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.”
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.