Ming-Na Wen Channeled Her Own Experience As A Mom In Gremlins: Secrets Of The Mogwai
The actress, who just earned her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, voices Fong Wing, Sam’s badass mom in the prequel series.
Who hasn’t Ming-Na Wen played and what hasn’t she been in? From films like Joy Luck Club to Mulan (both the original animated Disney film and the live-action reboot), to television shows like ER, Fresh Off the Boat, and The Mandalorian, she is an Asian American Hollywood legend and pop culture icon through decades. No wonder Wen has just earned her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!
Her latest project is Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai for Max (HBO’s rebranded name for its streaming service) from Amblin Television and Warner Bros. Animation with Steven Spielberg and Tze Chun as executive producers. This prequel series follows Sam Wing, the young boy who becomes the future shop owner Mr. Wing in the 1984 Gremlins classic horror movie. Wen voices Sam’s mother, Fong Wing, a doctor of traditional Chinese herbal medicine in 1920s Shanghai. (BD Wong, James Hong, Sandra Oh, Randall Park, George Takei, and Bowen Yang also lend their voice talent.)
Wen chatted with Romper about the star-studded new series, Asian American representation, and how she channeled her own experience as a mom of two for her latest role. The actress has two children with husband Eric Michael Zee — daughter Michaela, 22, and son Cooper Dominic, 17 — who were, of course, all in attendance to celebrate their mom’s historic Walk of Fame Star Ceremony.
Congratulations on the new Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai series. I have a 9-year-old child that I can’t wait to introduce it to. Did you watch the original Gremlins movies? What made you want to take this role in the animated series?
I was a big sci-fi fan and I just loved everything that had Steven Spielberg's name on it. With this one, it was particularly interesting for me because being Chinese, the whole thing about mogwai, that's the Cantonese version of it…to see this adorable creature turn into these gremlins, it was so surprising and shocking. I loved everything about the original.
Yes! Mogwai means monster or demon in Chinese, which I think a lot of viewers in the U.S. don’t know. Can you talk more about the story’s origins and how it was inspired by the original film?
I love how clever it was, taking a very mysterious character like Mr. Wing from the original film where he didn't have much character development. He was just this person that had a great deal of dignity and rules and suddenly now we get to see his entire backstory when he was a kid and I get to play his mom. I play Fong Wing and it's just great that all these years later we are actually exploring this special Chinese character.
Absolutely. And I thought it was really cool because she is a traditional medicine doctor, but most doctors in China were men back then and so here you are playing a woman doctor. There’s an aspect to where we get to rewrite history and be subversive and right some wrongs? Can you talk more about that?
I just love that. I mean, it's in the 1920s and you would think that women back then were more, you know, what's the word, subordinate... But in reality, if you really think about even Mulan back in the day, you know, women did serve in the armed forces even back then. And so, I love that Fong Wing is equal to her husband. They run a shop together and you know she has very special skills and knowledge and she's very forthright. She's funny. And I think a lot like myself because I have two kids as well. And so, it was easy for me to slip into the mom role.
And speaking of family and kids, your daughter Michaela, she's gorgeous and has done some acting as well. Do you think you'll ever work together in the future?
We did. She did a cameo with me for the Mulan live-action. We've worked on a couple, like, Sophia the First. But she's now a journalist, like you. She's writing for Variety and she's kind of behind the scenes and she loves it. She absolutely loves it. So I always joke that like all those years I've taken her on the red carpet is paying off and all those years that I yelled at her for always streaming and watching too much on her computer and iPhone, now it’s all paying off.
I love that. What does creating shows and films like this as an Asian American actor and as a parent mean for you? For the future that we're building for ourselves and our children?
I think it's great that we're exploring more about Asian culture, history, and our fairy tales. Those Grimms’ fairy tales were scary and there to teach a lesson. In Chinese culture, we had them too. We had all these really scary mythology and monsters and I think producers like Tze Chun are doing a great job in making sure that things are authentic and true. There are a lot of historians that they, you know, do research with to bring these characters and folklore to life.
Thank you for bringing up Tze Chun. He did a great job writing and being the showrunner for this show. We have more fantastic Asian American creators now than ever putting out wonderful work. But for decades, you have been consistently working in the business. I'm so happy that you have had your successes all through these years and continue to represent. What changes have you observed and what more you would like to see in the industry?
Oh, it's fantastic. Michelle, it warms my heart that I was in your living room or in your movie theaters all these years. And it's such a blessing to be able to keep working and to be part of this incredible surge. I mean last Oscars, we won, right? I mean, that was so big with Everything Everywhere All At Once and Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan and the Daniels. It makes the impossible seem possible.
When I started, there was like me and maybe a handful of us and we were all either vying for that rare moment when they actually create and write a Chinese character, or I would have to fight for roles that were not specifically written for Asians. And now… we have so many stories to tell, so many cultures to explore.
Also, I was just at the Gold Gala, and it was like the who's who of Asian talents in Hollywood. I felt like we were at the Asian Oscars. It was so glamorous and so beautiful to see so many amazing young faces, and getting to befriend the new … It's such a change. It's a massive change and I couldn't be happier.
And do you hope to see even more of this in the future?
Yes, because even the more of it that we're getting is still such a small percentage. It’s such a small nugget of what gets released and produced.
Absolutely. And regarding these animated works, I think it’s so cool that you reach a new, young fan base every time.
People that have never seen Gremlins, right?
Yes, people who have never seen Gremlins the movie, but also, you're always going to have kid fans. And I think that is really special. Do you have any adorable stories about kid fans to share?
What I love is when I go to these conventions and I see the parents bring their kids, they've all connected in some of the other projects, whether it's The Mandalorian or Book of Boba Fett, or Mulan — especially Mulan when the parents grew up with it — and was so impacted by it and then now sharing it with their children. You know and they're telling their kids like, “That's Mulan!” and they get all excited when they hear my voice.
It's such a perk. There is such a positive impact and it doesn't matter what their background is, they connect with the story of this you know of this character that they can see themselves in and I think that creates this connection for all of us, that it doesn't matter what we look like, what our background is. There is a core essential element to all of us. You know, we're all seeking to find the hero in ourselves. We're all seeking to discover our potential, follow our dreams and be with family, and find love. So, those are universal and I hope that helps to connect us all more.