Exclusive Interview: Anthony Brandon Wong (Sydney) chats about his character Le Bok on Maximum Choppage

Hello Asia! Editor Johnny Au chats with actor Anthony Brandon Wong about his character “Le Bok” on ABC’s Maximum Choppage, his work as an actor as well as an acting coach and his passion for all things food! You may (or may not) have seen him as “Ghost” in The Matrix sequels but his character in Maximum Choppage will leave you red faced and laughing till there are tears in your eyes.

First of all, Anthony, Happy New Year, Gung Hei Fat Choi.

Thank you, likewise!

What are you doing for Chinese New Year? Do you have anything special planned?

I’ve been so flat out with teaching and coaching actors, that’s the second string to my bow, I’m an actor and I’m also an acting teacher and coach. I haven’t even thought about that because I’ve just been doing back-to-back coaching sessions for actors who want assistance with preparing for an audition, working on a role or just wanting to learn acting techniques, so my mind hasn’t been there. But undoubtedly being an absolutely passionate foodie, it’s just gonna involve some huge degustation menu in Sydney for sure.

Excellent, that sounds fantastic, I can’t wait to dig in to my degustation tonight. Let’s talk about Maximum Choppage, can you describe your character “Le Bok”?

“Le Bok” is a pervy, lascivious, sometimes sleazy owner of a dual business, it’s a noodle shop and it’s also a shoe factory, so it’s called Shoodles. Shoodles is in Cabramatta and it employs under aged youth in a kind of sweatshop situation, so it’s very politically incorrect. “Le Bok”, which is reminiscent of a very famous show company, not mentioning any names, makes these shoes which aren’t great quality like the company that they sound like. They probably fall apart after one wear.

So basically “Le Bok” is kind of dodgy in business, he’s also obsessed with ”Mrs. Chan”, played by Katherine Yuen and can’t wait to get his hands on her pink bits basically and is trying to do so almost every episode. Now the ironic thing about that was that Katherine is an acting student of mine. About two weeks before I was cast, she was in my workshop and she had already been cast as “Mrs. Chan”, after the workshop she came up to me and sort of surreptitiously said, “Anthony, I’ve got this sex scene I have to do in this show Maximum Choppage and I’m kind of nervous about it because I’ve never done anything like it before”, because Katherine is mother of many children and she’s new to acting. So I gave her this advice, how she could fantasize about this or think about that. Little did I know, that just a week or two later, I would be cast in the role of Le Bok and I would be with codpiece and bottom exposed mounting her. I can anticipate that one, I’m not trying to take advantage of my students, it just happened I was cast opposite of her which I think is really funny, giving her the advice a few weeks earlier and enacting the advice two weeks later.

And thank God for Katherine as well because she was the one who actually said to me, “Anthony, do you know they’re casting for this role but I believe the producers think you’re in America”, because I often bided my time between America and Australia in the last twelve years, working over there, working over here. So I quickly got onto my Australian agent and said can you call the producers of Maximum Choppage and let them know I’m actually here. As it turns out, the producers were like twenty minutes away from offering the role of Le Bok to another actor, but once they got the phone call they said stop the press, don’t send anymore emails out, stop the casting, Anthony is here in Australia!! So I was like twenty minutes away from losing that role. So Katherine not only provided me with a scene in which I got to wear a codpiece with her, she also helped me get that role, so I’m eternally grateful to her.

That’s a fantastic story. Will we see maybe a re-enactment in the Logies this year, the codpiece scene, it could go down as Australian television history.

Well I really hope not as I really like to be a positive role model for Asian actors and people and I don’t know if my exposed butt cheeks on national television is gonna do it, but maybe it will, maybe someone out there likes a bit of Asian butt cheek so maybe I will be a positive role model for them, but no, I hope we never re-enact that. It was traumatic enough, actually the codpiece came off in the middle of filming!

Oh no!

It’s basically gaffered onto my pubes which is very painful, I don’t recommend it to anyone. In the middle of quite a lot of thrusting and simulated orgasm noises it came off in the middle of a take and I’m just thinking this is a lawsuit waiting to happen, here I am, with my student, with my codpiece falling off and Katherine was just pissing herself laughing. I just kept saying “Don’t look, don’t look!”, so that’s what happened during that wonderful bit, let’s just put it this way, it wasn’t 50 Shades of Grey.

50 Shades of Anthony?

Yeah, 50 Shades of embarrassment I think. That was so hilarious doing that scene, I mean, every single day on Maximum Choppage was… I know it sounds like a cliché but it was an absolute joy. One, because I was working with so many of my students, I mean Lap Pham, who plays “Mr Ping the Pork Bun King” is one of my students. Andy Trieu who you are speaking to.

Yes, I spoke to Andy two days ago.

He’s just such a great guy, I’ve done some study with him, I’ve also worked with him before in a stage show calledShanghai Lady Killer in which Andy played my stunt double because I’m martial arts challenged. Basically they got Andy to put on a mask and me to put on a mask so the audience couldn’t tell who was who. And then so I get to look like theKitchen Whiz ninja guy.

He never told me about his moonlighting as a body double!

Yeah, well he was my stunt double on that and we’d do the convention where “Hello, it’s Anthony” and now he’s morphed into Andy, and Andy would slide through the air on wires and do his kung fu and use swords like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and make me look good and the audience would think, “oh, that’s Anthony.” So I’m indebted to him as well, not just Katherine, because he is such a fantastic martial artist and such a great guy. Actually we shared the same hotel room when we did Shanghai Lady Killer in Brisbane so I got to know Andy a bit, he’s a super guy.

I guess with your experience in the Australian film industry, were you really excited when you saw this opportunity, this predominantly Asian Australian cast written as a very much Asian inspired story, even though obviously it’s lighthearted, it’s a kung fu comedy but the essence and soul of the story is very much Asian and the themes that run throughout. Were you really excited to be working on something like this, especially in Australia?

Absolutely, I will never forget that first day of rehearsal when we had a table read of the first few episodes of the script and I looked around that table and it was predominantly an Asian and Asian Australian cast and also my previous colleagues I hadn’t seen for a long time and also my students. I remember sitting there in a mixture of awe and gratitude and just going we have waited our entire lives, I mean, I’ve been in the business for 30 years now and I’ve waited almost 30 years to have that very experience. And the actors, the Asian actors kept walking around for the two months that we were working on that shoot just going ”isn’t this it’s amazing we’re doing this” and it is an absolutely ground breaking show because we’re firmly centre stage and not just a day player coming in for 50 words saying “here’s your beer sir” but we’re the protagonists and the antagonists and we’re the lead characters alongside. You know it’s a mixed cast, there are also Caucasian actors and actors from other backgrounds but yeah it’s very much an Asian Australian story set in Cabramatta so it just feels wonderful to fly the flag for Asians and Asian Australians. And to put on a show on TV that is really fresh and which we’ve never seen before.

I hope it really relates to an Asian Australian audience as well as when they’re watching and they see some of the action and even the story and they go “yeah, I actually relate to that” or “I relate to things that this person goes through”. Like Lawrence’s character, his mother believes he went into kung fu but he went into art school. I’m sure plenty of Asian Australian kids have gone through something very similar.

I think all great comedy works because it has that kernel of truth, even though we have our tongue firmly in our cheek and we’re playfully, mischievously parodying cultural elements that are associated with things like kung fu, karaoke, duck soup and all those kinds of things. At the heart of it, a lot of those things that kind of staunch expectations about children in Chinese culture, having to live up to standards of saving face and all those things and being well educated, are very much things I certainly can relate to and so many Asians can relate to. Within this chopsocky kung fu environment, there are some very poignant things that I believe people will connect with, I also think that people from other cultures will connect with them too because that kind of strong parental expectation is present in many cultures, Greek culture, Jewish culture, you know, a lot of people can relate to that.

Just running through your long body of work, in television, film and stage, the names just keep popping out, the people you’ve been able to work with, it’s just mind boggling. Looking back at your career, is there any particular role that stood out for you or any particular colleague you really enjoyed working with during that time.

Well when I worked with Gary Oldman, it was absolutely a dream come true because I had grown up admiring him.

That was Guns, Girls and Gambling right?

Yeah. I just kept pinching myself on that set in Salt Lake City, Utah. I think I would look across and see him and the four-year-old boy inside me was going “Oh My God!”, I was keeping a cool exterior but I was kind of freaking out inside about how lucky I was, so that was one of them. I also got to play an Asian Elvis impersonator, being incredibly over the top, with a massive wig that was kind of so ridiculous on my head, that was part of the comedy of it, so that was definitely a memorable role.

Of course, The Matrix because I spent 15 months working on the two sequels Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolution and with the lead in the Enter The Matrix video game. We shot that in the San Francisco Bay area and then in Sydney. And the other interesting thing about that experience was September 11 happened right in the middle of that, so that kind of horrendously traumatic experience, because we had many actors from New York City on The Matrix, was such a bonding experience. I’ll never forget Laurence Fishburne asking the entire cast and crew who were about to shoot a scene about war and asking us to all hold hands. This was after September 11 had just happened, like in the last week and just saying very poignant, like this is a very very strange time and we all need to look after each other and let’s do our very best on these movies and let’s make sure we check in with each other and if you need to invite someone over for dinner who’s feeling a bit upset about what’s been going on in the world in the last week, please do, we wanna be here for each other. It was very amazing, I’ll never forget that moment, because it’s not like that happens on every film set you’re on.

That’s a great story. Looking at your other career which is training actors, your work at NIDA, Actor Centre Australia and the WA Academy of Performing Arts, what’s the satisfaction you get from that, to teach the craft to the next generation of Australian actors, where do you get the passion to actually teach?

It’s such an amazing feeling to watch people that you have nurtured and supported and been part of their artistic journey reach their goals. Stephanie Son who plays “Petal” is a classic example, Stephanie has been a student of mine for many years and years ago she and I did a private career mentoring session and I asked her, “what do you ultimately want to do, what’s on your bucket list?”, and she said, “I want to play a kickass action heroine”. Then years later when I saw her on the set of Maximum Choppage, well last year, I just gave her a big hug and said “you did it!” and to know that maybe I had something to do with her artistic journey made me so wonderful to see this talented woman finally achieve what she deserved. So that’s the best feeling, sometimes the teaching and coaching of actors is just even more satisfying than acting. I love acting but it’s even more satisfying sometimes because you feel you’ve just had some impact on a person’s life and helped them make their dreams come true, so that never gets tiring for me.

And because I love acting so much, I always love the continuing of studying. Like I continue to study with the world’s great acting teachers, I continue to take myself off to classes with Larry Moss who is Leonardo DiCaprio and Hilary Swank‘s teacher or to continue to work with Ivana Chubbuck who’s been a seminal influence on me and who trained me to teach her technique, she’s the coach of Brad Pitt, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron and Jake Gyllenhaal and just to continue learning from these master teachers. So I never get bored to learn and when you teach and coach you constantly have to be reinventing and reinvigorating your approach to acting.

Was there any particular student that you taught who stood out to you and when you looked at this person you thought wow, this person’s got something, sort of like an X factor?

There’s a student called Natalie Mendoza and Natalie recently played “Imelda Marcos” to great acclaim on the stages of the west end in a new musical written by David Byrne called Here Lies Love and I always knew Natalie had that X factor, that star factor, not only incredibly beautiful but just emotionally deep and you know Natalie was also the lead in The Descent movies. When you meet Natalie she is so gently spoken but she’s a powerhouse, she can be so, in that role of “Juno” in The Descent, she was so feisty. Natalie is definitely one of those people. Oh gosh there’s so many, there’s also my student Stef Dawson who has recently cast as “Annie Cresta” in The Hunger Games and that’s so satisfying as a friend and a coach to see an actor like Stef or Natalie just achieve these great heights in their careers. I always knew they had it in them, they’re just so talented, they probably could have done it without me anyway but it’s just nice to have been part of their journey.

And I guess we can’t wait to see Here Lies Love when it comes to Sydney and the Vivid Festival.

Yeah, I know they’re bringing it here, I can’t wait, what a concept, a musical about the Marcoses, it’s so zany and fantastic. It’s really changing, I think of Maximum Choppage, I think of Nowhere Boys, this other Matchbox Pictures series I’ve been involved in, you’ve got one of the lead boys, an actor, he’s played by Joel Lok, he plays my son Andy. And you know there’s a Benjamin Law project that’s being developed called “Family Law”, and I think of Here Lies Love, it really is a different world for Asians now, it’s certainly not perfect but I just think that when I first started in the early 80s, how different it was.

Looking ahead at the next 12 months, what’s on the horizon for you?

I’ve got a house/dance single that I recently recorded in LA with an acting student who’s also an accomplished DJ and music producer. We wrote a song together called “Emancipate” and I’m going to be shooting the music video for that this year. I’m also in a film called Thicker Than Water which was written by a student of mine again and they wrote this role for me of a very campy dance teacher. So I recently shot that opposite some more students. Pete Murray, the singer-songwriter was in it and I had something like 12 students in that movie. So this phenomenon’s happening where I’ve been so lucky to be cast opposite my students or being written into projects by my students and it’s so satisfying to be able to act with them, knowing that we had a common acting language. So Thicker Than Water will be released sometime later this year. Then I have an episode of Winter that is going to be debuting the night after Maximum Choppage debuts, in which I’m playing a detective. So there’s a few things. I’ve also recently auditioned for some American projects, I’m just waiting to hear about those. So it’s a pretty full life, that and you know amidst trying all the best food in Sydney, the best degustation menus of Sydney restaurants, there’s a lot to get done!

Have you thought about maybe writing your own blog about your food adventures?

I probably should because I’m so obsessed with it, I literally have in my bookcase, something like 40 or 50 restaurant guides from around the world. I recently purchased the book “1,001 restaurants you must experience before you die” and I’ll give you an example of how foodie obsessed I am. I was recently in Mexico City and there was a massive political protest going on, there were hundreds and thousands of angry people on the streets parading through Mexico City but I had booked a restaurant that night from that book. I was thinking, okay, there’s a lot of angry people out there, squads of riot police with riot shields, there are restaurants and hotels boarded up with wood but my mind is going, “but I can still use the back streets and get away from these ‘millions’ of people and go to that restaurant”. But another part of my brain is saying, “you could die Anthony, you could literally die out there”. But the other part of my brain is going, “no, but still must be a way that we can get to the restaurant”. Eventually when I saw wall to wall people as far as the eye could see protesting angrily, I thought “maybe I won’t go out tonight, maybe I’ll just get takeaway”. So I’m pretty obsessed with food but yeah a food blog would be good.

I think it would be a fascinating read especially with the amount of travel that you do, and your passion with food. I think it’s a worthwhile project.

This is kind of a funny confession, but I’ve often thought when I’ve gotten an acting job or a teaching job, one of the first places my mind goes to when they tell me about the location where the shoot is going to be is, is there good food in that city, my mind literally goes to that, I’m like yeah, I’ll take that job because there’s like fantastic restaurants in that town. It’s not the only consideration but it is part of the mix of the decision making.

You’re based in Sydney, is that right?

I was based in LA after The Matrix, I went and moved to LA and then I got my American citizenship, so now I’m a dual citizen which is wonderful, I can go back and forth between Australia and America as I please. In the past few years I’ve been based back in Sydney, very happy to be back, with my family are here and a lot of my students are here.

If there’s one place in Sydney, only one restaurant you can go to in Sydney, which one would it be?

You’re asking me the big Sophie’s Choice, gotta pick between my children, one restaurant, I think Tetsuyas, can’t get enough of that French Japanese fusion.

I would say Rockpool Bar & Grill personally! My last question to you, if there was an aspiring actor who asked you for advice, what advice would you give them?

Be audacious in your vision of what you want to achieve. I think sometimes what can happen, we can get very limited in our belief about what’s possible and we can put a glass ceiling on ourselves. I’ve seen that a lot in the Asian acting community in Australia and America, where sometimes the actors can be thinking to themselves, well I’m not even gonna dream that big because it’s not possible anyway because no one’s going to cast me as the lead in that film because they will cast a Caucasian actor or an actor from another background but not Asian. I say, well then fill your mind with those examples of people who have transcended that, just like Sandra Oh or Lucy Liu. Then I look at director Ang Lee who despite being Asian, despite being Taiwanese, had such a diverse body of work which is not limited by his ethnicity at all. So Dream huge would be my words of advice.

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The final episode of Maximum Choppage airs on ABC2, Tuesday 31st March at 9pm. The series is also screening on iView.

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