Ming-Na Wen Reveals the Story Behind Her Cameo in Live-Action 'Mulan' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
"The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all," the Emperor of China waxed poetic in Disney's 1998 animated classic, Mulan. It's a message of empowerment for the titular warrior princess within the movie, but more than 20 years later, those words can unwittingly be applied to the release of its live-action successor.
Originally set to open in theaters early this year, Mulan was postponed to summer due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then it was delayed again, before Disney announced it would debut on Disney+ instead. It's all a little bittersweet for Ming-Na Wen, who originally voiced Mulan.
"It's a little bit heartbreaking, because it's a beautiful film and it deserves to be experienced on a large scale," she tells ET. Then again, "It really is sort of the guinea pig of what might be the future. So, in a way it's exciting to see a very big movie being released through a streaming platform. I just hope everybody wants to share in that and experience this movie with their family and loved ones."
Her investment in the movie -- in which actress Yifei Liu stars as Hua Mulan -- isn't solely because of her legacy connection to the character. After years of playing coy, Wen can finally confirm: Yes, she has a cameo in Mulan. "When I came on set, there was a lot of whisperings of, 'Oh, Ming's here! Ming's here!'" she giggles. "It's all been so much fun."
Ahead of Mulan's streaming debut, Wen phoned ET last week to discuss her reaction to seeing the film for the first time, share her favorite Easter eggs and give the inside story of how her cameo role came to be.
How did you react when you first heard Disney was making a live-action Mulan?
I was very excited. I just love the idea of keeping this wonderful folklore going and extending it into live action. I've loved all the previous live actions that Disney has put together -- so Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella and Maleficent was amazing -- but when they said that they weren't going to have the music, I was kind of taken aback. Then I heard more about how they were going to re-visualize the Mulan folklore and create a bit more of a serious, real action movie, and I started to understand what they were trying to achieve. Because Mulan itself is a very serious folklore. I thought that that was a really smart approach for them, so that it's not a carbon copy. I think they know that there are such diehard fans of Mulan, the animated film, that it would be really tough to please everyone.
Over the years, had you heard discussions of a live-action Mulan before this? I mean, I love Yifei, but my goodness, would I love to have seen a production where you got to embody Mulan in the flesh.
Maybe Mulan: The Later Years! Maybe I can try to convince Disney. You know, being a Disney legend and all, maybe they'll listen to me more. I doubt it. [Laughs] But previous to that, Mulan has popped up here and there and in different tellings of her, but as a feature, this was definitely Disney's first approach to it.
Was the first time you saw the movie at the premiere back in April?
What was that experience like, sitting in the theater watching this Mulan that has ties to something so close to you?
Listen, for anything that has a large Asian cast, that's a big Hollywood movie-- I was in one with Joy Luck Club, and there have been other smaller, independent movies that have come throughout the years. But [the next] big major studio movie that was also really a moneymaker was Crazy Rich Asians. And I was thinking, "It can't be another 25 years before we have another one of these." So, it's really nice that it only took, like, a year and a half or two years for another big blockbuster movie to come out. And it was very joyous. We were all celebrating. I gave Yifei a big hug. I gave my friends, Rosalind Chao and Tzi Ma and Donnie Yen, big hugs. We were just celebrating, not just the story and this beautiful movie -- and that it was helmed by a woman, which I thought was important. And Niki Caro did an incredible job. It was a huge undertaking.
Your Mulan came out over two decades ago now, in 1998.
When I was 16.
Yes, exactly. Do you think there's a different meaning or significance to what this movie means coming out now in 2020 versus then?
For me, because I'm a mom now and I have a 19-year-old daughter in college and I have a 14-year-old son, it means more in the sense that they can take another sort of moment to appreciate and love their own culture more. Being Chinese American, that this is something for them -- as well as for everyone else, because Mulan's story is really universal. That was the biggest surprise that I've experienced being Mulan 22 years ago, is that it has lasted. It continues to inspire future generations.
There are moms that come up to me at these conventions with their daughters and sons. There are people from the LBGTQ community that are profoundly affected by Mulan's story and see a lot of them being represented when she cuts off her hair and dresses up as a boy. There's so many wonderful perks and impactful moments when you think a simple story -- of a girl discovering her potential and who she can be and believing in her heart that she was doing the right thing -- ends up having such an emotional reaction and a connection for the audience of so many generations. That I take away with me, and I'm hoping that this film will be as impactful.
Do you have a favorite Easter egg or callback in this Mulan to the animated version? Or something they adapted from that movie you particularly loved?
Gosh, there's so many. The scene with the snow -- that big scene with all the soldiers training -- Niki did a wonderful job of capturing some key visuals that were really amazing back in the day when they made the animation. Because when the Huns were coming down the hill, that was the first time they did CGI in that way, where all the Huns would look different, all the horses that they were riding on looked different, that was new. And it was so exciting to have been part of that, so those little moments. And her pose with the sword! Just little glimpses into what the animation had created was great. I do miss the boys dressing up though, but that's OK. [Laughs]
Was there something new to this version that especially moved you or surprised and excited you?
I think it was really cool when Mulan took down her hair and she fought with the long hair. That's the biggest contrast between the animation and this. I love that they changed it, because for the visual, there was just something extraordinary, very female empowerment and beautiful. And I just love that Gong Li's character and the hawk. You know, we lost Mushu, we lost Cri-Kee, but then they added Cri-Kee as a character instead -- one of the boys is named Cricket -- so that was kind of a cool reinterpretation of the animation. And I love the fact that Gong Li had the magical power of being able to transform herself into the hawk, those little brilliant touches like that.
Let's talk about your cameo. When did you get the call? Was it Niki [Caro] that called you?
No, actually it was one of the executive producers, Jason Reed. We were having a conversation about where we could do it, if it makes sense to do it. For me, because I'm such a huge fan of all this, I told him, I said, "Listen, the fans will freak. I think it's a great Easter egg for the fans." They were trying to work a scene in, but unfortunately that would have required me to be in New Zealand for a month, and I was shooting Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the time. My producers, bless their soul, they wanted so hard to make it work, but they just kind of looked at me with these pleading eyes, like, "We can't lose you for a month!" [Laughs] And I understood, so at first we all thought it wasn't going to work out, but then Jason and Niki came up with the best idea which was to have me have this cameo in the finale where I present Hua Mulan to the Emperor. And I just loved it. I thought that made so much more sense than just plopping me in a random scene. That it was me, the animated Mulan, passing the baton to the new Mulan. It was great, it was great.
I love that you're in the credits as "Esteemed Guest." It's perfect. It makes so much sense.
It's so perfect. Jason was so gracious. He knew that my daughter has done voiceover work and stuff, so we both went to New Zealand. And we had one week, John, one week to shoot that scene. Literally, I finished work on S.H.I.E.L.D. on a Friday, flew out with my daughter, we landed, went straight to hair and makeup and costumes, and they were throwing all these elaborate, beautiful garments on us. It was so ridiculous, like what a change. I'm always wearing black on S.H.I.E.L.D., and suddenly I'm in these luscious, beautiful silks and taffeta up the wazoo and peacocks everywhere. It was amazing!
And then we go to hair and makeup and they're throwing these massive wigs on me and putting all this amazing makeup on me and my daughter. She has a moment in it too. It was the craziest, best time in the world. And we went through three different makeup and hair tests in two days, because Nikki had a very specific idea of me sort of still looking like the animated Mulan. I was like, "You're kidding," but Nikki has that eye. She has that amazing eye, and it worked. The red ribbon. The little tilt of the bun. It was great. It was crazy, and I'm so thankful it all worked out.
The scene they originally tried to write you into, was it a similar moment of passing the torch? Or something completely different?
No, it was completely different. It was just, like, a scene that I was in. Not having read the whole script, I don't even know if it would have worked. I felt like it would've been forced in there a little bit, just so I could have a cameo. In a way I feel like the schedule conflicts and the fact that they were shooting it in New Zealand, it was just meant to be. Because it made it better. I think it's more special when it's a true cameo.
My boyfriend is the sort of person who doesn't recognize anyone in anything. So I was watching him when I knew you were going to pop up -- because he's also seen you on The Mandalorian and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- and it was nothing, per usual. But the second you spoke, he goes, "Oh my god," and started crying.
No! Oh, that just gave me chills. When we were at the premiere, I was kind of holding my breath, because I was like, "Oh my goodness, what if nobody recognizes me? What if..." All those actress insecurities. "What if this moment just falls flat?" And when the audience roared and applauded and cheered, ah! It was so exhilarating! It's just such a full-circle moment. Unfortunately, as wonderful as it is to stream and be able to watch it over and over and over again, it's those kind of moments, those cinematic experiences that, you know, I hope they put it back on the big screen. But I'm so glad he cried! That's wonderful!
I did a quick search before hopping on the phone with you, just to see if word had gotten out that you have a cameo, and it hadn't leaked yet. But there were so many results that were like, "I'm only here for the Ming cameo." "If Ming doesn't have a cameo, I'm going to riot."
Listen, I've been having to deal with that for two years, where I'm just like, "I don't know...!" [Laughs] I'll tell you something really cute. Lea Salonga just texted me this morning, because she had an early preview of it. And she had no idea that I was in it, so, she texted me, she was like, "Just saw Mulan. WHHHHAAAAAATTTTT?" She was like, "You're in it?!" And I just went, "I am?" [Laughs]