Interview: Jimmy Wong on Netflix’s Wish Dragon & Asian Representation
Sony Pictures Animation’s Wish Dragon releases on netflix this Friday, June 11. The animated Chinese adventure stars Jimmy Wong as Din, “a working-class college student with big dreams but small means.” After he finds a magical dragon (played by John Cho) that can grant wishes, he goes on an adventure through Shanghai as he looks to reconnect with his childhood friend Lina.
Ahead of the film’s release, ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Wong about his role in Wish Dragon, why it meant so much for him to work with Cho, and the importance of representation in film.
Tyler Treese: You’ve got to act in some really great roles that really celebrate Chinese culture during your career. What does it mean to be able to really represent in that way?
Jimmy Wong: I think it’s super important to be able to show the world and people that love entertainment the different facets of the world that are often undiscovered or unknown because they just haven’t been represented in different ways. One of my favorite movies of all time is this beautiful movie called Baraka, where not a single word is spoken the entire time, but this movie takes you through hundreds of different destinations around the world and shows you all of these incredible things and parts of culture that you never ever would have seen or experienced otherwise. And I think being able to represent a culture that is really close and tied to me in Chinese culture, because both of my parents were born in that country and I’ve visited numerous times growing up and studied the language, is that not everyone gets the chance to go fly across the ocean and go to a foreign country.
There are so many restrictions. It’s intimidating. So being able to represent a country and a culture like that through film and entertainment is super important to me because it gives people a chance to open their eyes and see what else is out there instead of just taking their knowledge from what the internet might tell them or what they hear from their friends. If you can’t get that firsthand experience yourself, I think it’s up to entertainment and movies and TV and film to be able to give that experience in a genuine and amazing way. So that’s part of the real reason why I love being a part of the films. Like this is you get to give people a taste of something else and have them maybe come away from it with a little better understanding of the world around them.
I was really impressed with just the lengths the team went to make sure Wish Dragon is authentic. There’s a Chinese animation studio, Base Animation, that produced it and an all-Asian voice cast. Did that draw you to the project as well? Just knowing that the care was there and that they were really trying to do things the right way?
It’s one of those things I learned more about the further I got into the project. Typically, when you audition for something as an actor, you’re not asking too many questions when you enter the room, you’re just happy to have the chance happen, to have an opportunity to be in something potentially. You go in, and you do your best job, and you leave, and you have your fingers crossed. So when I got the role, and I started meeting with the director and learning about the other people that were cast, as well as doing more research into the companies that were making him the production companies, both on the U.S. side and the China side, it was really impressive because very often you’ll see movies in America that are just purely made in the States. Co-productions are a very daunting task, I think for a lot of production companies because there’s a language barrier, a cultural barrier, there’s so many different parts of it.
So being able to them work really closely together just for the sake of making a genuine and impressive movie, that was really fun. Not to mention I’m a huge fan of John Cho and Constance Wu. They are icons in the Asian American acting scene. So being able to share the stage proverbially with them was also just a huge, huge, exciting thing for me and my career. Just because it’s one of those opportunities that you dream of, but you never know how it’s actually going to manifest. And inside an animated movie like this, where every single person is really dedicated, devoted to making the best product possible. It was something that caught me a little bit by surprise, but it was a very welcome one.
I know you’ve done some voice acting in the past, but you’ve done plenty of live-action roles lately with more experience in front of the camera. Did you find that that almost winds up improving your voice acting or are they kind of different skill sets?
I think it’s definitely a different skill set. I’ve done a lot of podcasting, which I think is very healthy for training your voice because when you have to learn how to talk for an hour straight, you definitely know how to do so without wrecking your voice at the same time, whereas in acting it often feels like it’s a very, it’s like a spurt. You’re in front of the camera, and you’re done. Voice acting, you’re spending four hours in a booth, and you’re just drilling some lines over and over again, working really closely with the director. And so I think acting has helped me get to understand how to embody a character physically and also how to pose in front of a camera and positioned the right way. And hip marks and voice acting has sort of taught me a lot about how to enter the theater of the mind and close my eyes and really find myself in a different universe almost entirely because it’s not like you’re overacting with voice acting, but it’s definitely a different world. It’s not as hyper-realistic because you’re not seeing someone’s face. You could be saying something and your character could be doing 50 spins in mid-air something that’s physically impossible, but the voice still needs to match the action. So it’s about heightening it a little bit and understanding where, where exactly it sits in this sort of animated universe. And I think each animated project is different too, just based on what it looks like and what the action is. So that to me was definitely a big hurdle, but it was a welcome challenge,
In the film, your character is so relatable. He has that working-class upbringing and he’s faced with a lot of challenges and we see them sort of lose themselves trying to be something that he’s not for a bit. Everybody growing up has these issues where they’re trying to be something else. Could you relate to your character in those areas and his coming of age moments?
Yeah. I definitely think we live in an era where we have multiple personalities that are portrayed to the world. There is our real personality when we’re just by ourselves, and there’s no connection to something like internet. And then there’s all sorts of different personalities based on [where you are]. Who are you when you’re at school? Who are you when you’re on Instagram? Who are you when you’re on Twitter? And each of those platforms in each of those situations, I think pulls out a different aspect of ourselves and heightens things, falsifies things, there’s a whole number of things. And so I think in today’s day and age, the idea that we are trying to be something that we’re not is I think almost a universal feeling, especially amongst people that have grown up surrounded by the internet. I think for me personally, going into a movie like this, being an actor in Hollywood, this whole journey of discovering yourself is something that has been the past 10 years of my life.
And more importantly discovering why you, why you want to be the person that you are in the situation that you are in is it for genuine reasons? Is it because you want to be successful? Is it because you’re looking for validation or fame or because of your insecurity? There’s so many different facets to how we identify and become a person. I think movies like this can really speak to that core idea and what I would love for people to take away from a film like this is to see themselves a little bit in any of the characters and to grow, even if it’s just an inch. It’s an anxious further than nothing. And so I think movies like this stories like this have the opportunity to do that, especially in a day and age when everything is so fragmented online. I think a lot of people are still in the process of discovering themselves,
You’ve worked on Mulan and now this, and these are films that appeal to everybody, but they’re also targeted at kids. What does it mean for you personally to just have your voice and be involved in these projects? You’re gonna inspire so many kids to have some acceptance for themselves and further their representation. I assume it’s such an incredible honor to be involved in such movies, so how do you feel about that?
I’m definitely honored, and I feel extremely privileged to be in the position where I’m able to bring something like this to life in general. I love animation because you’re able to separate the voice from the person. And you’re able to enter into a whole new world. When you watch a movie like Toy Story, you don’t think about Tom Hanks. When you see Woody you just see Woody, the character and you understand their journey and what they’re doing. And in a lot of ways, animation allows you to become a bit larger than life because you’re not necessarily tied to your physical form anymore. You are being represented in a different way. Whether it’s like a fish in Finding Nemo or a puppet in Toy Story. So I think being able to be in that position is it’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this to this scale.
I know that a lot of people are going to watch this movie and come away with it with warm fuzzies, or maybe they’re inspired. Maybe they feel a little more. And I think that’s that in and of itself is the honor that I am really excited to see because it’s great that I don’t have to necessarily tie it to myself as an actor, as like a public-facing persona. And I would love to see how people react to it just as a movie and as a character and the voice, and not necessarily as me, the person behind it, that, that, to me, I think like almost goes against a lot of what people come to LA for as actors, because you’re looking to be in front of the camera to have your face be the selling machine or whatever. So I’m really excited just to see how people react to the movie and how they take it and how it inspires them. And now we’ve already seen incredible amounts of just beautiful fan art that people have made, and that in and of itself, I think it’s just like a fantastic result of being able to be in an animated project versus a live-action one.
The film has such a great message of family and what you should value in life and how you can get lost in pursuing other stuff. There’s a lot of lighthearted humor, but there are some emotional moments in the film. How impressed were you with the script? It really tugged at the heartstrings for a bit.
Yeah. I think a lot of people who watch this movie, if you’ve seen movies like the original Aladdin, the story will be inherently familiar, but the way that it’s dressed up in the way that it’s presented is really, really different and really unique. A movie like this that focuses so much on sort of the journey of the two main characters but also has all of these other layers to it in terms of what is this kid going through? What are his societal pressures? What are the pressures from his family? It really did have a lot of emotional moments to it that rang really true from someone like me growing up that could just immediately identify with the characters the way his mom talks to him, the way that his friends are with him and, and sort of all of these little elements, I think people are gonna be really surprised at how deep it gets because on the surface you’re right. It has a lot of fun, lighthearted moments, and it’s definitely a comedy. John puts in an amazing performance as the dragon. I think those moments help get you a little more comfortable so that when the real emotional moments happen and, and the real things that tug at your heartstrings happen, you’re ready for it. So I’m excited to see that I think there’s going to be a lot of people who feel a deep connection to the movie because of it.
You brought this up before about getting to work with John Cho. What does that mean personally to work with such a talented and experienced actor?
Okay. John Cho was someone that I remember watching with vivid fascination growing up because outside of the Chinese and Asian stars that were here, where English wasn’t their first language, John show really stood in stark comparison to that because he was an American actor born and bred. He was in a movie that was considerably not kosher for a lot of Asian families, which was Harold and Kumar. But I just remember watching that movie and having this like distinct smile on my face because I could watch this person be confident and be strong and have other people respond to it in a positive way, and have him be the hero of the story instead of the punching bag. Prior to that, what did I have? I had like Long Duk Dong and Sixteen Candles. I had Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was Mickey Rooney, and one of the worst roles I think I’ve ever seen put to film.
So being able to see a performance that was just about the character and not about the race was something that I didn’t realize I wanted but desperately needed because up until then, my presence and people that look like me on screens, presence was defined by their race. And it didn’t feel like it was fair or fun because you just wanted to see someone being normal, because all you want as a kid is to be normal as well. So being able to share even just a little bit of time with John in the studio and to be able to work on the same project as him, as someone that I deeply respect and admire is definitely a dream come true. It feels like my career has gone full circle from the first time I saw him on screen.
So being able to be with him in the studio as well. I’m sure he does, but I hope he understands just how much of an impact he’s had on so many young performers growing up, just because he was able to do something that seems so innocuous, but is really impactful, which is just be a normal person and not have your race define you on screen and be able to act and perform in the project that isn’t harking on that and pointing a finger at it the entire time. I think that normalization is the kind of representation that people so desperately were looking for for so many years.
Thanks to Jimmy Wong for his time. Wish Dragon is out on June 11 via netflix.