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An Interview with TJ Wong, Star of Garthwaite: A Film by Ben Kurns

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2023

Films starring TJ Wong on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new movie Garthwaite: A Film by Ben Kurns - in a few words, what is it about, and what can you tell us about your character in it?


Garthwaite: A Film by Ben Kurns is a film about the greatest US president that Americans have never heard of. The story of a well-off miscreant turned secret society member (briefly) holding the most powerful office in the land. 


My character, Lewis Lovelace, is a truth-seeker, some might call him a conspiracy theorist. But he fancies himself the most trustworthy source of information regarding the life and controversies of Rufus Garthwaite. He hosts a podcast called Sect Respect, where he discusses secret societies, failed assassinations, and tap water nano-tracers.


From what I know, you pretty much created your character from scratch - so what were your inspirations for Lewis Lovelace, and how much TJ Wong can we find in him?


Lewis came about in roughly twenty minutes of me typing out every crazy name for a hazing ritual I could think of, and when John [J.G. Murphy interview - click here] and Nolan [Nolan Pugh interview - click here] (our esteemed writers) told me this guy was a podcaster, I immediately thought of flat-earthers, true crime/occult podcasters, and talkshow hosts. Just the strangest personalities spreading the most bizarre, crackpot theories about obscure subjects. Personally, I think the part of myself most obvious in Lewis (other than the patchy facial hair) is the fact that this guy cares at all about details as miniscule as hazing rituals in one fraternity. I often find myself going down multiple rabbit holes of research just out of curiosity, and coming out with piles of mostly useless knowledge without having even answered my original question.


Since your character's so fixated on secret societies, did you do any research in the subject before filming, or is that even a topic that interests you personally?


My research amounted to maybe a single Google search on secret societies linked to college fraternities, which led me to one result about Skull and Bones. Other than that, I was convinced the more I simply made up off the top of my head, the crazier this guy would sound. In real life, I don't really care for secret societies. They feel like clubs with too many rules amounting to tax evasion and an excuse to drink.


In your performance, what did you draw upon to bring your character to life?


I knew a couple guys in high school and college that used to rant about "facts" they "discovered". It was usually unsourced claims from the internet, but the sort of matter-of-fact tone they had when spouting actual nonsense was something I tried to embody.


Since you improvised most of your lines in Garthwaite: A Film by Ben Kurns, how intimidating and/or liberating was this for you as an actor?


The "improv" part of it was more of listing out random hazing ritual names before filming. I'm not a good improv actor at all, so the list was my framework that I then built off of when we started rolling. Improv always intimidates me, I don't think that'll ever change. At least when it comes to comedic improv.


How did you get involved with the project in the first place, and what drew you to it?


Nolan asked me to do it. He and John have graciously kept me in their creative circle for most of their projects for years so I was more than happy to jump in again. I love that they keep me busy.


Do talk about Garthwaite: A Film by Ben Kurns's directors J.G. Murphy and Nolan Pugh, and what was your collaboration like?


I knew them from the acting school we all went to; John in particular helped me nurture my interests in cinematography, and I've worked closely with Nolan reading his scripts and workshopping other ideas. I'll often find myself helping them out behind camera, running sound or switching lenses and the like, and they get me good footage to use, so it's a win-win for me. For Garthwaite: A Film by Ben Kurns, they gave us a lot of freedom to go nuts. We only had Rufus Garthwaite's biography to keep the key details consistent (or willfully divergent), but other than that they let everyone go as far as they wanted.


What can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


It was relatively brief. We were still in the latter months of the pandemic, so it was just me and my roommate (who played Marcus Tilley in the film), and John showing up to our apartment with a car full of equipment. We unpacked, set everything up, rolled through a couple long improv takes, with John giving some direction to steer us around key story beats, and we were done in about 3-4 hours. John said, "Alright, this'll be out in a year or two" (something to that effect), and left. All-in-all, very chill, fairly unusual as far as sets go.


Any future projects you'd like to share?


I believe TMK (Nolan's and John's production company) have some projects in the planning phase, though I'm not aware of the specifics. Some mutual friends and I are building a sketch channel on YouTube, Pickle Pals Productions. The guys there have also worked with John and Nolan before. A very tight circle from the same acting school.


What got you into acting in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?


I took theatre in high school out of middling interest, but come senior year I genuinely didn't know what else I wanted to do. I saw a flyer for an acting college in Los Angeles and (after much debating with my family) flew down in 2018. For better or worse, the training I received was mostly relevant to theatre. What film training I did get ironically got me more interested in cinematography and the filmmaking craft than film acting. But nowadays, I'm looking to get more training in film acting specifically to shore up my skillset.


Going through your filmography, you seem to be as comfortable behind the camera as in front of it - so which side of the camera do you actually prefer?


I think I have a long way to go before I get truly comfortable in front of a camera. Behind a camera I have so much creative control without having to look my best or whatnot. It's also exciting to me when I see something I've filmed that looks halfway decent, in a "every frame a painting" sort of way. I can't really put it into words. I love capturing a good picture.


What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Garthwaite: A Film by Ben Kurns?


I had helped John and Nolan film a sketch anthology - Look Ma, No Helmet - as an actor and crew member (it was actually where they had their first Ben Kurns idea, I believe). Also, since college, I've just been the guy who has a camera, so in a school full of actors, I was often asked to help film content, reels, shorts, etc.


How would you describe yourself as an actor, and some of your techniques to bring your characters to life?


I don't think I'm a particularly skilled actor, at least in film. Really my strongest technique is being able to memorize a script, which obviously wasn't as relevant for Garthwaite: A Film by Ben Kurns. I think more than any internal character work, I try to imagine what a script and/or director is trying to convey, and I'll play my part as an element of the story.


Actors (and indeed actresses) who inspire you?


If I could have the sort of career Alan Tudyk or Florence Pugh have, I could die happy.


Your favourite movies?


I'm a bit of a sci-fi nut. Interstellar, The Martian, Arrival, Dune, Blade Runner 2049, Her, Treasure Planet; but also movies like Bullet Train, Shaun of the Dead, Kingsman, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, etc. I'm actually notorious among friends for not having seen many movies, mostly because I rewatch the same ones over and over again.


... and of course, films you really deplore?


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God, I hate the 1968 Planet of the Apes. Yes, I know it's considered a landmark achievement in cinema, AND a sci-fi staple. But, coupled with my roommate's obsession with apes in general, the pacing bores me to tears and I could continue my existence without ever seeing it again.


Your website, social media, whatever else?


I really only use Instagram to keep up with friends. But you can follow me @tj_wong_ if you wish!


Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


I detest when actors in a close-up bounce their eyes back and forth between their scene partner's eyes. Michael Caine taught it best: Pick the eye closest to camera, and (for God's sake) stay there.


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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