Ready, Fett, Go: Ming-Na Wen talks suiting up for The Book of Boba Fett
The Book of Boba Fett (TV series)
Ming-Na Wen is the only person in history to complete the Disney trifecta: The 58-year-old actress has voiced a Disney princess (Mulan in the 1998 animated film), kicked butt as a Marvel hero (Melinda May on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and crisscrossed the galaxy as a Star Wars mercenary (Fennec Shand on The Mandalorian). So when the studio reached out about bringing Fennec back, this time as a series regular, Wen naturally said yes. She had assumed they wanted her for The Mandalorian season 3. It wasn't until well after she'd signed the contract that she discovered it was for something much bigger… and better. She would be headlining The Book of Boba Fett — a spin-off series that debuts Dec. 29 on Disney+ and follows Fennec and her infamous bounty-hunter boss as they infiltrate the galactic underworld.
"It's just blind trust with Disney and everyone at this point," the actress says with a laugh. "I've been with them for so long that I just figure I'm being taken care of."
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Wen has learned to trust the process. After all, she initially joined The Mandalorian for just a single episode. The ER alum brought a grit and gravitas to Fennec, a smirking assassin with a deadly eye and a deadlier background. But her character was killed off before the credits rolled. So when she learned on set that she and Mandalorian showrunner Dave Filoni attended the same Pittsburgh high school, she began campaigning hard for her resurrection. "I kept joking, 'You can't kill an alum, dude!'" she says. "'C'mon, we've got to figure out something here. There's gotta be nepotism. We're both Yinzers!'"
Eventually, Filoni agreed. He revived Fennec by explaining that she'd been rescued by Temuera Morrison's gravel-voiced Boba Fett (a character, as you'll recall, who knows all about returning from the dead, having been swallowed by a Sarlacc pit in 1983's Return of the Jedi). Now the very-much-alive pair are setting off on their own adventure. Like The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett picks up after the original film trilogy, as various rogues and rascals scramble to fill the power vacuum left by the fall of the Empire and the death of Jabba the Hutt. But if The Mandalorian is a planet-hopping, gunslinging Western, Wen describes Boba Fett as "more like a take on gangster movies" — less The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, more The Godfather.
"I feel like [Fennec and Boba] are bonded because both of them had near-death experiences," she explains. "They're both bounty hunters, and they do adhere to a certain level of respect and honor. He saved her, and there's a debt to be paid, and bounty hunters honor that debt."
Wen speaks of the Star Wars universe with the kind of nerdy reverence that can only come from a lifelong fan. Born on Macau off the southern coast of China and raised in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon, Wen spent much of her childhood living upstairs from her family's restaurant. She still remembers seeing 1977's A New Hope and identifying with Luke Skywalker's journey. "Those were my two worlds," she says. "And when you're a young kid, you really don't fit in either — especially being Chinese in a very white, suburban neighborhood. So when my friends and I went to see Star Wars, I was so immersed into this incredible folklore and sense of hope and being the hero of your own story."
Wen studied theater at Carnegie Mellon — her very first TV gig was a bit part on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood — and went on to star in The Joy Luck Club and on ER. But she always remembered the sense of wonder she felt encountering that galaxy far, far away for the first time. "There was just something really magical about that particular experience of seeing that film, to the point where the Force was my religion," she says. "I would pray to God, Buddha, and the Force. I still do when I get on a plane."
With The Book of Boba Fett, Wen has relished the opportunity to dive deeper into who Fennec is, from her dogged loyalty to Boba to the way she moves, foxlike, through the deserts of Tatooine. "Ming-Na brings such an incredible swagger," says executive producer Robert Rodriguez, who directed Wen on The Mandalorian and returns for Boba Fett. "[We had] something we called the 'Fennec look,' where sometimes I'd design scenes just to end on her giving Boba a look that spoke volumes. She's so great at that: her looks and glares and smirks."
Playing an elite assassin also involved extensive stunt work. After seven seasons on S.H.I.E.L.D., Wen was no stranger to complicated action scenes, but Boba Fett presented new challenges. Rodriguez remembers filming one sequence that required Wen to repeatedly stab a tiny control panel with a knife — all while wearing a helmet that limited her visibility. "I told her, 'It's such a small target, I'll need to edit to a tighter shot [anyway], so don't feel bad if you miss,'" the director recalls. "We were all amazed when, take after take, she'd stab at it and hit the mark every time. She's the real deal."
Bulky helmets and complicated stunts aside, Wen says she approached each day on the Boba Fett set with a kind of geeky glee. Growing up, she remembers drawing versions of herself as Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. Now those doodles have become reality.
"That dream and hope that I had when I was younger and wanting to be in a Star Wars project — that weird, fantastical nerd dream — it happened," she says. "That's the message I think [Star Wars] gets across: It can happen to anyone. It can happen to a farm boy on Tatooine, feeling like he has no hope whatsoever of getting off that planet. With Mulan, it's the same thing: She felt like she would never amount to anything except disappointment, and in the end she becomes the hero and saves China. It's those stories that I really believe in."
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's January issue, on newsstands Dec. 17 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
In this 'Star Wars' spin-off series, Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison) and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) team up to take over the late Jabba the Hutt’s criminal empire.