Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resident butt-kicker Ming-Na Wen chats with Gerry Strauss about her journey as no-nonsense agent Melinda May.
For a show that started out with a team of humans dealing with the very Earth-bound ramifications of having super-powered entities hanging out on the planet, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has certainly gone to some far-out places. Isolated visits from Asgardians and the Kree soon gave way to full-fledged colonies of Inhumans, demonic possessions, artificial intelligence and now, space and time travel.
“I think it was natural because in our first season, one of the hashtags was ‘It’s all connected’,” says Ming-Na Wen, who has been a core cast member since the show’s beginning. “In some ways, I think that essence still holds true. The fact that Thor and so many of the Marvel movies delved into other universes and extraterrestrial races, made it a natural progression for us to go in that direction.”
If anyone has the chops, the experience and the cool confidence to handle major changes in direction, it’s Wen. She’s a veteran of film – including all-time classic The Joy Luck Club – and TV – everything from ER to sitcom’s like The Single Guy and Two and a Half Men (although before S.H.I.E.L.D. she was probably best known as the iconic voice of Mulan in the Disney film of the same name, a character she reprised in the film’s animated sequel and continues to play in appearances on current shows such as Sofia The First). Regardless, Wen is happy to confirm her real-life status as a proud nerd, making her time playing Chun-Li in the big-screen Street Fighter adaption, her role on Stargate Universe and her career-defining recent years on S.H.I.E.L.D. genuine labours of love.
“Growing up, I loved Star Wars. The Force was one of my religions… I was Buddhist and I believed in The Force,” she says with a laugh. “I read science fiction novels. I was president of my science fiction club. I even played Dungeons & Dragons!”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season five airs on Channel 4 on Sunday 4 March 2018.
What it like to be greeted with a raucous ovation in Madison Square Garden at New York Comic Con?
I mean, it’s Madison Square Garden! It was such a thrill to think, “Okay, we’re in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, where everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Beatles and the rock stars of the world have gone through those hallways.” I was pretty keyed up about that. How often is it going to happen where you have a huge audience in Madison Square Garden out to cheer you on? So I had to do it – something possessed me and I threw on my sunglasses and hit my rock star pose. My castmate Iain [De Caestecker] was like, “Really? You’re gonna go out like that?” I’m like, “Yes, I am.” Check one off the bucket list.
If there’s anything to learn from that scene, it’s that the nerds of yesterday truly are the rock stars of today, right?
It’s kinda cool. I’m loving it. The fact that we have that level of success, not just in the film industry but in so many other forms; it’s the success stories of nerds. Whether it’s in the science field, or whether it’s winning a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s astounding. In a way, most of us are nerds, you know?
I love Stranger Things, not just because it’s science fiction, but it’s great and the cast is amazing. The Duffer Brothers grew up just how I grew up, where they never felt as if they fitted in and were outcasts, but were passionate about the stuff that they loved. If you watch Stephen Spielberg’s documentary, you find out that even he was also like the nerd and the outcast and he was bullied. You almost start to feel like there’s more of us than what we imagined to be the cool kids.
You were clearly aware of comic books from an early age. But were you familiar with the source material behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before joining the cast?
No, I didn’t know about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at all. I knew about the Hulk, I knew about the Fantastic Four, I knew a lot of characters in the Marvel world from reading the comic books or watching the cartoons growing up. But at that point I was mixing all my DCs and my Marvels, you know? I knew about the difference between DC and Marvel but loved both – different characters from both comic worlds. I guess now because I work for Marvel, I’m not supposed to say but I still thought the Wonder Woman film was pretty damn cool. Sorry! [Laughs] It’s just the appreciation of art.
It’s amazing how quickly you can go from embarking on this new role in unfamiliar territory to looking back at four seasons of playing Agent Melinda May. And you’ve worked with so many talented people during the past four years…
One of the saddest parts is having worked with some amazing people and icons that I grew up on, like Powers Booth. He was just one of the loveliest men I have had the fortune to know. He truly always had this positive energy and this great ability to make you feel so special and boost your morale about your art form, about what I do as an actor and it was just tremendous. He was just such a wonderful man. My heart was broken when he passed away.
Same with Bill Paxton. I went to both of their memorial services I just cried my heart out at each one. Bill was an absolute shock, his passing. It was just like two weeks before that he had come into our studio because he was shooting Training Day and we were both on the same lot. He popped by with some of his crew members and was joking around with us. Every time you see Bill he brings a party with him. Just so full of life. So much energy. It’s very tragic. I feel very fortunate to have worked with both of them.
Then there’s Patton Oswald, Jason O’Mara, BJ Britt… so many amazing people that have come onto the show.
What about the period when Marvel really was “all connected” and you were visited by players that were established elsewhere in the MCU? Good times?
Oh, I loved it. When we had Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, it was so fun and exciting and he was amazing. That stands out, same as when Cobie Smulders appeared as Agent Maria Hill. It was just fantastic to have those characters, like Jamie Alexander as Lady Sif, because we did then feel like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was much more connected with the cinematic universe of Marvel.
When S.H.I.E.L.D. was completely disbanded [in Captain America: Winter Soldier], it definitely severed some of those ties we had because we’re not supposed to exist anymore. But that’s okay because I think it really helped us to establish the whole other storyline about having to be this clandestine organisation who is still trying to fight evil and do good without having our S.H.I.E.L.D. logo slapped on everything.
Even as the cast has changed over the last four years, the chemistry between all of you has been obvious, both on and off the show. Are there any dynamics between the performers that have been written into the show?
I think so, especially between Clark Gregg [Phil Coulson] and Chloe Bennet [Daisy Johnson]. They have a very father-daughter relationship and that’s definitely off-set as well. Then there’s that thing of us being like the family, the triangle, with me being the distant mother. I’ve got two kids of my own, you know? It’s enough! [Laughs]
You’re more like a cool aunt.
Yeah! [Laughs] I think a lot of other relationships that the writers see, they always try to bring some elements of it into the show. Like if they see that somebody has a great sense of humour or is really gentle, like Elizabeth Henstridge [Gemma Simmons]. She’s so lovely and angelic and there’s a strength to her as well. I think that they’ve brought some of that out in her character.
The only one I would say that they don’t utilize is me, ever, because May always has to be so serious. I mean literally today I just got my note again. I thought I was playing these lines as deadpan and as unemotional as possible, and then all of a sudden I get the note that says “Ming-Na, even less. We need even more May.” I’m like “really?” [Laughs]
What you really need is an identical wacky cousin who you can also play.
That’s awesome! She needs to have a twin who is completely quirky, laughs a lot, is clumsy, and a total nerd. Yes. And afraid of everything, you know?
Belinda. Her name has to be Belinda May!
I’m going to pitch that! Thank you MyM, I’m going to pitch it.
Last year’s ‘Framework’ storyline put you in an artificial reality where your biggest regret was erased. Yet the ripple effect caused even more tragedy. How does that realisation affect May now she’s back in reality?
The damage is done, I think, no matter the future consequences of what she did, what the result would be. I think for May, the mere fact that she had to kill a young girl was enough to cause a great trauma in her life. It affected her negatively in the way she deals with her emotions, no matter what the outcome. It was enough to affect her and shift her forever.
With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s action and special effects, you’ve portrayed a variety of Agent May doppelgangers over the years, from imposters to life model decoys. Does a shooting schedule so heavy on fight sequencing afford a lot of time to work out the subtleties of your performances?
There’s so little time because we have so much to shoot on any given episode on any given day. A lot of times, we are figuring it out the day before. We’ll reread the scene and sometimes we’re even on set and we’re questioning like, “Wait a minute, how did we get here?” It’s so complex, especially this season.
It’s difficult because we only get the script literally two days before we start shooting it and we don’t know ahead of time what’s happening with our characters. It’s not a movie where you know the beginning, middle and end then you can break it all down. Or a play where you could figure everything out – how this character evolves to this final moment. We’re constantly having to figure out each beat and each moment and sometimes, surprisingly, we’ll discover things right on set. Like, “Oh, wait a minute, now if I do this and tell you this then A leads to B leads to C.” So then you’re like, “Oh yes, that sounds great, let’s do it that way!” Sometimes there are a lot of great discoveries that happen right in the moment.
It’s weird, but the one great thing about working with an ensemble for this many years is we have a lot of shorthand as far as communicating with each other, when it comes to our processes or our techniques. Then other times, it’s frustrating because sometimes we can’t get from A to B and we’re kind of stuck for a little while. It’s a constant problem-solving situation for us on set.
This is our fifth season of seeing Agent May and the team run through 22 action-packed episodes. Is there any other part of your character’s lives that you’d like to see at some point?
Sure, like what they do for fun, you know? Casual Friday, whatever. I mean, there was this final scene in Season Four where we were all at a diner, eating. All of us were like, “Oh my goodness, how many scenes have there ever been with us just having a meal?” Almost next to zero.
It’s true, none of you eat or use the restroom…
And we never, ever sleep. [Laughs] I would love a couple of episodes where they’re doing somewhat normal things. Some of our flashback scenes did incorporate a little bit of May’s home life with Andrew when she was married to him, and I cherish those moments because it really shows them as human beings rather than these superheroes. It might not be as exciting but I think it would be fun.