BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Actress Ming-Na Wen makes no secret of her love for sci-fi, fantasy and associated genre entertainment. For her, landing a role in fall's most anticipated new ABC series, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (8 tonight, WTAE), was akin to winning the lottery.
"When I [learned] I got the part, I was screaming, and my kids thought I hurt myself," said the former Pittsburgher, a 1981 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School and a 1986 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University's acting program. "I was thrilled when I got 'Stargate: Universe' because it's fun to pretend to be in outer space fighting aliens, but for me, Marvel is so iconic.
"It's like being a Disney princess," she continued, before teasing, "Oh, wait, I've done that!"
Former Pittsburgher stars in Marvel Comics-based series
Former Pittsburgher Ming-Na Wen stars in ABC's new fall series, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." The series springs from Marvel Comics. (Video by Rob Owen; edited by Melissa Tkach; 9/24/2013)
Indeed she has. Ms. Wen was the voice of the title character in the 1998 animated Disney film "Mulan," just one of many varied roles in a career that also has included a stint on the NBC hit "ER" and Syfy's "Eureka."
In "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." -- a spinoff of the blockbuster movie "The Avengers" -- Ms. Wen plays S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Melinda May, who is initially reluctant to join the team of human agents assembled by Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, "The New Adventures of Old Christine"), who was presumed dead in "The Avengers" film.
Set after the events in "The Avengers," the TV series picks up with humans now knowing of the existence of aliens and superheroes. But don't expect a lot of cameo appearances from Captain America (Chris Evans) or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Executive producer Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly"), who wrote and directed 2012's "The Avengers" and co-wrote and directed tonight's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." pilot, said there will be some cross-pollination between the Marvel movies and TV shows but not a lot.
"It's a fun opportunity, but it's not the reason behind the show," Mr. Whedon said at an ABC press conference in early August. "We don't want just to be an Easter egg farm. We want people to come back because of [this cast] and not because of some connection to the movie universe. This show has to work for people who aren't going to see those movies and haven't seen them before."
Coulson, whose seemingly miraculous return will be a question explored as the series goes along, assembles a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division) agents tasked with tracking down humans with super powers.
"I'm completely compelled by the idea of a world post 'Avengers' where things are out of control, and humans are once again either eager to get a hold of or already in possession of things we aren't really socially evolved to the point of dealing with," Mr. Gregg said. "I feel like that's a great idea."
Mr. Whedon said the appeal of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." for him was the absence of the big-name superhero characters.
"The idea of the people who don't have the super powers, the idea of the people who didn't get the hammer, who didn't get the super soldier serum, the idea that everybody matters, that the people that get shunted to the side in a giant epic that's only on the screen for two hours can take the spotlight, the underdog, the common man," he said. "Clark was that, sort of an audience proxy in the movies, and the TV show is very much about that sense of, 'Well, what about the rest of us? How do we cope with this?' "
Jed Whedon ("Spartacus"), younger brother of Joss and an executive producer on the series with his wife, Melissa Tancharoen ("Dollhouse"), said each episode will feature a challenge of sorts: a new hero, a device, a mystery.
"And hopefully the characters will be dealing with each other enough so that there will be stuff to interweave through these stand-alone episodes," he said. "But it is a Marvel thing. So there is going to be a overarching mythology, and all of that stuff will come into play for sure."
"We want to be able to deal with every aspect: the spy stuff, the hero stuff, the heartfelt stuff," Joss Whedon said. "We want to make sure that there's the humor, obviously, but that every week you get something that feels a little bit different so it's not just, you know, turkey every day."
Ms. Wen describes Agent Melinda May as a damaged soldier with the martial arts skills of a ninja.
"She has a kind of a dark past, and it took her out of the field," she said. "Whatever happened during one of the missions, it just caused a lot of angst, a lot of stress to the point where she wanted to take a desk job."
That's where viewers meet her in the pilot, but soon she's back in action, flying the plane that's home base for the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." team.
Ms. Wen isn't the only Pittsburgh connection to the TV series. David Conrad, a Swissvale native, will have an undisclosed recurring role in upcoming episodes. Producers declined to name his character or to explain how his role fits into the show's larger story.
Ms. Wen said she's been getting in shape for the fighting scenes in the show -- and has the bruises to show for it. Her last role that was as action-packed -- in "Street Fighter" -- was released in 1994.
"It's nice to come back into it and feel, hey, I'm still intact, I can still do this," she said, laughing. "I just have to remember I'm not in that body anymore."
Ms. Wen hasn't made it back to Pittsburgh recently, but her brother, Jonathan Yee, continues to run the family's Downtown restaurant, the Chinatown Inn.
As for her shifting name -- she began working as Ming-Na Wen, shifted to Ming-Na in the late 1990s and is now back to Ming-Na Wen -- Ms. Wen said she dropped Wen after having a picture taken with her family -- who go by her stepfather's last name, Yee; and her husband's family, the Zees -- and realizing she was the only Wen. But several years ago she found her biological father, whom she had never known.
"We made a connection and although it's still a work in progress, I felt that now, understanding the story better and what transpired, I felt like it was time to re-embrace that part of my life and that part of my family as well," she said. "It's weird. It's kind of like my character, Agent Melinda May: You need to somehow fix the past in a way to move on and be proud of who you are in all aspects of your life."
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published September 24, 2013 4:00 AM