Destined for the stars

A portrait of Ming-Na Wen smiling
Mt. Lebanon native Ming-Na Wen went from collecting Star Wars dolls to playing assassin Fennec Shand in three Star Wars series.


efore Ming-Na Wen succeeded as an actress and voiceover artist in movies and television, she discovered, by accident, that she enjoyed performing on stage.

At age 8, she played a bunny rabbit in a school play about Easter.

“The character’s name was Bumpy. I went on stage and tripped and everybody laughed. Instead of being embarrassed, I loved the reaction. That was it,” said Ming-Na, whose face and voice are familiar to followers of the Star Wars universe, Disney devotees and fans of E.R.

A 1981 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School, the 60-year-old celebrity recently traveled to Montreal to work on Sony’s Karate Kid film, set for release to theaters in December.

“I’m just so grateful for this new project and getting to work with Jackie Chan,” she said during a telephone interview. A legendary actor and stuntman, Chan is reprising his character in Karate Kid.

Her acting schedule continues to be busy. Her next movie is Peachville, in which she plays opposite Paul Giamatti and Simon Pegg.

For Ming-Na, life began in Macao, a subtropical peninsula located off of China’s southern coast. Initially, her family moved to Hong Kong but by age 5 she was living in the New York City borough of Queens and learning to speak English.

Then her mother, Lin Chan Yee, remarried and moved to Mt. Lebanon. Ming-Na’s stepfather ran The Chinatown Inn, a successful Downtown restaurant. She waited tables there and once filmed a Head & Shoulders shampoo commercial in the restaurant.

“My mother, when I was younger, said my nose was destined for the stars and that I was going to go into the arts. She was a nurse,” Ming-Na said, and wanted her to be a doctor or a lawyer.

In a way, the actress joked, she fulfilled her mother’s wish by playing a doctor for five years on the television series E.R.

While studying drama at Carnegie Mellon University, Ming-Na relished being one of King Friday’s trumpeters on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. After earning her CMU degree in 1986, she moved to New York City, honing her acting skills at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizon and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. In 1998, she made her first appearance on the Broadway stage in Golden Child, a play by David Henry Hwang.

On television, she broke barriers, playing Lien Hughes in As the World Turns. That part made her the first Asian American contract actor to appear in a daytime drama.

But it seems especially fitting that she won the role of Fennec Shand, an elite mercenary and assassin in Star Wars: The Bad Batch, a Disney+ animated series that concluded this year with its third season. 

That’s because in high school, Ming-Na recalled, “I was a science fiction nerd. I was president of my science fiction club in Mt. Lebanon High School. I used to collect all the little Star Wars dolls. I actually played with those dolls, unlike now, where you keep them in boxes.”

As Fennec Shand, Ming-Na also appears in two related Disney series, The Mandalorian and a spinoff, The Book of Boba Fett.

She enjoys slipping into a character.

“As artists, we create. I don’t fly a plane and I would not be able to really beat people up the way some of my characters have,”

she said.

As a voiceover artist, Ming-Na is best known for voicing the character of a warrior princess who is the main character in an animated film titled Mulan, released in 1998.

A portrait of Ming-Na Wen wearing a blue dress sitting in a chair
At the Hollywood Beauty Awards in March, judges selected Ming-Na Wen for the Timeless Beauty Award.

The character of Mulan was 16 or 17 so in the recording booth, Ming-Na tried to make her voice sound younger.  But the director told her to use her natural voice. The actress received an Annie Award for Best Voice Acting by a Female Performer.

In May 2023, Ming-Na received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Joining her on that memorable day were Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom and Rosalind Chao, all cast members of The Joy Luck Club, a popular movie about four Asian mothers and daughters released in 1993.

The prospect of attending the Hollywood Walk of Fame event rattled the actress, who said she is comfortable with colleagues on a movie set or around friends and family.

“A spotlight on me, as opposed to a character, is horrifying,” she said, adding that her family emphasized the importance of humility.

“To have to ask friends to say some nice things about me … It’s so not Chinese,” she recalled.

But during the ceremony, she was able to laugh with her fellow cast members, which took the pressure off her.

In March, Ming-Na was under the spotlight agan, as the recipient of the Timeless Beauty Award, given by the Hollywood Beauty Awards, where fellow Lebo alum Joe Manganiello had some words to say.

“Anyone who has ever met Ming will attest that her beauty radiates from within,” he continued. “She’s one of the most sincerely kind-hearted people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” he said at the event.

Her newest project is writing a cookbook for the publisher Simon & Schuster. It will be filled with anecdotes, her autobiography and family recipes.

“My cookbook is pretty much something I have been thinking about for 8 to 10 years,” Ming-Na said, adding that when she grew up, she ate soup, bone broth and lots of green, leafy vegetables. The cookbook is a way for her to share her experience as “a restaurant daughter.”