(Feature Image: Michael Buckner/Variety)
Over the better part of a century, Disney Princesses have grown from being passive figures in their own stories to fully-fledged forces to be reckoned with. This is perhaps most true for Fa Mulan, in the story of a young woman who proves she can equal – and even exceed – the talents of any man – in Disney’s 1998 film Mulan.
The role of this strong, yet amazingly refined character needed the likes of a confident yet grounded actor to pull off the role. Disney found exactly that in Ming-Na Wen. As the sub-series to our Disney Legends Spotlight series, we’ll explore the life and career of another of the talented women who have given life and personality to the princesses we’ve grown to love. Come with me to celebrate Disney Legend Ming-Na Wen.
A World Away
Ming-Na Wen was born on November 20, 1963 on the Chinese Island of Coloane, one of the two main islands of Portuguese Macau – in the most densely populated region in the world.
While she was still an infant, Wen’s parents divorced, and she moved – along with her mother and older brother – to Hong Kong. There, she attended a Catholic school, while her mother worked three jobs to feed her family. When Wen was four years old, her mother remarried to Chinese American Soo Lim Yee. Together, the family moved to New York City.
After five years, the family left the Big Apple and relocated near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, they opened the Chinatown Inn restaurant (which still serves guests to this day). Wen was raised in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon. She attended Mount Lebanon High School, and went to college at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, where she majored in Theater and graduated in 1986 with high honors.
For all the moving she did as a child and young adult, Ming-Na Wen is trilingual, being fluent in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.
Making a Splash in the Neighborhood
Wen secured her first television role while still in college, as a royal trumpeter in the children’s television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1985 (if you’ve ever visited Pittsburgh, you know how cherished Mister Rogers is there). It was a small part in a single episode, but it helped open doors to even bigger opportunities.
From 1988 to 1991, Wen played a recurring role in the soap opera As the World Turns, as Lien Hughes, the daughter of Tom Hughes.
Hitting the Big Time
In 1993, Ming-Na Wen struck gold when she starred in the Buena Vista film The Joy Luck Club, a drama film about the relationships between Chinese-American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers.
In 1994, Wen brought video game character Chun-Li Zang to life on the big screen in Street Fighter.
Hot off the heels of her two major film roles, Wen landed a recurring role in the massively popular hospital drama ER, as Dr. Jing-Mei “Deb” Chen. This recurring role eventually bloomed into a regular cast role later in the series.
Role of a Lifetime
Ming-Na Wen’s most iconic film role is one in which she never appeared on the screen. Impressed with her performance in the The Joy Luck Club, Disney selected Wen to voice the latest in a long line of Disney princesses – Fa Mulan. Wen embarked on a new facet of acting when she provided voice work for 1998’s Mulan, and the role has paid her back in spades.
Wen has returned to voice Fa Mulan in many other forms, including the film sequel Mulan II (2004), a cameo in the princess group scene in Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), the Disney television shows Sofia the First (2013-1018 – in which Wen’s daughter also voices a child – Princess Jun) and House of Mouse, and even video games (Kingdom Hearts and Disney Infinity).
When Disney revisited the heroic character for a live-action take in 2020, Wen was offered a cameo appearance as “esteemed guest.” The film starred a much younger Liu Yifei as the title character.
The Disney Universe
Make no mistake – Ming-Na Wen is no one-hit princess. The accomplished actor has soared to major roles in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the Star Wars Galaxy.
In Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series (2013–2020), Wen starred as Agent Melinda May, an ace pilot and weapons expert, who was also nicknamed “the Cavalry.”
When Marvel created the 2017 made-for-television animated film Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors, Wen took a turn on the villainous side as Hala the Accuser, the film’s main antagonist. In the film, Hala squared off against Kamala Khan, America Chavez, and several other notable heroes.
Wen’s success in the MCU led to her landing one of the coolest roles in Star Wars lore, as the bounty hunter, elite mercenary, and master assassin Fennec Shand. This ultimate “gray” character worked for the top crime syndicates during the age of the Galactic Empire, and first appeared as a menacing foe in The Mandalorian (2019–2020). There, Fennec struck up an alliance with the notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett, and assisted the bounty hunter-turned-crime-lord/regional-magistrate with his political ambitions in The Book of Boba Fett (2021-2022).
Fennec Shand entered animation – with Wen as her voice – in the series The Bad Batch (2021), which takes place in a previous point in the Star Wars timeline, before her live-action appearances.
Back on Earth, Wen made an appearance in Disney Through the Decades (2001), a short documentary about the history of The Walt Disney Company through the present (or at least, through 2001). Wen hosted the section highlighting the 1990s (fitting, since Mulan was released in 1998).
While most of Wen’s biggest science fiction moments came under the Disney banner, she made lots of noise in other sci-fi universes as well. She spent some time in the dark of night as Detective Ellen Yin in two seasons of The Batman (2004–2005).
Wen broke ground in the series Stargate Universe (2009-2011) as Camile Wray, the first openly gay character in the Stargate franchise.
Outside science fiction, Wen was a recurring cast member in the comedy series Two and a Half Men, playing the role of Judge Linda Harris – a supreme court judge and law professor who has a romantic relationship with Charlie Sheen’s character.
Reflection – A Remarkable Life
Ming-Na Wen received an Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Voice Acting, for her role in Mulan.
She received the ultimate acting honor when she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for television) in 2023.
And, of course, Wen was named a Disney Legend in 2019.
Sharp, determined, and downright talented, Ming-Na Wen gave new power to the Disney princess.
I hope you enjoyed this article in our series of Disney Princess Legends. Check out my previous article on Disney Legend Jodi Benson. If you’d like to reach out with a comment, please do so here, or on social at:
Follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to highlight more of the extraordinary people who have shaped Disney’s storied history.