One-On-One Interview With Ming-Na Wen Regarding AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

In the following one-on-one interview, actress Ming-Na Wen sits down to discuss her role as agent Melinda May on ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. What one might not suspect from a woman playing as stoic a character as May is, is just how funny and laid back she really is.

Interview © and Conducted by Edward Gross

Spend half an hour with Ming-Na Wen, a woman who obviously loves to laugh and is more than willing to embrace the geekier side of life, and you find yourself pondering how she is able to pull off the role of the seemingly emotionally detached Melinda May on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. week after week.

The answer? It’s called acting for a reason.

Prior to kicking ass to maintain our freedom (that’s right, May is kicking ass for you!), Ming-Na Wen was best known on television for her roles in such shows as ER, Stargate Universe and Eureka. It is, as we discovered, with S.H.I.E.L.D., however, that she has perhaps made her strongest connection with geekdom, simultaneously serving as a role model of sorts for girls seeking a hero to look up to. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: I recently interviewed Brett Dalton and part of the conversation with him was the fact that Ward as a character has sort of been slowly stripped of his emotions, of his humanity, in terms of the way he's reacting to everything. Whereas May suddenly seems to be gaining her emotions and her humanity. Does that make sense?

MING-NA WEN: Yes, but what I really like is that for Season 3 you'll definitely see May struggling more with finding the dynamics of whether she wants to continue on doing what she normally does, or incorporating more of her personal life back into her life. That is a struggle for her, because in order to have a personal life, you do need to have more vulnerabilities and the ability to connect emotionally with people. I think that will be her struggle. She'll still do it May-style. I don't think suddenly she's going to be the happy, bubbly, loving, cuddly woman. I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen!

It's very interesting for me to explore a character like this, because the last two years has been almost a constant struggle for me to really get into her skin and understand someone who is so detached from her feelings. I cry at the drop of a hat. I'm so emotional. To have to bottle all that in and play a character that has all these emotions, but just can't show them, or chooses not to engage with her feelings, because of her Post-Traumatic Stress syndrome, being a wounded soldier is challenging. It's fascinating to play, and I have to trust that as long as I'm feeling it on the inside, somehow that gets conveyed through the cameras. But otherwise, yeah, I'm dying to play someone who is going to cry. Maybe May and Simmons should switch characters for a day, somehow.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: The season two episode “Melinda” went a long way in just those couple of scenes to explain why she is the way she is, I thought.

MING-NA WEN: Yeah. I really appreciated that episode, because it had been a year and a half of working with the character and not really knowing the specific backstory that she had. To finally be able to have that revealed to me and the audience, it was wonderful to have it received well, and really get a chance to see who she was before that happened to her and really altered her personality and her core being. I don't think anyone can really fully recover once they've kind of gone to the other side. All they can do is, day-to-day, figure out better coping mechanisms to handle it.  I think in this season with May, that's going to be part of her healing process: To really figure out what it is that she wants out of her life that will make her happy. Maybe she just wants to punch people in the face and that will make her happy?

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: That does make her happy.

MING-NA WEN: Yeah, I think it does. Especially when it's Hydra and the bad guys. So Ward ... be careful!

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: You guys have had a couple of good skirmishes. It will be fun to see another one. Speaking of which, they've upped it with the choreography, the fighting. In the season two finale, the fight between Ward and Bobbi, that was one hell of a well choreographed fight; really strong stuff.

MING-NA WEN: Yes. Yes, very strong stuff. Really brutal, you know? That's what I love about Marvel, too, because it's just the equality between a man and woman. You would think that it would be kind of gruesome to see a man beating up a woman, or the woman fighting back, and it's not. It's kind of a rare thing to really have a show where that dynamic is not something that makes people cringe. They look forward to it. They get excited about it, because the female characters are just as strong as the male characters. I really appreciate that, and I think for a lot of the women who watch our show, they love it. They just love these strong female characters.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: When you read a script like “Melinda,” what is your response as the person who's playing this character? Is it just kind of like, "Oh that's cool," or is it, "Yes! I finally get a revelation here!"? What is it like when you read a script like that?

MING-NA WEN: Oh, it's a complete gift for an actor. I'd been forewarned about it, maybe about a week or two beforehand that this episode was coming up. I was full of anticipation, because it's been such a long buildup that I worried it wasn't going to meet my expectations of what happened to her in Bahrain. When I read it… well, being a mother myself and the idea that May had to kill a young woman and kill her mother… Whew! While she was in the hopes and dreams of becoming a mother herself! That really spoke to me, incredibly, about what she must have gone through and how traumatized she was from that experience.  It's also about a woman choosing to do her job effectively, as opposed to choosing her maternal instincts about what's right and wrong. At that moment she just felt that no matter who was in front of her, whether it was this little girl or a massive alien, it was someone that was a major threat to society and a major threat to her co-workers. So she chose her job and her duty, but unfortunately the consequences were intense.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Oh, absolutely, and somehow she remains so strong. You know, when we were talking a minute ago about the kick-ass fights, this wasn't kick-ass, but I thought it was a kick-ass moment in the finale where Skye goes to fight you. She’s ready to kick some ass, but you don't even flinch. You just throw out these hands and block her effortlessly.

MING-NA WEN: I'm so glad you noticed that. We loved that moment, too, in the choreography. We have an incredible stunt team: Matt Mullins was our choreographer, Tanner Gill was our coordinator. It was so fun to do.  A fight scene shouldn't just be a lot of punching and throwing people around, and explosions. Like the music that you listen to, it has to help to enhance the storytelling. It has to help to move the dynamics of these two people, or any characters together. That was the fun ... I'm so glad you brought that up, because for us, those are the little nuggets of telling another story within that fight scene, about those two characters. So yeah, it was great, because you know, May is just like, "Really?" Of course, Skye had to cheat and use her powers, you know. That little brat.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: One of the frustrating things for me as a fan of S.H.I.E.L.D., was that the first 11 episodes ... I know I'm going all the way back to Season 1 ... were so frustrating, because it felt like nothing was really happening. Then all of a sudden it kicked into gear with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, tying into it  and then all the way through the rest of that season and second season, just kicked ass. Did you view that as an opportunity to let loose, as well, when they were able to tie into Winter Soldier? And did that change the show?

MING-NA WEN: It did. I think any show has their growing pains, and especially the first season, I believe our executive producers and our entire writing staff, everybody's hands were a little bit tied, because there was this agenda, which we didn't know about. They didn't tell us that it was going to be so tied into Winter Soldier, so there was a lot of logistics that they had to work around timing-wise. That certainly doesn't help, I don't think.  At the same time, I think they did help to develop the relationship between the first six main characters and what S.H.I.E.L.D. was about. In a way, even though the pacing was a little slow and the expectations were different than what the audience wanted for Marvel, ultimately that was hard, and understood, I think that's the process of any show: to just keep developing creatively. At least we were heading in the right direction!

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: The problem is the audience today has the attention span of a gnat, basically, so that if you lose them early on ... The ratings obviously haven't jumped back up the way they should considering the quality of the show.

MING-NA WEN: I've been around in the business long enough; you know that. It's completely out of our hands. I just hope that as long as we stay steady, or the fact that we do gain more viewership, that’s the important thing. I know internationally, it's also been a very popular show, which is wonderful. That whole dynamic has changed in television. It used to be countries outside of the US had to wait three years, five years before a series even gets to air on their networks, and now it's almost airing simultaneously. So that's completely changed, and then we also have things like Netflix and iTunes, where people can stream and catch up. I definitely think our show, when you stream it, ties together even more.  If you think about shows like Breaking Bad, where over time the reputation and word-of-mouth just brought it to such a cult classic status, it would be fantastic if that happened.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: It’s pretty well known that you’re a geek girl. What are the things that get your geek on? What are the things that you feel you geek out most about?

MING-NA WAN: Whether it's meeting one of my idols, or hearing news. Every time I see a little news thing about Star Wars, I get super excited. I don't know, I've been going to more of these Comic-Cons, so I meet these iconic figures that I grew up with. Recently, I just met William Shatner; coolest thing in the world. That kind of stuff makes me geek out just a little. One of the things that I love about going to these Cons are these fans are so excited to see me. It's like, "Wow! Thanks!" It's lovely; especially when it's young girls. That's what's so great about our show, too, that it just spans such a wide age range of people, male and female. I remember there was this one older gentleman, and he's only probably maybe in his late 60s, but he came up to me and he was, like, "I'm so sorry, but I know I'm probably too old, but I just love your show. I love your character. Big fan. Thank you so much for entertaining me all those hours!" I was like, "No, that’s the coolest thing I’ve heard! Thank you!"

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Forget the writers, forget the fact that you guys don't find out anything in advance ... If you were in charge of this, what direction would like you to see May go in?

MING-NA WEN: I would love to be able to see her being more vulnerable and be able to have a relationship with someone again, the way she had with Andrew, and be able to fulfill that part of her life. I think for me as an actor, that would be great. We were just doing some scenes yesterday and I was, like, "Well, couldn't I just ...?" Every time, I'm always trying to throw in a little bit of Ming, you know? "Couldn't she say this like a little funny, a little like ... ?" And they're, like, "Uh-uh, no. No, you can't." They like May to say it straight; just be May. Ming, be May. Less Ming, more May. I always get that note, because I'm always trying so much. I'm always laughing and making funny jokes, and getting emotional about things on set, and then I have to really get into the right mindset ... After a long hiatus, you know, sometimes it's really, really hard. Maybe by the fifth season she'll be able to soften up a little bit. But still be able to kick Ward's ass.


Speaking of William Shatner, available for pre-order right now is Volume One of Fifty-Year Mission, the definitive oral history of Star Trek featuring the comments of over 300 people, which is to be published by St. Martin's Press and is co-written by Ed Gross.

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