A fox can be a sly predator—or it can be the vulnerable, hunted prey. Ming-Na Wen’s new Star Wars character from The Mandalorian is someone who knows how quickly one can become the other.
The Agents of SHIELD and Mulan actor will appear as the assassin Fennec Shand, who crosses paths with Pedro Pascal’s masked bounty hunter midway through the first season of the Disney+ series, which launches with the streaming service’s debut on November 12.
“We got our inspiration really from the name. The idea of a fennec fox came to mind,” Wen told Vanity Fair. “She’s tricky, and yet she’s able to maneuver and survive, and be stealthy—so very graceful and agile. I just love that whole image with the name.”
The first appearance of her character is in this new teaser video, with her facing down the faceless lead character, a man without a name apart from the warrior tribe whose armor he wears. She delivers a somewhat ironic line: “Your name will be legendary.”
Is she the light side or the dark side? Good guy or bad? Or does her allegiance lie somewhere in the middle? “Thinking that she’s a mercenary, it can go either way,” Wen said. “I think it remains to be seen.” Wen compared her to Han Solo, a survivor who didn’t start out believing in any cause but his own. Then again, Fennec Shand made her name committing murder for the galaxy’s top crime syndicates, so she’s much closer to the sinister side than the wisecracking smuggler.
“She is definitely someone who’s loyal to herself,” Wen said.
The show, created by Iron Man filmmaker Jon Favreau, is the first live-action Star Wars series, set in a lawless time in the galaxy after the defeat of the Empire in Return of the Jedi. It brings a Western movie motif to the galaxy far, far away, with Pascal’s masked bounty hunter inspired in part by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s 1960s Spaghetti Westerns.
Pascal accepts a bounty from a mysterious client (played by Werner Herzog) who wears an Empire insignia around his neck, then goes on to encounter a former Rebel Shock Trooper Cara Dune (Gina Carano), a jowly Ugnaught alien named Kuiil (voiced by Nick Nolte), and a killer droid IG-11 (voiced by Taika Waititi), among other underworld denizens.
Carl Weathers plays the Mandalorian’s patron, Greef Carga, who leads a guild of bounty hunters dispatched to settle scores and collect wanted individuals in the aftermath of the galactic civil war.
Fennec Shand has a past, but she’s also something of an unknown. Her backstory, like so many of the humans and aliens she has eliminated, is a moving target. “It will evolve, it will change. I mean, I think that’s what’s so wonderful about creating a new character,” Wen said. “I think she has a good sense of humor about it all as well, which is also fun. You can’t really pinpoint which direction she’s going to go.”
This is also the first major female Asian Star Wars character who hews to the villainous side. Wen said she is happy more Asian and Asian-American performers are finally appearing in galactic storytelling, especially since the earlier films borrowed so heavily from Asian cultural influences—from Darth Vader’s samurai-style helmet to Padmé Amidala’s Mongolian-style regal headdresses. “There was all this incredible imagery, but yet there were very few Asians in the films,” Wen said. “Any sort of representation is important and necessary. And I’m just happy that I got chosen. It was meant to be.”
Growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Star Wars was a touchstone for her. “It’s definitely a film that has had such an impact in so many people’s lives, including my own,” Wen said. “As an Asian kid in Pittsburgh, and especially in Mount Lebanon, sometimes you feel very alone and very isolated. And I think for me, with Star Wars, I connected so much with Luke having these dreams and wanting something bigger and better than being a little farmer in Tatooine. Just that image of him looking at the binary suns and wishing for more, it always stays with me.”
Wen also has a Pittsburgh history with the director of her first episode, Dave Filoni, longtime executive producer of the Star Wars animated shows The Clone Wars, Rebels, and Resistance, who made his live-action debut with the pilot for The Mandalorian and returned to helm another episode, featuring Wen, near the middle of the season. “We both grew up in the same town, and there was just a real connection because of our love of Star Wars,” she said. “He was so open to talking about things, and working out the logic of each scene. That’s what I love,” she said. “We were working on some line changes, and he was up for all of that. So it was a very fluid, fun, organic kind of process.”
Wen also contributed her own ideas about the character’s look. “At first, the idea was maybe just have her hair be loose, unkempt kind of thing,” she said. “And I thought, Well, she’s going to be wearing a helmet and she’s this stealth assassin. How great would it be if her hair has a bit of the fennec fox architecture to it? So the hairstylist came up with this great braiding system, that just gives an idea of these triangular points. Like her ears.”
You can see them pulled back tight against her head, threaded with orange—another callback to the animal that inspired her. “It just gives her such a strong, unique look. I’ve been doing Agent May all these years [on Agents of SHIELD] with long flowing Marvel hair, I wanted to make this character, who’s also such a badass, very different, very stark in a way.”
The costume is a leathery, broad-shouldered armor. “The designer, Joseph [Porro,] came up with this amazing outfit that I fell in love with right away,” Wen said. “It’s black, but then there’s the fennec orange punch to it. So that’s kind of like her brand, I guess.”
Lastly, what is her weapon of choice?
“She has quite a few weapons because she’s a very skilled fighter,” Wen said. “Just her body is a weapon in and of itself. And she does carry…a big, big gun. A big boy.”
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