Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Untold Truth Of Ming-Na Wen

In a 2018 retrospective interview with Deadline over the 25th anniversary of "The Joy Luck Club," Ming-Na Wen took a moment to reflect on the profound personal impact the film and other projects she has appeared in have had on people. It was a moment of contemplation that led to her revealing why she sees being a performer as so important.

"These are the perks of being an actress," Wen said. "We're not just here as entertainment value, it touches the heart, it touches the soul. That's what it's about. It's about the community. It's about sharing stories, it's about sharing life experiences, and being represented." 

This recognition of the power that stories and acting can have has led to Wen appearing in multiple influential pop culture properties, ranging from "Mulan" to "ER" to even a recurring appearance on "The Mandalorian."

Thanks to these productions, the world is well-aware of who Ming-Na Wen is, but there is still plenty about her that remains hidden. In uncovering the untold truth of Ming-Na Wen, one doesn't just get a greater understanding for why she joined certain projects or her favorite roles, but also why Wen has such a positive outlook on her craft.

She sees herself much like Mulan

When you've been working in the entertainment industry for decades, you have no shortage of choices in determining which of your roles is closest to your personality. This is true of Ming-Na Wen, whose characters have ranged from grounded individuals in movies like "The Joy Luck Club" to Marvel superheroes who fight the nefarious forces of evil. But according to Wen herself, it is Disney Princess Mulan to whom she feels the closest kinship.

It turns out, however, the qualities that make Mulan so relatable to Wen are also traits she believes make Mulan resonate with others. "Mulan resonates with so many people because I think all of us at one point or another was that kid who dreamed of something for themselves and was not sure if they can get it," she explained to Inside the Magic in 2020. "But then, through discovering their strengths, they can overcome and hopefully be able to achieve their dreams. I think anyone can relate to that." 

Why she liked her recurring role on ER

There are many reasons why an actor might enjoy a recurring stint on a hit TV show like "ER." For one thing, the program was a massive success, so being on it ensured tens of millions of viewers worldwide. It's also easy to imagine that an actor would become a fan of the specific scripts in which they were able to participate. For Ming-Na Wen, who portrayed the character Dr. Jing-Mei "Deb" Chen across the show's first 11 seasons, one reason why she enjoyed working on "ER" was simple: flexible scheduling.

"It was the right timing and the right place for me to come back," Wen told Female.com in 2001 about the first time she got called back to reprise her role. "I've always loved the people in the show. They called me up out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to come back with the same character. It's still the Number 1 show, still great writing and at that point I felt I wanted to do more television and have a stable life, rather than travel all the time. So it worked out." 

Another thing she appreciated about her time on "ER" was when the show incorporated her pregnancy into Chen's storylines. "[That] was very cool," she said. "And it gave me a lot to do with Chen."

What attracted her to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Today, the movie "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" has been largely forgotten thanks to its dismal box office and mixed critical reception. When it does come up, it's usually as a CG pioneer that just didn't work. But back in July 2001 Ming-Na Wen, who voiced the films lead character Aki, was out there beating the drum for the ground-breaking project.

Talking to Female.com, Wen mentioned that she was excited by the prospect of returning to animation after voicing the titular lead of "Mulan," and also in doing animated filmmaking different from that Disney feature. She was also intrigued by how Aki was a "Very complex woman with so many mysterious qualities about her. She's also really strong." Plus, Wen was enamored with how Aki "Wants to save the world, which is a little bit of an A-personality for me." 

With these personality traits established, Wen signed on for the movie. Though "The Spirits Within" wasn't a hit, it did reinforce her passion for animation, as well as the qualities that interest her in prospective roles.

Her complicated relationship with action movies

Throughout her career, Ming-Na Wen has had a prominent presence in the world of action-packed storytelling. This has extended to projects ranging from the 1995 "Street Fighter" film adaptation to her work on TV shows like "The Mandalorian" or "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Though she's been a staple of projects with lots of punching, that doesn't mean Wen has always had an easy relationship with this genre. In fact, for the longest time, Wen actually held a sense of animosity towards action fare.

"When I did 'Street Fighter,' that was a video game character in a big action movie," she said to Junkee in 2014. "I tended to stay away from action after that because I was concerned about falling into that stereotype of, 'Oh, you're Asian so you must know martial arts'. It wasn't until I become a mother that I realized it's not something I should be ashamed of."

Discussing her 2013-2020 Marvel series, she added: "It's kind of ironic now with 'S.H.I.E.L.D.,' because I'm back into the action fray — it took me 20 years to do that." 

Grappling with her relationship to action-based storytelling was an (understandably) time-consuming affair, but embracing the genre ultimately led to Wen taking on what might be her most iconic role, Melinda May.

Her perception of Mulan's legacy in pop culture

Ming-Na Wen has had roles across multiple genres and mediums, but she says her most famous part will always be her voice work as the titular lead character of the 1998 film "Mulan." Both the beloved nature of the film and Disney's commitment to consistently slapping Mulan's face on merchandise ensure that this particular role is not vanishing from the pop culture consciousness anytime soon. That suits Wen just fine, given the level of importance Mulan has for viewers.

"To me, it's just timeless," Wen said to Junkee in 2014 about the character. "When you become a 'Disney princess' is it's just beautiful and memorable to each generation. From adults to young elementary kids, I have all ages coming up to me, loving that I'm the voice of Mulan." 

The release of the live-action "Mulan" in 2020, complete with a cameo from Ming-Na Wen, revitalized interest in the character once again.

Why her cameo in the live-action Mulan almost didn't happen

Towards the end of the live-action "Mulan," the arrival of the titular character at a celebration dedicated to her accomplishments in saving China is preceded by someone announcing her presence. This character is portrayed by the original voice actor of Mulan, Ming-Na Wen. It's a memorable cameo that provides a welcome bit of connective tissue between Disney's two takes on the legend of Fa Mulan. However, Ming-Na Wen has noted that her presence in this live-action film almost never happened.

Talking to The New York Times in 2020, Wen revealed that originally she had been offered a different, more substantial role. Taking on the part wouldn't have been possible, however, due to her commitments to "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." 

"Mulan" would have needed Wen to be around for a month in New Zealand, a time commitment the Marvel TV show couldn't allow. However, when all hope looked lost, a new idea for Wen appearing in the film emerged, in the form of a cameo that would require much less of a time commitment. Though it took a while to figure out how she'd factor into the movie, Wen ended up being pleased with her brief part. 

"I thought that was very appropriate and just wonderful," Wen said of the cameo. "A little Easter egg where I could pass the baton."

What Ming-Na Wen thinks of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," like any TV show that runs for seven seasons, had its ups, downs, and everything in between in terms of fan reception. The first season, in particular, drew some ire for what viewers perceived as slow pacing while the show waited for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" to upend the entire status quo of its universe. Even lead actor Ming-Na Wen, with the superpower of hindsight, has some reservations about that inaugural season.

"I think any show has their growing pains, and especially the first season, I believe our executive producers and our entire writing staff, everybody's hands were a little bit tied, because there was this agenda, which we didn't know about," Wen recalled to ComicBookMovie in 2015. "They didn't tell us that it was going to be so tied into Winter Soldier, so there was a lot of logistics that they had to work around timing-wise. That certainly doesn't help, I don't think. At the same time, I think they did help to develop the relationship between the first six main characters and what S.H.I.E.L.D. was about. In a way, even though the pacing was a little slow and the expectations were different than what the audience wanted for Marvel, ultimately that was hard, and understood, I think that's the process of any show: to just keep developing creatively. At least we were heading in the right direction!"

The personal significance the original Star Wars had for her

The "Star Wars" movies and TV shows provide plenty of exciting thrills, but you don't get to be an enduring piece of pop culture for decades on end without offering something more deeply personal for viewers to latch onto. The stories of characters like Rey and Leia Organa have captivated the hearts of audiences all around the world. Add Ming-Na Wen to those who found personal significance, in addition to exhilarating action sequences, in the endless cosmos of "Star Wars."

"I think growing up in Pittsburgh also made me go in that direction," Wen told StarWars.com in 2020 about why she initially latched onto the character of Luke Skywalker, who felt like an outsider in his home on Tatooine. "I was one of the only Asians growing up in Mount Lebanon at that time and [Star Wars and science fiction were] great escapism for me and a sense of belonging." 

It wasn't just Luke that Wen grew attached to, however. "I wanted to be Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be Han Solo. I wanted to be Leia," Wen explained. "They were all different parts of me that I wished I could be." 

Her costume influenced the Mandalorian performance

When the character of Fennec Shand first showed up on "The Mandalorian," she did so with a distinctive outfit in the "Star Wars" galaxy. It was attire that managed to become beloved enough that Shand maintained it when she returned for the program's second season. This costume was key to how Ming-Na Wen performed her work as the scheming bounty hunter. Specifically, a wild animal that the attire evoked became the key to shaping Shand's personality.

"When I went in for the costume fitting, orange was the primary color and I don't know if [the costume department] was thinking along the same line I was or if it was just intuitive, but that's the color of the fox," Wen said to StarWars.com. "There's a bit of that orange in it so I went a step further ... She's wearing a helmet. [We thought] let's maybe do something really fun with the hairdo, create sort of like a tail for her with this long braid. So Maria Sandoval came up with this beautiful, amazing braid, and we incorporated a little bit of the ears — like fox ears — into the top part of the braiding." 

Such fine details aren't easy to execute every day for filming, but that wasn't a problem for Wen. "We thought it was only going to be one episode, so we wanted to make Fennec memorable," she recalled. "When she came back, we were stuck with it. Oops."

How she perceives Fennec on The Bad Batch

Though Ming-Na Wen has portrayed Fennec Shard in both of her major "Star Wars" appearances, that doesn't mean these have occurred in the same timeframe in the "Star Wars" continuity. Wen's debut as the bounty hunter occurred in "The Mandalorian,' which takes place a few years after "Return of the Jedi," while her follow-up appearance was in "The Bad Batch," an animated show set between the prequels and the original trilogy. Naturally, Wen had some thoughts as to how her "Star Wars" character would differ across these vastly contrasting eras.

"She's cutting her teeth as a bounty hunter in 'The Bad Batch,'" Wen explained to StarWars.com. "She's still a loner, a drifter .... there's just a sense of more recklessness about her, just bravado. You know, a young punk. She's more adventurous and willing to take greater risks because she doesn't know what the consequences are." No matter what point in her life audiences sees her, though, Ming-Na Wen does see some consistent personality traits emerging in Fennec Shand. "She's always been a loner," Wen explained. "She's always playing a bit of chess here and there, figuring things out."

How her daughter ended up in the Mulan remake

Ming-Na Wen isn't the only notable cameo to appear in the live-action "Mulan" remake. Her daughter Michaela also makes a brief appearance in the film, another subtle touch in Niki Caro's "Mulan" that reinforces Wen's deep connection to Disney's take on this piece of Chinese folklore. However, Michaela's participation didn't come out of the blue; it took some time to find a place where Michaela would fit organically.

"We were sort of toying with the idea of — 'Oh, how great would it be if Michaela got to play young Mulan?"" Wen recalled to Insider in 2020. "But she was way too young. He got to meet her, too. And I think he just loved her. It was a gift for [producer] Jason [Reed] to have it kind of be cemented in film, this really special moment. [She] was very proud of her mom being Mulan." 

Not only did this end up getting Michaela into a big-budget Disney movie, but it also provided some wonderful memories for Wen and her daughter. "We just had the best time together," Wen reminisced. "Seeing that throne room and meeting Yifei and the director, Niki, and all the boys, it was a real treat — very, very, very precious and special."

Her biggest takeaways from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Having spent nearly a decade playing the role of Melinda May on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," Ming-Na Wen experienced many special moments, as well as opportunities to grow as an actor. As the show's final episode approached, however, she said the character's self-assured nature gave her a newfound confidence that she'll hold on to forever.

"I think one of the biggest lessons I learned from playing May is that you don't have to really worry that much about somebody liking you or what their opinions about you are," Wen said to SyFy said in 2020. "Especially if they're negative. Growing up Asian, growing up in white suburbia, and as a woman, I was always trying so hard to either get acceptance or feel like I was part of a group. For May, she is such an individual who is so confident in her abilities, and who she is, and what she's about, that she doesn't need anybody else to tell her who she is. And I think that is one of my biggest takeaways. I don't need to have to care so much about what other people think." 

It's the sort of thoughtful lesson that could benefit anyone — and just another reason to love Ming-Na Wen.