Asian actress Ming-Na Wen on how she beat the odds to succeed in Hollywood


Despite on-screen diversity improving, Ming-Na Wen feels that in Hollywood, Asian talent still face an uphill battle and have to keep proving themselves over and over. Photo: Handout

Fans of the medical drama ER (1995 to 2004) might remember Ming-Na Wen as Dr Deb Chen – one of the few Asian faces on a major American television show at the time.

Wen's career has quietly advanced Asian representation in Hollywood over the years, from her turn in The Joy Luck Club (1993), a drama about Chinese-American women, to Disney's iconic Mulan films (1998 to 2004), where she voiced the title character.

Since 2013, the Macau-born star has also shared top billing on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel's first television show.

She plays Agent Melinda May, a pilot, weapons expert and all-round bada** in a law-enforcement agency that deals with the superhuman and paranormal.

The 56-year-old – who also appears in the Disney+ Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian (2019 to now) – remembers when Hollywood roles for Asians were few and far between.

"Back when I did The Joy Luck Club, we only had three TV channels.

"So I fought and went after roles that weren't specifically Asian to begin with; Deb Chen wasn't. At the audition, it was me and a dozen Caucasian women. Then once they cast me, they changed the name. And the same thing with May," Wen says in a phone interview from Los Angeles recently.

Although The Joy Luck Club won her critical acclaim, Wen's work in the Marvel and Disney universes holds a special place in her heart.

"I'm such a geek and a nerd. My childhood was this world of comic books, Star Wars and science fiction and fantasy.

"Now being on the other side and playing a character that inspires or connects with the fans, that's been the biggest joy because I know how they feel.

"When I see them getting excited or telling me what a storyline did for them, it's like coming full circle."

The action-heavy Marvel show, which saw her do many of her own stunts, is also "the one role that helped me stay in shape for seven years".

And her ethnicity being written into the show sent a powerful message about inclusion "by making it not an issue and making it a thing that should be part of the norm".

"That, for me, is the biggest way to influence anyone. They're seeing the character, they're falling in love with the character and, oh, he or she just happens to be Asian.

"That is the ultimate way to get people to accept that we're all equal and not different. If we have differences in how we look, it only enhances the human experience," says Wen, who is married to actor Eric Michael Zee, 54, and has a daughter, 19, and a son, 14.

But despite on-screen diversity improving, the actress feels that in Hollywood, Asian talent still face an uphill battle and have to keep proving themselves over and over.

Progress here "goes forward and backward", she observes. "Sometimes, it's all about what's hot and trending and what's going to make them money at the moment.

"So I don't take it personally. It's show business and there is a need for them to make money."

Thus, the romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018) "was fantastic because it perpetuated that glamorous, sexy, beautiful image of Asians and it made boatloads of money".

Still,"it was kind of sad that it took 25 years after The Joy Luck Club to finally have another big impactful all-Asian cast movie", Wen says.

"That's too long. We need to now come up with another one in a couple of years, not 25 years."

How did she herself manage to beat the odds and land all those plum roles? "Well, my mum would say that it's because of the shape of my nose. Because my bridge is high for an Asian woman," she says, chuckling.

"I think it's part luck, part hard work, having a good team behind me and my training at (the School of Drama) at Carnegie Mellon (University)."

"And just believing in myself," she concludes. "I never settled." – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. S7 airs every Thursday at 9pm on Fox (Astro Ch 704/unifi TV Ch 453).

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