CMU grad Ming-Na Wen stands up for herself, on and off screen
Meet Pittsburgh's ruling Ming dynasty.
Unlike the one that ruled China from the 14th to 17th centuries, this dynasty's dynamic ruler has tied together a regime that governs with a majesty all its own.
These days, actress Ming-Na Wen, who moved to Mt. Lebanon when she was 11, favors the sci-fi fiefdom of fun and fame.
“I've always been a sci-fi geek,” says the Macau-born actress, who lived in Hong Kong and New York before moving to the Steel City. “I was president of the Sci-Fi Club in high school, and ‘Star Wars' was my religion.”
She has been blessed with a sinfully rich bevy of sci-fi acting roles over the years, including in “Stargate Universe” and “Eureka,” as well as the animated “Milo Murphy's Law,” which debuts Oct. 3 on Disney XD.
Her latest claim to fame is as the agile agent Melinda May of ABC's “Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the comic book-based sci-fi adventure. Season 4 got under way Sept. 20, when her character was introduced to the hard-driving, too-hot-to-handle Ghost Rider, aflame with passion and persistence.
Will May possibly hitch a ride with Ghost Rider for a trip to Pittsburgh?
“Sounds like it could be fun,” Wen says. “And since he loves hot things, I'll get him some great Szechuan food. He can try the egg rolls at the Chinatown Inn. They're the best in the city.”
She should know. Wen's family owns the restaurant on Third Ave‑nue, Downtown, where she worked while a student. But she never intended to be part of that family business for very long.
“I had an amazing role model in my mother,” she says of Lin Chan Wen. “She escaped communism (fleeing Suzhou, China, for Macau), and she taught me the life lesson to stand up for yourself when no one else will.”
That life lesson came in handy when Ming-Na Wen felt the sting of stereotyping at Carnegie Mellon University during her junior year.
“I was always relegated to smaller roles,” Wen says of the anti-Asian bias she perceived. “My parents' money (for tuition) was as valuable as any other's, and I deserved an equal education.”
Her complaints got the ear of Professor Mel Shapiro, head of the school's theater department, who quickly re-staged Wen's theatrical opportunities with an eye to blind casting.
“He became my mentor, and I still stay in touch with him,” she says of Shapiro, who is now professor emeritus of the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA. Wen graduated from CMU in 1986.
Even with a major in theater at CMU, Wen, ever the good daughter, obliged when nudged by her mother to go into medicine. Of course, it wasn't the kind of medicine her mother had prescribed, but her daughter did become a doctor — on NBC's “ER.” Her portrayal of Dr. Chen injected a major boost in the actress' visibility during her intermittent six-year stint on the long-running series, which debuted in 1994 and concluded in 2009.
“My mother was quite proud of me when I got that role,” says Wen, who had a breakout part in “The Joy Luck Club,” a 1993 film that explored the relationship between modern-day Chinese women and their Old World-style mothers.
Wen also has lent her voice to a number of animation projects, including the title character in the movie “Mulan” (1998), for which she received an Annie Award. Her role focused on a barrier-breaking Chinese feminist during the Han Dynasty.
On “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Wen's character is tough, physical and no-nonsense.
“Our show, playing at a later time (10 p.m.) than before, is in a darker place than it had been,” she says.
What better opportunity, then, for her quirky sense of humor. “The more seriousness on the set, the more I try to keep things light,” she says.
Sometimes, her director has to pull her back from pranks.
“Yes,” she says with a raucous laugh, “sometimes he'll say, when I'm getting into character, ‘Let's have more May, less Ming.' ”
Michael Elkin is a Tribune-Review contributing writer, an award-winning arts writer and playwright, as well as author of the novel, “I, 95.”