The core premise of ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is that although you know the big names in the Marvel superhero universe — the Iron Mans, the Thors, the Hulks, the Captain Americas — there’s a vast infrastructure of highly specialized agents protecting the globe, straddling the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Fans of the recent hit Marvel films will certainly know Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and they’ll recognize at least one “Avengers” figure in the pilot (it’s not being kept a secret anymore, but I’m not going out of my way to spoil anything here).
Within the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., though, Ming-Na Wen’s Agent Melinda May is a legend, though we don’t immediately know why in the pilot, which premieres on Tuesday (September 24) night. We know she has a notorious past and that she now appears to be working a desk job within Coulson’s team. It emerges very quickly, though, that when the situation requires, she still has “it,” even if we’re only starting to learn what “it” is or why she put “it” on the shelf.
A veteran of “Stargate: Universe,” “E.R.” and “The Single Guy,” Ming-Na Wen is also one of the better known stars in a “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” cast dominated by relative unknows.
Last week, I got on the phone with Ming-Na to discuss crafting a character whose backstory is full of unknowns, her early experiences with being a part of the Whedonverse and whether or not she includes the periods in her show’s title when communicating with friends.
Click through for the full conversation…
HitFix: We get the sense very early on that Melinda May is legendary or notorious in this world. How much were you told up front about her exploits?
Ming-Na Wen: Not very much, just so you know! I’ve been given a couple of background stories about her, but whether that will reveal itself in later episodes is yet-to-be-seen, but it’s certainly something that I believe Joss [Whedon] has had rolling around in his head, so I’m gonna go with it.
HitFix: What challenges does that present for you as an actor, to know that this is a character who is, obviously, respected in her field, but maybe not to necessarily know why?
Ming-Na Wen: It’s a challenge in different ways. I think, at this point, I really am starting to know who she is and the stuff that I use to help me understand what could have happened to her to have brought her out of the field and into a desk job, I think we’ve all pretty much experienced that. So I use some of my own personal experience where we’ve been scarred or we’ve been greatly disappointed or we’ve had the wind knocked out of us and we kinda think that we should just give up, but ultimately Colson gives her a second chance and realizes that her assets and her talents shouldn’t be wasted. Sometimes that’s all you need, you need just that one person to kinda draw you out of it and encourage you and that’s what friends are for, that’s what comrades are for, so I draw from my own personal experience. Because as an actor, we don’t get knocked down very often. [She laughs.]
HitFix: Is this specific world — the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the world of Marvel — a world that you’re versed enough about that you can make things up in your head for a backstory?
Ming-Na Wen: Aside from the whole Nick Fury thing and all the great Marvel movies that have been out, I certainly didn’t have a lot of knowledge about this agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., but I’ve certainly grown up with the James Bonds and the superheroes and I used to love all sorts of animation, whether it be Marvel or anime or even something like “Josie and the Pussycats.” I’ve loved all forms of animation. I just kinda have to draw it out of the comic book world and really focus on playing Melinda May as a real character, because I think that’s the only way to distinguish us from the comic book world is to bring that to life, get them off of a two-dimensional page and get them into a three-dimensional reality.
HitFix: How does that extend to the action scenes? To making sure that we know that this woman kicks butt, but making sure she does it in a believable and relatable way, I guess? [She laughs.]
Ming-Na Wen: I train. I work out and I have great stunt coordinators and choreographers to help me through every step and with the magic of filmmaking and editing, it all brings about her skills, to another level. That has to be very believable and that was a great challenge for me, because I was a bit nervous about pulling that off, but after I saw the pilot, I was just like, “Oh yeah! We can do this!” I’ve seen some other stuff and I’m so excited that she’s looking badass.
HitFix: What has come easily for you and what has been hard for you within that realm?
Ming-Na Wen: For me, I think the hardest part is doing the actual stunts, the stunt-fighting. That’s a whole other thing. I’m not really punching out the stunt guy, nor are they hitting me, so it’s learning this dance, really, within the fight. It’s how to pull back, how to take a hit and make it look real. So that’s all new. As far as doing high kicks and being able to throw punches, I’ve had some training in the past, playing different roles whether it was Chun Li or just for my own pleasure of working out, the tae-bos and the martial arts stuff. I’ve had some training in that, but the actual stunt fighting? Yeah, that’s all new and I’m loving it, because I feel like I’m part of a very elite group of people with these stunt guys. They’re awesome.
HitFix: This was a show that was ordered early and you were cast way early. What did that time mean for you, both in terms of preparation, but also in terms of playing the waiting game?
Ming-Na Wen: Pure torture! I am so excited that the show finally airs [this] week. It’s just the waiting. You know? Waiting for the pilot to be picked up. Waiting to start shooting again. Waiting for the audience to see it. The first time we had the satisfaction of knowing that we had a show that people are going to like was during Comic-Con. That was surely a great culmination of waiting, for that moment. It was just fantastic.
HitFix: I was in the room for that at Comic-Con showing…
Ming-Na Wen: You were? Alright!
HitFix: The cheer for you when you got to have your big action moment was particularly loud. What did that feel like?
Ming-Na Wen: Coming from theater and then you start doing television work or movies where you don’t get that audience response, that was such pure joy for me. I think all of us, when we were standing around behind the stage, we didn’t get to see their faces, we just heard the sound and they were an audience and we were an audience backstage enjoying them. I love that. I love that synergy between being entertainers and having people respond. There’s no greater reward. That’s why I do this and it’s what I live for. So yeah. It was a great moment, especially because my family was in the audience, too. I think they had a wonderful experience. It was like, “Oh, this is what Mommy does for a living!”
HitFix: You’ve done shows that have had some really passionate fanbases, but have you gotten a sense yet of how it’s different to be part of the Whedonverse, to be followed by this sort of fanbase?
Ming-Na Wen: Well, I was a part of the Whedon fanbase, so I totally understand it. It’s the best fanbase to have. They’re loyal as long as you provide a high level of entertainment for them, as well as just appreciating them. I think that’s really important, because it’s such a smart audience and it’s such a loyal fanbase that you definitely don’t want to do anything that breaks their heart, in a way. So yeah, it’s definitely about really playing and satisfying a very astute group of people to relish, at the same time, their enthusiasm level. It’s so tantamount to just everything. They feel everything. They absorb everything. They watch everything and read everything, so it’s a very different crowd. You kinda get into their bloodstreams, I think. That’s how it was for me, being a fan of this world.
HitFix: As a last question: This is very important… If you are writing or texting to friends or loved ones about this show, do you include all of the darned periods in “S.H.I.E.L.D.”?
Ming-Na Wen: [Long period of laughter.] Oh gosh. I’d have to say “No.” You know, that’s five extra types! But yeah. They do stand for something! It is an acronym.
HitFix: Absolutely. I’m just sharing the frustration of being a writer and a headline writer who has to deal with this one.
Ming-Na Wen: See, you *have* to do it. [She laughs more.] We all have a job to do, Dan. You’re on a higher level of accuracy than I am in that area.
“Marvel’s The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” premieres on Tuesday, September 24 at 8 p.m. on ABC.