Ming-Na Wen of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Talks Agent May Day

On the latest big reveals in "Melinda," and women in the Marvel universe

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Since day one, the hard-nosed Agent Melinda May has been one of the most popular characters on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not to mention the most mysterious. Veiled references to a past incident in Bahrain and an unwanted nickname (“The Cavalry”) were vaguely implied to have affected her in a big way. This week, we learned the whole truth (spoilers ahead)—Melinda’s soul (and marriage) had been crushed after she was forced to gun down a young “gifted” girl who had lost control of her powers, as well as her mind. May’s actions, as well as the guilt that came from them, affected her permanently, and those long-dormant feelings will likely play into her role in dealing with the emergence of more super-powered “inhumans” (including her SHIELD teammate, Skye). Paste caught up with Wen to talk about her character’s explosive past and possible future.

Paste Magazine: Even after almost two years of speculation, how shocked were you to learn the real story of “The Cavalry”? 
Ming-Na Wen: It was very shocking to find out why Agent May left the field after Bahrain. For her, she was in a very maternal state of mind and was excited to start a family with [her then-husband] Andrew.  She was also very adamant to remain a working woman, and told Coulson she was staying in the field even after having a baby. In Bahrain, she was confronted with an enemy she was not prepared to fight, let alone having to make a decision to put that threat down. It was a little girl who was gifted and evil. When May had to make that decision and kill the little girl, it brought on so much guilt and doubt about her being able to be a good mother, or perhaps a good person, May eventually retreated from everything.  She didn’t want to feel or remember that horrific incident. It devastated her. 

Paste: It’s a dark story, but was it at least fun to play a pre-traumatized, more “human” Melinda May? 
Wen: Yes, I really enjoyed exploring who she was before Bahrain—before she became “The Cavalry.”  I read up on PTSD and had a better understanding as to why May was so serious and never smiled or showed too much emotion.  It wasn’t because she didn’t feel or have them. If anything, her emotions were too intense and she had to avoid or compartmentalize them so she could function. So getting the chance to play May in love with life and full of hope for her future with Andrew was fun and freeing for me. I was able to smile freely and be more coy or playful with both Andrew and Coulson. That’s a huge character change and such a breath of fresh air!  She was still focused and serious when it came to being a SHIELD agent, but she did it with a sense of purpose and conviction that’s different from the Agent May you see now. 

Paste: How do you think that the “Cavalry” incident shaped her feelings toward gifted individuals?
Wen: She’s definitely not planning on inviting them over for a dinner party anytime soon!  She’s seen first-hand what gifted individuals are capable of doing, and is very wary of trusting them.  She views them as iconoclasts, just looking out for themselves because they are so powerful. 

Paste: And it obviously plays into her feelings about how to handle Skye.
Wen: May is uncertain about how to handle Skye. I believe her biggest fear is that one day she may have to put Skye down too, if she ever loses control of her power, or strays, and uses her powers for evil. That’s why she encourages Skye to control her feelings and focus on controlling her special new skills. There’s hope that with May’s training and influence, Skye can remain a SHIELD agent, even though she’s on the Index.

Paste: And how do you feel that day affected the relationship between Melinda and Coulson?
Wen: I think it brought them closer on the one hand, but completely separated them as colleagues.  Agent May left the field and left any plans of joining Coulson under [SHIELD Director Nick] Fury’s plans to create the Avengers. The trauma fractured their working relationship, but May is forever bonded to Coulson for being such a great friend when she broke down.

Paste: The present-day part of this episode was the first time we’ve seen Agent May appear to question Coulson’s actions. Is that motivated by a breach in mutual trust at the same time that she is beginning to trust Agent Gonzales?
Wen: Once May learned from Simmons that Coulson had a secret meeting with her ex, Andrew, she developed serious doubts about his game plan. It became very personal, and the fact that Coulson is doing all this behind her back is hurtful and confusing. I see Agent May joining ranks with Agent Gonzales so that she can be in the inner circle of their organization and obtain control of the base again. Right now, she doesn’t trust anyone fully…well, except maybe for Simmons. She hugs May. How can one not trust someone who gives out hugs?

Paste: As we look back on this season, we’ve seen other women agents like Bobbi Morse emerge, while Simmons and Skye have both become much more capable in a fighting sense. With the success of Agent Carter and other female characters in recent Marvel films, can we expect the trail you helped blaze to lead to women in even more powerful positions in the Marvel Universe?
Wen: I know the Marvel Universe has many more strong female characters that haven’t been brought to life yet. It’s a great feeling to think we are trailblazers in this area because I always want to represent our gender in a positive light. What’s wonderful about Marvel characters is that they’re not just super heroes. They all have great humanity and purpose, but they are also flawed with doubt, guilt and insecurities. They are inspiring and relatable characters. So I love hearing fans—especially the young girls and women—tell me that Agent May inspires them. That’s one of the best parts of my job as an actress!