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Benedict Wong: 'I'm the go-to guy for victims of torture'

The Salford-born actor, known for his Chinese roles on film, takes it a stage further. Susie Mesure meets Benedict Wong

If the name draws a blank, then it's safe to bet the parts Benedict Wong has played will be a little more familiar. Or perhaps I should say the types of parts. Gangster? Check. Waiter? Check. Enemies of the Chinese state? Check, check, check.

Never mind that Wong is "just a lad from Salford". With that face, those eyes, that hair, he looks Chinese, which is what counts to most casting directors. And yes, it's frustrating when "all you want to do is play a character", but Wong is ever hopeful of "balancing it all out". Some day.

Not quite yet, though, because next month sees Wong make his West End stage debut, which, considering he is 42, is not before time. It's 2013, so he must be playing a Chinese dissident. "This year it's political activists: I'm the go-to guy for being in cubes and being tortured," he smiles from his basement dressing room at the Almeida Theatre, where we meet.

It's his last week at the north London venue before Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood's hit new play, transfers to the much bigger Harold Pinter Theatre in August. There, he will reprise the part of Zhang Lin, a dissatisfied Beijing citizen and chief contact for Kirkwood's fictional American photojournalist trying to unearth the mystery of "tank man": the infamous lone protester snapped confronting a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Wong has struck gold with the play, which has awed critics, and provided the best role of his career. Quite by chance, Zhang Lin is the second protester Wong has played this year, the first being Ai Weiwei in Howard Brenton's drama about the 81 days in 2011 that the Chinese artist spent locked up. I'm curious about the preparation: a trip east, maybe? His answer is more prosaic: "I just ate a lot. I put two and a half stone on." He pats his stomach: "I'm still trying to get it off."

Both roles came to him, he says, which is quite something when you consider how hard many actors of East Asian descent find it to get work. And especially so when you consider that he doesn't have an agent, and hasn't done for the past year or more. "At the moment I'm calling myself 'Wong and Only Agency'." This is no mere pun, however, but reflects Wong's attitude towards the growing clamour about missed opportunities, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company's failure last year to cast more than a handful of East Asian actors in The Orphan of Zhao, otherwise known as the Chinese Hamlet.

The uproar prompted Equity, the actors' union, to hold a special "Opening the Door" event at the Young Vic in February in an attempt to change perceptions. Wong was too busy rehearsing to attend but says he'd have liked to have gone. He's no strident campaigner, however, shunning the likes of the British East Asian Artists group. "I'm in the loners' society. I don't want to classify myself as anything."

And yet it's the constant classification, as a stereotypical Chinese person, that grates. "I mean, last year, I must have played about four or five gangsters. To some degree you have to find lots of different shades, sometimes comedy, sometimes drama."

The "old race issue" comes back again and again. He brings it up initially, explaining: "It's really hard because obviously people label you as a British East Asian actor. And I'm just from Salford; it's where I was born." Describing his attempts to find work after university, he says: "I slowly started to see that [I would find it hard] when I was at Salford college and I was with my mates, my contemporaries. We were the same age and they'd say, 'I've just been offered this part; have you not been offered it?' No, I haven't. And then it's like, 'Why not? You're from Manchester.' Yeah, why not?"

He had the additional pressure of needing to prove to his father, who had emigrated with his mother from Hong Kong to the UK via Ireland, that he could make a go of acting. "My dad wanted me to quickly get a job. But I found a loophole when I thought, 'Oh, my brothers didn't get proper jobs till they were 24,' so I thought, 'Just give me these three years and then if it goes a bit tits-up, I'll do whatever you say by being'" – cue quotation-mark gestures – "'the obedient Chinese son'." Wong recalls pleading his case: "He was like a solemn Victorian dad, not saying anything. My mum was like, 'Let him do what he wants'."

It took a move to London and the obligatory Chinese roles but Wong says there were always just enough highlights to keep him going, such as Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things in 2002. That particular role, of a Chinese immigrant, naturally, earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the British Independent Film Awards.

There's plenty more Wong to come this year, not least in a new James Corden BBC comedy, The Wrong Mans. Then there's his turn in Jim Carrey's Kick-Ass 2, out in cinemas next month. And he's just been in Run, the Channel 4 drama starring Olivia Colman. "I've come out of the tunnel," he says. "It's got to push forward now. I'm hoping these plays will launch me into something else."

He must be slightly wary, though, of suffering from the "one-hit" phenomenon that he says forces many non-white Brits to the US. "Why separate us?" he asks, talking about the struggle that many black actors can still face. "It's just the issue of ethnicity itself. It's why people like Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Parminder Nagra, and Idris Elba don't stay too long. It's almost as if you're only allowed one hit, and then that's it. That's the bigger issue that we need to look at."

He adds: "In America, you're just an American. You're accepted. It doesn't matter that you're of whatever race. If anything, I'm British, and that's it. So let's just get on with it, really." And with that, he swigs the last of his can of oolong tea and bids me farewell, so he can start getting ready for the evening performance.