Intergalactic Asian American Seeks Promotion: A Candid Conversation with Garrett Wang (Part 1)
Posted on June 1, 2004
I was watching a DVD release of Star Trek: Voyager with a friend of mine back in 2004 and, at some point, I looked over at her and said “I should interview Garrett Wang.” You see, I was writing for an online magazine at the time called Modamag doing film reviews, music reviews and the occasional interview. Anyway, my friend looked over at me and casually dropped a “There’s no way you could interview him.”
I hate that.
I really hate that.
So I looked up and found his agent’s information, drafted an e-mail and sent it off. I’d just gotten in from work a couple days later and my phone rang.
“Can I speak to Kris?”
“This is Garrett Wang. You contacted my agent about something?”
“Yes. Did your agent not tell you why?”
And that’s how the conversation started. I had the pleasure of meeting Garrett a year later–and several times since–at various conventions. He is a consummate gentleman, is extraordinary polite to everybody who approaches him and has a wonderful sense of humor.
Modamag content is no longer available online, so I thought I’d publish some of those interviews from that time here on my blog. I hope you enjoy them and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
(First published on Modamag.com in 2004)
There’s a disturbing trend in Hollywood that is frequently overlooked. While Asian actors like Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat and Jackie Chan are eagerly courted by the studios and brought over for film projects well below their level of talent (Bulletproof Monk and The Tuxedo–need I say more?), there is an entire pool of Asian American actors already here who must compete for very few roles in a town that doesn’t celebrate cultural diversity as much as it would lead you to believe.
When somebody is fortunate enough to break into the spotlight, someone like Garrett Wang (pronounced “Wong”), it’s important to take notice. Most people will recognize Garrett from his role as Ensign Harry Kim during the seven year run of Star Trek: Voyager, but what do we really know about the 35-year-old actor, the journey it took to get to our television screens, his thoughts on where he’s been and, of course, where he’s going next?
KG: You were born in Riverside, California, moved to Indiana, then the island of Bermuda and then down south to Memphis, Tennessee. When and where exactly was it that the acting bug bit you?
GW: I would say that it was in California. I actually was interested in trying to do theater in high school, but that was in Memphis and I was the only Chinese in my whole school other than my sister. I never had the courage or the nerve to even try out for anything then because I just kept thinking they’re never going to cast me. I’m not white, so that was a big problem for me. I actually got hooked in college, though. I decided to quit pre-med in my search for my future major and ended up with East Asian studies. Just on a whim, I took an acting class over there at UCLA and that’s what kicked it in high gear.
KG: I’d read that you used to watch a lot of Sci-Fi when you were growing up. Did that have anything to do at all with wanting to act and where it eventually led you?
GW: It’s just arbitrary that I ended up in Sci-Fi. I’ve always been a science fiction fan, but it didn’t have anything to do with my getting Voyager whatsoever. And I often tell people when they ask me “Do you watch Next Generation?” that I watched it like three times and each time that I did, it was the same episode. It kept repeating over and over and it was the worst episode in the history of Next Generation, called Code of Honor. That was a garbage episode, so I thought I’d try watching it again. Three months later…repeat. Six months after that…same episode.
But that was meant to be because let’s just say that I did get into Next Generation and I became a huge fan of it. By the time the Star Trek: Voyager audition rolled around, I would have put way too much pressure on myself to get that role because it would have been the role that I really, REALLY wanted and when you really, REALLY want something, you never get it. You have to be almost a little bit aloof about it, so it served its purpose. Not being a fan of it and having watched that crappy episode so many times… It actually helped out.
KG: Prior to Voyager, you’d done some commercials; Burger King, Big Red, Kellogs Rice Krispie Treats, Chase Manhattan Bank, etc. How did those come about?
GW: When you’re in Hollywood, you have an agent who sends you out for commercials and an agent who sends you out for TV. Every actor tries to do whatever they can for whatever angle they can to start up their career, so I said “Yeah, I’ll give commercials a shot” and nothing really happened. It was actually then that I decided I was going to quit going on commercial auditions–I thought it was such a waste of time–but the day that I decided I was going to quit, I got a message on my machine saying that I had an audition for Burger King in Santa Monica. I figured “All right, I’ll go on one last one.” And once again, similar to how I got Voyager, there was also less pressure on this audition. I was like “Yeah, well, whatever. It’s my last one.” And that attitude booked me the damn commercial. After that, I just remembered how I felt and the same type of attitude that I had, which was one of confidence and “If I don’t get this job, you know, it’s not going to kill me.” I kept this same attitude for the following three or four auditions and ended up booking five commercials in one week.
KG: Was that during college or…
GW: No, I was already out of college at that point. I didn’t actually get an agent until well after I was out of UCLA and I was basically still taking (acting) classes and doing plays. The total amount of time invested in acting before getting an agent, doing it professionally, was five years and that was not by my choice. That was because of circumstances where my parents were not supportive of my career choice, not supportive of me wanting to take acting classes or…they just weren’t there for me. It was a constant battle and they were very much against me becoming a professional actor. In the five years it took me to convince them that I was worthy of this, that I could do this, I kept honing and honing my craft.
When I came out of the gates as a professional actor, I came out at a full sprint whereas other people who come into town… They take a bus from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, they were the homecoming king…whatever. You know, it’s always all the pretty people from every small town across the world who comes to LA to try to make it, but the problem is that they’re not prepared. They get off the bus and they think they’re going to be a star in a second. They don’t really have the training down and they don’t really have their auditioning down. For me, I’d been training and training for so long and even though arguing with my parents was a negative part of my life, it helped in that when I did start professionally as an actor, I was far more prepared than other people who were on my level of novice actor.
KG: Now you’d done theater prior to getting an agent.
GW: Oh, yeah. Sure. Tons of it. It’s funny because I remember Ethan Phillips (Ed. Note: Neelix on Star Trek: Voyager) one day saying “You know, Garrett, you should try doing theater some day.” He had this assumption that I"d never done theater before, which really actually offended me. I turned to him and said (laughing) “What are you talking about, man? I’ve done theater!” It’s pretty much across the board that people really respect those who’ve done theater. That holds some weight in town.
KG: It seems like a lot of actors go back to theater once they get out of a series or once they have a break.
GW: They miss the immediateness you get from doing theater that you don’t get from film, TV or even commercials. So, they go back to feel that surge of energy or that feeling that they got when they did theater before they made it big. For me, I haven’t gone back and done it because I’ve already achieved that same feeling from whenever I do Star Trek conventions. When I’m on stage, I kind of do an act almost…I’m telling stories…so I’m kind of surfing on the energy of the audience. It’s absolutely crazy, so therefore my yearning for theater is not as strong as some other actors.
KG: And you’ve had quite the time at those conventions.
GW: My first convention in Minneapolis, I was a wreck because I was completely unprepared for what I was going to embark upon! I just remember coming out on stage and I honestly thought there was only going to be a couple hundred people there. But when I was introduced and I walked through the double doors onto the main stage, I looked out and there were over 5,000 people out there.
KG: So not too much pressure.
GW: Oh, and this is just after Voyager had aired the pilot, Caretaker. To me, okay, it’s only been on one show, you know, who’s going to be here? Well, everybody and their mom was there. The minute I started walking up the steps onto the stage, my body started shaking uncontrollably from nerves. I got up there and realized I can do one of two things. I can try to hide this, which obviously never works because whenever you try to hide your fear, it gets bigger. My other choice is to acknowledge it and that’s what I did. I picked up the microphone, looked out into the crowd and went “Oh, whoa…” And everyone is laughing. I said “Listen, I gotta be honest with you guys, I am so nervous right now. I cannot believe how many people are here. Thank you for coming. I’m filling in for Kate Mulgrew.” Kate was sick. “And this is the first convention for anybody on Voyager ever.” And the minute I said “I’m nervous” and told the whole crowd, all the shaking subsided. All my sweatiness, everything, all stopped.
KG: You read for the role of Harry Kim six times? Any idea why so many? Were you up against that much competition?
GW: You know what happened? Yeah, it is an odd number of times because I think when it came down to the auditions for Roxanne Dawson and Tim Russ, they probably had two, tops. I think maybe the main reason was that anytime you’re casting for a series regular, it’s a long commitment. There’s always a bit of trepidation on the part of a show’s creators over casting somebody who is untested, somebody whose resume is very short. And up until that point, I had five commercials and an episode of All American Girl” (Ed note: a short-lived series with comedienne Margaret Cho), a sitcom.
I hadn’t done any episodic work up until that point, so to them, “This kid hasn’t even done a one hour drama yet. He’s brand new, so we’ve got to make sure he’s the right one.” After I think was the fifth audition, it was between me and a kid from New York. They said “Alright, they’re sending the kid back to New York, so they’re not into him.” I figure “Oh, so I got the role?” They go “Mmm…nooo. You didn’t get it, but you’re not out of the running. They want to take another two weeks to audition older guys and they’ll whittle it down to the best candidate from them and then you’re going to duke it out with him.” My agent advised me “Tell em’ to go to hell.” At the time, I’d also booked a part in Mortal Kombat playing the younger brother and also a part in a film called Glory Daze, which was a small independent directed by Rich Wilkes who wrote Airheads and XXX. Glory Daze, was his homage to his college days at Santa Cruz.
The lead in that movie was Ben Affleck, the second was my character, the third was French Stewart from Third Rock From the Sun, fourth was Sam Rockwell, fifth was a guy who was a friend of the director’s and that was the cast. Up until that point, nobody had heard of French Stewart. Nobody had heard of Sam Rockwell. Nobody knew what a Ben Affleck was. And the funny thing is those were just the main characters. Then he (Wilkes) talked about the supporting actors; Matthew McConaughey, five minute little supporting scene and Brendan Fraser, also a small little tiny scene. Again, no one knew who the hell Matthew McConaughey was. Brendan Fraser had done a couple things at that point, though. There was another guy with no lines known as “the Jerker” who spends most of his day masturbating…and all he does is walk across the screen a couple of times…Matt Damon. (laughing)
So I already had two movies ready to go and I always laugh when people ask “Will you ever want to try film?” People seem to have this misconception that film is the be all end all of Hollywood and that’s what everyone aspires to, like TV is in a lower rung or something. I keep telling them “Listen you guys, when I got Voyager, I had booked two films and if I’d taken them, I’d have been a film actor.” I would have gone a whole different route. As it happened, I told my agent “Fine. Tell them to go look for an older Ensign Kim. Tell them bring it on! I’m ready!”
They looked around and brought this guy, Eric Steinberg, in two weeks later. He’s actually half Korean, half Jewish, a great actor and I honestly think that he probably did a better audition than I did. That’s my gut feeling, but because he doesn’t look 100% Asian–and I don’t really look 100% Asian–but I looked more Asian than he did and I think that’s what swung it in my favor.
KG: Aside from a strong camaraderie amongst the cast, you’ve been a bit outspoken regarding Rick Berman’s treatment of the show…
GW: Yeah… (laughing) Much to my detriment, actually, yes. That’s what happens when you sit there and you tell it like it is to people who have power; they don’t like it. I’m the only person who’s ever publicly spoken about anything regarding Rick Berman in a negative way. This is a free country. You’re entitled to your criticisms and I think my criticisms were valid. I think most people, other actors or people who work on the show, if you pulled them off on an aside and said “Okay, there’s no Rick around. Let me ask you, what do you think of what I said?” I think 99% of them would say “I agree with you that he didn’t take the risks he could have.” That’s all I said and it was in reference to the fact that the man came in, took over from Gene Roddenberry, plugged in a formula and kept that same formula for Next Generation, every episode of Deep Space Nine, every episode of Voyager and after a while, you’re talking about 21 years worth of episodes. Man, you better start changing your formula a little bit just to keep it fresh.
Look at TV today. Look how edgy it is. Look at something like The Shield. Look at Nip/Tuck. Some of these shows are just going above and beyond what anybody’s ever seen. That’s all I said to Rick, who is somebody used to nobody saying anything negative about him publicly. I’m sure he saw this and was like “Okay, fine. Alright. You wanna do that? You want to play hardball? I’ll show you what hardball is.” The result of that is I’m the first actor in the history of Star Trek to be refused a directing job.
KG: You’re kidding?
GW: Believe me, I asked in Season 5, Season 6, Season 7… “No, no, no.” And all not from him. It was always through messages. He would never talk to me and say “no” to my face. His comment was “What am I running, a director’s school here?” And the sad part of the whole situation is, of all the actors who have directed, none of them have been as much of a fan of science fiction as I have been. Most of those actors directed because they wanted their DGA card, they wanted to move on to bigger and better things, or they wanted a career in directing. For me, I wanted to direct Voyager. I wanted to put my stamp on Voyager. I wanted to make Voyager better. Everything I wanted to do was about directing science fiction, specifically directing Star Trek and that’s what kills me. He basically turned down the one person who would have given him, in my estimation, the best first-directed–for an actor–episode ever and I was standing by my guns on that.
At the time that everybody wanted to direct, I didn’t ask because it was such a stampede. It was Tim Russ, Roxanne, Robbie McNeill–Robbie had already been set to direct an episode by this time–and Bob Picardo…all butting heads and elbowing each other to get in to direct at the same time. I remember they were observing Les Landau directing The Chute. All three of them were cramming in there and I said to myself “That’s fine. They can do their thing because when they direct during Season 4, that’s when I’m going to start observing and Season 5 is when I’m going to direct.” That was my game plan and it’s going to be known that Garrett Wang directed the best first-directed episode of Star Trek ever. That was what I was aspiring to. I was going to kick some major booty, but, of course, those plans got derailed.
At this point, it’s been three years since the end of the show. I’m more matter-of-fact about this information. Usually I get really riled up when I talk about it, but I’m starting to look at stuff, like the five years of fighting with my parents, and realizing how it actually ended up helping me. My not becoming a fan of Next Generation helped me in my Voyager audition and I think somehow, some way, shape or form, it hasn’t manifested itself yet, but Rick Berman saying “no” to me is somehow to push me in some other direction also.
KG: On a happier note, I understand you guys had a great deal of fun on the set. I’m curious…who had the best sense of humor?
GW: I wouldn’t say one person had a better sense of humor. It was all different types. For people like Bob Picardo and Ethan Philips, they had one-liners they’d come up with. Ethan Phillips would also do this one thing called “Fix-it Guy”–it was just like a mechanic or a plumber–and what he’d do is hike his pants down really low, then he’d bend over and all you’d see is butt crack. (laughing) And he’d say (mimicking Phillips) “Oh, yeah. Okay. Ya…ya gotta get something fixed here. Hold on. Let me fix this for ya.” He’d bend over right in your face and you’d just see this lily white…this porcelain white butt. Which is funny because when he has the make-up on, he’s darker than he normally is, and then you see that white, white booty.
Then you’d have Tim Russ. His sense of humor was always, always, practical jokes. He was the one who had premeditated practical jokes that he would pull on people all the time.
KG: Did he ever get you?
GW: Ah…hmm. No, he never really got me. We would do all sorts of crazy things on the set. We had tapeball wars where we would actually take gaffer’s tape, electrician’s tape, and roll it up into big, big balls and we’d be throwing these things. It was mainly Tim Russ throwing them at me or at Robbie McNeill, or Robbie throwing them at me. It was that triangle; Robbie down at Helm, me up at Operations and Tim up at Tactical and it made a perfectly triangular war zone. And obviously, sitting in the middle of the war zone, is Chakotay and Janeway. I remember the first day when we actually had an innocent casualty of war. I think it was me that actually beamed Kate in the head by mistake! I was like “oooohhhh…” (laughing) The funny thing is she turned around, saw what it was, picked it up and she knew it was me because the look on my face was like a deer caught in headlights. And I though “Oh, my God.” She had no expression on her face and then she threw it at me! It was kinda like “Oh, alright.”
My type of humor was doing impersonations of people, little accents whenever I was reading lines for rehearsal or I’d come up with weird things. I came up with the “com badge toss” because our com badges are attached to our uniforms via Velcro. I’d rip off Robbie’s com badge, tell him to stand back about fifteen feet, toss the com badge and it would land on the Velcro and stay there.
KG: I believe you addressed some of this earlier, but you weren’t allowed to be funny, were never promoted and you weren’t allowed to direct? What the hell?
GW: It kind of went in line with the character. I mean, Harry was the one who always seemed to be the punching bag and that kind of ended up shifting from the character to the real person…to the workplace and me unfortunately getting the short end of the stick. The promotion thing is always asked at conventions. “Why weren’t you promoted?” Believe me, it wasn’t a fault of mine. I was so frustrated, I remember coming to work one day and walking up to Kate with this delusion that she could do something about it. And I asked her, “How come I’m not promoted?” and she’s just like (mimicking Kate Mulgrew) “I know…I know…I know…”
She really felt for me, but there was nothing she could do about it. I’d actually talked to somebody who was in the Navy and I said “If you were an ensign, a junior officer, what rank are you seven years later? What rank would you have achieved?” He told me “Oh, you’re almost Lt. Commander.” Oh, that’s good to know.
The funniest story regarding the promotion happened to me probably five or six months ago. I was actually flying out to Baltimore to see a Ravens game and I went with another buddy. We were sitting on Southwest and when I got off, he was standing next to an Asian guy, so I immediately thought that this guy is a fan. I walk up and my buddy goes “Meet Harry Kim” and I say “Oh, nice to meet you.” My friend goes “No…no…no… This guy is Harry Kim.” The guy whips out his business card and sure enough that’s his name. And he goes “You know what? You know what’s even funnier? During the time that your show was on, I was actually in the Navy and I was Ensign Harry Kim. I got so much crap from everybody around me. I always wondered would I ever cross paths with Harry Kim.” And here it is. It happened on that plane. I said “Wow! You’re exactly the same as me.” He replied “Well, not exactly. I actually got promoted to Lieutenant.” So even the real Harry Kim got promoted.
Kristoffer Gair (who formerly wrote under the pseudonym Kage Alan) is the Detroit-based author of Honor Unbound, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To My Sexual Orientation, Andy Stevenson Vs. The Lord Of The Loins, Gaylias: Operation Thunderspell, several short stories featured in anthologies (to be combined in a forthcoming book), the novella Falling Awake, its sequel, Falling Awake II: Revenant and Falling Awake III: Requiem.