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Channeling : With An Eye On. . . : Ming-Na Wen uses the power of persuasion to land on 'The Single Guy'

October 29, 1995|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ming-Na Wen possesses the power of persuasion.

Producers for NBC's "The Single Guy," as well as those behind "The Joy Luck Club," weren't convinced Wen was right for the roles she eventually got. But Wen talked them into casting her.

"Single Guy's" Trudy, the smart-alecky, neurotic art-gallery manager, "was a non-Asian specific role," explains Wen over lunch at a downtown restaurant.

It came down to "me and a bunch of Caucasian actresses." But Wen made producers laugh. "That's what cinched it, I think," she says.

Executive Producer Brad Hall says Wen "blew us away. She's really sharp, funny and fit into the show well. She's got a downtown, hip, funny quality, a dry humor and she's not afraid to take chances and hop in and get all wet."

Wen, 27--who also garnered attention last season as reluctant intern Deb Chen on NBC's "ER"--says her "total-dream-come-true" role was as June in 1993's "The Joy Luck Club."

The actress spent 45 minutes "making them cry, and crying myself," finally winning over producer-director Wayne Wang. "They wanted someone with more visibility," she explains. "I realized I needed to express my true inner pain," since the Chinese-American character so reflected her own experience. "It was the most intense audition I've ever had." Playing June "was just destiny."

And destiny is something Wen--and her family--believes in. "When I was born, my mother read my face and knew I was going into the arts," says the actress, who was born in Macau, China, and came to the U.S. at age 4. Wen has strong recollections of her early years in China. "I remember my mother walking to my Catholic school--which was the best school, even though we were Buddhist--just to bring me a lunch with milk and make sure I drank it all."

Her mother, Linchan, a nurse and a survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, tried to dissuade her daughter from pursuing the arts.

But destiny prevailed. As a third grader in Pittsburgh, Wen won a part in a play. She walked on stage and fell on her face. "Everyone laughed," she recalls. She was hooked.

Wen, older brother Jonathan and younger brother Leong, all worked at the family restaurant, Chinatown Inn.

The Carnegie Mellon graduate moved to New York and won a role on the CBS soap "As the World Turns." Wen played Lien, a 16-year-old Vietnamese refugee from 1989-1991. "It was the first time I'd worked on camera, so it was a great experience."

Wen began to land theater roles on both coasts before "The Joy Luck Club," which took Wen, who speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese, to China. "It was the first time I'd been there since I left," she explains. "I took my mother. It was really an incredible experience."

The actress appeared in 1994's "Street Fighter." "I wanted to work with Raul Julia." The role was physically demanding: "We drank protein drinks, cut out all fat from our diet, trained six hours a day." Wen had no martial-arts training, but her dance, Tai Chi and yoga background came in handy with strenuous required kick-box fighting.

Wen believes that as an Asian actress, she "has to be careful of the choices I make, the things I say. I think that if I've made decent enough choices that might make me a role model, that would be cool."

Hall, who says Wen's "a joy to have around" is also "a very impressive person in how she handles herself."

The toughest thing for Wen to handle is the distance between L.A., where the show shoots, and her parents' home in Pittsburgh. Yet she often visits. Wen's father, Soo Lim Yee, died earlier this month. "It's so hard to be away," she says.

This summer, Wen eloped to Maui, with playwright Eric Michael Zee. The couple recently produced Zee's play, "Exit the Dragon," at a Berkeley theater.

With "so many avenues we could take," Wen and Zee are "trying to get some deals made." And Wen's just the person to talk 'em into it.

"The Single Guy" airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

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