By REBECCA BARRY
Australian-Chinese actor Anthony Wong has played everything from a crackpot paraplegic merchant banker to an Indonesian priest, a Filipino transsexual prostitute and a swan. So his latest role as a Zen Aztec Buddhist assassin on the side of the humans in The Matrix sequels doesn't seem surprising. Wong makes it clear, though, that he is the exact opposite of his movie character.
"There is a frivolous part of me that goes to dance parties, stays up watching movies, is cheeky and childlike and laughs at the most ridiculous things," he says energetically. "And another part that meditates, reads New Age philosophy and Louise Hay books and is incredibly spiritual and peace-loving."
As Ghost, he is transformed into a macho, gun-toting soldier, the best weapons expert in the Matrix universe, and a lead character in the film's video game, Enter The Matrix.
It seems a far cry from his real-life involvement in peace marches and gay pride rallies, but Wong says his role as the "thinking man's action hero" reflects his moral side.
"Ghost is that aspect of me that's willing to put himself out there and sacrifice himself for a greater cause. I'm not interested in doing work that adds to negativity on the planet," he says.
"My choices as an actor are very much based on doing work that will raise the consciousness of the audience. I wouldn't do something that glorifies violence against women, for instance. You could say Matrix is a violent film but it actually uses violence to make a point about violence. Ultimately, it's a spiritual story."
Despite the fact the film prides itself on special effects, and Wong prides himself on complex, political roles, playing Ghost was a challenge.
He adopted an American accent full-time for 15 months, watched numerous Chow Yun-Fat films and read German philosophy to get inside the head of a stoic warrior. It's a process he has become known for Wong made headlines when he walked down a main street dressed as a woman, in preparation for a theatre role as a female opera singer.
"I went to my favourite restaurant because I thought if I could fool my usual waiter I was a woman then I could do it on stage. I spent the entire meal speaking in this whispering feminine voice and at the end of the meal he brought me the bill and said, 'You didn't have your usual tonight'. I was mortified."
Eighteen years ago, Wong never imagined he would star as an action hero in one of the most anticipated Hollywood films of the century, let alone as a member of the opposite sex.
He grew up in Sydney to a New Guinea-Chinese mother and a Hong Kong-Chinese father, studied political science at university and entered the workforce as a journalist, believing an acting career would take him no further than the stereotypical Asian roles of waiters and henchmen.
When he scored his first television role as a karate kid on the Australian kids' series Stay Tuned, it seemed his fears would be realised. But within months, he had won parts in a string of diverse productions, from TV dramas Water Rats and A Country Practice to acclaimed theatre productions Sex Diary of an Infidel and the stand-up comedy act Wogorama with Nick Giannopoulos.
"What I love about The Matrix is how diverse the casting is. You have actors from every part of the world and they're playing roles that are not racially specific. But I still think there's a tremendous amount of work to be done. The Asian male in American cinema is primarily perceived as a kung fu expert or some geeky guy playing a scientist wearing glasses."
Wong has done a string of auditions in LA, the latest for the new Starsky & Hutch film with Ben Stiller. But he is not abandoning the stage for the glitter of Hollywood just yet. His next role is the lead in Coup d'Etat, an Australian play about the independence of the judiciary, in which he plays the King of Malaysia.
"I hope Matrix will give me higher profile roles so I can communicate the kind of issues I think are important," he says, before rattling off a soliloquy on American imperialism and world affairs.
"It might sound pretentious but I see myself as a social and political activist, so the only value of celebrity is that it gives you a profile with which you can say something positive to the world."
By REBECCA BARRY