By Claire Bueno
Mystery, drama 1899 dropped anchor on Netflix in November and charged up the chart at the rate of knots. Think Titanic, but this passenger ship bound for New York has a different destiny. There’s a truly eclectic international cast, a kaleidoscope of acting talent who all deliver authentic and diverse performances. One such actor is Gabby Wong, who portrays Yuk Je a servant to a young Geisha, or so it seems. Appearances can be deceptive!
Born in Hong Kong, but now based in the UK, it was my pleasure to interview Wong to learn more about the show and how she prepared for the role.
1899 is just seeped in mystery and is truly suspenseful, is that what you felt when you first read the script?
It really was but that's the fun of it. When I first got the complete script I absolutely devoured it, it was a real page turner because I wanted answers. At a certain point though the action really kicks up a gear and it just builds and builds. Now that the series is out, I am still excited by all the possibilities. I hope that's what the viewers are feeling too.
The success of the series for me is when you strip back the horror and mystery elements you have a very character lead story where the characters so are well written and layered, was that appealing to you?
Absolutely, you can be as complex as you want with twists and turns in a plot but if you don’t root the story in the people going through it then no one will care. I remember there was one moment during filming when I was trying to work out 'what it all means’ in the grander plot of the story, but it was so unhelpful. Eventually I went back to establishing what my character was doing with a very particular relationship at that very moment.
The story is truly international was it exciting to be working with such diverse talent? It feels like a thrilling and unique opportunity to work with people who have different acting approaches and disciplines.
Everyone brought such different energies, part of it was to do with the language but it was just so interesting to see and be in an environment where there was a sensitivity to it all. For example the Danish sense of humour is very dark and blunt, I love it. And then you see Lucas, Clara, Maria and Alex give the most heartbreaking performances, it was extraordinary. There's something to be said at how someone laughs is a reflection of how someone might cry. It was also so wonderful to be able to act in my mother tongue, I sound very RP when speaking in English but am very Hong Kong when I speak in Cantonese, you express things differently and that duality is not something to ignore. There really was a sense of shared humanity on that set which, in its core, is the story of 1899.
All of the characters have something to hide, your character included, can you tell us more about Yuk Je and your storyline?
This is so hard to do without giving away spoilers. She is a woman in her 40s travelling in first class as the servant of a young Geisha. She is very protective of the young woman, perhaps a little too much and at a painful cost. You very quickly find out neither of them are who they appear to be, most noticeably the incongruity of them speaking in Cantonese. 'Everyone wears masks' - a line in the script is so true of every character. I don’t think we’ve fully explored who Yuk Je is yet.
It feels like Yuk Je is walking on a knife edge, can you explain a little about your thought process and how you prepared for her?
Oh poor Yuk Je, there is some real trauma there. One of the things that really set me up for this character was talking through the make up with Christina Wagner and Julia Baumann who designed the hair and make up for her. This woman has lived a life of hardship and made sacrifices for loved ones. In the make-up chair Julia kept on painting more and more blemishes and veins on my face. (I can hear Julia's voice 'I love veins!'). It's almost as if Yuk Je could burst through her skin at any given moment. So I made her a very still character because if she moved too suddenly, she might explode. I talked about how she was very protective of her younger female companion, and at the time of filming I had just given birth so my maternal instincts definitely kicked in.
You debuted your acting career in theatre where you have to project to an audience, acting for TV is much more contained, how have you found that transition from stage to screen?
I used to be so scared of the camera because theatre is my comfort zone. There are certainly tricks and techniques that are very different and work different muscles but once you get past 'there's a camera in my face' bit of it all, the fundamentals are essentially the same. I try not to think of stage work as 'projecting' because it could mislead me into mindlessly throwing it all out there hoping the audience will get it. It's not just shout on stage, whisper on screen... it's about being clear in your thought: What you want is for an audience to lean in and listen to what you have to say.
What have you learned about your craft from working on 1899 that you will take to you on your next project?
It has been talked about a lot but the Volume Soundstage technology we used on 1899 was such a massive help. Seeing the world literally build around you in front of your eyes was extraordinary. It's a really simple thing as an actor to just be fully immersed in the experience and that's really half your job's done.
now available on NETFLIX
Photographer: David Reiss Stylist: Harriet Byczok Makeup: Snowkei Lan
Production Stills: Netflix - © 2022
With special thanks to Epilogue