Though he’s portrayed a broad range of characters throughout his storied career, tonight’s debut of BD Wong as “Gotham’s” Hugo Strange marks the first time the actor has entered the superhero realm. Or, it might be more accurate to say supervillain.
Wong’s Strange, a brilliant professor and psychiatrist heading up Arkham Asylum, is the latest classic Batman character to be reimagined by the Fox series. Though his character’s motives are noble — he wants to cure criminals and return them to society — his mad scientist approach involves conducting radical experiments on the patients and poking around in their minds. Despite his good intentions, it’s a program that could leave the criminally insane more damaged and dangerous than ever when released back onto Gotham City’s streets.
Ahead of his debut on “Gotham’s” mid-season premiere, Wong spoke with CBR News about bringing Hugo Strange’s classic comic book look to life, and why the character isn’t exactly a villain when we first meet him. The actor also ponders what we really know about Theo Galvan’s death and the arrival of Azrael, and gives his answer on whether he’d classify Hugo Strange as an evil genius or mad scientist.
CBR News: “Gotham” showrunner Bruno Heller initially mentioned the possibilty of Hugo Strange’s arrival in 2014. How did you become involved in the TV series, and was it hush-hush from the start?
BD Wong: To answer the second half of the question, it was all shrouded in secrecy. Even to this day, I am still not 100 percent sure of what’s going to happen. Really, I can’t tell you what conversations they all went through to come to the conclusion that they would call me, or, even if they called other people before they called me. All I know is that I got the call. I was really excited at the potential of what I thought playing this part would actually mean. I hadn’t actually watched the show until then. I started watching it and got into it, which was great. It’s all been win/win for me.
Hugo Strange isn’t your typical villain — what type of research is required for such a role?
It’s really an interesting show, because it’s taking something classic, that some people know about, and bending it. The show is always going to have this tug of war of sensibilities between fans and whether they approve of that, or don’t approve. Some people into the classics don’t want to mess with them. Other people love the bending. When you have a character like this, you have to get a lay of the land of what people perceive this character to be up until this point in time, and then decide how much you are actually going to bend it.
My first research was seeing what he looked like over the years and decades — this is a really old character — and then to be both pleasantly surprised and horrified [that] he looked so different from me. Then, to sit down with the production and artists — “Gotham” has incredible hair, makeup and wardrobe design — and to say, “What do we have? What are we going to do, and what are our options?” It was one long day where I tried on 10 different looks for the character. At the end of it, I came completely around the block to where I had started and decided what I preferred most is the one that looks like the classic character, the one that looked the most like what people know him to be.
He has a certain chinstrap beard, glasses and he was bald. Those three elements — and trying to see how they could be adapted and put on me in a way that was organic, that didn’t look like I had just put a mask on — I liked how it looked. That was my opinion — the producers really had to sign off on it. The makeup takes surprisingly longer than you think it would, to make me bald and stuff like that. It takes almost three hours in the morning to do it. By the time we get in front of the camera, the look was refined in a way that was great. So, the research had to do a lot with his look.
The Batman universe features numerous colorful supervillains. What makes Hugo Strange unique among them?
What specifically makes him very unique is his position in Gotham City as the head of Arkham Asylum. As far as “Gotham” is concerned, the greatest criminal villains in Gotham City eventually pass though the doors there. And, when they pass through the doors, his interaction with each of them, all in different ways, changes them.
What he takes the most pleasure and excitement in, as a scientist and as a psychiatrist, is turning them back into the world. He changes them in many, many different ways. He says, “Okay, watch what happens when I put this person back out, when I release them.” In the beginning couple of episodes, the first person to come through those doors is the Penguin. Hugo is super-obsessed and fascinated with changing people’s minds, affecting minds — the human brain and how it works and how to manipulate it. In Penguin’s case, he says, “Okay, let’s see if I can make him into a nice person. Then, if I can make him into a nice person, what will happen if I can send him back into the world where he has to interact with all those people that he was terrible to?”
RELATED: “Gotham’s” Azrael Arrives On Set, Reveals Identity/article/gothams-azrael-arrives-set-reveals-identity
It sounds like Hugo Strange has the best of intentions. However, when Theo Galavan’s dead body is brought to Indian Hill, Miss Peabody [Tonya Pinkins] remarks, “Professor Strange has high hopes for this one.” What exactly does that mean?
Well, it’s intentionally mysterious, so I can only go so far in illuminating what that actually means. The high hopes are related to his fascination with the human brain. He knows that Theo Galavan was a brilliant supervillain. He wants to study the human brain, pull it apart and put it back together in ways I can’t go into detail about right now. But, he wants to do that in a way to understand the criminally insane.
Images of Theo as Azrael have circulated online, so we know he’s going to return to the show. Should viewers be wondering — or assuming — that Hugo Strange is behind that resurrection?
If that is the case, they should be wondering what the reality of that is. What the hell could that be? How could Theo Galavan be Azrael? They should be questioning the realness of that. In other words, is that a dream or something real? They should be questioning that. That should be the most potent thing that their mind is processing. “How the hell could Theo Galavan be Azrael?”
What puts Hugo Strange on Jim Gordon or Bruce Wayne’s radar?
I think the non-spoilery answer to that question is it turns out to be the recurring instance of people coming out of Arkham and behaving however they are behaving. They are either different, or they’ve done something terrible, or there’s something that seems really mysterious or suspicious about what’s going on there. Inevitably, Jim Gordon is going to turn to that place to find out what’s going on because it just doesn’t seem right. There’s more to it than that, but I can’t really say what.
Do you consider Hugo Strange a mad scientist or an evil genius?
Do I have to choose? He is both of those things. He’s definitely at the top of his field. He’s really skilled, insightful and knowledgeable about the human brain and human behavior. His right-hand, Miss Peabody, is always going, “Okay, I didn’t see that coming.” She’s often eating her words because she’s a very skeptical person. They have a great antagonistic relationship.
He’s both of those things. He’s a mad scientist in that he’s obsessed with some kind of thing he sees as progress. “I’m going to be the guy who believes science is changing the world. I don’t really care what the consequences of what I’m doing are. I’m changing the world.” There’s something God-like about that.
Hugo Strange is sticking around for more than one episode. What can you tease about his ultimate endgame?
I have no idea what Hugo’s endgame is. I’m reading every new script expecting there to be some big ending, like where I’m about to get my skull crushed in a garbage compactor. I haven’t seen that, yet! I’m excited for people to see his growing delight in what’s happening. He really likes what he’s doing, although it’s really dark, twisted and very dangerous, it really entertains him. For that reason, he’s really fun to watch.
“Gotham” returns Monday, Feb. 29 at 8 p.m. on Fox