“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” star Ming-Na Wen plays the resolute Melinda May on ABC’s hit new spy series, but the veteran actress said she was a jangle of raw nerves going in to audition for the role.
“I got a phone call from my agent, and he said, ‘Hey, you have a meeting with Joss Whedon, want to go in?'” Wen recalled, sitting in her trailer preparing to head to set for a day of shooting on the new show. “I’ve been a huge fan of his work, and I was actually really nervous because I love this world, the Marvel world. I grew up as a geek girl. I remember not being able to memorize these lines to save my life. When I can’t memorize lines that means that my head wasn’t in the game. I was thinking about and worrying about everything else because that’s how much I wanted this job.”
Wen said she relied on Melinda May’s quiet resolve to get past her anxiety. “I remember having to go somewhere where I was invincible and I could do this and that’s pretty much the character, really. I had to go in there with a warrior attitude. Everything clicked, they were very welcoming. I felt like I did a great audition and the next thing I knew, I just got the offer.”
Coming into the season, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, ranked as one of the most highly anticipated new shows of the fall season, and its Sept. 24 premiere drew nearly 12 million viewers. Reviewers, too, were largely positive about Marvel Television’s heroic foray into prime time; writing in the Los Angeles Times, critic Mary McNamara credited the series for its “clever concept” and for not trying to “out-blockbuster a blockbuster” adding, “Though there’s CG aplenty, the pilot is nowhere near as in-your-face as one might expect.”
Rather than attempt to re-create the spectacle of Joss Whedon’s 2012 smash “The Avengers” on a week-to-week basis, the show sets out to offer standalone adventures involving the agents, led by Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, who specializes in troubleshooting extreme cases around the globe. (Coulson’s appearance, of course, raises questions, as the character died in “Avengers,” lending an additional air of mystery.)
Wen said that each member of the team of operatives is complicated in some interesting way — the group includes Brett Dalton’s tough guy Grant Ward, Chloe Bennet’s hacker Skye and the tech duo Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and biochemist Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge).
“[Melinda May’s] back story, there’s something between her relationship with Coulson, whether they’ve worked together in the past, whether they’ve trained together in the past, there’s definitely some history between the two of them,” Wen said of her screen counterpart. “Because he’s been given a second chance, he’s put together this team and I think he feels Melinda May needs a second chance too. Something about her past has caused her to become this damaged soul …. We’re just this band of misfits.”
Chloe Bennet, Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen shoot a scene for Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Director Roxann Dawson, second from left, talks with Clark Gregg, while script supervisor Dawn Gilliam, right, shows them the script. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Chloe Bennet, left, as computer hacker Skye and Ming-Na Wen as agent Melinda May get last-minute touch-ups before shooting a scene. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Clark Gregg, as agent Phil Coulson, films a scene inside the command center of the Bus. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Between scenes, Clark Gregg shows Ming-Na Wen a recent press clipping on his phone. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
A camera operator focuses on Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen during filming. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Ming-Na Wen, who plays agent Melinda May, watches a monitor on the set. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Before a scene is shot, Clark Gregg's mike is adjusted as he talks to Chloe Bennet. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Ming-Na Wen and Clark Gregg catch up on text messages while on the set. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet and Clark Gregg joke between scenes. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet between scenes. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Inside the command center are Brett Dalton, left, Chloe Bennet, Ming-Na Wen and Clark Gregg. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Prop books on the set. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
The idea of misfits seeking connection has fueled Joss Whedon’s work for decades, whether in such series as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Firefly”, or on the big screen in “The Avengers.” Wen, who has her own extensive history in projects in and out of the genre (her credits include the long-running hospital drama “ER” and “SGU Stargate Universe,” in addition to a host of other movies and television shows),- said she responded strongly to Whedon’s preoccupation with that central theme.
“[His characters] were outsiders, trying to find family and a group of people where they felt they belonged. Those are the stories I related to so much — that and the fact that it was all fantastical and really cool,” Wen said. “My parents ran a restaurant, my brother was totally the jock athletic type, I grew up in white suburbia and never felt like I fit in.”
Whedon co-wrote the “S.H.I.E.L.D” pilot with his “Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Blog” and “Dollhouse” creative partners Jed Whedon and Tanchareon (who happen to be his younger brother and sister-in-law, respectively), and Wen said working with him on set was a dream experience.
“He’s got a very calm, quiet energy about him and yet he gets really goofy,” she said. “My general sense working with him was that we’re all there to have a good time, no matter how stressful the day is, no matter how much we need to accomplish that day — whether it’s the explosions, whether it’s a tough stunt, it was always easy. When he needs to give you a note you really take it for all it’s worth because otherwise he kind of leaves you alone. He lets you create because he trusts you. He feels he’s hired the best people for these characters and that’s nice. You never have in the back of your mind, ‘Oh, does he like me? Am I doing something wrong?’ He never gives off that energy.”
As for what’s ahead for Melinda May, even Wen has only a general notion — “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has been kept under a shroud of secrecy and the actors appear to be on a need-to-know basis when it comes to the risks and challenges that lie ahead. But Wen said she was happy to be a part of this new family and was enjoying her journey into the unknown.
“Television work is always funny that way, it’s not like a movie, where there’s a beginning, a middle and an end,” she said. “With television it’s kind of great to be able to have the novel, the story, unfold as you’re reading and going through each chapter. Each episode to me is like a new chapter in a book. It’s like life, it’s like living in the moment. Never play the future.”
— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex
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