Ming-Na Wen Reflects on ‘Mulan,’ Asian Representation in Hollywood

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?
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”

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