PREMIERING TONIGHT: Ming-Na Wen on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Story by Teena Apeles. 

Actress Ming-Na Wen has been fortunate to have played many strong female characters during her career: Dr. Chen in ER, Camile Wray in SGU Stargate Universe and, of course, the beloved Mulan. So you can bet that it would take a pretty amazing character to get this pro as giddy as a teenager. Enter Melinda May.

“When this opportunity came up, my skin was just tingling with excitement,” says Wen of her role in the highly anticipated series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., premiering on ABC this fall. “I wanted to have a show that I could enjoy doing, working with people who I love, and that my kids can watch. And so I think I hit the jackpot here.”

What’s not to like about Agent Melinda May? She has a reputation for being an expert pilot and skilled fighter as a member of the international organization S.H.I.E.L.D., which protects “the ordinary from the extraordinary.” And as May, Wen flexes her muscles often … on bad guys. “We were working on some fight sequences this past week, and I am so into it right now; it makes me feel really powerful,” she says. “I am going to be in the best shape of my life because of this show.” Extra plus, she’s taking direction from Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, which, in her own words, had her “screaming for joy” because she is a huge fan.

A self-described “geek girl,” Wen says she’s been drawn to the sci-fi world as an escape since she was a kid. Growing up as the only Asian girl in a very white suburban neighborhood, she says she liked anything that was “other-worldly.” She admits, “I used to pray that E.T. or some extraterrestrial being would take me away, to some other world, and get me out of some of the environments that I was in, always feeling like the outsider.”

As she got older, Wen became interested in Dungeons & Dragons through her science fiction class and, later, drama club, “where I found people who accepted me for who I was and understood me, and we had a lot in common. And that became my world.”

Star Wars, Star Trek and Aliens were among the movies she loved because in such worlds, says Wen, “there are outsiders and yet they have these amazing superpowers. And even though they don’t fit in, they become the heroes.”

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While Agent May doesn’t have superpowers, she is still part of an elite force that works within the government to facilitate and help out the superheroes. But as far as Wen’s daughter and son, ages 12 and 7, respectively, are concerned, she looks pretty super on screen. “After seeing the pilot, my son said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could fight like that!’ It is just so nice to be able to share with them why mommy disappears so much,” she says. “They get excited to think I can fly a plane and fight.”

Of course, they’re not the only fans thrilled with her role. After the summer release of the Melinda May trailer to promote the show, Wen was the talk of the Web — so much so that her Twitter following grew.

“I just love the fans so much, and when this was starting to trickle out, I started this fan group related to the show that I could talk to and party with,” she says of what she calls the M.O.B., short for “Most Optimum Badass.” As for how she came up with the name, Wen says, “Everyone kept calling me a badass. I think everyone wants to feel like a badass, so alright, I am going to form a group of badasses.”

So are her kids allowed to call her a “badass” at home? Wen laughs. “Well, it could be a donkey. …”

 

This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here

 

Three Things to Watch Now to Get Your Girl Power On: Steel Magnolias, Austenland, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I grew up in an age where the women in power believed in a 1970s sort of feminism: be hard-core, don’t let a man control you, fight back at every turn. Under their tutelage, I believed that was the only way to be a feminist. Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept that feminism is not so … difficult. I embrace being an equal professionally, regardless of gender, while at the same time, embracing the joys of not having to be a man. In fact, sometimes being a girl just feels damn good.

Looking to get your girl power on? Be inspired with these recommendations on screen and stage that will appeal to the many sides of your complex female self.

Steel Magnolias

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Leave it to East West Players, the nation’s leading Asian American theater troupe, to take on an all-Asian cast production of the classic play (turned movie) “Steel Magnolias.” I’d never seen the play before, but I loved the movie … from what I could remember: pretty much Julia Roberts having a diabetic seizure as Sally Fields did what she does best (freak out) — that was the extent of it.

But what I saw at opening night this past Wednesday was so much more — the electric dynamic of six strong women, the Asian faces in a very Southern setting, the hilarious exchanges (Hiwa Bourne excelled as beauty parlor owner Truvy, played by Dolly Parton in the film, and Lovelle Liquigan’s Annelle was brilliant in all her awkward glory), and most of all, the intimacy of watching something on stage. Not only was it a reminder that truly good theater could never be replaced by film, it reaffirmed to me that a compelling story always works, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Catch East West Players’ production of “Steel Magnolias,” from now until October 6. Book your tickets here.

Austenland

I am not ashamed to say that I am a huge Jane Austen fan. Sure, some may wonder how a 19th century, practically “chick lit” British author appeals to a 21st century Asian American woman, but I tell you, when I first read Pride and Prejudice, I couldn’t believe how much the social mores and cultural norms of 1810s England sounded just like those of my religious Korean immigrant upbringing. (Read Persuasion and I dare any 30- to 40-something single Asian American woman not to feel the plight of poor Anne Elliot.) Needless to say, I’ve been hooked ever since.

So naturally, when I heard about Austenland, which premiered at Sundance, I had to go see what it was all about. Keri Russell (of Felicity fame) stars as the awkward Jane Hayes, a 30-something woman obsessed with the Colin Firth version of Mr. Darcy (from the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice). Her entire apartment is decorated — creepily — in Regency Era teapots and porcelain dolls, and the lord of the manor is a life-size cardboard cut-out of Firth. When she gets the chance of a lifetime to spend her vacation at Austenland, an English-themed resort where you get to live out your Jane Austen fantasy, complete with cute actors in costume, hilarity, as they say, ensues.

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Now, I’m not gonna deny that the film will appeal mostly to those familiar with Austen’s work. But the hilarious Jennifer Coolidge (perhaps best known for being the MILF in American Pie), playing the rich, ignorant American who goes to the resort solely because she thinks she’ll look great in those “wench dresses,” will make up for any inside jokes you may miss.

Oh, and did I mention that the soundtrack was done by Hong Kong-born Chinese hapa Emmy the Great?

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Emmy the Great.

Austenland is in select theaters now.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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It’s almost here … the Joss Whedon-helmed television series following Agent Phil Coulson and his agents of the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, aka S.H.I.E.L.D. As we told you in our Fall 2013 issue interview with actress Ming-Na Wen, The Joy Luck Club star kicks ass as Melinda May, an expert pilot and martial artist. But she’s not the only Asian American doing us proud on the ABC series. Chinese American hapa Chloe Bennett stars as Skye, a mysterious computer hacker genius, while Thai American Maurissa Tancharoen is a producer on the show. All I can say is based on the reviews, this is one show you’re not going to want to miss.

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Chloe Bennet as Skye, right, in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres on ABC Tuesday Sept. 24. Get psyched with cool video extras, including one especially devoted to how Agent Coulson recruited Melinda May, here.