Our own Geoff Watkinson spoke with actress Gabby Wong, who features in the new hit Netflix thriller series 1899. Here, Wong reflects on the production and on how the show’s diverse and multicultural cast/crew contributed to a wonderful working environment. Be warned: there’s some small spoilers ahead, so if you have yet to jump aboard 1899, you might want to tread lightly.
Headstuff: When and how did you hear about 1899?
Gabby Wong: I had already known about Dark. I reckon it was probably about 2019 when Dark came on my radar. I didn’t know that 1899 was being done. I thought that Dark was incredible, and that the creators were absolutely amazing. It was during the height of what we, in London, called the second lockdown of COVID when I got a call from my agent who told me about the role. She said, “I know you’ve just given birth, but there’s this role, and it’s from the creators of Dark.” I said to send me the script right now. That’s when I heard about the whole project and was privy to some of the script for my audition.
I read that initially the series was supposed to be shot in a lot of different places – Poland, Scotland, Spain – but it was decided to film only in England and Germany because of COVID. How did the pandemic impact the filming of the show and how you approached your character, Yuk Je?
We used virtual production technology, which is this massive cylindrical wall of LED lights that illuminates locations. I’m not privy to how they did it, but the production team basically got a lot of locations that they wanted and then were able to do post-production and pre-production and put it onto the screen. So, as actors, we were able to step on set and be on location, but in a studio. It’s a technology that’s slowly replacing the green screen technology. And it’s very helpful as an actor to be in that environment. [See TechCrunch for more on the virtual production technology used in making 1899.]
As for the second bit of your question, about how it impacted me as an actor to be working in those conditions: because of the COVID restrictions, and with a lot of actors from a lot of different countries who had to be there, essentially a lot of us just moved to Berlin, instead of like pre-Pandemic times when you might come in and shoot a few days and then go home.
We all moved to Berlin and became neighbors, family, a community. But then we brought our own families with us as well. We were a bit like the passengers on that ship. We were all trapped, but had to negotiate going through the same things, but with slightly different rules from our own countries. So, I think the Pandemic was also quite a reflection of what we were doing—of what the storyline of the show was as well.
I have a hard time remembering such a popular show being multilingual like 1899. The creators have said that they grew up watching a lot of Hollywood movies and TV shows and felt like there was an underrepresentation of different cultures, and so they wanted to cast actors to speak in their own languages. You have said that there was a sense of shared humanity on the set, which is ultimately the story of 1899. Have you ever experienced that before?
I don’t think I’ve ever been on a set where there were so many languages spoken. Not just the cast, but the crew as well. There were people from all over Europe, it was wonderful! There was a seamstress in the costume department who spoke Cantonese. And it wasn’t just tokenism—like these people speak this language—it was a real effort to understand the difference in the languages as well. I think it is quite widely known that not only did we have translated scripts, but we had people on set for language assistance for each language to make sure the sensitivity was applied, even if we were given a moment to improvise. So, yeah, it’s incredible. There are definitely foreign language shows. Dark was entirely in German. Squid Game was entirely in Korean. But 1899 is so multilingual, and I know I can’t think of any other show. Please point me out to any other shows that have that breadth of languages.
I couldn’t think of one. I was watching another episode last night and it struck me, again, about just how seamlessly languages are integrated. There’s nothing jarring about it; it feels very natural.
I love that. I think it’s wonderful. Maybe not so much now, although we are getting back to it, but we exist in a very globalized world and we have been able to travel to different places in the world and not everyone speaks English. So, you have to overcome those language barriers. People speak different languages. There are different people in the world. It’s not unusual that they’re in the same room, and this is especially true in 1899, at the turn of the century, when there’s new hope of going to New York. Those people would be on that ship.
What was your favorite scene to film?
I loved them all. It’s a spoiler, but I’m going to try and talk about it without spoiling it. I think it was the second week of filming, but it was my first day on set, and it was me jumping off the ship. That was literally my first day. And I said to Bo [co-creator Baran bo Odar], “this is really baptism by fire, isn’t it?” It’s like jumping into the deep end right off the bat. So that was fun. And in episode seven, or the big water, I think. All the stunty stuff because all the other scenes I had done were very emotional and traumatic. And in the big water scene, it was getting hit by waves, big waves, and jumping off a ship. That was just fun. I did all the stunts myself.
One of the major themes that comes out of 1899 is identity. No character in this show is whom they appear to be. There’s a lot of dialogue, especially beginning in episode two, where it really started to strike me—dialogue about the masks that we wear, sometimes literal, sometimes figurative. How do you see the notion of hiding identity applying to your character? And then, of course, what was the makeup process like
For my character—and again a spoiler, but I think it’s an early spoiler—the reason why she is hiding behind the mask is purely to protect her daughter. I’ve seen that a few people have said, “Oh, she’s pushing her daughter into prostitution.” And I’m like, “did you guys watch the same show?” She’s literally doing the exact opposite by protecting her from prostitution. And that is why she’s pretending to be who she is, who she appears to be to other people: the servant of Ling Yi. And she is not. She birthed this child.
During filming, I had only just given birth to my son, who was five months old at the time. And so wanting to protect my child was really present for me. On set, that became Isabella—actually off set as well! If we went out for a dinner, I’d be like, “can you call me when you get home? Make sure you call me when you get home.” She’d say, “my mum’s at home.” I was like, “yeah, but, like, screen mom. Call screen mum as well.”
I love the makeup team so much, but I wish they made me look better. They made me look so bad in a good way. They painted lots of veins and blemishes. Yuk Je is a middle-aged woman. She’s in first class, but she’s not meant to be in first class. There was no skincare back then. She wouldn’t be putting on rouge because she cannot afford rouge. And she has lived a hard, hard life.
They painted a lot of blemishes and veins. There was one big vein that was really, really, really dark blue right across my forehead. And whenever I see it, I’m like, oh, God, something’s about to burst through this woman. She has to keep it all under wraps.
What was the typical day on set like and who was the most fun to be around?
When we got to set, we had to do COVID tests. I don’t even flinch anymore—the amount of COVID tests we had to do. But it was great. There was no outbreak on set.
Then we went to makeup. There was always somebody making sure you knew where you were going. You probably say good morning to Miguel, who would be standing by the catering cart, finding out what’s for lunch, or Jose, who would be making a smoothie or some fresh orange juice. And Jose would be like, “do you want fresh orange juice?” And I’d say, “Yes, I really would!” Everyone was fun to be around. You get on set, Bo makes a joke, and you’re kind of like, it’s going to be one of those days.
I rarely had any time on set with Aneurin [Barnard]. But my word, he is funny. He’s this mysterious person and gives some really heartbreaking performances in the show. But he is so funny in real life.
And then we went on until we got exactly what we needed for the day. There was always time for breaks. It felt like such a sense of community because it was summer as well. There was table tennis in the courtyard. We all had to eat outside because of COVID and people would be going off to play table tennis. And there was definitely a score sheet. I don’t know who won in the end, but it was a real community.
I just wrapped on Kaos, which is also a Netflix series. It’s a modern retelling of the Greek mythologies. And as of yet, we do not know about season two of 1899.
1899 is currently streaming on Netflix
Featured Image Credit — Photography: David Reiss. Styling: Harriet Byczok. Makeup: Snowkei Lan