Ming-Na, whose name means "enlightenment," has a burgeoning career in live-action films such as The Joy Luck Club, One Night Stand, and Teddy Bears' Picnic; she's also starred in TV series, like As the World Turns (on which she was the first Chinese-American actress under contract) and ER (on which she played Dr. Jing-Mei "Deb" Chen). To children, though, Ming-Na is the voice of Mulan in two Disney films and Detective Ellen Yin on the WB's The Batman, as well as Dr. Aki Ross in the breakthrough animated feature Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I spoke with Ming-Na on February 18, 2005 at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco.
Ming-Na: Hi, Peter!
Groucho: Hi, nice to meet you.
Ming-Na: Nice to meet you, too.
G:—So, can you recall still the first time you heard the story of Fa Mu Lan?
M-N: I can't recall. (Laughs.) I can't remember what I did yesterday! But, I mean, I do remember first hearing about Fa Mu Lan being a woman warrior and my mom telling me the story of Fa Mu Lan when I was a little girl. And it was always so kinda exciting and mystical, really, the way the story is told in China. She's kind of taken on this legendary, y'know, superhero aspect. Yeah, so when I heard Disney was doing it, I'm like, "How are they going to take this really grand folk tale and make it into a Disney movie?"
G: But the original text is actually quite short, right? So—
M-N: Yeah, yeah.
G: It invites embellishment in some ways, I guess.
M-N: Oh, yes, yes. (Laughs.) Yeah, I don't think Mushu was ever part of—(Laughs).
G: How did you prepare for the first film? Did you return to any sources for inspiration?
M-N: Um, no. It's weird because, with the first film, we were just trying to come up with the character, and I remember when they cast me for the part, I was so excited to do it, and—but they told me I couldn't sing, in it. (Laughs.) And I don't blame them. But when I took on the part, I actually was thinking, "Oh, okay, wait: she's sixteen; okay, she's going to be really young; and, y'know (demonstrating), just kinda raise my voice up a little bit, and, y'know, keep her very youthful." And they're like, "No, man, we cast you because we like your voice. We like the—" whatever they were hearing in the voice. So yeah, so I had to just sort of bring it back down to my level. Yeah, so, you know, just finding the character.
G: Did you ever feel the need on either film to voice any protective concerns for the character?
M-N: Only in certain aspects. The producers and the directors: they really did a great job in researching it. They went to China, they did—and it—I mean, they were telling me some things that I didn't know about. But they—I was really so trusting of them because they had so much heart in the project. And, there were only like a few things here and there that I would have issues with. Y'know, how she would deal with her parents and things like that. But, yeah, as far as I remember, everything was pretty collaborative.
G: Disney animators often videotape the voice talent. Did you recognize yourself in any specific gestures that came through in the film?
M-N: Yeah, there—y'know, they videotape us while we're doing all the acting, and I have a tendency to touch my hair a lot, and they had that one moment when—that really poignant moment—when she's sitting with her father, and he's talking about the blossom and how sometimes one takes a little bit longer to bloom, and, y'know, she was, like, touching her hair. I'm like, "Oh! That's what I do all the time." So just like little things like that and certain gestures and things, yeah, they definitely took.
G: Mulan 2 has some new shades for the character: perhaps more confidence, more overt anger at one point, and resignation. Did those new directions encourage you to return at all? I know you were a little hesitant at first.
M-N: Yeah, well, only because I didn't know what the story was going to be. I didn't know where they were—there was no more story to tell, y'know? (Laughs.) About Mulan, so I didn't want her to become this kind of cartoonish caricature of the first movie. And actually, in the beginning, they had her being sort of like Bonnie and Clyde, y'know? The personas were—between her and Shang—were kind of like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, y'know, this tit-for-tat kind of thing. And I'm like, "Who are these guys?" (Laughs.) Y'know, but little by little, we really—they fleshed it out and went back to the basics, and that's when I was interested in doing it. And what's nice about the second movie is that, in the first one, Mulan was still trying to figure out who she was, and she was still trying to follow the traditions of her culture and her family and their wishes. And now, from her experience in the first movie, she realizes when you follow your heart, good things can come out of it. And so, she passes on those wisdoms to the little girls about being strong and soft, and she becomes a mentor, and to the princesses, too.
G: Good actors can play any type of role, so how conscious are you of role modeling and race relations in choosing parts?
M-N: I don't know. I mean, I used to hate being labeled as a role model, because I think then, y'know, you're limited in what you're willing to take on or what you're willing to play. I mean, definitely I wouldn't have played in Mike Figgis' film One Night Stand. I don't see any role model in Mimi at all! (Laughs.) But y'know, that's not how I make my decisions: let's put it that way. I mean, now that I have a four-year-old, I'm a lit-tle bit more conscientious of certain parts that I'm willing to take. But, y'know, if the next role that comes along is this stripper with a heart of gold—(Both laugh.) Or a drug addict. I mean, it really depends. But I hope role model really just means that, as a person, I succeed because I believe in myself, and I'm willing to take risks, and y'know then that's fine. Yeah.
G: Since Mulan, you've done a lot of voice work, and I guess this week, if I read correctly, The Batman got picked up for another twenty-six episodes.
M-N: Yeah! Alright! Exactly. I love that.
G: So I take it we'll be seeing more of Detective Ellen Yin.
M-N: That's right. (Laughs.)
G: She's another fearless, take-charge character.
M-N: Mm-mm. Yeah.
G: Are writers present at those recording sessions?
M-N: Actually, she's a really hard character for me to play, because you know the whole detective tone is very sort of, like, deadpan. Very like, just deliver the lines, just deliver the lines, as a cop, deliver—. And I'm always like trying to like make it a little bit more flowery and a little bit more—. And they were like, "Okay, that's good, Ming, now just say it really straight." (Laughs.) It's very, very hard for me to do that. She's one of the more challenging characters, but yeah, I mean, I really like doing that part.
G: Over the course of the first season, Batman went from being a perp to her to a partner.
M-N: That's right, yeah.
G: And she sort of lightened up a little bit. Were you aware from the beginning where the storyline was headed, and where it may be off to?
M-N: No, no, I mean, she used to have a partner, and then he becomes, uh, Clay—Claypot? Wait.
M-N: Clayface! Yes. And so that was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea about that. Yeah, they, y'know—like with any series or anything, I think wherever the writers take their creativity: y'know, it's—just let them do it. I'm just there to—I'm just there to act! (Laughs.)
G: Well, you're ridiculously busy with your creative and your personal pursuits and your family life. How do you decide which projects you'll do for hire—
G: And how much time you'll devote to developing your own projects? Like I know you've talked about doing a sitcom.
M-N: Yeah, yeah, I mean, there's one project that I'm actually developing right now with Buena Vista that may take place next fall. But in the meantime, I'm auditioning: y'know, there's a couple of sitcoms that I'm interested in. Y'know, if I'm lucky and I get 'em, that's great. But I don't know, I mean, I have a band that I'm producing called At Last, and they keep us pretty damn busy! (Laughs.) Music is so hard, and babysitting—I mean, not babysitting! Did I say babysitting? Managing for musicians (laughs) is not the easiest thing. But we love the band, we really—we're in talks with a few of the kids' network[s] about doing an animated series with them. So yeah! Y'know, we just try to stay busy. I'm home a lot, though, too. Yeah. I like being a mom, too.
G: Well, it was a real pleasure to speak with you. Thank you.
M-N: Yeah, thanks, Peter. Very nice to meet you.