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Agent of change

Ming-Na's role as an FBI agent in Vanished is quite a departure from the other characters she has played on television.

Published August 21, 2006


"I love my gun," Ming-Na exclaims as a prop man secures a heavy weapon in the holster under her neat, brown jacket.

A name tag identifies her as FBI agent Lin Mei, a member of the investigative team probing the mysterious disappearance of the wife of a U.S. senator from Georgia.

That's the plot line for the premiere season of Vanished, the serial thriller Fox debuts tonight as it kicks off the fall TV season by pairing it with the return of its hit Prison Break for a second season.

The role is more than a few action sequences away from Ming-Na's previous TV characters: Dr. Deb Chen of NBC's ER and attorney Rachel Lu in that network's short-lived Inconceivable.

"It's so much fun to have this incredible fantasy of playing this strong, brave woman," Ming-Na says, chatting between camera setups outside the Paramount Studios sound stage where Vanished is produced.

She stresses the fantasy part: "(Lin Mei) is completely opposite of who I am. If there's just a spider, I'll run the other way!"

That's hard to believe considering Ming-Na's lively persona.

Married to music producer and actor Eric Zee, the 42-year-old mother of two young children laughs heartily when told how young and fit she looks.

"I lead a happy life, and I have good genes, and my kids keep me young," she says. "You only get one life. You have to have a good time!"

Ming-Na is her first name and means "enlightenment" in Chinese, she says, amused but also frustrated by American confusion over such names, despite their distinct syllables.

"It still amazes me how people butcher and mix it up. . . . You can say Schwarzenegger, but you can't say Ming-Na," she says, laughing.

She had kept her father's name, Wen, after her mother remarried, but she dropped it when she married Zee.

Born in the Chinese territory of Macau, she had little recollection of her father, having moved from nearby Hong Kong to America with her mother when she was a small child.

But about a year ago, she met up with her dad and has stayed in touch. "It put a lot of pieces of the puzzle together. . . . He's a nice guy," she says.

Ming-Na hopes that ethnic actors appearing in TV series will become so natural that they won't be notable and their roles won't be necessarily hooked to ethnicity.

"I embrace my culture. I love my culture. I love my language. I love my food. It's all part of me," she says. "But, at the same time, what I've been really happy about in my career is that I've continuously gotten roles that were not specifically written Asian."

That's what happened on Vanished.

Ming-Na met with the producers for the role of investigative reporter Judy Nash. Rebecca Gayheart got that part, but the FBI agent role was offered in its place. It's been beefed up considerably from the pilot episode, to capitalize on what show creator Josh Berman calls Ming-Na's "strength and sensitivity."

The large ensemble cast includes Esai Morales, John Allen Nelson, Penelope Ann Miller and Josh Hopkins. Gale Harold plays Graham Kelton, the senior FBI agent and Lin's partner.

Some TV critics have questioned the wisdom of Fox adding another serialized drama to a schedule that already has 24 and Prison Break.

With so many serialized shows on the air - ABC's Lost is another - would viewers find time to keep up with the plot of this complex mystery set in a modern political arena but influenced by historical events?

Berman, who worked on the first six seasons of CSI, thinks the issue is exaggerated.

"We are in good company, and I also think that every episode, although more questions are asked, we also answer questions," Berman says. "So, hopefully, audiences will leave each episode wanting to know more, but also feeling like they've got another piece of the puzzle."

Ming-Na finds the serialized form intriguing.

"It's like reading a wonderful mystery novel. I can't wait for the next script because I'm dying to find out how the mystery is unfolding," she says. "The writers tell us nothing, absolutely nothing."

[Last modified August 21, 2006, 05:41:18]

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