EXCLUSIVE: Ming-Na Wen on Going Dark in the 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Framework and What's to Come for Philinda
By Meredith B. Kile
After four seasons of playing the stoic-yet-heroic Melinda May on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ming-Na Wen finally got to visit the dark side -- and she loved it!
“It’s so fun being evil,” the actress gushed to ET’s Leanne Aguilera during a recent Facebook Live. “I’m just realizing that everybody likes the bad guys. It’s so weird, they love us being evil!”
Wen’s character is one of the agents who took a dark turn in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third and final “pod” of episodes this season, thanks to the Framework -- an alternate, virtual reality constructed by Dr. Radcliffe (John Hannah) and perfected by his android assistant, AIDA (Mallory Jansen), who quickly overtook her human master to seize the reins of the fabricated world.
“AIDA has taken one regret out of each of our characters, and you would think that would help to make these characters have a fulfilling, happy life,” Wen recalled. “For some reason it actually created a whole other dimension of wrong. It’s fascinating, just philosophically, to think about.”
For May -- who’s been inside the virtual reality the longest of all the agents after being kidnapped by Radcliffe and AIDA earlier in the season and replaced by a Life Model Decoy -- it’s her reversed regret that arguably led to the Framework’s biggest wrinkle: a world in which HYDRA overtook S.H.I.E.L.D. and AIDA herself serves as the villainous Madame Hydra.
“When I first put on the costume with the HYDRA logo, I hated it! I really did,” Wen said, admitting that she was initially worried about fan backlash over her character’s dark turn. “I’m like, ugh, this doesn’t feel right, you know?”
And it wasn’t just the exterior armor that the actress had to alter to play her virtual reality self. She also had to change her character’s entire “mentality.”
“I always played May where, she was guarded in her feelings, but she was always extremely compassionate and always wanted to protect her family, that’s why she was The Cavalry,” Wen explained. “Ultimately, it’s about doing good and protecting the innocent. With HYDRA May, it’s all about vengeance and callousness and coldness... The Inhumans have to go, and she’s going to do everything she can to get rid of them.”
However, it’s clear that Framework May still has some of her real-world counterpart buried within her. In last week’s episode, the HYDRA agent seemingly turned coat after realizing that the ruthless organization was kidnapping and indoctrinating children. She disobeyed orders to kill the Patriot (Jason O'Mara), helped the underground S.H.I.E.L.D. resistance team escape, and later, gave Daisy (Chloe Bennet) the terrigen crystal needed to complete her Inhuman transformation within the Framework.
Wen was, of course, tight-lipped on what’s to come as the agents fight their way back to the real world, but was as effusive as her co-stars Bennet and Brett Dalton before her that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s final episodes of the season are going to blow fans’ minds.
“It’s extremely moving. It is crazy, it’s very action-packed,” she hinted of the approaching culmination. “For us, it was incredibly confusing at times, to justify everything that was happening to these characters, and how they intertwined between the real world and the Framework world, and how AIDA fits into all of it.”
“I’m just so happy that the fans are loving this last pod… That was a really nice surprise for all of us, that people just ate it up,” she added. “And I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens after -- or if -- we even get out of the Framework.”
As last week’s episode proved, trauma inside the virtual reality can also have real-life consequences for the agents. After sacrificing himself to save his Framework counterparts as the Patriot, Jeffrey Mace was found dead by AIDA in the real world, which means that even if the agents manage to find their way out, there will be problems to deal with on the other side.
“That was the thing that we questioned our writers on, which was, is it like a dream, where sometimes you wake up and you feel like it was a traumatic dream, but you can’t remember what happened and then you just go on with your life? Or is it like, something that lingers and stays with them, that they do remember?” Wen recalled, though she couldn’t spoil the answers to those questions. “We’ll leave it ambiguous… whether it does have lingering effects.”
The Agents of HYDRA pod is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third block of episodes this season -- following the Ghost Rider and Life Model Decoy story arcs -- a narrative structure that mimics some of Marvel’s other television projects, like the four Netflix Defenders series and FX’s Legion, which Wen attributed to “the genius of our producers and our writers.”
“Most other series now have the eight-episode, 13-episode arc,” she said. “Trying to create a story arc for 22 episodes, for any character, it is difficult, and it drags it out. So I think having these small pods, where we have a faster arc, and we can tell a story from beginning to middle to end, and still tie it into the next [pod], it’s much more fun to play. And I think it creates a greater diversity for all of our characters as each adventure takes us to a new psychological scar.”
As for the adventures she still hopes to take with Agent May, Wen joked about a S.H.I.E.L.D. musical episode (certainly not unheard of on a series which lists Joss Whedon as an executive producer), but ultimately hopes for her character to simply find “happiness and love.”
“She tried with Andrew and that didn’t work out too well,” the actress warned, remembering May’s ex-husband, Andrew Garner (Blair Underwood), who met a brutal end last season as the Inhuman Lash. “So, she might be a little gun-shy.”
Some S.H.I.E.L.D. fans are hoping that May will finally pull the trigger with Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) this season, after getting a heartbreaking tease when the pair kissed after May had been replaced by her perfectly lifelike LMD. (Don’t you hate when that happens?)
“It’s wonderful that our Philinda fans got a little taste, a little visual eye candy of what could happen with these two characters if they did, you know, hook up,” Wen said. “But I kind of like the fact that, because they have such great respect for each other.. because they’ve been through so much and they are such amazing colleagues and have such history and respect for each other, it’s scary, you know? It’s really, really scary to take that next step and make it a little bit more romantic.”
“It’s lovely to have romance kind of lingering for the veterans,” she added with a laugh. “It’s not just all for the young loves. There’s a greater maturity and a greater level of angst that’s different [for them].”
The Mulan star also spoke to ET about the upcoming live-action remake of the 1998 Disney animated classic, opening up about whom she’d like to see cast as the heroic female warrior. See more in the video below!