Ming-Na Wen on ‘Joy Luck Club’ Oscar snubs, George Clooney’s ‘ER’ pranks, her failed ‘Mulan’ voice and more

(Everett Collection)

Mulan, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Joy Luck Club. (Photo: Everett Collection)

At the D23 Expo in 2019, Ming-Na Wen was named a Disney legend, and it’s hard to think many actors more deserving. Wen has accomplished a Mouse House triple crown: She voiced the Disney warrior princess Mulan in the 1998 animated favorite; entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe with her role as the hardened, dance and coffee-hating one-liner queen Melinda May in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-2020); and traveled to a galaxy far, far away as the bounty hunter Fennec Shand in the Star Wars spinoff series The Mandalorian (2019-2020) and The Book of Boba Fett (2021-2022).

What the actress, whose Chinese parents emigrated to the U.S. when she was 4 (first New York, then Pittsburgh), doesn’t get enough credit for is how expansive and versatile her body of work has been. This is an actress who started on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, really cut her teeth on the long-running soap opera As the World Turns, and then in the ’90s starred in the groundbreaking drama The Joy Luck Club, the cult classic video game adaptation Street Fighter, and the massive hit TV series ER. Fast forward a couple decades, and between her work with Marvel and Lucasfilm, Wen’s career has once again caught fire in recent years.

And ever since Mulan, her first voice role, Wen — who this week received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — has also been one of Hollywood’s most prolific voice actors, with parts in Final Fantasy, The Batman and Spawn animated series, and hosts of other projects. Wen’s most recent work comes in another celebrated Hollywood staple: Gremlins. Wen voices Fong Wing, mother to Sam — the 10-year-old boy who will grow up to bring Gizmo to the U.S. and open his own New York antique shop — in Max’s new animated series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai.

“When I first saw it, I was really shocked,” Ming, 59, tells us about her love for the original Gremlins (1984). “I was so surprised and loved everything about it.

“So now I get to take this very mysterious character as they bring Mr. Wing back to Shang-hai when he was a kid in the 1920s. It’s brilliant. It’s so great to be able find out his backstory, and how he became who he was in the film. I love it. And I love playing Mr. Wing’s mom.”

In our new Role Recall interview, we find out Wen’s backstory as she shares stories from many of her most beloved film and television projects.

On how her Pittsburgh roots landed her on the locally filmed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1985) — and initially thinking the famed children’s television host was a little cuckoo:

“I grew up in Pittsburgh and I was attending Carnegie Mellon at the time. The casting people asked if there were any students that were interested, and they picked me and two of my friends, my classmates. What I love about Mister Rogers was that he was always about diversity. [Two of three royal trumpeters were women of color.] We were brought in to be in King Friday’s [Neighborhood] of Make-Believe. We were the trumpeters who introduce King Friday. We didn’t know how to play at all. They dubbed that, that was all fake… I had a really funny bowl cut wig, and this really cute outfit.

“It was such a treat because [Fred Rogers] was a complete icon growing up in Pittsburgh. And he was exactly as you see him on TV: sweet, soft-spoken, kind and a total professional. Very, very focused. I remember I would hear him like talking to himself behind the castle. And I thought he was a little [crazy]. But in reality, he was working with his puppets and going over the voices and the lines. You know, and the only thing I regret… back then we didn’t have cell phones. So I didn’t bring a camera or anything to get a picture with him.”

On how her stint on the soap As the World Turns (1988-1991) made her a better actor:

“I look back at that time very fondly. At Carnegie Mellon at the time, we didn’t have any camera training whatsoever. It was all theater training, stage work, and I feel like that was my on-camera training when I was doing that soap. I learned how to grasp lines quickly. Because when you’re doing theater, you can have weeks to rehearse and rehearse and delve into a character and a moment. But on soaps, it’s like one hour of a show in one day. And it just keeps coming. So I really got amazing training on that show, and made some lifelong friends.”

On the joys of The Joy Luck Club (1993), and frustrations that it didn’t have luck with award nominations:

“I read Amy Tan’s book on a beach in Florida and I just remember thinking if they ever made this book into a movie, I wanna be a part of it, because it was the first time where I felt somebody was telling my story. It was the first time that I experienced a connection with the book and the characters in a way that was so personal and so meaningful. I would’ve been a PA. I didn’t even think about acting in it. I just was like, ‘I wanna be a part of this.’ So when I was able to audition for Amy and [director] Wayne Wang, I wasn’t even nervous, because I knew these characters so well. They actually had me audition for both June and for Waverly [the role that ultimately went to Tamlyn Tomita], and they felt I was more right for June… But they gave me a gift that is everlasting. This year is the 30th anniversary of that project, and it’s still so beloved. The book is still read and taught at schools, the film is seen in schools. People are constantly being impacted by the stories.

“I had been fighting what I felt was a very lonely adventure as an actor, because every time I would go into a meeting or an audition, it was always me and like 10 other Caucasian actresses, you know? And I was like the token Asian that they wanted to see. Luckily I was able to often get roles that were not specifically written for Asians, but this one was a very specific Asian story. And to meet up with the vast number of talents, you know, Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom, Rosalind Chao, they were all in L.A. already. And then the moms Tsai Chin, Frances Nuyen, Kieu Chinh and Lisa Lu. For me, that was such a moving experience because I was this new kid outta New York, and I didn’t know anyone, and suddenly I was in this family, and it was great. We laughed a lot. We’re still friends to this day. I’m very grateful for Amy Tan for giving me that.

“It was very beloved. It was received critically well. But I think because there were subtitles in a lot of the backstories, somehow I really feel like it was looked at as a foreign film rather than an American-backed film. The mere fact that that film did not even garner a single Oscar nomination, even for screen adaptation, or cinematography, it was so beautifully shot. I’m not even going to [mention] acting. It didn’t even receive [Screen Actors Guild recognition]. We got no nominations. And I think that’s shocking. So I don’t know how that happened, but I’m so glad that our last Oscars ceremony [where the Asian-led Everything Everywhere All At Once won seven Oscars] has turned the tides and hopefully there will be more momentum now.”

On working with Jean-Claude Van Damme in her first major action film, 1994’s Street Fighter:

“I was excited, I was getting a lead in a major film project. Jean-Claude Van Damme was a huge, huge star at the time. The late Raul Julia. I play a lot of video games, but I didn’t really know Street Fighter as well. I’d played it before. So that was all a new learning curve for me, about who Chun-Li was. And I was just having the best time… Jean-Claude was always the most charming person. I had a lot of fun with him. He has a great sense of humor. I was one of the only girls, it was me and Kylie [Minogue]. So the two of us were around all this testosterone, and we were all training super hard. We would train in the morning, running, jogging through the streets of Thailand, and then we would have big breakfasts, and then we would train for two hours in the afternoon. And then we would train again in the evening. So it was a hard show to do, but because of Carnegie Mellon, I had a lot of stage combat training. I had done martial arts and dance. So for me it was so much fun. I loved it.”

On telling her ER costar George Clooney that she thought Street Fighter was going to kill her career:

“Back then I was still like, I learned Shakespeare, I’m a theatrically trained doctor [laughs]. I wanted to be a serious actress and do more drama and things like that. So I guess because it was so campy and silly, and that was the intention, in the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘Oh, no.’ This is my first big starring role and coming out of Joy Luck Club, this really beautiful, important story of these characters. And then I’m playing this cartoon character, really, in some ways. I had no idea. I was young and foolish and [was worried]. But now it’s a cult classic. So there you go.”

On working on ER from 1994-1995 and then again from 1999-2004 — and the gags famed prankster George Clooney would pull on set:

“I got to work with George Clooney, come on, and Noah Wyle, Julianna Margulies, and just such amazing talents. Anthony Edwards. The list goes on and on… Great directors, great writers. I had no idea about coming into Hollywood and doing a TV show. I was a guest star that first year. And I think the show got 40 shares [percentage of households watching], and I’m just like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ I had no idea what any of that means. I mean, nowadays people get two shares and they’re so excited. So can you imagine if a show got 40 shares. It was insane.

“George always loves to play. The gags, you know, the pranks. The pranks. He’ll put hot sauces in somebody’s drink when we’re doing a toast in a scene, and not tell them just to see if they’re able to hold the scene and not react. He’ll pull aliens, both him and Anthony Edwards, they’d pull an alien out of a birthing scene to scare all of us [laughs]. He’s just the most darling wonderful human being. And I couldn’t be happier for all the successes that he has personally and professionally. He’s a gem.

“I’ll tell you another story that makes him such a gem. I was so nervous about doing The Tonight Show With Jay Leno [in 1995]. I hate doing publicity… It’s so uncomfortable because I discovered I’m really an introvert, more so just an outgoing introvert. And so I didn’t wanna go out there. I was so, so, so nervous. And my publicist knocked on George’s door because he was a guest as well, and told him. And so he came over, said hello, and told me, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll hang with you.’ At that time he was such an A-lister, right? Batman and all that stuff. Normally, the first guest, the big star, they come on and then they leave, you know? But he stayed, he stayed with me during my segment, and that’s the kind of classy, wonderful human being that he is.”

On her first Mulan (1998) voice not working:

“I just did voice auditions and I remember receiving the news in my mom’s kitchen. I was visiting her at the time. In fact, for both Joy Luck Club and Mulan, I was visiting my parents at the time [when I heard I got the role]. So I always feel like my parents’ kitchen back in those days was my lucky spot. And I remember being so excited because it’s a story that I grew up with, and I was really curious, because we didn’t have the full script. I was curious how they were going to make it work and make it Disney. And I was fascinated by the whole process of doing voice acting. I’d never done any before. And I remember going in the first time, and, you know, being the actor, I’m like, ‘I’m going to create this younger voice, because she’s only supposed to be 16. And so I come in with this voice and they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’ [laughs] I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just creating this younger voice.’ And they’re like, ‘No, we hired you for your voice, so can you just do your voice?’ [laughs] And I was like, ‘Oh, well, that’s easy. That’s much easier. So, yes.’

“It continues to [have an amazing effect on my life and career]. I go to these conventions and as much as I’ve done, all these other roles, you know, with Fennec Shand and the Star Wars projects or Agent May in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Mulan is the one that sticks. It’s the one that has incredible impact for people who grew up with it, who now have their own kids. And that’s what’s so amazing about the Disney classics, and to be part of that. I had no idea that that was gonna happen. I thought it was very brave and risky for Disney to wanna take this Chinese folklore and try to have people relate to it. But sure enough, people more than related to it, people were inspired by Mulan. People just had this connection to her. That still blows my mind. When I go to these conventions I have fans that will literally cry because of that connection that they have with Mulan. It’s very, very special. And I don’t take anything for granted. And this especially, it’s such a gift.”

On geeking out over joining Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-2020):

“I do like the stunt work, because I have to force myself to exercise, these days, especially. And so it was great for like seven years. I was forced to have to work out with my stunt double, who was also my trainer, Ming Qiu, love her, we’re such great friends. I was so excited when I first got the job, because being a nerd, you know, Marvel, come on, Stan Lee. Who wouldn’t wanna be part of it? In fact, I was up [for] Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and this other pilot, and I told my agent, ‘I don’t care if the other show is giving me more money or anything else, I want to do Marvel.’ That was my ultimate nerd dream come true kind of thing at the time. So who knew it was gonna survive seven years? It’s great.”

On also geeking out over joining Star Wars with The Mandalorian (2019-2020) and The Book of Boba Fett (2021-2022):

“I mean, come on. [Star Wars] was my religion. Besides Buddhism, besides believing in spirituality and that there’s a God out there, The Force was [everything]. I still pinch myself and I’ve collected pretty much every single thing that I can that has my character Fennec, my face on it. Any Star Wars doll, toy, T-shirt, anything [laughs]. It’s such a dream come true. I still don’t believe it.”

Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai is now streaming on Max.

Watch the trailer:

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