Ming Na-Wen Reveals How Her Cameo in the 'Mulan' Happened, As the Animated Classic Gets First 4K UHD Release [Interview]
When Ming-Na Wen first stepped into the recording booth in 1995, she couldn’t anticipate the legacy that Mulan would leave — becoming one of the most beloved Disney animated movies, and getting remade into a live-action film more than 20 years later…in which she would make a cameo that made social media explode. Nor could she anticipate that she would become one of the faces of the expanding Asian roles in Hollywood, with a career marked by firsts: first Asian actor cast in a regular role in a soap opera, first all-Asian-led cast in a major Hollywood film in The Joy Luck Club, first Asian Disney Princess.
“I think, definitely with this business, it was part luck, part timing, and maybe some destiny,” Wen told /Film in a Zoom interview ahead of the first-ever release of the animated Mulan on 4K UHD. “I think we’re all destined for something.”
And it seems that Wen was destined to appear in Mulan, both as the star in the 1998 animated classic, and in a buzzy cameo at the end of Niki Caro‘s 2020 live-action Mulan, in which she was “passing the baton” to the new Mulan, played by Liu Yifei. It’s a cameo that almost didn’t happen, Wen said, but thanks to director Caro and producer Jason Reed, and a quick-thinking hair and make-up department, Wen was able to make her cameo in a loving homage to the animated film.
Find out how the cameo came together in our full interview with Ming-Na Wen ahead of the 4K UHD release of the animated Mulan and the Blu-ray, 4K UHD, and DVD release on November 10, 2020.
The Mulan animated film is getting its first-ever 4K Ultra HD release right at the same time as the live-action Mulan comes to Blu-ray. When you first stepped in the recording booth in — what was it, 1997?
Well, long before that, it was…’95. We worked on that for three years. They worked on it for five years, with the pre-production stuff and the research and writing it. But yeah, I was with them for three.
So when you stepped into that recording booth in ’95, did you imagine that the film’s legacy would grow as it has today?
Definitely, not. I mean, I’ve always been a huge Disney fan. So I knew about you know, the potential of the Cinderella’s and the Snow Whites that is everlasting. But I really thought that Disney was taking a huge, huge gamble in creating an animation that was so based on a particular culture — in the Chinese culture — and have it be with all these Asian characters. At that time, you know, there hadn’t been anything except perhaps Joy Luck Club, and you know, some like big studio release projects that was all Asian or specifically Asian based. So I was just hoping that it would find an audience and I loved the story. And I think it was just a combination of great writing and amazing animation, and of course, all the actors voicing it. It just all came together and became a story that is still impactful to this generation.
When you came to that project, did you get to give your own insight into the film? Or did you just were able to step in and kind of take on the character immediately?
No, I was so new to this process. I’d never done voiceover work before. And, I had no idea that, you know, we did it alone. We weren’t working with any of the actors, that it was purely me and a reader. And I had no idea. I mean, they possibly had had a lot of the story written. I don’t know, I would just go in and do little segments at a time, and then they would animate it, and then I come back and do another segment over the years, then I would do a segment of their rewrites. It wasn’t until the second, or towards the end of the third year that I started seeing some of the rough drafts and rough animation. So no, I just provided the voice. I had no idea. I mean, it’s fantastic. It’s wonderful that Mulan is just a classic story now.
Your career is one marked by firsts — first Asian actor cast in a regular role in a soap opera, first all-Asian-led cast in a major Hollywood film in The Joy Luck Club, first Asian Disney princess. Was this something you set out to do when you started your acting career or did it just happen to fall in place?
Oh yeah, I had a crystal ball [Laughs]. I knew exactly what was going to happen! I don’t know, for me I just wanted to be an actor, and I felt like I had this passion and this desire. My mom said I was destined, I was born to do it because of the shape of my noise, for Chinese [people], my nose is a high bridge. I think, definitely with this business, it was part luck, part timing, and maybe some destiny. I think we’re all destined for something. So I’m just very grateful, I’m always extremely grateful for any job that comes along and any dreams that can come true. Because it’s a really tough business, especially if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re an ethnic woman, and especially now, if you’re an older woman. So I’m always very, very grateful.
Yeah, for example when you starred in The Joy Luck Club, I heard that your voiceover narration in the film got you noticed by the Disney team, which led to you being selected to voice Mulan.
Uh-huh, and because Joy Luck Club — and a lot of people don’t know it — it was Hollywood Pictures, but it was under the Disney umbrella. In fact, I feel like my whole career is dedicated to Mickey Mouse. Everything I’ve done thus far, except for maybe ER and a couple films, has always been under the umbrella of Disney.
And I think what was really funny was that when I got the job, I was really excited and happy about it. And then when I went in for one of my first recording sessions, once I found out that the character was 16, 17 years old, she was this young girl. I like created this young voice for her, where I was just like, up here a little bit, you know? And I remember the director Barry Cook and the producers, Tony Bancroft and Pam Coats, they were just like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m trying to create a voice.” And they’re like, “No, we hired you for your voice. So just go back to doing your voice.” So it made it a lot easier, that’s for sure.
So speaking of Disney and being under that Disney umbrella for quite a while with a lot of your roles. Apart from Mulan, what has been your favorite role in the Disney projects that you’ve been in?
I got the chance to participate in sort of a lifelong dream. I’m a huge Star Wars fan. And, you know, when I was younger, like I would always pray to God, Buddha and the Force — and I still do to this day. And so when I was able to participate in The Mandalorian as this character, Fennec Shand, let me tell you, that was an ultimate dream come true. And to be on Tatooine…it was just a breathtaking moment for me, as an actor, as someone who was that young girl who wanted to be in this world to suddenly be in this world. It was. I think it that would that’s my favorite, aside from Mulan.
I also want to give a shout out to your role in Agents of SHIELD as Agent May, because she was such a great role and, you know, one that is something that you’ve played before with Mulan, like that kick ass woman. But at the same time, one who is above 40. And seeing her being able to do all those kinds of roles with nuance, and with so much complexity was really exciting.
Oh, that’s great. Thank you. Yeah, I mean, prior to The Mandalorian, definitely getting to be part of the Marvel Universe was just ridiculous, you know, for a geek girl. And, and it’s been an incredible challenge, and a lot of fun to be Agent May. Because, you know, she had a lot of fight scenes. And I remember when I did Street Fighter, way back when, I was like, I will never do another action genre project again, only because, you know, it was very tough, and it requires a lot of discipline. And I was just like, I would just be an actress [laughs] in the normal realm. So little did I know, I would spend seven years being an action hero.
Yeah, I love Agent May, who I think, unlike Mulan, who was unsure of herself and had to discover who she was, she was this character who’s been through so much, and in a way still had to find herself again. So I guess in a way, it is kind of similar. They had lost themselves in some way or one had to discover who she was capable of being and the other one had to discover who she used to be, and bring some of that back.
Throughout your career, your roles have kind of reflected that evolution of how we’ve seen Asian roles grow on screen. You were in the Joy Luck Club, which was the first major Asian led ensemble film, but you also had your turn in genre shows, doing martial arts movies. And now you have become a Disney Legend. And seeing the gate open for even more Asian roles in the wake of Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, etc., both commercially and critically, how does that feel for you having seen your career almost be part of that evolution for Asian roles?
Well, I wouldn’t give myself that much credit. I appreciate that. I feel that it’s wonderful that there are more Asian Americans and overseas international Asian actors, as well as in the music, the K-pop craze, I think elevates the image — just like Crazy Rich Asians does — of Asians being sexy, being hip, being cool, glamorous. Because a lot of times, I still feel that we’re stereotyped into a very particular image of being the sidekick or the nerdier person or the good friend, or the doctor. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those as long as it gets work for people, especially Asians. But I think that there still needs to be more. We need to start producing and writing more, we still need to kind of tell our story, and keep it fresh and yet, at the same time, universal so that people can latch on to it — like Mulan. Even though it’s such a specific story about a young girl in China, it kind of transcends all that because it really speaks to any young person or anybody who is still trying to find the potential in themselves. So I’m hoping for more. I would like to see a lot more.
So I want to speak about Mulan, and specifically your cameo in the live action Mulan film. That was a very exciting moment for a lot of fans of the animated movie. Can you describe how it came about? Because it almost didn’t happen.
Yeah Jason Reed, one of the executive producers, and I had a chat about potentially having me be in one of the scenes. And in with my schedule on SHIELD, it was sort of difficult, especially because they were shooting in New Zealand and we film Agents of SHIELD in LA. And we tried the first time around, they were going to put me in a scene, I think, with the matchmaker. And I was going to be the potential mother-in-law in the scene. And at first, they thought that they only needed me for about a week. But then with weather conditions, and the difficulty of figuring out logistics, I mean, it’s really difficult to shoot such a big project. They said that they needed me for a month, just in case. And of course, you know, my producers, bless their hearts, they threw up their hands, like, “Man, we’re trying but that’s impossible. We can’t lose you for a month.” And I understood, so you know, I thanked Jason for trying and it just doesn’t seem like it was gonna work out.
And I’m not sure who came up with the idea, it was either Nicki or Jason or both, but they thought of this idea of putting me in this cameo, and have me present — like passing the baton — to the new Mulan, as this “esteemed guest.” And I thought that was wonderful. And for that, they only needed me to shoot for a couple of days. So it worked out, we were able to work around the schedule, it was very hush-hush. Nobody, not my cast, the crew, only my producers knew, and me, and that was it. I flew to New Zealand with my daughter, because Jason wanted my daughter Michaela to also participate, and it was very special. We got to be in New Zealand together, she took some time off from school, and it all worked out. And I’m so thankful the fans, they cried! I couldn’t believe it!
Yeah, there was a big outpouring of excitement for that cameo, especially on social media after Mulan premiered.
Yeah, I think it’s a great Easter egg. And I think it’s a great homage. It’s really all about the fans, and the fact that they loved it so much, it says a lot. And it means so much to me.
So they just threw the outfit that you had on together? Because that outfit was also a very deliberate homage to the animated movie!
It’s incredible! Literally this is what happened: Michaela and I landed, we got ushered to the set, hair and make-up, costumes. Well, first they did costumes. They already had it all designed and set up for us, it was all about the fitting. Threw all this garment on me, it was insane; threw garments on Michaela. Tucked this, did that, threw away that, tried something else. Then we were rushed out to hair and make-up and we had this really massive wig that [make-up and hair designer] Denise [Kum] had created for me. Did the make-up, Niki said no, too much, go back. We did a second hair-do, still too much. Then she finally said, “I want her to look like the animated Mulan.” They were like, “How?!” So we had a picture of Mulan when she was all [dolled] up to look her best, looked her most honorable for the matchmaker, and Denise somehow made it work. The hair and make-up department put this thing together that had this resemblance to that picture. I mean, we did that all in two days before we shot the scene. It was insane.
Oh my god, that’s amazing.
An insane mission!
So I’m assuming you got to see the final product in the live-action Mulan. What did you think of how that cameo worked in, and the overall film?
I loved it. I thought it was just spectacular, it was so beautiful, and breathtaking, and Yifei was incredible, and the whole cast. They were just wonderful. It was so beautifully shot. I thought it did such justice in telling a story, and made it stand on its own, and made it very different from the animated Mulan. They had the themes of the music in the score, but unfortunately with COVID, and unfortunately when they made the decision to stream it, it lost the cinematic beauty of that film. It needed to be seen on the big screen to appreciate the lushness of that film.
Speaking earlier, when you talked about Asian roles in front of the screen and behind the screen, and how there needs to be more done, are you planning to stick around with Disney and continue flying the flag there and using that platform to do these roles, or would you consider taking part in writing and producing that Asian-led content?
Yeah, in fact I have a producing deal with a studio. We’re hard at work creating a few projects specifically for that, and always looking. I’ve got about four projects that I’m hoping to nurse and baby, and move into making it happen. It’s not easy, but I’m working on it.
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