Actress Ming-Na Wen loves being in the spies and superhero action drama “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” But she’s also dreaming of “Star Wars.”
“My ultimate dream is to be in a ‘Star Wars’ film,” she laughs. “If the right people at Disney are reading this, now that the series is moving along, I’m happy to just be an extra! Really! Just so I can check that off my bucket list.”
Some movie lovers may remember Wen from her breakthrough as June in the film adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” Others may recall that she was the voice behind Disney’s take on the classic Chinese legend “Mulan,” or seen her on television in roles ranging from “The Single Guy” to “E.R.” But in parallel with what she jokingly refers to as her “serious actor” work, Wen has accumulated an astonishingly awesome geek resume: Long before her arrival in the Marvel Universe, she starred in the 1998-99 TV adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn”; she voiced the lead role of Dr. Aki Ross in the 2001 CGI-animated movie based on the epic adventure videogame series “Final Fantasy”; she voiced Detective Ellen Yin in a season of the animated TV series “The Batman”; and, of course, from 2009 to 2011, she played Camile Wray on “SGU Stargate Universe,” the final installment in the long-running “Stargate” franchise. (And let’s not forget that she also portrayed everyone’s favorite high-kicking dumpling-head, Chun Li, in the first live-action adaptation of the videogame “Street Fighter.” Spinning bird kick!)
It’s an amazing run, though one that took her a while to embrace. “When I first started out, I was trying so hard to not be in that realm,” she says. “It was against all of my instincts — I grew up as a total geek girl, I was the president of my high school’s sci-fi club — but I kept on telling myself, if you want to get respect, you have to be a serious actor.”
Despite Wen’s long list of comic-book credits, getting cast as Melinda May was something of a surprise. “You get to a certain age, you’re going out for roles and oh look, you’re competing with Sigourney Weaver,” she says. “Well, that’s not going to work! But after my agent decided to change career paths, I got a new set of agents, and they said, ‘You know what, you still look pretty good. We’re going to try sending you out for a different set of roles.’”
That’s an understatement, to say the least. Wen doesn’t just look “pretty good”: When you see her in “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” you’ll swear her mutant ability is eternal youth.
“Well, there’s this special Chinese tea — you mean you don’t drink it?” she laughs. “Seriously though, it’s hard work. I tell people this and they don’t believe me, but I really do not like working out. I’m not the kind of person who likes to get up early and put in an hour jogging or whatever. But I’m motivated by fear. I say to myself, ‘You’re wearing a leather catsuit. Do you want to look bad, or badass?’ So it’s martial arts training, pilates, and every five minutes, if no one’s looking, I’m doing lunges and squats.”
The work paid off. The role of Melinda May was originally written as “Althea Rice,” a non-Asian character. “But once I got the part, one of the exec producers — I’m assuming it was Maurissa — pointed out that it was a problem to have an Asian named ‘Agent Rice.’ Might get a little backlash, you think? So they actually changed her name for me.” (Maurissa, of course, is Thai American Maurissa Tanchaeron, frequent collaborator with Whedon and cowriter of the pilot along with her husband, Whedon’s brother Jed.)
What they didn’t change was the character’s identity. May is a “damaged soldier” who, due to some as-yet-unrevealed trauma, had relegated herself to desk duty until Coulson convinces her to return to the field, promising that all she has to do is “drive the bus” — that is to say, fly the massive stealth jet that’s used to bring the S.H.I.E.L.D. team to crisis points around the globe.
“Naturally, she doesn’t just drive the bus,” says Wen. The character’s nickname, “The Cavalry,” refers to her incredible combat skills — she’s described as being the only S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with more black belts than Natasha Romanoff, that is to say, the Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson in “Iron Man 2” and “The Avengers”). Wen puts those skills on display in the pilot in one remarkably efficient ass-kicking sequence — taking a burly security guard down with a few lightning-swift kicks and punches. (“The guy playing the cop made me look good,” says Wen. “I mean, it convinced my seven-year-old, and he’s a tough critic.”)
As to May’s backstory, Wen doesn’t know everything, and what she knows, she won’t tell. “It’s a secret!” she says — something that requires Level 8 clearance, I guess. “All I’ll say is that over the course of the series, you will see the pieces of her emerging. Her storyline will unfold very slowly, because they’re set on maintaining that mystery, that intensity about her. But it’s been a lot of fun. She’s one of my most favorite chars I’ve ever had to play.”
Until then, she says, enjoy the ride. “We’re working on our seventh episode now, and every time I pick up a new script, I can’t put it down,” she says. “NO WAY! This is going to happen? That person shows up? It’s such a good read.”
And an even better watch. In the classic Marvel Comics tradition, it even manages to address some real social issues with a candor you won’t see anywhere else on primetime. So buckle up, fans: This helicarrier is going places.
BOW TO YOUR NEW QUEEN