I was in the third grade when Jurassic Park was released in 1993. It was a record-breaking blockbuster that made movie history, and seeing the film had such a profound impact on me: I was moved to read Michael Crichton’s novel and its follow-up, The Lost World, even though, until then, I had never read anything that didn’t come from the Scholastic Book Fair. I’ve revisited the film constantly over the years, and at the center of it, for me, has always been BD Wong’s Dr. Henry Wu. One of the first film’s most important scenes takes place in a lab, where Dr. Wu introduces the main characters to the science behind Jurassic Park. He expresses skepticism toward Ian Malcolm’s paranoia that delivers one of the film’s funniest and most ominous lines: “You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will … breed?” (In the theater, this line got a huge laugh that kid-me did not expect from the big, scary dinosaur movie, and I loved it.)
While the role of Wu was much bigger in the novel — he is the inventor of the science that makes the park possible — Wong has only that one scene in the film. It’s a disappointing change from the book that is all the more pronounced since Dr. Wu was one of the few non-white characters in the film and was being played by a formidable actor. Wong had already won a Tony for his starring role in Broadway’s M. Butterfly when he appeared in Jurassic Park, and in the years since he has become a face everyone knows. If you didn’t see him in All-American Girl, you’ve heard him in Mulan or seen him in Oz or Law & Order: SVU or Mr. Robot or, most recently, in Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. BD Wong books.
The limited scope of that early role lingered until director Colin Trevorrow decided to bring Dr. Wu back for Jurassic World in 2015. In that movie, Wu was rightfully recentered in the narrative and is now the second-most-constant element in the Jurassic franchise, after the dinosaurs themselves. (When Jurassic World Dominion comes out this summer, Wong will have appeared in four of the six Jurassic films, matched only by Jeff Goldblum in number of appearances.) The current-day Dr. Wu is more polished, more confident, and far less naïve than the smiling wunderkind with the clipboard we met in 1993. Wong sat down with me to discuss Wu’s journey since the first film, how he himself understands the legacy of this work, and how much he really hates lab coats.
In Jurassic Park, you’re in the most important scene: the one that explains how this world works. I think Dr. Wu represents everything that the films pivot around.
He’s the germ of all human possibilities within the franchise. I think that’s partly why people love to trash-talk him and everything but then they also cheer when he comes on in the beginning of the movie. There’s an audible reaction to him. And I don’t think it’s me. It’s what he represents in this equation: He’s the hope of actually fixing the bad things that happened.
People characterize him as a villain, but I disagree. He represents the purity of the science itself because he’s constantly being pulled by forces that want to exploit his work. It’s not his fault that he’s good at this.
Right. What’s fascinating is that people love to judge him for the thing that they love about the movie: the dinosaurs. They love to take this posture that they’re better than he is, that they wouldn’t do what he would’ve done. And that’s not fair to him. He hoped to make the world a better place through his work, and it was the demands of the world that made those dinosaurs happen. It’s kind of a mirror to the way that we feel about Hollywood and movies and culture. Masses of people demand certain things to happen and then those things happen. And then other people who do not approve of those things go, Well, the world’s all going to hell. The human desire to scratch certain itches is what makes cultural things happen. The Kardashians are the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not their fault that people are fascinated with them.
As people of culture know, you were already a Tony-winning actor when you booked the role in Jurassic Park. How did it come into your life?
After I did M. Butterfly, the Broadway show for which I won the Tony, one would hope that opportunities would come as a result. And this is one of those opportunities. My impression, although he never said so, was that Spielberg was a theater fan and had seen me in the show. I did have to audition for the movie, reading only parts from the book. I was so tremendously thrilled that this character had been written, that it was an Asian American character, and that they were gonna give the part to an Asian American actor, which was not always something that happens. And I was thrilled that Spielberg was so wonderful to me. He introduced me to the cast and crew with a great warmth that moved me, because I was a new guy in town and not at all comfortable.
How was the process of making that first movie?
I got the offer for the part, and that was great. And then I was booked for just one day. And I thought, Something’s not right about this. It was clear I needed to read the script. I was asked to go to Spielberg’s office to read it in the waiting room because they were being so secure about everything. I did that and saw that I was in one scene — the rest of the part had been basically cut. I have a lot of theories about why that might be, and they’re not very pleasant; they have to do with racism and what’s valuable to a movie. At that time, diversity was not a big thing that we were talking about. Representation was certainly not anything we were talking about. And so I accepted it. I took the job, and I was thrilled to do it.
But you were not thrilled to be there for only a day.
Not least because I didn’t get to go to Hawaii — though there was a huge hurricane, so I dodged that bullet. But I did not have a lot of experience with big movies. Even today, I walk onto a big movie set and it’s super-exciting. Movies are amazing things; there’s a reason why we romanticize them. They’re just make-believe come to life, and it’s incredible. For Jurassic Park, there was this lab that I was working in and this kind of thing that looks like a theme-park ride. All of that was practical and real.
I remember that the velociraptor and the hatching of the velociraptor were all actually real things happening before our very eyes, as opposed to CGI. It was incredible to watch what I perceived to be kind of terrified art students, these young puppeteers, each of them responsible for an area of the velociraptor’s movement. They were all in, like, black turtlenecks, and there was a cable running down and under the set, or in one shot up under Sam Neill’s arm for when he’s actually holding the moving velociraptor. And Spielberg was very specific about how he wanted it to move.
It was amazing to see this filmmaker who is famous for channeling our childhood fantasies into real life and see it happening in real time: Here’s this velociraptor that I’ve been a huge part of creating, and we’re gonna actually film it now, and I’m going to nuance it so that it’s as real for the audience as possible. He was saying, “Less jerky, more jerky,” and coaching them all through it, take after take. And that was after the actual practicalness of the breaking of the eggs — all puppets and puppetry.
The film became a record-setting part of movie history, and you went on to do some amazing work: You were in All-American Girl and then, just a few years later, Oz and Mulan came your way. Did you feel after Jurassic Park a major shift in your career?
I did, but not in the way you might imagine. It wasn’t like all of a sudden the phone was ringing off the hook. The shift was in my relationship to fans, which has grown over the years, and in my introduction to a certain fandom, which is a kind of a sci-fi fandom I had no concept that I would ever be a part of, which has grown over the years. Now that we have social media, you can really feel why the fans are really into you or why they really want to engage with you. It’s often for specific projects, and very specific moments of those projects.
I didn’t really understand box-office success, what that meant. To me, I was just in the movie and I was happy to be in the movie, and the movie was a box-office success. You really have no idea if it’s gonna turn out to be some big thing or not. You’re certainly not thinking that it’s gonna be the foundation for six movies. I had a good friend who once said to me, “You know, they didn’t pay attention to what happened to that character. They didn’t resolve him. They didn’t really finish the story at all the way they did in the book.” And I said, “That’s just because they didn’t care about him.” I was really sad about it. I was frustrated that they just let him disappear.
It did feel like a loss when Dr. Wu didn’t come back in the movie.
They didn’t even care whether he got off the island. And that same friend said, “That’s gonna come back to you, because it’s all unresolved. The strings are untied.” But I never thought that would happen. I thought he was just kind of being a fan. And then Colin Trevorrow called me and said they’re making a trilogy and “Would you consider playing the part again?” My friend was exactly right. The very thing that I bemoaned in the original movie is what made further exploration of the character possible. That couldn’t have happened if they did say he didn’t get off the island, or if they did kill him, or if they did resolve it in a way that closed the door for him to reappear.
As a viewer, learning that you would be involved in the new trilogy gave it more legitimacy than almost anything else they could have done.
I like to joke that Colin Trevorrow was looking for people who were not dead — like, Who can we salvage from the original movie? I was lucky to be that person and character. It started this whole kind of trilogy of Colin taking great care in giving him an arc that was worthy of him, something as close to Michael Crichton’s original vision as possible.
Who is Henry Wu to you?
It sounds kind of highfalutin, but as an actor, the movie centers around you, right? It has to. You are the person that you are. Actors have a tendency to be accused of being self-centered, but in order to approach the character, you have to say, I know who this person is. What’s been interesting for me is how he has evolved through the writing of the character. At first, Michael Crichton wrote this wonderful book, and he included everything he could about that character. Then, years and years later, we revisited this character and what he might have been actually going through if all of the things in Jurassic Park actually happened, and that changed him. It made him somebody else.
So he started out in the first film as a very idealistic, forward-thinking, very proud guy. He’s almost smug about what he’s done. And then fast-forward to Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom, and Dominion, and he evolves further. He gets beaten down by the system. He finds himself incredibly trapped by the mechanism of commerciality and greed that surrounds him. Yet he still feels that his technology is valuable to the human race and that he really wants to do good things with it. People love to say that he’s evil and terrible, and that hurts my heart. I find him rather noble and vulnerable and an unjustly vilified person because he started out as someone who cared so much. The dinosaurs were just a kind of stepping point to all the things that could be done with the technology for humanity. Then it went terribly wrong and just got worse and worse. It’s rather emotional for me, his whole journey.
In Jurassic World, you have this great monologue where you’re talking to Masrani, the owner of the park, and explaining the relativity of the horror he’s expressing: “To a canary, a cat is a monster.” It’s a wonderful moment of, This is what you asked for. What are you mad about?
To have something terrible happen and then want to blame someone else, that’s the human defense mechanism. They are not dealing well with the consequences. I think the whole franchise is actually about consequences. This thing that seems innocent or wonderful or fascinating or surreal or superhuman, all of these things that occurred because of human achievement — really, it’s a catalyst for consequences.
Between Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, Dr. Wu has quite a glow up. He’s got a cooler jacket and hair. He looks amazing. Were you part of that at all?
I remember thinking that my haircut in the original movie was terrible. Like, Oh my gosh, what was I thinking? Why did I go into that movie with that haircut? I don’t have any real regrets about my appearance, though I have an ongoing love-hate relationship — mostly hate — with this thing called a lab coat.
That’s because I’ve played so many doctors. Representation for actors like me is really limited, and so I played a lot of doctors. It becomes a kind of joke that you go on the first day of playing a doctor to your costume fitting and you just dread the idea that there will be a lab coat on the rack waiting for you. The way you express yourself as a person and as a character is often through your clothes. A lab coat is just kind of a one-stop-shop kind of thing that paints the picture for the audience, but it doesn’t allow you nuance.
Daniel Orlandi, the costume designer for Jurassic World, was really friendly and wonderful to me and supportive. I thought, Well, it would be really great to not just have a regular old government-issue, store-bought lab coat. We’re at the stage now where we’re in this really fancy kind of environment, so we have these custom lab coats that were tailored and not even white. They’re kind of, like, steel gray. We still give the impression that everything’s clean and sterile and trim and well funded, but we don’t serve up the same stereotypical lab coat. If I had to wear one, I was thrilled to be able to do it that way and then underneath it, he let me put on that black turtleneck. And in certain scenes, I was allowed to not wear the lab coat at all.
I’ve never been able to explain this, but that was a big deal, actually. What I wear is always a big deal to me. I care a great deal about it. He has a kind of, like, an almost James Bond–y kind of vibe to him. And that lab coat looks —
[Laughs.] It is actually superexpensive.
He looks fantastic. One last question: Do you have a favorite dinosaur?
Oh, wow. They’re all my babies, right, so I can’t favor one over the other. But I’m very fond of Blue from Jurassic World. I mean, Blue is a character in the movie, with a name and an identity, and we’re invested in Blue’s well-being and in Blue’s decisions and the vulnerable world that Blue is confronted with. I’ve done a lot of Cameo videos for Jurassic World fans, and they’re often for parents that want to give their kids a message from Dr. Wu. A lot of kids are obsessed with the science and the dinosaurs and are invested in Dr. Wu’s whole being. It amazes me. And I find myself talking about Blue a lot.
I’ve grown through talking about Blue to these younger people and their wide-eyed affection for Blue and the way they relate to Blue. They relate to Blue as the small vulnerable person who’s out in the forest. Are they going to find their way? Is somebody gonna protect them? I’m getting kind of emotional thinking about it. That’s why, of course, there are child characters in a lot of Jurassic films: We want young viewers to relate to the children in the movie. But as soon as we introduced a, for lack of a better description, “child” version of a dinosaur, the viewers can invest in the dinosaurs’ well-being and relate to them and root for them in a way that’s very special and different from your average kind of predator-monster kind of movie.
I find myself rooting for the dinosaurs in these newer films because they represent justice to me. They eat the people who want to exploit them. That’s another reason why I love Dr. Wu: because he’s kind of their first human advocate.
That’s why this franchise is kind of brilliant, right? Because they’re not monsters. They’re not like Godzilla or Jaws, where the whole agenda of the movie is to eradicate the predator. The dinosaur is an innocent bystander in the human equation. And the humans are tripping all over themselves to try to negotiate the havoc that they themselves have wrought. And the dinosaurs are just doing what dinosaurs do. They are completely innocent. There’s something rather environmentally conscious about the way that we feel about these dinosaurs. We don’t want them to be harmed; we just want to enjoy them. And we want to fulfill our curiosity about what it would be like to cohabitate with them, to live in the same world as them.
Dr. Wu definitely loses his way here and there, or forgets that; it’s a stressful situation that he’s in. He doesn’t always put the dinosaurs first. But he really does respect them, and he takes great pride in his role in creating them. He never, never, ever, ever gives them short shrift of their magnificence. Even if you don’t see it in every frame of the movie, that’s how I see him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.