Since she was a child, Ming-Na Wen has been a “Star Wars” fan. “To this day, whenever I get on a plane,” she says, “I still pray to God, Buddha and The Force.”
And while might be cliché to open a profile of Wen by saying The Force is strong with her — when Lucasfilm’s own Dave Filoni invokes the phrase, it would be wrong not to do so.
Long before Wen was playing bounty hunter Fennec Shand on “The Mandalorian” or its spinoff “The Book of Boba Fett,” she and Filoni attended the same high school in a Pittsburgh suburb. And he says both have always loved “Star Wars.” Says Filoni, “Working with Ming-Na Wen has been full of surprises. The Force is definitely strong with her. Always has been.”
Other actors can boast about being part of the “Star Wars” universe or playing a Disney princess or having characters in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Universe. But few, if any, can lay claim to being involved with all of them in their career. And Wen isn’t just an actor — she’s a self-proclaimed fan. One who can’t stop grinning from ear to ear when she talks about seeing Mark Hamill on the set of “Boba Fett” and calls winning the Saturn Award, awarded to sci-fi and genre work, her Oscar.
“Can I show you proof of my geekiness?” Wen asks during a Zoom conversation before panning her computer camera to display a wall lined with action figures of her characters from the different fandoms. “And this isn’t narcissism, this is just me being so freaking excited. I still pinch myself; it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, I won the Golden Ticket.”
Adding to her many honors and achievements, Wen will be receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on May 30. And it’s an event she can’t quite wrap her head around. “I’m so honored but I don’t feel worthy of it,” she says. “I’m literally having anxiety dreams about it.”
When she started out, Wen briefly wondered if she should anglicize her name. Becoming a mother shifted her priorities from being so focused on career, and she hasn’t had a personal publicist in more than 20 years. So, while she feels a little strange having the spotlight on her, Wen also knows it’s about more than just herself.
“I have to take myself out of it and see the bigger picture of what this really means,” she says. “If someone is walking over that star and they see it’s an Asian American name, a Chinese name, what does that represent? How can it inspire others?” She points to the recent Academy Awards, where the Asian immigrant story “Everything Everywhere All at Once” swept the show. “We’ve come a long way, and thank goodness, because it’s been a long time coming,” says Wen.
Wen acknowledges that growing up, she didn’t see many names like hers on television or in movies. Born in China, she and her family moved to New York when Wen was only four years old. She started doing school plays and can remember being on stage in third grade and making people laugh. “That’s when I was hooked,” she says. A few years later, the family moved to the Pittsburgh area, which Wen describes as a culture shock.But Mount Lebanon High School also had an excellent theater program and then Wen was accepted into the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, where she majored in theater.
After working in New York theater and a three-year stint on daytime drama “As the World Turns,” Wen was cast in her major career breakthrough role. She played June Woo in “The Joy Luck Club,” the 1993 adaptation of the bestselling book by Amy Tan centering on the relationships between four Chinese American women and their mothers. Wen refers to the movie, a critical and box office hit at the time, as “my citizenship into Hollywood.”
The movie “opened up a whole other world that I didn’t realize existed, let alone was available,” she says now. “Everything from meeting all these other incredible Asian actors to this community that I didn’t even know about. I was living the dream.”
She also formed lifelong friendships with the three other actors who played the daughters — Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom and Tamlyn Tomita. Chao remembers her initial impression of Wen all those years ago. “From day one, on set and off, she exuded confidence and a great business sense,” recalls Chao. “In fact, my husband played poker with the girls off set and Ming cleaned them all out.”
Wen would absolutely be on board for Hyde Park Entertainment Group’s recently announced sequel to “The Joy Luck Club.” “It would be very exciting,” she says. “Although, if you get the four of us together, I don’t know if we’ll get anything done because we’ll be laughing so much.”
After “The Joy Luck Club,” Wen joined the cast of the hit series “ER” as Dr. Jing-Mei “Deb” Chen and became the first Disney princess of Asian descent by voicing the lead in “Mulan,” recently making a cameo appearance in the 2020 live-action adaptation. She joined other popular fandoms with roles in projects such as “Street Fighter,” “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and voiced Detective Ellen Yin in “The Batman.”
And then there’s her role as Fennec Shand, an integral “Mandalorian” character also seen in the animated series “Star Wars: The Bad Batch.” Though Filoni has long been involved with the ‘Star Wars’ universe, he made his live-action directing debut with episodes of “The Mandalorian.” Says Filoni, “Ming-Na and I would sit together and discuss each line, her backstory, where in the galaxy she had been, and where she might be going. She wanted to know everything about Fennec.”
In fact, Filoni reveals, “Originally the character of Fennec was going to die, but after working with Ming-Na we decided that couldn’t happen. She was too valuable to ‘Star Wars’ both on- and off- screen. We found a way for her to survive and I’m happy to say the character lives on.”
Wen pauses when asked about her biggest challenges before noting that playing talent agent Janet Stone on the hit comedy “Hacks” initially “terrified” her. “It had been a while since I’d done comedy and I was such a huge fan of the show,” Wen reveals.
Lucia Aniello, the co-creator, co-showrunner and director of “Hacks,” says that was part of the appeal in casting Wen. “On ‘Hacks’ we love to showcase actors in ways they’re not usually known for,” Aniello reveals. “We were looking for someone who had the gravitas of a ball-busting Hollywood heavyweight, and she came to set knowing exactly who this woman was. Maybe it was because she’s been in the business long enough to know these women, but it felt so perfect — banging tables, laughing with her mouth open — it was so fun to watch her be so free and play.”
In addition to her work as an actor, Wen is currently at work on a cookbook with Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The daughter of chefs, Wen was a foodie long before the term existed. “It’s going to also be a journey through my culture, my food and my family through all these dishes,” she notes.
But first, she’ll have to get through that star ceremony, something she still is struggling to accept. “I’m being honored in the most remarkable way,” she says. “And all I’m doing is living out my biggest nerd dreams.”
What: Ming-Na Wen receivesa star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
When: 11:30 a.m., May 30
Where: 6840 Hollywood Blvd.