DATE June 11, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: B.D. Wong discusses his experiences as a father and an
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Actor B.D. Wong first became known for his starring role in the Broadway show
"M Butterfly," for which he won a Tony Award. He's appeared in several films,
including the "Father of the Bride" movies in which he played Martin Short's
assistant. On "Law & Order: SVU," he's the forensic psychiatrist, and in the
HBO prison series "Oz," he played prison chaplain Father Ray Mukada. Here he
is in a scene from the first season of "Oz," meeting one of the prisoners,
Alvarez, for the first time.
(Soundbite from "Oz")
Unidentified Man #1: Go! Go! Get down! Get up! Get!
Mr. KIRK ACEVEDO: (As Miguel Alvarez) Miguel Alvarez.
Mr. B.D. WONG: (As "Ray Mukada") I'm Father Ray Mukada. I'm one of the
prison chaplains. According to this file, you're about to be a father.
You've got a girlfriend, Marisa(ph). She's an inmate at Parker Women's(ph).
Mr. ACEVEDO: Yeah, we got arrested together. Ain't that sweet?
Mr. WONG: I can arrange for you to be there for the birth.
Mr. ACEVEDO: I don't give a (censored) about (censored) like that.
Mr. WONG: Miguel, you'll be paroled in two years. When you get out, you'll
want to be a father to your kid.
Mr. ACEVEDO: That right? (Spanish spoken) You know, ask my father. You
know, and up in some cell block somewhere's my grandfather, man, so don't be
giving me none of your (censored).
Mr. WONG: I get it. You had a miserable childhood. Tough. But let me tell
you something. You're still responsible for bringing a new life into this
world. You are responsible, the same way that I'm responsible for you, for
your soul. So get ready, Miguel Alvarez, because I'm gonna be over your
Mr. ACEVEDO: Mi, amigo.
GROSS: B.D. Wong in a scene from "Oz." Wong's new memoirs about a part of
his life that was not public, he and his longtime partner, Richie Jackson, who
is also Wong's agent, decided they wanted to have a child through a surrogate
mother. Wong donated the sperm. The egg was donated by Jackson's sister.
The surrogate mother was carrying twins and they were born prematurely. One
didn't make it. The survivor, Jackson Foo Wong, is three years old. The
story of his birth and the difficulty he had surviving the disorder that
killed his twin brother is the subject of B.D. Wong's new memoir, "Following
Why did you and your partner decide you wanted to have a baby?
Mr. WONG: I think that the desire to become a parent, you know, is a natural,
human boundary-free thing that happens to you after a certain amount of time
in your life, and it just seemed like a very natural thing to desire in your
life. I find it kind of actually an odd question, `Why,' because I don't
think we ask all people that. I don't know. Is there something unique about
our being gay that makes it more curious? Is that kind of the angle of the
GROSS: Well, I, for instance, have decided not to have children. A lot of
people I know do not have children. So...
Mr. WONG: Well, yes, that's certainly true. And I guess I'm...
GROSS: ...when you have to go through so much effort to have a child, you
Mr. WONG: Yeah.
GROSS: I mean, it's not happening by accident. It's like...
Mr. WONG: Well taken.
GROSS: ...you not only know you want to have a child, you're filling out
forms, you're hiring a surrogate...
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: ...you're going through a lot of work. Some people...
Mr. WONG: Yes, you're right.
GROSS: ...kind of casually want to have children. If it happens, it happens.
If it doesn't, it doesn't. Or it accidentally happens or whatever. This is a
very decisive move.
Mr. WONG: You're absolutely right, and you know, I'm very naive about the
fact that I think everybody wants to have kids. You're absolutely right. I
felt very strongly about having kids. Now why, I'm not sure. I do want to
have a relationship with my son that is something that grows and enriches my
life and both of our lives mutually as the years go on, and I find that
personally, for me, one of the potentially most rewarding things that you can
experience. And I believe that Richie feels the same way, so together we had
always wanted to do that, and it was just a matter of time before it happened.
And it was just a matter of time before I realized that it wasn't going to
happen naturally and that we had to kind of go through a lot of--jump through
a lot of hoops to see how we could make it happen.
GROSS: Now you decided to do this through a surrogate mother as opposed to,
you know, adopting.
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: Why did you want to take that route? I mean, I know a lot of people
who've adopted and have gone to, like, China or Vietnam...
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: ...to adopt a baby. In some ways I guess that's easier, in some ways
maybe harder. I don't know. Why did you decide the surrogate route?
Mr. WONG: We were interested in the idea of having a genetic bond with our
baby, both of us. You know, Richie's sister, Sue, donated her eggs, and I
fathered the embryos, and it was just something that was the first thing we
looked into, if you can imagine. We decided we wanted to be parents and then
we were acquainted with this organization, an agency in Los Angeles that
matches gay couples with surrogates, and we thought, `Well, let's look into
this and see whether or not it's something we can do.' It turned out in our
family that, you know, not a lot of gay couples have this particular
relationship with a sister who's the right age who's willing to donate her
eggs, and we had that, and so we thought, `Well, let's see if it works.' You
know, it's something that doesn't really work that dependably, you know,
because of the in vitro and all the technology involved. So we were just
looking into it and we said, `Well, you know, if this fails then there'll be
tons of other ways to do it.' We just wanted to see if we could do it this
GROSS: Shawna(ph), the surrogate mother, went into labor after 28 weeks,
which is seven months. Then you took her to the hospital. What were the
problems that the babies were having? And these were twins.
Mr. WONG: They were identical twin boys, and unbeknownst to us, they were
suffering from a condition called twin to twin transfusion syndrome, where one
twin gives all of his blood through their shared vascular network to the
other. So one of them becomes overloaded with blood and the other one becomes
quite anemic, and that was the main reason for their distress and for their
announcing their arrival quite so early.
GROSS: So one of the twins died shortly after birth.
Mr. WONG: That's right.
GROSS: And was the other's life in jeopardy?
Mr. WONG: The other's life was in jeopardy for three months after that point,
during which time we stayed in intensive care. And we flew him to San
Francisco from Modesto, where he was born, and he stayed in a world-class
teaching hospital intensive care nursery at University of California, San
Francisco. And, yes, he was indeed in jeopardy almost that entire time.
GROSS: How did the death of your son, Boaz, affect your feelings about your
surviving son, Jackson?
Mr. WONG: I really believe that Boaz gave his life to Jackson. I think that
they were both in a fair amount of distress at the time of their birth, and I
really believe that, as one doctor put it, they demanded to be born because
they knew that they were in terrible danger of both not making it. I have
always looked at Boaz in a very heroic way and see him as someone who made a
sacrifice, knowing that if they stayed in utero much longer, they both would
not have made it. So I think the both kind of said, `Let's'--you know, they
did whatever they could. And, I mean, certainly they had tried to be born a
week earlier and the doctor stopped it with any number of medications, but the
second time there was nothing that could be done to stop them. They came fast
and furious, and I believe that not only Boaz gave an incredible gift to his
brother, but that his brother always has that gift with him, and it really
informs his survival sensibility that he seems to have, and the fact that he
was able to make it through that crazy three months, I believe, is also a gift
that is from, you know, kind of an angel's presence in his life.
GROSS: Can you describe how Jackson looked when he was born prematurely?
Mr. WONG: Well, I laugh because, you know, the name of the book is "Following
Foo: (the electronic adventures of the Chestnut Man)" and everybody wants to
know why he was called the Chestnut Man, and really the only reason is because
somebody asked me, `What does he look like?' and I said, `Well, he looks like
a chestnut man,' and I meant those old guys on the corner in New York who are
selling chestnuts in the winter at Christmastime and they're just kind of
huddled over the coals and trying to make it, you know, and very, very kind of
wizened and old and, you know how they say that you don't look again like you
were when you were a baby until you're very, very old, so he did resemble a
very, very old man, you know. A tiny, tiny less than 3 pound old man. And he
did look very, very frail and he was very small, Terry. He was 2 pounds, 13
ounces, and, you know, by the time that I saw him he was hooked up to all of
those traditional premature infant kind of apparatus, and yet at the same
time, he had a resilience. He was very, very unresistant to all of the poking
and prodding that he endured that entire time, and I found that actually kind
GROSS: He had to have a lot of medical procedures, including intestinal
Mr. WONG: Yes, he did.
GROSS: Which is, you know, pretty difficult for anybody, but you're looking
at this like 2-pound baby having it.
Mr. WONG: Yeah. At two weeks of age, you know.
GROSS: Yeah. So was it difficult to deal with all of the helplessness? I
mean, here you have this like helpless 2-pound, some-ounce baby getting, you
know, intestinal surgery, and you're the worried father and it's not like you
can talk to your baby and tell it not to worry.
Mr. WONG: Right.
GROSS: First of all, that would be false, and second of all, you know, it's
just a baby. I mean, you're helpless, he's helpless. I guess my question is
dealing with so much helplessness.
Mr. WONG: Yeah. Well, that is a huge part of what I wrote about during this
time. I wrote these e-mails to all of our friends and family, reaching out to
them and telling them, you know, how things were going, because every day
there were all of these kind of medical twists and turns, which is very, very
traditional for a premature infant. And the helplessness is really kind of
the main source of, in some ways, the ironic hilariousness of it, if you can
imagine. I know that sounds really strange, but here I was in this impossible
situation, you know, tearing my hair out and crying and doing all of these
things, and I did feel incredibly helpless. And his helplessness was less of
an issue for me. I mean, I was just happy that he was there in this
incredibly wonderful place with these incredibly gifted and committed people
to take care of him. And so I felt less helpless about that, and I also felt
like his helplessness was kind of taken care of by their expertise and
knowledge, you know.
GROSS: How's your son, Jackson's, health now? He's--What?--about three?
Mr. WONG: He just turned three yeah. Last Tuesday, as a matter of fact. And
he's very well, and I appreciate your asking. He is obviously, as you can
imagine, a great joy for us and we are very grateful for him. We don't know
really necessarily, or we haven't been shown, what, if any, challenges he may
have in the future, but he really seems great now.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor B.D. Wong. His new
memoir about his son is called "Following Foo."
This book is in a way your coming out, your official coming out to...
Mr. WONG: Officially, yeah.
GROSS: Right. And yet you've been acting for years. Why was this the
occasion and why wait until now?
Mr. WONG: Well, the answer to the second part of the question, why wait until
now, has a lot to do with the fear of never working. You know, when
you're--an actor can be a very--you know, actors have a kind of comic
reputation for being self-involved and neurotic, and there are real reasons
for any actor who actually is self-involved and neurotic. First of all, the
craft of acting requires you to use your essence, your soul, in the work.
It's not like any other craft in the world. I mean, even a musician plays an
instrument which is not him. For me, coming out was put at bay because of my
own neuroses about, you know, the opportunities that were already very slim
for me when I entered the field as an Asian-American. And I held very highly
the kind of practical consideration of, wow, gee, if you came out, that would
really be like cutting your arm off in some ways, wouldn't it?
And I think over the years I've discovered that the answer is no, it wouldn't
necessarily. I think it's up to me to in some ways create my own career, and
so the book kind of told me that this was exactly the right time to share
myself fully with everyone, with the world, and with myself in some ways, and
that was really an important kind of turning point for me.
GROSS: Now you were concerned that coming out might have an adverse effect on
your career. I think it's interesting. At the Tony Awards on Sunday, it just
seemed to be kind of dominated by gay themed shows and gay actors. The
songwriters who won for "Hairspray" declared their love and kissed. Harvey
Fierstein won and, of course, he performs in drag in "Hairspray." I should
mention he's represented by your partner, Richie. Richie's his agent.
Mr. WONG: Yeah.
GROSS: The director and star of "Take Me Out," which is about a gay baseball
player, won Tonys. Do you think that that's a sign that, well, things are
Mr. WONG: It is a kind of a sign. I mean, it is--you know, Broadway and the
theater are a very special place, and they are--you know, in some ways
Broadway and the theater are a home for a lot of show business disenfranchised
people, including people, ethnic minorities and gay people. So there is a
sense of safety that people feel in the theater. Now the Tony Awards are an
example of the commercial theater, and I think what you're saying is on
national TV for three hours, to have that unabashed kind of--and celebratory
display of, you know, not only artistic creative expression, which includes
gay themes, but, you know, gay artists who don't feel the need to edit
themselves on national TV. I think that is an example or an indication that
there is a comfort zone that didn't exist a few years ago. And that is
immensely encouraging. I mean, that's the kind of thing that we need as a
society to kind of break down some of these barriers.
GROSS: My guest is B.D. Wong. His new memoir about becoming a father is
called "Following Foo." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor B.D. Wong. He has a new
memoir about becoming a father called "Following Foo."
While your son was born prematurely and his life was so fragile, just like
hanging in the balance and it was one emergency procedure after another,
you're running back and forth to New York shooting "Oz."
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: Which is--I mean, for anyone who hasn't seen "Oz," I mean, "Oz" is the
HBO series, or was the HBO series, about like the meanest, most sadistic and
most handsome convicts in TV history.
Mr. WONG: Well, it's the antithesis to kind of stable parental energy, I
GROSS: Yes. Absolutely.
Mr. WONG: You know, like, I think that's what you're saying.
GROSS: Yeah, that's exactly it.
Mr. WONG: Yeah. In some ways that's of great relief when you're going
through something like that, if you can imagine. You know, I was able to get
away from the hospital and stress of that for a moment and see my, you know,
great friends who supported me so unflinchingly during this time, and that was
only a positive thing. The content of the show is something people are often
very, very intrigued by. Even the content of the other show that I'm on, "Law
& Order: Special Victims Unit," there are these kind of really deep and dark
kind of themes that are in these two shows, and I don't know why I'm on both
of them, but be that as it may, people are often intrigued by what it's like
to shoot them. And for me it's really not at all an entry or a journey into
the dark. It's really--I'm able to separate the make-believe aspect of it
quite easily and so it becomes quite fun for me actually to do these shows.
And creatively it was a release for me to be able to work while I was doing
all of this. I can't say that I didn't find it interesting and rather ironic
and funny that it was this particular show that I was doing, and that I would
run back to this very, very different world.
GROSS: And, of course, on "Oz" you play the chaplain, so you're always
literally trying to do God's work in the prison.
Mr. WONG: Trying, yes.
GROSS: Trying and failing...
Mr. WONG: I wasn't always so successful.
GROSS: Right, yes.
Mr. WONG: Yeah.
GROSS: One of the really interesting things about "Oz" is the audience that
it has. On the one hand it has all these, you know, people who are interested
in gangsters and it has like a big hard-core rap audience, 'cause there's a
lot of rap music on the show and, you know, guest rap stars and stuff. But it
also has a big gay following because, you know, it's this real men's show and
there's a lot of...
Mr. WONG: Yeah.
GROSS: ...men having sex with men...
Mr. WONG: Yeah.
GROSS: ...on the show, and you know, and also you have these like rappers who
make appearances on the show, but also you have these cabaret stars: Rita
Moreno, Patti LuPone, what's...
Mr. WONG: Betty Buckley, right.
GROSS: Betty Buckley, exactly.
Mr. WONG: Yeah.
GROSS: And even the actor who plays Vern Schillinger, the neo-Nazi, J.K.
Schilling, you know, was one of the stars of "Guys and Dolls."
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: So it's just in terms of the population of the show and the population
of its audience, it's so intriguing.
Mr. WONG: It is. I mean, there are a lot of different reasons. You know,
New York actors are a very special breed, and the show shoots in the New York
area, or shot in the New York area, and so Tom Fontana, in casting for "Oz,"
utilized so many of these wonderful performers, many of whom are Broadway
musical performers, because they're people from that area. So there was a
kind of geographic reason for that, and there was a reason also that Tom has a
great love for these performers. I mean, he's not a particular Broadway
musical fan, but he really appreciates the work of some of these actors and
wrote parts for them and stuff like that. So, yeah, it is interesting. It
gave the show--I mean, who would think that a show that was so full of such
kinds of characters would also be full of people from Broadway musicals. That
seems very odd, but it's true. And there was actually even an episode that he
wrote which was musical and that people sang in.
GROSS: "Oz" has certainly boosted your recognition.
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: Has it changed your career? Are you getting offered different kinds
of parts or more parts than you were before?
Mr. WONG: Well, you know, I spent a fair amount of time when I was just
starting out in movies doing a lot of really kind of nutty comedy, and so it
has been great for me to kind of reconnect to--I don't know, what I would call
real acting. What I would call kind of three-dimensional character study and
human relationship kind of acting. And this was definitely the one great
forum that I have had in the recent past to do that kind of work. And I feel
that that has balanced out my persona and allowed me to do that kind of work
more than just the kind of silly comedy stuff.
GROSS: B.D. Wong's new memoir about becoming a father is called "Following
Foo." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: It's medicine time. Hit it.
GROSS: Coming up, "Hairspray." The Broadway musical won eight Tony Awards on
Sunday. It's adapted from John Waters' 1988 movie. We'll talk with Waters
about the movie, the show and the Tony ceremony. And we continue our
interview with actor B.D. Wong.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: Hit it. You're looking good. Now when I say hit it, I
want you to go two up and two back, double cross, come out of it with the
rifle neck. Hit it. Tracy, now when I say hit it I want the big strong M,
erase it and back to the Madison. Hit it. Walk on. You're looking good.
Now then, when I say hit it, it'll be T time. Hit it.
GROSS: This is FRESH Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor B.D. Wong. He
played the prison chaplain, Father Ray Mukada, in the HBO series "Oz," and
plays the forensic psychiatrist in "Law & Order: SVU." Wong has a new memoir
called "Following Foo." It's about becoming a father. Wong and his long-time
partner, Richie Jackson, became parents with the help of a surrogate mother.
Your first really big role was "M. Butterfly" on Broadway.
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: You won a Tony Award for that, and you played a Chinese opera star who
passes as a woman but is really a man.
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: And John Lithgow played the American diplomat who falls in love in
you, thinking that you are a woman...
Mr. WONG: Right.
GROSS: ...and then has to deal with all the subsequent confusion. How did
you get the part?
Mr. WONG: I got the part through, you know, a kind of exhaustive kind of
talent search for this kind of extremely unique creature, a man that could
physically pass for a woman, who could sing and, you know, physically handle
the Chinese opera, which is very difficult, you know, theatrical medium, and
also could really play--ironically enough, could convincingly play a man in
the third act of the play.
I was in Los Angeles at the time, kind of doing bit parts on "Simon & Simon,"
and, you know, TV shows like that, and I got this call from the agent saying,
`There's a Broadway show that you can get an audition for if you fly yourself
to New York.' And I said, `I don't have the money to fly myself to New York,
but you know, send me the script,' whatever, you know. `I'll look at the
script. I've always wanted to do a Broadway play. Is it a good part?' And I
called my parents right away and said, `I need some money to go to New York.
I have to go to an audition for this play. This is unbelievable, and this is
going to change somebody's life. And I don't really think I could ever get
this part, but I really do think that I should try, and it will be a great
experience for me to try and I'll meet some great people.'
And so they did lend me some money to go to New York. And I went on a, you
know, cheapie little airline flight and flew myself to New York and I put
myself out there. You know, I put myself before them, and they bit. And, you
know, there was a long process of waiting for them to decide and me coming
back and meeting the director yet again, and all of that stuff. And it was
after several months that they actually signed on the dotted line and gave me
that part, and it was incredible. It was an incredible experience from that
time in my life when I was very idealistic and really wanted to work as an
actor very passionately.
GROSS: What are the odds that the breakthrough role that you get is a role
that's written for someone who's both Asian and gay, and can sing?
Mr. WONG: Well, it's not written for a gay person. I mean, there's no such
thing as a...
GROSS: No, no, no, no. But I mean, the character is gay.
Mr. WONG: Yes, and, well, that's a--I don't know, you know, the world...
GROSS: Part of the whole ambiguity, right. Yeah.
Mr. WONG: Yes. I mean, the world of the play exists in a very strange kind
of world that cannot necessarily be defined with our own kind of conventional
definitions of being somebody...
GROSS: But you get the point.
Mr. WONG: But I totally get the point.
Mr. WONG: I'm always very, very--as you can tell, I'm very, very protective
of the character and all of that stuff. Now that I'm out, I think it can be
clear that the reasons why is because I'm not protecting my own reputation or
sexuality, but because I really feel that the play works on a level that
transcends traditional sexual orientation.
However, what were the odds? You know, the odds are, you know, very slim.
You know, it was incredible. I knew that when I read the script, I thought,
`I cannot--holy cow. I'm reading this script, and everything that they're
asking this person to do I can do.' And I really meant that--you know, actors
do that a lot, but I was thinking, `Wow. This is incredible. I can do these
things. I could really probably--I could compete for this part, and I could
really compete for it in a big way.'
I mean, I have this kind of freaky soprano voice that I can sing in. I have
this voice that I can--you know, I had a lot of the ingredients, and they were
very kind of bizarre ingredients in some ways. I had, you know, a background
in musical theater and I had a sensibility that allowed me to really--also,
this was the most important thing, probably--to get it, to get the part, to
understand what the person needed to do and how it should be played and what
should--how to kind of get it; not only just that I could get it, but how to
And so that was--I was lucky. It was a very, very good match for them, too,
because I was, you know, the right age when it happened. It wasn't, like, you
know, it happened I read the script, and it was like `Oh, it's too late. The
script finally came along,' or `I'm too young' or `I'm too old,' you know. So
you're right. It was really interesting that way.
GROSS: Now it's funny, David Henry Hwang, who wrote "M. Butterfly"...
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: ...wrote the book for the revival of "Flower Drum Song"...
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: ...which was on Broadway. And I mean, the funny thing is, "Flower
Drum Song" was always like the stereotype of the only parts for Asian
Mr. WONG: Yes, it was.
GROSS: ...available in America, particularly in Broadway, and it was the part
that I think Asian actors looked to avoid, you know. `I don't want to do a
"Flower Drum Song"-kind of role.'
Mr. WONG: Right.
Mr. WONG: It was the kind of thing--go ahead.
GROSS: No, I was wondering if--you finish your thought and then I'll tell you
the rest of my mine.
Mr. WONG: Well, I was going to say that we've always had a real love-hate
relationship with "Flower Drum Song." And so in one way, we would turn the TV
on, and the movie "Flower Drum Song" on, and we'd be so thrilled that there
were Asian people on the TV and that we were so thrilled that Chinatown and
the Chinese-American community were being depicted. And at the same time,
there was a sense of kind of--oh, patronization or something that really made
us uncomfortable on a certain level.
And it was very hard for me to negotiate these two feelings of thinking, of
`Well, there's this thing, there's "Flower Drum Song,"' and yet at the same
time, `Yeah, but "Flower Drum Song" is still "Flower Drum Song" and was
created by non-Chinese people as a kind of idea of what it means to be
Chinese-American. And that is what David really reinvented, was owning the
point of view of the show and saying, `Well, if it's about Chinese-Americans,
then, you know, as a Chinese-American, this is what I think it's really about
to be Chinese-American,' and he imbued this kind of quaint old show with some
very, very modern social values.
GROSS: One of the TV shows that you were cast in was the Margaret Cho
short-lived sitcom, "All American Girl."
Mr. WONG: Yes, yes, yes.
GROSS: And she talks about that show in her stand-up act, you know, in her
one-woman show, and...
Mr. WONG: Brilliantly, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So did that show strike you as something that was a
breakthrough, or that had to be forced to succumb to stereotypes?
Mr. WONG: Well, you know, unfortunately, it was a little bit like the
"Flower Drum Song" of the '90s. It was the show that was so--we were all so
looking forward to it. I mean, I was looking forward to it as a member of the
Asian-American community, as just a consumer. And it was the first
Asian-American family, if you can believe it, on television. In 1995, the
first Asian-American family on a television sitcom was Margaret's show. And
so we were thrilled by it.
And then we got there and then we realized, I think, the main thing I think
that really happened, to boil it all down, is that they weren't able to
properly channel Margaret's unique essence. I mean, she was completely turned
into a completely different thing, and it became very false. And that false
core resonated throughout the entire show, so the whole show had a kind of
falseness to it and a sense of kind of sitcomy--the potential was great and
then the show's creation was actually--there was nothing important about it;
there was nothing revolutionary or even challenging about it.
It just became kind of a generic television sitcom with this incredibly gifted
person--a genius, if you will--at its center that was totally not being
tapped. And that was really sad to be a part of that. I mean, it was so
disillusioning and certainly it did a number on her, as she talks about in her
shows, and on a many different levels, and it was really hard.
GROSS: Now your parents grew up in Chinatown.
Mr. WONG: Yes.
GROSS: What did Chinatown mean to you when you were growing up?
Mr. WONG: Chinatown was--I had a very--you know, I really appreciate the
question. I had a very, very tough time in my childhood, particularly when I
decided that I wanted to be an actor, because I blamed my Asian-Americanness
for being the thing that would keep me from having what I wanted. And so I
started to really go through a whole number--did a whole number on myself,
being rather ashamed of being Asian-American, being ashamed of being Chinese,
and wanting to assimilate as--to a point of exaggeration almost, where I, you
know, tried to really ignore that part of me. So I didn't have a great
relationship with Chinatown earlier on in my childhood. I didn't appreciate
it. I didn't appreciate what it could represent to me certainly the way the I
do now. And I didn't want to have anything to do with anything Chinese- or
Now since then, I have gone on an incredible journey of--`self-acceptance'
sounds really rather lame. It's a kind of self-love, of self-discovery and
understanding what it is that makes me me, including being gay, but being
Asian-American is another facet of who I am, which is terrific. It's
beautiful and wonder and very individual, and not any more individual than
anything else, but an individual, nevertheless. And reaching that conclusion
and being able to share that I feel that way with younger people who might
feel the way that I felt then is very, very empowering to me.
And the journey has been really incredible. You know, my parents were great
role models as Chinese-Americans and just as parents, and I didn't always get
it because I--for a lot of reasons. You know, the media doesn't help us to
love ourselves when we're Asian-American. It just doesn't. There is not a
lot of validation for Asian-Americans on television, in the movies, in the
magazines, anywhere, and so that causes a lot of problems for young kids. You
know, I certainly speak from personal experience. At the time when I grew up,
it was a big deal and it caused feelings of shame that were really, really
heavy and has taken me--you know, it took me the huge threshold of "M.
Butterfly" to understand how great it could be to be Asian-American as an
Mr. WONG: And that was an equation that was very valuable to me and very,
very welcome at that time. Here was a Chinese-American playwright who wrote
this play about a Chinese-American guy who has this experience with the
Caucasian majority that was validating to me and was able to be put up on the
stage and celebrated. And that really changed my life.
GROSS: Well, B.D. Wong, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WONG: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: B.D. Wong's new memoir about becoming a father is called "Following
The Broadway musical "Hairspray" won eight Tonys Sunday. It's based on John
Waters 1988 film, "Hairspray." Coming up, we talk with Waters about the
movie, the musical and the Tonys. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: John Waters talks about his career
(Soundbite of "Hairspray")
Unidentified Actor #1: And now, live from the Certified Up-to-code Baltimore
Eventorium, for the first time ever on nationwide television, it's "The Corny
Unidentified Vocalists: (Singing) He's corny!
Unidentified Actor #1: Brought to you by Ultra Clutch Hairspray.
(Singing) What gives a girl's power and punch? It is charm? Is it poise?
Unidentified Vocalists: (Singing) ...hairspray.
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Broadway musical "Hairspray" won eight Tony awards Sunday night, including
best musical, book, score, actress, actor and director. The story, set in the
1960s, is about a chubby girl who becomes the surprise star of the local dance
show. The musical is adapted from the 1988 movie "Hairspray," which was
written and directed by John Waters. He doesn't usually win mainstream
awards; his trademark is bad taste. His movie, "Pink Flamingos," is about a
competition to become the filthiest person alive, helped start the midnight
movie craze. We called Waters earlier today to talk about "Hairspray" and its
sweep at the Tonys.
John Waters, first of all, I want to say congratulations on the big success of
"Hairspray" at the Tonys.
Mr. JOHN WATERS (Writer/Director): Well, thank you. It was amazing to me,
also, believe me.
GROSS: Did you ever imagine yourself having this Broadway musical adaptation
of one of your movies?
Mr. WATERS: I guess I didn't. But you know, if anybody had ever asked me,
`Which one of your movies would make a Broadway play?' I probably would have
picked this one. And the very first table reading we ever went to of this,
which is when you have a few of the actors--they had Marissa, they had
Harvey--and they do a reading of it. And I went by myself 'cause I was so
nervous and I had no idea what to expect. And I loved it so much that
secretly, I did feel, you know, `This could be a hit,' but you never say
something like that out loud, because as soon as those kind of feelings hit
the air, it turns into bad luck and you curse yourself. But from the very
beginning, things went very, very well with this.
GROSS: The Tony Awards were kind of like this gay festival, you know.
Mr. WATERS: It was the GLAAD Awards.
GROSS: Exactly. You know, the songwriters for "Hairspray" declared their
love and then they kissed.
Mr. WATERS: I know, which caused a big stink, which I didn't ever even think
of when it happened. I didn't even realize that. And I said to them the next
night, 'cause we went to a tribute to Margo Lion, the producer, I said,
`You're the Rosa Parks now of the gay movement.' But it seemed so amazing to
me that people were surprised by that. I thought it was kind of touching.
GROSS: Can you compare the two cultures, having worked in both Hollywood now
and Broadway, just as kind of cultures and also, like, how--you know, being
gay figures into it? Like, in other words, which...
Mr. WATERS: Mm-hmm. Well, I don't that being gay really figures in it that
much for me because I'm gayly incorrect. They don't know quite what's the
matter with me. They always think that being gay is the least of my problems
if somebody's going to be against me. I don't know. I've made 13 or 14
movies, and I've only been involved with one Broadway show. And the one
Broadway show seemed charmed from the very beginning. Nothing bad ever
happened. I liked all the people. I liked everybody that was cast in it. I
loved the music. It was just amazing. You don't ever get many of them in
life, even if you get one, and this was it, so I'm certainly enjoying it.
What is different when you see a movie and a play is that a play, I realize,
is one long medium shot. That is, you get no editing, no sound mixing,
everything. You just have to get this one shot that's two and a half hour
long, and you have to keep refining it till it's perfect. And that's what a
play is compared to a movie.
GROSS: Do you think that the Broadway adaptation of "Hairspray" really
expresses your sensibility, or do you think it's terrific but a different
sensibility than yours?
Mr. WATERS: I think it completely does give the original sensibility, and
that's what Margo Lion, the producer, said to me at the first dinner, but that she wanted to keep the John Waters voice in this. People forget "Hairspray" was
a PG movie, and this would be PG-13, I think. This has double entendres in
it, where "Hairspray" didn't even have that.
GROSS: But I'm thinking, like, the music in the Broadway version of
"Hairspray" is different. Like, in the movie, you use some original but
Mr. WATERS: Yeah, but "Hairspray" was...
GROSS: ...from the '60s' soul music and obscure novelty dance records. And
this all, like, original music written in the style of, but not the authentic
Mr. WATERS: Yes, because there was very little--except for the title song,
"Hairspray," in the movie, there was no original music. "Hairspray" was my
dance movie. "Crybaby" was my musical. That was the one with original music
in it. So this was certainly--the same with the choreography. They didn't do
the same dances that are in it, but they completely kept it authentic. You
know, donât even like Broadway musicals so much. I did as a kid, but
recently, they all just seemed so corny and everything.
But I think Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman took what we used to love about
musicals and used that and turned "Hairspray" into that, which I don't think
we had had that kind of musical for a while. They were all so feel-good that
you wanted to gag. And this is feel-good, too, but it's about a fat girl who
gets the guy and about a loving mother played by a man. And the most touching
love story is between two men doing kind of an old vaudeville dance on the
Broadway stage. So I think it breaks a lot of rules, but you don't realize it
when you're watching it.
GROSS: You said you loved Broadway musicals when you were young.
Mr. WATERS: Yeah.
GROSS: What musicals did you really love?
Mr. WATERS: Well, Mary Martin, Peter Pan, Captain Hook is who I thought I
was as a child. I wore a coat hanger. I wore my father's neckties
Scotch-taped to my head to look like long hair. Cyril Ritchard--and you look
at him now, and you think, `Oh, my God!' See, I wish somebody would do the
biography of Cyril Ritchard. He needs a great revival. He was such a great
villain to me. But even the theater in any way--Patty McCormack in "The Bad
Seed" on Broadway, I was amazed. I would try to go to the library and look up
anything I could find out about her, that little girl murderess, as a kid. So
musicals, and then later--"Gypsy" certainly was a musical. But you got to get
a gimmick. I mean, that I've tried to make come true in my life.
GROSS: Could you imagine a musical of any of your early films, like "Pink
Mr. WATERS: It has been optioned to be an opera before a long time ago.
GROSS: An opera?
Mr. WATERS: Yes. I think it would be a good opera. I would pick that one...
GROSS: Wait, wait. Explain what...
Mr. WATERS: You can name each one I could tell you would be--I think that
would be a good opera. I think "Crybaby" would be a very good musical. I
think "Serial Mom" would be a ice show. I can go through all of them, quiz
show, a reality show. That would maybe be "Pink Flamingos" also, considering
GROSS: Well, describe what "Pink Flamingos" is like. You know, describe what
it's about for people who haven't seen it and how you envision it as an opera.
Mr. WATERS: OK. Well, "Pink Flamingos" was a battle between two groups of
outcasts of who could be the filthiest person alive. And I guess if that
would be an opera, it was sort of mad scenes, the whole movie. And the end,
which was a stunt, really, basically a ludicrous publicity stunt, where
Divine ate, well, dog doo. And I think that could be, if played very
seriously, an incredible opera building to that. And I do actually have a
tape of an opera someone did of it.
So you never know what's going to happen, Terry. I mean, things change so
many times through the years that one day "Pink Flamingos" could be on network
television, a movie that I almost went to jail for and others did. So you
don't know what's going to happen in America. Things so rapidly change, what
is accepted, what is humor, what's funny, what isn't, that you just sort of
sit back sometimes out of breath.
GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director John Waters. The Broadway
musical "Hairspray" is based on his 1988 movie of the same name. "Hairspray"
swept at the Tonys Sunday night. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with John Waters. The Broadway
musical "Hairspray" is adapted from his 1988 movie of the same name.
"Hairspray" won eight Tonys Sunday night, including best score, book, actor,
actress and director.
For any listeners who have not seen the show or the movie "Hairspray" and
aren't familiar with the story, could you describe the basic story?
Mr. WATERS: It's about a teen-age dance show in Baltimore, where the local
kids become celebrities on it by dancing every day on television. And their
personal lives sort of become the soap opera of the day for the home viewers.
And it's about a fat girl who gets initially rejected from the show and then
gets on and becomes a star, integrates the show because at the time, in 1962,
all the shows were segregated, and gets the boy to top it off. So the fat
girl gets the boy and wins, which doesn't always happen in real life.
GROSS: And what was the dance show that this was inspired by?
Mr. WATERS: Well, it was a show called "The Buddy Deane Show" that came on in
Baltimore. And Buddy's still alive. He's coming to the opening in Baltimore
when we open on the road in the fall. And we never had Dick Clark. We never
had "American Bandstand" in Baltimore. There was no such thing because we had
the local version that was a little more extreme, where the girls had bigger
hair and the boys wore pointier toe shoes. But all the stars came there, and
a lot of times Buddy Deane would break songs that would start and then go up
to Dick Clark. He would make them famous here first.
GROSS: And did you ever audition for the show?
Mr. WATERS: I never auditioned. My parents would have never let me be on it.
But I did go on it twice. I went on it with Mary Vivian Pearce once, and they
asked us to leave because we did the Dirty Boogie, which was the only dance
you were not allowed to do on "Buddy Deane." And another time I went when
they had a live show at the Timonium Fair Grounds. Sometimes they would go on
location, and I went on it as a guest. You could go on as a guest, too, but
the committee was only allowed--that was the people that were on every
day--to dance with a regular every--no, they had to dance with a regular every
dance, and you could only dance with a fellow committee member every four
GROSS: So what's the Dirty Boogie?
Mr. WATERS: The Dirty Boogie was kind of like a lot of bumping and grinding.
You can see it in the movie. In the movie, they do it in Motormouth Record
Shop. And it was pretty dirty, especially for its time. I guess it was based
on burlesque moves or something, but it was the one dance you were definitely
not allowed to do. And we used to do it mostly to the song "Hide and Seekâ by
Bunker Hill. That was the best Dirty Boogie number.
GROSS: So you were thrown off the broadcast?
Mr. WATERS: Well, they said, `You can't do that. Stop.' And then the
cameras would have never--no, it wasn't that good. We weren't like bodily
ejected. No, they just come over and said, `You can't do that,' and, of
course, they didn't show it. And at record hops, you see, they would have
personal appearances at record hops. I did win "Do the Twist With Ray
Charles,!" a record album, by winning the twist contest with Mary Lou
Raines(ph), who was the biggest queen of "The Buddy Deane Show" at the time.
GROSS: So how did you know her?
Mr. WATERS: I didn't know her. When you went to the record hop, they just
came over real bored and would ask you to dance. They had to. That was their
Mr. WATERS: They had to dance with the guests. And they still have big
reunions and come. And it's amazing, kind of, to see. You know, 60-year-old
women doing The Locomotion is a sight to see.
GROSS: The role of Edna Turblad, the mother in "Hairspray," was played in the
movie by Divine, an actor who appeared in most of your films and, you know,
died a few years ago.
Mr. WATERS: Well, he died a week after "Hairspray," the movie, opened.
Mr. WATERS: And people forget "Hairspray," the movie, was a hit, too. But I
don't remember what happened because Divine died, so it put this horrible
damper on it.
Mr. WATERS: And I've said it before, but "Hairspray," the musical on
Broadway, hopefully is the continuation maybe of the joy I would have had from
that movie if Divine had not died so soon after it had opened, and he had
gotten the best reviews of his life.
GROSS: So how's the success of "Hairspray," the Broadway musical, affecting
your career as a filmmaker?
Mr. WATERS: Well, I think success always helps. I mean, the movie I'm hoping
to do this fall is about sex addicts who, after their concussion, experience a
carnal lust they can never control. It's not exactly "Hairspray" territory.
But there is all sorts of extremes in both directions for a John Waters movie
GROSS: Well, John Waters, congratulations, and thanks very much for talking
Mr. WATERS: Well, thanks, Terry.
GROSS: John Waters wrote and directed the 1988 film "Hairspray." The Broadway
musical adaptation won eight Tony awards on Sunday.
FRESH AIR's Executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
Here's a duet from "Hairspray" with two of its Tony award winners, Harvey
Fierstein and Dick Latessa.
(Soundbite of music)
Harvey Fierstein: (Singing) ...fading. Castro's invading. But, Wilbur,
you're timeless to me. Hairdos are higher. Mine feels like barbed wire, but
you say I'm chic as can be. You're like a rare vintage Ripple, a vintage
they'll never forget. So pour me a teeny-weeny triple, and we can toast the
fact we ain't dead yet. I can't stop eating. Your hairline's receding. Soon
there'll be nothing at all. So you'll wear a wig while I roast a pig. Hey,
pass that Geritol. Glad ...(unintelligible) had class, that Chubby Checker's
a gas, but they all passed eventually. You'll never be passe. Hip-hooray,
you're timeless to me.
Dick Latessa: Oh, Edna, baby, dance with me.
Harvey Fierstein: Oh, Wilbur! Oh, you make me feel like a girl again.
Dick Latessa: Oh, honey, show the bumper.
Harvey Fierstein: Oh, honey, I think my bumper's stuck in neutral.
Dick Latessa: Don't break it. We may need it later.
Harvey Fierstein: What do you think of this one, big boy?
Dick Latessa: Oh, yes, yes, yes!
Harvey Fierstein: Can you feel that all the way over there?
(Singing) You're like a broken down Chevy. All you need is a fresh coat of
Dick Latessa: (Singing) And, Edna, you've got me going hot and
Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Hillary Clinton on life in the White House and
the Senate and her thoughts on the sex scandal that nearly ended her marriage
and her husband's presidency. Clinton's new memoir is called "Living
History." I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.