Interview: Jimmy Wong on Wish Dragon and wishing to be in a superhero project

Credit: Netflix/Sony Pictures Animation. Photo by Diana Ragland

Netflix and Sony Pictures Animation have joined forces for Wish Dragon, an animated film that’s inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. It follows Din Song, a young man in China who stumbles upon a dragon who can grant wishes, and all he wants is to see his long-lost friend again. We had the chance to chat with Jimmy Wong, who voices Din and is best known for his role as Ling from the live-action Mulan film. He talks about working with John Cho, the pros of doing voice work over live-action films, the state of Asians in the entertainment industry, and wanting to be in a superhero project.

John Nguyen: You’ve been entertaining people, and you’ve been on the grind for years.

Jimmy Wong: 10 years. It’s been a journey. I think I’d never expected it to go the way that it has. If you had told me I’ll be primarily making videos on YouTube 10 years after I came to LA, and that it would be an absolute joy and pleasure, as well as being in movies and being in stuff like the live-action Mulan and movies with John Cho and stuff, I would have slapped you. There’s no way. But it’s been an incredible journey. I think, especially as an Asian, we’ve been on the precipice and now directly in the middle of it – one of the most impactful and distinct and memorable periods of history in terms of Asians in entertainment, in society, and in the news, for better or worse.

So it’s definitely one of those things where I think being able to live through a year like 2020 and have that be almost at the peak of my career so far has been a really interesting dichotomy. I should be ecstatic. I was in a huge Disney movie, I get to be in this amazing animated movie from Sony Pictures Animation. And I would love to be able to run out into the streets and scream, “I did it. We did it. We got there.” But I remember feeling that same way back in 2011 when I made that song in response to that girl at UCLA. It was a whole viral thing. At that point, I thought that was the worst that racism was gonna get against Asians.

John Nguyen: Nope!

Jimmy Wong: Yeah, big nope! That’s definitely a little bit of naivete on my part. For me, it’s been this interesting dichotomy, like I said. I want to be ecstatic and happy, seeing all these amazing projects popping up everywhere, people like Chlo√© Zhao winning Oscars and Menari getting nominated across the board. Steven Yeun having an incredible boost in his career. But at the same time, I have my little wary cap on just seeing everything that’s happening in the world. Knowing that while we’ve come really far and while I’ve come far in my career, there’s still so much left to go. And I think movies like Wish Dragon are a step towards that. So the more we can push for projects like this, the better we are as a whole.

John Nguyen: We have to just keep on doing that so that there are just more Asians out there. So people will be like, “Hey, this is normal.” They’re not going to be, “Oh, who are these people? Begone!”

Jimmy Wong: And it’s funny because you would think changes would happen fast, but it doesn’t. Like someone that grows up watching movies like this is seven years old now, it’s going to take them another 15 years before they start making movies if that’s what they want to do. Or maybe less than that, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow. So it’s one of those things where once you get started, it’s not like you can stop, and not stopping is really important. It’s about keeping the grind up and keeping your voices high and held up high so that people can hear it. Follow it and be inspired by it.

John Nguyen: We also have more coming out like Shang-Chi. So I think 2021’s a good year, and hopefully, 2022 is just going to even go even further.

Jimmy Wong: Yeah, if I know anything about movie production is that it sometimes takes five to ten years to get a project off the ground. Hopefully, we can expedite that timeline, but it just means that the things that are starting now we may not see for a couple of years. That just means that we’re gonna see more and more of it. And I think signal boosting, supporting people within the community keeping a positive voice, making sure that we’re not infighting and staying united is super important to just push through and getting our voices heard.

Credit: Netflix/Sony Pictures Animation

John Nguyen: For Wish Dragon, did it fall into your lap? What did you have to do to be a part of this project?

Jimmy Wong: It was a regular audition, just like so many of the other ones. You walk into the room, you read the lines, and you hope you do well. You take the direction from whoever’s casting and you leave, and you cross your fingers and go, “Well, that was a cool project. Hope it pans out.” And I didn’t know much about the project when I first walked in. But after getting the role and finding out more about it and doing the research, I got super excited because it’s a co-production with a bunch of Chinese companies and American ones. That typically is something that is a rarity; you don’t see it very often especially in the animated front. The animation itself is beautiful. This is like a top-tier movie with some much hard work put into it. I was able to visit the animation studios in China a couple of years back before the pandemic, and I just got to walk in and see just how magical and hard-working everyone was. It was a real pleasure to be able to experience that on that level, to just know that everyone was putting their heart and soul into making the project.

John Nguyen: Did you get to visit around the area to be inspired?

Jimmy Wong: Yeah, I’ve been to China like 15 times. Now I’ve been to Shanghai a lot, where Wish Dragon is set, and walking around that city and watching the movie, it’s amazing just how accurately it’s portrayed. And they put a lot of effort into making sure that it was accurately portrayed too. I’m from Seattle, and if someone were to put Seattle in the film, and it wasn’t accurate, I know I would be offended. So I’m really glad that all the filmmakers put in the effort to make it just as genuine as possible. You can really feel it; it almost feels like you’re in the country. Again, when you’re watching the movie, just from all the little tidbits here and there and the aspects of the culture that you’re seeing, I don’t think people will be as familiar with it on the Western side.

John Nguyen: You’re playing opposite John Cho. Did you get to perform with him or are you in an isolated booth?

Jimmy Wong: Typically with voiceover, you are rarely performing with the other cast members. It’s a scheduling issue, but it’s also just for control. There’s a lot of lines that need to be said and not as much time to do it. But I was really lucky. We did get to have a couple of sessions together for a few key pivotal scenes because it required a lot of bouncing back and forth between me and the character. That was exciting, being able to be in the same room as John, to see him across the way, to sneak a picture on my phone, and to do these lines. You get to watch someone that’s super professional at work, someone that’s done this sort of thing and has a sort of gravitas about them. It lets them really embody and hold the role and the character in their voice, and in the way that they’re looking at the microphone in front of them. And then breaking it, talking to the director and going back. So I think just that part was worth the price of admission, which is just seeing someone that really is professional and at the top of their game, working really closely with the director. The experience flew by and what felt like two seconds, but it was an honor to be able to do it.

Credit: Netflix/Sony Pictures Animation

John Nguyen: With you being a lead character in an animated feature film, were there challenges? Did you learn anything new from it?

Jimmy Wong: I definitely learned that I have to take care of my voice because you’re going into a recording booth for hours at a time. And sometimes it’s a little repetitive because you’re just drilling the same line or moment over and over again, just to capture that exact right thing. It’s about the precision and the patience that you learn to try and get there and to never get flustered. To be able to reset, close your eyes or see the animatic, and just get right back into that space. It was a muscle I hadn’t really trained before. So that was something that was really fun to learn, and it’s something I hope to do a lot more of in the future.

John Nguyen: And after doing this, if you had to choose a live-action or an animated, would you have a certain preference?

Jimmy Wong: At the risk of not getting other jobs, I think animation and voiceover are just absolutely a blast. I got to drive 20 minutes from my house and go into a nice air-conditioned booth. I could wear whatever I wanted, and it was super relaxed. There was fruit and water and drinks there. And so I think that experience was really exciting. I would love to do more of it in the future.

Making something that’s live-action is incredibly fun, too. But as an actor, a lot of times, it’s a hurry-up-and-wait-type situation where you’re getting up super early. I spent six months in New Zealand filming. And it was awesome, right? The experience is incredible, but at the same time, I really missed being away from everyone that I loved like my pets and my family. So being able to record in a way like that and still have the satisfaction of making something that’s really fun and impactful, I think, is one of the beauties of voiceover. And I hope to be able to do more of it in the future. But I’m never gonna say no to a great role if it’s a live-action either.

John Nguyen: What did you learn from your research? What is the thing that you’re really gravitating towards?

Jimmy Wong: When I started to look into the project, at all the production companies involved in it, who was making it and why, and the American director, I think it was really exciting to just see the history of everyone and how long people are working in animation or why they’re making this project. Base FX, the company that made it on the animation side, has typically done VFX for big-budget movies and big Hollywood tentpoles, and they were like, “We want to make a foray into the animated world.” And that was super fun and cool to see a company like that that has such expertise and subject matter expertise in making high-level VFX go, “We want to make a cute animated movie with a pink dragon.” And the director Chris Appelhans has worked on projects like Coraline before, and I was looking through his portfolio and his old art and stuff, and it’s just amazing.

I follow a ton of artists on Twitter and Instagram; it’s really fantastic seeing how dedicated and how hard-working artists are for little to no glory. They’re just truly in love with drawing and with bringing things to life on the page. So that to me spoke realms about why making animated movies is such a big thing still, and why people are so passionate about it. It’s because you really can make something out of nothing. And that’s something you make is whatever you want. And so I think it’s just fantastic that we get to have a story set in modern China. That’s super genuine to the location, really accurate to the culture, and also pays homage to the fact that the Aladdin story originally was a Chinese story into the Arabian Nights folklore.

John Nguyen: What genres would you like to do in the future?

If I could make a wish like in Wish Dragon and choose any role I want, I would love to see myself doing something in the superhero world. There’s Invincible with Steven Yeun as the main voice, Shang-Chi’s coming out later this year, and Eternals as well. I think in the world of action and superheroes, there are those who haven’t been touched yet by a lot of the other underrepresented races. And, you know, in a lot of ways, I was hoping that we will get there sooner. But I’m totally glad that we’re just sort of crossing that bridge now. And I can’t wait to see more of it in the future. Michael Pena’s character in Ant-Man, even if I’m at that level of character, that’s totally fine for me. I would love to just be in the movie like that, to be able to flex comedy, dramatic and action and all that stuff at the same time.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Facebook Comments