Disney’s live-action take on “Mulan” has no need for songs or wisecracking dragons, but there is still one notable holdover from the 1998 animated version that inspired it: Ming-Na Wen, the actress who originally voiced Mulan, appears at the end of the new film in a cameo role.
After the villain’s plot is foiled and the brave warrior Mulan (played by Yifei Liu) reveals her gender to the troops she fought alongside while dressed as a man, she is brought to the throne room of the emperor for a celebration. That’s when Wen comes in, oh so briefly: Billed in the credits as “Esteemed Guest,” she introduces Mulan to the emperor, bows and departs.
Although it had been scheduled for a March 27 release in theaters before the pandemic, “Mulan” debuted on Disney+ over the weekend. Still, Wen delights in the reaction her surprise cameo got at the film’s premiere back in March, before Hollywood went into shutdown. “I hope even though it’s streaming, it can still have that impact,” she said in a phone call last week. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
QUESTION: You heard through the grapevine that Disney is going to do a live-action “Mulan.” What happened next?
ANSWER: It all started with the fans tweeting about it, saying, “You have to be a part of it!” I asked my manager and my agent if that would be a possibility because I thought that would be kind of fun. Then I met with the producer Jason Reed and he loved the idea, but at that time I was doing “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” so scheduling-wise, it was kind of a logistical nightmare because “Mulan” was shooting in New Zealand. They had written a scene for me to be a part of, but the schedule just didn’t work out.
Q: What was that going to be?
A: I was going to be the potential mother-in-law for the matchmaker scene, but because of the weather, they needed me to be out there for a month just in case. The producers of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” just threw up their hands: “We can’t lose you for a month!” I totally understood, and I’m always very Zen about this stuff. I said, “Look, if it was meant to me be, it was meant to be. We all tried, and it’s too bad.”
So we sort of let it go, and then Jason and Niki (Caro, the director) came up with this great idea where instead of shooting an entire scene, I’d just make a cameo at the very end to announce Mulan to the emperor. I thought that was very appropriate and just wonderful, a little Easter egg where I could pass the baton. And this time, they only needed me there for a week. So it all worked out!
Q: And the dress they put you in was pretty breathtaking.
A: Oh, the details of it were extraordinary. In the week I was there, we landed and immediately went into fittings and hair and makeup tests. We went through three different looks, and the first one was extremely elaborate, with a huge hairdo that had a ton of artifacts in the hair. Niki wanted it more like the image of the animated Mulan, so we kept trying to figure out how to transform that look into something that made sense. But yes, I felt delicious in that outfit!
Q: What did they tell you about your character?
A: She was probably one of the relatives of the emperor, whether she married into that high status or not. I had a week to come up with something — it was a whirlwind. I remember I was joking around with Donnie Yen and I said, “Hey Donnie, you’ve done a lot of these period pieces, right? What would be an appropriate way to bow?” And he was like, “I don’t know!” So I had to summon all my memories of growing up watching these incredible, epic movies that my mom would take us to in Chinatown, when I lived in New York. There was a certain essence to the way these women walked that was quite different than, say, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Q: I did let out a little yelp when I saw you.
A: That’s what happened at the premiere! I’m so happy you squealed. That’s what it’s about, right? I’m just sad that the fans don’t get to see this on a large screen, because Niki Caro did this brilliant job creating this imagery. I really hope that in the future, they can do a limited rerelease in theaters.
Q: Was it a full-circle moment to go to the “Mulan” premiere 22 years after the animated film debuted?
A: I couldn’t have foreseen any of it. At the time, I thought Disney was taking a huge risk by doing an animated film that was ethnically diverse and based on foreign folklore. The fact that it still speaks to the current generation of kids makes me think this movie is going to blow them away. You know, it’s so sad that recently Chadwick Boseman passed away, and just seeing all the love for what he created as the king T’Challa in “Black Panther,” it’s very affecting, because that’s what “Mulan” was like for our community and Asians in general.
Q: What was it like for you to win the role back in the day?
A: I was excited because I’m a huge Disney geek. I remember reading the full script and thinking, “OK, she’s 16 or 17 and I’m in my 20s, so I’d better make her sound younger.” When I went in for the first recording session, I did this young voice, and the director and producer in the room were like, “Ming? Uh, what are you doing? We hired you for your voice.” I’d never done voice-over before, so I had no idea that you record by yourself before they even animate it, and that it would be a three-year process.
When I first saw the finished movie, it was overwhelming. In the scene where Mulan is sitting with her father under the cherry blossom tree, she was stroking her hair — and I touch my hair all the time, something they must have captured in the recording sessions. I remember my mom turning to me and saying, “Wow, I saw you.” She didn’t see the animated character anymore. She saw her daughter in those images.
Q: I know a lot of queer and trans fans saw themselves in Mulan, too.
A: I was blown away when these beautiful young women and boys from the LGBTQ community would come up to me crying because Mulan was a representation for them, and they latched on to the images of her transforming herself into a boy. There was so much about the film that was an extra plus like that. I’m sure Yifei is going to get incredible accolades as the live-action Mulan, but I hope everyone will still have a little place in their hearts for the animated Mulan. I mean, at least she cut her hair! (Laughs) A lot of moms would come up to me and say, “My daughter cut her hair because of you.” I got a few of those complaints.
Q: What did you say to them?
A: It’ll grow back.
Q: Do you think you’ll keep voicing Mulan in future projects and spinoffs, or will Yifei take over those duties?
A: Oh, gosh. Yifei and I will have to duke it out! I feel a little possessive in that way about wanting to keep Mulan consistent, wanting to have her be voiced by me. She’s my baby. They’ll ask, “Can we use your voice for a stuffed animal?” and I’ll say, “Yeah, sure.” I have such a loyalty to Mulan’s fans that I will always say yes.