By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 08, 2020 at 10:15 AM EDT
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Warning: This article contains spoilers for Mulan.

In the new live-action MulanYifei Liu makes her mark as the legendary warrior. But before the role belonged to her, it was enshrined in our cultural memory by Ming-Na Wen, who gave voice to the character in the 1998 animated feature film.

Though Disney's new take on Mulan comes with a lot of changes (no songs! no Mushu!), it welcomes back a familiar face voice for an epic cameo. Near the end of the film, when Mulan is presented to the Emperor (Jet Li), she's brought to his throne by an "Esteemed Guest": none other than the original Mulan, Ming-Na Wen herself.

"I like being esteemed," Wen quips to EW, referring to how her brief role is credited. "[Director Niki Caro] and [producer Jason Reed] came up with this brilliant idea of  this cameo where the animated Mulan is passing the torch to the new Mulan.  I thought it was  the exact special Easter egg for all our fans."

Wen has been a key part of the Disney family since 1998. Since the original Mulan, she's since gone on to feature in a wide variety of Disney properties from voices in Phineas and Ferb to seven seasons on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to a memorable one-episode stint as a bounty hunter on the first season of The Mandalorian(As to whether she'll return for this fall's season 2, she coyly replies, "I'm really excited to see season 2 Mandalorian. I'm such a huge Star Wars fan, and how fantastic that I was part of season 1. And gosh, are we running out of time?")

Jasin Boland..© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

But for so many fans, she will alway be Mulan. So, from the moment Disney announced the film would be getting a live-action update, Wen vocally expressed her wish to make a cameo. But it almost didn't happen. Wen was tied up in Los Angeles filming Agents of SHIELD, while Mulan was filming thousands of miles away in New Zealand. At the eleventh hour, she was able to get a week away from the Marvel series to travel to the New Zealand set with her daughter Michaela.

The trip was shrouded in secrecy, with Wen forced to stay off social media and not take a single photo suggesting she was even in the country. Wen's used to keeping production secrets, having been "Marvel-ized," as she puts it. But once there, she says it was a "whirlwind" of costume fittings, hair and make-up tests, set visits, and shooting.

Jasin Boland. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Eagle-eyed fans will note that Wen's look bears a strong resemblance to the animated Mulan's formal attire, complete with make-up and lopsided bun. "Niki had this fantastic idea to want to make me look as much as the animated Mulan is possible," remembers Wen. "We thought she was crazy. But then the make-up and hair people worked their magic. They got the red ribbon; they got her lopsided bun on my head. It was great."

Wen's spent 20 years carrying the banner of Mulan, interacting with fans. "It was incredibly surreal and so much fun to see this animation that I've been a part of for over two decades come to life," she gushes. "With the throne room and all the characters, it was really magical. For me, it was really just being present and representing where it all began with Disney."

It wasn't only an opportunity to see this animated world come to life, but a chance to see her culture celebrated on-screen by a predominantly Asian cast — something she notes is still rare nearly three decades after her break-out role in The Joy Luck Club. "We were all very excited to be there," she says. "It's really rare to work on a major Hollywood studio epic movie with a large Asian cast. Those experiences are so few."

Like many fans, Wen admits she was skeptical when reports first came out that this new adaptation wouldn't have the songs that helped make the 1998 film a hit, nor the wise-cracking sidekick character of Mushu the dragon. "When they first told me that there wasn't going to be Mushu, there wasn't going to be any music and singing, I was just like, 'What? That's a huge part, what are they doing?,'" she says. "But then when I found out that it was because they wanted to really take the true folklore and transform it into something that has greater gravitas, [I loved it]. I love the passing of the torch. People who want to hear the music can go back to the animated film. People who want this more mature interpretation, this epic film is the experience for them. They both have their own identity."

For Wen, the live-action update exceeded her expectations. But she was still nervous about how her cameo would play. "I was secretly nervous about that moment," she admits. "I have so much make-up on and then all that silk, I was like, 'I don't know that anybody's gonna recognize me.' But the reality is, even if they didn't recognize me, they would've recognized my voice."

She needn't have worried — at the world premiere in March, her cameo was met with the loudest cheer of the night. "It was just so heartwarming," she says. "Because I have been with the Mulan fans for over two decades. I've been at conventions where I've seen moms bringing their daughters and their sons to meet me, to tell me you know how the movie had inspired them or touch them. There's no words for the kind of perks that my job offers when it's that kind of connection with fans."

Mulan is now available on Disney+ at a premium rate.

Related content:

Mulan (2020 movie)

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