we don’t know what to tell you’—and the lack of support on all levels. It’s the loss of life like in World War II. People were ignoring what was going on and that happened at the beginning of this holocaust.”

“Australians were relatively cushioned from it in terms of the full impact of how it was really decimating people in America. I don’t think we were getting the full media coverage of it over here,” he says. “There was a lot of blackout media coverage even over there. I mean the New York Times wasn’t mentioning it for the longest time. Like the Jewish holocaust in the Second World War, it took a while for the full reality of what was going on to seep out.”

A passionate metaphysic and a dedicated positive thinker, Anthony perceives the AIDS epidemic from yet another angle. “It’s a teacher and a gift in the sense that it’s opened people’s consciousness to think about other groups who suffer. And it’s unified people as well. It’s also divided people too. It’s been a kick in the guts to complacency and to narrow-mindedness and to hatred…which continues,” declares Anthony. “There’s also been an outpouring of compassion through the years and people have put their necks on the line to dedicate their lives to the cause, like Elizabeth Taylor. It’s opened hearts between gay and straight, particularly in the entertainment business.” He takes a sip of water then momentarily rests the bottle thoughtfully against his lips before concluding, “I think AIDS has been a powerful teacher.”

*

ANTHONY’S DATABASE

Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
Paris, for its pure romance and gobsmacking beauty. Next would be New York, then Los Angeles, Bangkok, and London. There are very few places on the planet that I don’t find something to appreciate whether it’d be a country town or a megalopolis. I’m like a kid when it comes to travel! I live in Sydney [his hometown] like a tourist. I live in Los Angeles [his second home] like a tourist. Living in a city is like a marriage; you have to keep on exploring to keep it fresh and exiting.

What is your screensaver picture right now?
Starry Night by Van Gogh—my favorite artist and my favorite Van Gogh painting.

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I believe we live on in a non-physical form and that form doesn’t have the restrictions and fears and neurosis and pain of the human existence. It’s bliss. Our unlimited self. Our goal in this physical incarnation is to bring that consciousness into physical form on a daily basis by living through that perception that everyone is our brother or sister—we’re all one—and that everything’s possible. What we think about is what we attract—Law of Attraction. If we only knew what a blast people who’ve left this earth plane were having in that non-physical realm it would help us not be so sad. We’d actually be [he stops and chuckles] quite happy for them.

Name something you do quirky in private.
[Straight away Anthony laughs uproariously and shouts] Turn off the recorder now! Well, I have been known to get the television remote control and turn it into a microphone, pretending I’m on stage at the Staples Center with a coterie of dancers of every race and sexuality and singing pop music. And I’ve been known to do that even quite recently, so that was embarrassing. If you think Tom Cruise can do it with his underwear in Risky Business, maybe there’s an Asian-Australian actor doing something similar right now as we speak.

Do you sleep in PJs, nightshirt, underwear, or nude?
Depends who I’m with or not with. I have been known to sleep in tracksuit pants with a T-shirt, and sometimes in boxers when it’s hot. I’m more of a boxer’s guy rather than a brief’s guy because I like air-conditioning and easy access. It’s helpful for other people for their access, too.

Name one of your bad habits.
Overeating.

I remember shooting The Matrix and one night Laurence Fishburne and I went out for dinner. We both had been assigned trainers and they said to us [he barks], ‘NO CARBOHYDRATES AFTER 4 PM!’ So we were looking at the dessert menu and Laurence looked at me and said in that Morpheus-like voice, ‘Do we want to look good in front of millions of people or do we want that lemon tart?’ We paused, and paused, and then we looked at each other and went, the lemon tart! I think I had two desserts that night. In the morning I came onto the Matrix set and my trainers would look at my waist and go [he says in an accusatorial tone], ‘You had dessert last night, didn’t you?’ And I would lie and go, ‘No, No I had none.’

Complete this sentence: I feel my best when…
…teaching an acting class. Because when I do that I feel completely on mission with my life. I feel it’s completely about the students and not about me, and I feel inspired. I love teaching! I would say I love teaching sometimes more than acting. It just is a natural fit for me. I’m naturally a really supportive and gentle person. It’s such…bliss in the classroom. It’s soul work.

If you could choose a particular era to live in, when would it be?
The Roaring 20s when jazz was starting to really hit. I’d like to be a jazz musician.

What is your favorite film of all time?
Alien. I love Science Fiction.

If you could star in any movie in history, which one would it be?
A character in Alien or in Rent or Brokeback Mountain.

What is your favorite physical asset above the waist?
My eyes and my smile.

…and your favorite physical asset below the waist?
What else IS THERE below the waist??! [He ponders.] It’s always nice when someone looks good in jeans. Can we leave it at that? [He grins.]

What celebrity couple would you adopt as parents?
Judith Light and Robert Desiderio, and [their best friends] Jonathan Stoller and Herb Hamsher.

Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out the most?
Louise Hay. She’s made a big difference in my life. Also Laurence Fishburne.

Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
Meryl Streep.

WORDS WITH FRIENDS
Anthony supplies a brief reaction to these people who’ve been part of his life

Channing Tatum
Ridiculously gorgeous—and nice.

Chris Colfer
Brilliant.

Steven Soderberg
Kind.

Antonio Banderas
Generous.

Hugo Weaving
Gracious.

Cate Blanchett
Talented.

Toni Collette
Genius.

Mark Harmon
Thoughtful.

Nicole Kidman.
Helpful…and approachable.

Hugh Laurie
Mongolian.

Ed Asner
Cheeky, loving father figure.

Christian Slater
Infectious enthusiasm.

Jada Pinkett Smith
Sassy.

Dennis Quaid
Grounded.

Keanu Reeves
Intelligent, softly spoken, a gentleman, and hugely generous.

He supplies one word to describe himself
Grateful.

Dann Dulin interviewed Rosanne Cash for the March issue.

Read the article in the April 2013 digital issue by clicking here.