Ming-Na Wen reflects on Mulan, Asian representation in Hollywood
'I feel so disheartened sometimes when these questions are still being asked 30 years later'
With Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None on TV and the hit book Crazy Rich Asians and a live-action adaptation of Mulan heading to the big screen, is Hollywood on the verge of a breakthrough, or is this yet another blip? Entertainment Weekly looks into the state of Asian representation this week.
Ming-Na Wen, star of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the original voice of Mulan in Disney’s 1998 animated film, credits part of her success as an Asian actor to Hollywood’s interest in diversity when she started out. And yet, after breaking big with a starring role in 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, the first major Hollywood studio film to feature an all-Asian principal cast, Wen continues to see Asian actors’ visibility in flux.
It’s not that Asian actors are completely invisible; in fact, the number of Asian stars on the small screen has been ticking upwards since ABC’s one-two punch of Asian-led family sitcoms Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken went on air, according to Fusion’s most recent study that counted 7.1 percent of main cast members of Asian descent on network TV. But on the big screen, even Wen’s own film career tells a different story: The Joy Luck Club heralded a new age of Asian-centric movie-making, as mainstream Hollywood embraced casting Chinese women at the center of a story, a concept that once “frightened the movie studios,” but while Asian actors continue to appear in major studio movies, it’s rare to find one that stars an actor of Asian descent as the lead.
Even Wen’s current role on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stands out. Alongside Asian-American costar Chloe Bennet, who stars as Daisy, the pair play two of the few leading Asian roles in the current superhero genre, which has met criticism from fans of late over castings for projects like Doctor Strange and Marvel’s Iron Fist. (Marvel declined to comment.)
To Wen, Asian representation will always be an issue, but thanks to vocal fans and upcoming projects, “it’s all going in the right direction,” she says. Wen spoke with EW about where Asian representation stands — and what it takes to make sure the issue continues to move in the right direction.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There are two live-action Mulan projects coming up. One from Disney was announced last month to hit theaters in 2018, and one is reportedly being developed at Sony. How do you feel about the sudden interest in telling her story two decades after the Disney animated version was released?
MING-NA WEN: There’s nothing bad about it. I think it’s fantastic that there’s such an interest in all the various Disney animations that they have had, and that this is the one that they chose to put money into and develop. To do an animation that was based on a Chinese folklore and for them to go ahead and greenlight this, I mean, it’s all good. I’m very excited about it.
What do you think it means for Hollywood to pay attention to Mulan and to have an adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians on the way as well? Is this what change looks like, or is this a fluke instead of Asian representation hitting a crossroads?
I don’t think it’s a fluke. I definitely think that there’s been a lot more Asian representation in the entertainment field, maybe not particularly in film as much as in television, of which I am happy to be part of [laughs], but I think it is at a crossroads. On the one hand there are more Asian-specific stories being developed, but then on the other hand, there are still some sticklers to the old Hollywood ways. A lot of times the term “whitewashing” has come up, where they take a specifically Asian character or a character that has Asian [roots] and cast it with a white actor. I feel that there’s been many times where they’ve been proven that this choice is not profitable, especially with the instantaneous awareness of millions of people when something has been cast incorrectly.
Before we talk about the impact that fans have, especially online, let’s talk about your career. You’ve been in this business for more than three decades — do you remember how much encouragement you got when you entered the arena? What was it like as an Asian actor starting out?
You know, I feel like when you asked about the crossroads… [pauses] I feel so disheartened sometimes when these questions are still being asked 30 years later. For me, when I started in the business, there was this whole thing about non-traditional casting, about wanting to broaden their horizons, and I must have come into the business at the right time, been in the right place, because there was such interest in hiring someone of ethnicity. I don’t know why the momentum of that fell by the wayside, or if it was just the flavor of the year or the flavor of the month. I know I benefited from it.
And now? Does it feel similar today, as far as the roles available to Asian actors?
It seems to me that right now there are so many more Asians being represented especially in television, like I said, but also in movies, you’re starting to see more and more Asians having either a supporting role or just a small part. I’ve been seeing so many more Asians being represented in commercials, which means, to me, these advertisers are seeing that there is money to be made… Hollywood will go where the money is, so I’m encouraged when I see that. That’s very telling to me.
NEXT: “The whole reason why we’re in this business is to please our fans”[pagebreak]
You say Hollywood will go where the money is, but an argument that’s come up repeatedly is that casting an unknown Asian actor doesn’t make sense when bigger stars are proven box office draws. From your perspective, how can Hollywood make bank and make fans happy? Or is this an argument that no longer makes sense?
I mean it is a catch-22 situation, because they are gambling, and as a businessperson myself, I can understand that they want to hedge their bets and make sure that they’re doing everything they can to make a movie profitable. I have nothing against them for thinking that way, but it doesn’t make it any less infuriating when they use that as an excuse. [Laughs] If it’s not serving the story, and you have a fan base of people for a particular story that has come up in one way and you’re pushing it another way, it’s truly not serving the character and it’s not serving the story.
Because unless they give Asian actors the opportunity to be box office smashes by giving them roles, how are we going to be able to prove that we can be profitable, you know? That’s the catch-22. They’ve given [that opportunity] to African-American actors by the load, and once that avenue opened up and [Hollywood] realized, “Oh wait a minute, this gamble paid off,” they continued doing that. Well, they need to do that with Asian actors, and hopefully, fingers crossed, movies like [Crazy Rich Asians] will be the turning point. It’s kind of ironic only because I’m sure there’s been a lot of Asian stars in Korea and in China who are getting paid really well because they’re very profitable with the films they release. It’s really a matter of them allowing us that opportunity and taking that risk and hedging their bets.
What do you think about the idea that there aren’t enough Asian actors? At the Emmys, Master of None co-creator Alan Yang encouraged parents to give their children cameras instead of violins. Is culture holding Asian actors back?
I think that’s an old perception about Asian parents. So many of the ones that are having kids now are very modern, very contemporary and open-minded [about pursuing acting] and so for me, I’d like to break that stereotype. But I think that when people are beaten down enough or not given an opportunity to tell their stories, they give up. It’s a tough industry and so even if you have, you know, thousands of Asians going into this business, many of them will probably give up over time if they’re not given the opportunity.
What do you think is the reason behind why there haven’t been that many big studio films with Asian leads over the years?
Because either there’s not enough scripts out there or there’s not enough development or interest in Hollywood to want to develop these scripts, so they don’t get greenlit. It’s not a proven commodity, but ultimately, and hopefully that will change with time. The more involved Asians are in wanting to prove Hollywood wrong with their own films, the better. We need to bring our stories to life.
What nine times out of 10 makes a story successful is when the audience can connect to a story, and it’s universal. It doesn’t matter if there’s an African-American actor on screen or an Asian or a Latino actor. It doesn’t matter if it’s the story that will make you connect and make you feel something or make you laugh or make you excited and entertained. That’s what’s going to bring the audience in.
Let’s look ahead. What do these films need to make sure to do in order to keep things moving in the right direction?
Ultimately, [they have to] find the best actors for the roles, have a great script, and find the right director with the vision to tell that story. I mean, it’s just basic filmmaking. At this point, they have a built-in audience. That’s the beautiful thing about having a Disney classic, and even though Mulan is an old Chinese folk story, it is a great story, and it’s respected. A lot of Asians, including myself, want the Mulan to be Chinese just because it is so inherently a Chinese story. And you know, that’s gonna be a tough order for them, but I think that will be up to the powers that be to hire and cast the movies. And for myself, I certainly hope to make a cameo at least. [Laughs] It shocks me that so many [fans] still want me to play Mulan! Like, only if it’s Mulan: The Later Years. [Laughs]
Speaking of fans, how much impact do you think they have on casting? You not only have fans from Marvel, but also legions of them from your work as Mulan. How much impact do you think they have on the characters they see?
A lot. I think it’s really, really smart for the creators to pay attention, at least… The whole reason why we’re in this business is to please our fans. When I go to conventions, I see the reactions of women and men alike, and some girls actually shake and cry when they tell me stories about how much Mulan has influenced their lives and had such a strong impact in their lives. It’s profoundly moving for me. So I think it is important to not just gain new fans with the live-action adaptation, but really pay tribute to the fans that have been around for so long with the film and now have passed it on down to their kids and their families.
I mean, just from my personal experience, [representation] comes and goes, but right now… it’s all going in the right direction. And every so often, Hollywood stumbles and goes back to their old habits. The only thing you can do as a patron, especially if you’re Asian, is to not pay to support something like that. That’s all the power a fan can really have in the end.
If fans don’t show up, there’s no business.
Yeah, it’s show business. They throw in a lot of money and they want return for it. Sometimes they get it wrong, and it’s been proven at the box office with several films, so that’s why they’ll take notice. The big corporations need to pay attention to social media and what [fans] say.
If these films don’t work out, what do you think will happen? Does the “flavor of the month” pattern reset?
Not if we continue to create new and exciting stories. Not if we continue to have something for the producers and the development departments and production companies. It always starts with the written word. It always starts with the story, so if there are stories out there, then there will be interest, no matter what.
And then the other thing is as much as I’m Asian and I’m playing a character, the final, ultimate win in this situation is when the fans love the character, and it’s not because she’s specifically Asian or any ethnicity, it’s just because they love the character, and I think for me, as much as we talk about race and we talk about these issues, that is ultimately where you want to get to, that we’re colorblind, that we’re here to share in this communal experience and connecting [over the entertainment]. We need to do that with any good character or any good story.
So in other words, it all goes back to the writing?
Well, some of the acting, too! [Laughs] … And also, it’s not about being angry, but if anger is going to motivate you to make the changes, then by all means let that happen. Throughout my career, it’s always been about just finding the solution as opposed to just constantly focusing on the problem. if you’re frustrated, do something about it… I don’t think the issue will ever go away, I don’t think this topic will ever be equal, but getting a bigger piece of the pie is a good thing.
This is the second in a series of stories this week on EW focused on the state of Asian representation in Hollywood. Read the first, on how the industry’s approach to Asian actors is at a crossroads, here.