Occupation: Film and TV actor
Lives: Los Angeles (but Toronto is home)
Loves: Hiking, big family dinners, ketchup chips
Ellen Wong remembers walking into wardrobe on the set of GLOW, pulling on her leotard and thinking, “This is what I’m wearing?!” The actor had never watched wrestling before landing a part on the Netflix series about a misfit band of women wrestlers (based on a real group who performed in the 1980s).
But any trepidation melted away when Wong entered the set to find a supportive group of women co-stars all wearing the same leotards. There seemed to be nearly as many women behind the camera as in front of it, and in the writers’ room, there was only one dude. “On GLOW, I feel like we’re a little bit spoiled,” she says. “The set is truly unlike any other I’ve been on.”
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Wong had long craved multi-dimensional roles, but as an Asian-Canadian actor, she had a hard time finding parts to audition for that were in-depth and interesting. After her film debut as heartbroken high-schooler Knives Chau in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, she started getting offers for roles that “were either very stereotyped or specific to martial arts,” Wong says. “I always say there is diversity in the Asian identity, [but for so long] in Hollywood when you say ‘Asian,’ it almost feels like you’re immediately picturing
Before shooting the first season of GLOW, show creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch sat down with Wong (as with every other cast member) and asked about her life growing up, to help them flesh out the character. Wong told them about her childhood in Scarborough, Ont., about how her parents had fled the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s and about how she’d long kept her desire to act a secret from her family. (Her parents, once apprehensive about her career choice, have become two of her most encouraging fans.)
That conversation with the showrunners led to her character, Jenny Chey, sharing Wong’s Chinese-Cambodian background. Saddled with the stage name “Fortune Cookie,” Chey transforms her frustration over stereotypes into badassery in the ring (you’ll see much more of her in season 2, which hits Netflix this summer). Wong has also filtered her identity into work on her latest project, a TV series called Condor (in some scenes, her character speaks the first language she learned as a child, a Chinese dialect called Teochew), and a movie about the Khmer Rouge genocide called In the Life of Music.
This year, Wong has been auditioning for more nuanced parts that don’t specify the character be of Asian heritage — she admits to being “shocked” at the sudden availability of these roles. “I don’t think we’re losing anything by telling more diverse stories,” she says. “If anything, it might help to erase these hardened lines that separate us from one another.”