Actress Ming-Na Wen is known for portraying very stoic characters, from the terse, all-business Agent May in ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” to the no-nonsense assassin Fennec Shand in Disney+’s “The Book of Boba Fett,” but it wasn’t always so. She began her walk of Hollywood fame in 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” before catapulting to culture resonance as the voice of the title character in Disney’s “Mulan” (1998). I chatted with her ahead of her appearance at Fan Expo Philadelphia, where she shared her perspective on the “fan experience,” revealed a bit of the “fan” in her and embraced the opportunity to pierce her on-screen scowl with her radiant smile.
It’s funny because, actually, I was going to start off talking about, just looking over your career as of late, you’ve been doing a lot of sci-fi and genre action pieces. And I was like “She has a big broad smile, and she’s very funny. Nobody’s putting her in comedies.” And then — boom — just yesterday, it’s announced that you’re going to be in the second season of “Hacks” [HBO Max original comedy series starring Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder].
Yeah, surprise! And I just did an episode of “Young Sheldon” [CBS]. Cool. You know, I started off in theater and actually came to Hollywood for “Joy Luck Club,” but yes, my career definitely has taken me down this path. And when you’re on a series that continues to get renewed, which is a wonderful thing, like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” right? You know, [we] ran for seven years — a huge bulk of my career right there, you know. And unfortunately, or fortunately, you are signed to a contract; so there you have it. Sometimes life just happens that way. And, with a show that’s 22 episodes a season, you’re really limited as far as being able to go off and doing something else.
So that’s kind of what happened? Is it fair to say that you enjoy doing comedy, more funny stuff?
You know, I enjoy doing anything that has a great cast, a great group of talents behind it, and an interesting character. So it really doesn’t matter what genre it is. It’s just a matter of what the project is and the material. Like with “The Book of Boba Fett”? What’s great about that is they shoot like, every other year so it’s great and it’s only maybe five months out of the year. So now it’s allowing me the opportunity to do all this fun stuff like “Hacks” and “Young Sheldon” and super-secret works-in-progress that could find me, Len, at the business end of a lightsaber if word got out and I love it. I love having that freedom now. I was a big fan of the first season of “Hacks.”
So I’m curious what drew you to go out for that, or did they come to you?
No, they came to me, and, and I am so grateful because I’m a massive, massive fan of Jean Smart. When I had to work with her, I was actually quite nervous because I idolized her for so long and just think she’s incredible; a legendary Hollywood actor, but (really) the most humble sweetest generous human being. I adore her. I have a big crush on her.
Let me ask you. How does that feel, after starting in theater, and then soap operas, film, voice work, and years of television, to now enjoy the moment where projects are coming to you? They already know that they’re casting you — they want you — as opposed to standing on the audition line.
Oh hell, it’s the dream. Like, as I get older I’m like “Look at my body of work,” right? But yeah, it’s always a luxury to be the one on the other end, the receiving end. I mean, come on, if somebody like, you know, just says “Hey — let me take you out to dinner,” sometimes you just want to say yes, because you never know when the next gig will be.
But I’m happy to say that I’ve earned my stripes and it’s been wonderful to be able to just take a chill pill and go, “Okay, I don’t want to spend my energy on this yet.” I want to write and spend more time with my family; I just want to take it easy a little bit after working so hard on this project. So it’s that wonderful luxury [that I] may not have forever. But when it’s here, it’s nice.
I have spoken to other actors and one of the things that they talk about is trying to be very strategic about how they manage their careers and the roles that they’re going out for.
But then there are some times when you just gotta go and like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” You just, you know, it’s the money every year and when you have kids and family, that’s like the number-one thing. And it’s so important to have health insurance.
As someone who had a doctor’s appointment this morning, I feel you on that.
I appreciate the actors who think that they [can] do strategic planning; more power to them. You know, I have no idea of anything — if something’s going to be a hit, or not. As an actor who has worked for over four decades, I’m just like, “Did I do a good job? I sure hope so.” I go through that sort of insecurity where like, “Oh gosh. I hope they don’t find me out.” [laughs]
You’re coming to Philadelphia for Fan Expo, coming back to your home state [after a childhood in Hong Kong and New York, Ming-Na Wen spent her formative years in Pittsburgh]. Your family — they weren’t sure about you going into acting. Were they able to see your success and come around?
My mom and dad were hesitant [about] the money going into acting, yes. It’s a tough field and it’s not something that most parents want for their children because it’s unpredictable, especially Asian parents. But my mom — now — it’s been so long and for her to see that I never stopped working. She knows I’m successful and appreciates how hard I work. And yet all the time, she just worries about me. She’s always like, “Ming, don’t work so hard.” She knows the traveling that we do and the dangerous stuff that I do for the action stuff. So she gets worried. But yeah, she’s very proud of what I did.
What was the first project where you felt your mom really turned the corner and was like, “Okay, she’s got this.” What was that project?
The first one was “As the World Turns” because I was on TV and I was in the “TV Guide.” [laughs] I remember my parents going to see “The Joy Luck Club” with me in New York. I took them to the theater and they came out and they were very, very quiet. They got into a cab. And they weren’t saying very much and they just sort of went home and I said, “Well, I’m going to go pick up some stuff. So, I’ll meet you at home.” And then when I went back home, it was a lot for them to digest and understand. They were just so overwhelmed with the idea of it and the images and the movie itself was, is very moving, right? It really took them many, many hours before they were able to talk about it. So I was glad because I thought they hated it. [laughs]
Do you remember or do you have a moment in your career where you felt like a fan? Maybe you met someone who you long admired or a moment where you just “fanned out”?
Mark Hamill. You know, I’ve met Mark a few times but — I’m sure he doesn’t remember — I met him when I first came out to LA and he was doing a Roger Corman film. I had no idea that Roger Corman was sort of, like, the initiation into Hollywood [laughs]. If you do a Roger Corman film like you’re in a club with everybody! But to just meet him as Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker! Just kind of like took it over the top as far as my childhood fantasy world come true.
Because you’re a big sci-fi head.
Oh, completely! Still am. That was probably my biggest geek out, but I geek out all the time. I think there’s just a 13-year-old trapped inside this woman’s body.
Nothing wrong with being in touch with your inner 13-year-old. More people should be.
Yeah, some people say I’ve never let go of my 12-year-old, but that’s me. There you go. [laughs]
Speaking again of Fan Expo, when did you begin to realize or suspect what you mean to your fans?
At these conventions, and that’s why I love going to them so much, for real. Because in Hollywood (and in this business), you work in a massive bubble, unlike theater, where you can experience an audience reaction immediately. When you work in TV and films, you just never know. You don’t get that feedback. Only through social media has there been an opportunity to really see the audience’s reaction immediately after one of your projects premieres. Which, to me, it’s kind of like theater. It’s fun, that way with social media.
And when I go to these conventions — Edward James Olmos was the one that talked me into doing it really.
You were hesitant at first?
I was very hesitant. And he sat me down to talk with him and he was, like, you sign [your name], you take pictures and you meet your fans, and you get paid. And I was, like, I don’t know. It just feels kind of weird to be charging for autographs and photos. And then he was like “Do you pay when you want to go see your favorite artist at a concert? There’s no difference, you know?” Your fans want to meet you, it makes them happy. It gives them a chance to have that moment to meet someone they idolize or admire. And, you know, you get the chance to make some money. It’s a win-win situation.
So when he put it in that perspective for me, it’s like … so I’m going to my first one and I was so astounded at the response I got from my fans; the impact that “Mulan” had on so many. Wow, it was tremendous. Agent May or any of these other roles that I’ve done, whether it was in “ER” or “Joy Luck”; it wasn’t even like science fiction fantasy stuff. It was just the body of work and, you know, some of them would cry, like I was like one of the Beatles or something, you know? I was just really moved by it. And so I love going to the conventions and meeting everyone. It’s such a happy moment and that’s why I keep doing it.
One last question. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
In life? From my mom, which is just always, “Stay humble.” Mmm, because that’s the road to happiness. Because when you’re humble, you appreciate the good and the bad that life throws at you. Because when you’re humble, it means that you’re not all that and that you have to constantly work at things; it’s never handed to you. And so you appreciate when the good things happen, but when the bad things come, you’re humble enough to be, “Okay, what do I do with this?” And I think it does lead to happiness. I think all the people that feel entitled are never happy.
Because I still can’t believe I’m in a “Star Wars” project. So every so often, I just like to relive my childhood and my dream of wanting to be in a space project and now I am! It’s a bit surreal, still to me.
And you’re an action-figure (Star Wars The Black Series Fennec Shand by Hasbro).
Right? It sounds like some people have it, but I haven’t found it. And I’ll have to ask Hasbro to see if they can send me some. Because Lego sent me a bunch of my action figure but I’m not like those figures. [laughs]
They’re supposed to be at your door before they reach anybody else’s store.
Don’t you think so? I mean, come on. [laughs] It’s an image of me!
Get your life right, Hasbro.