There's nothing like an offer of a regular role on the No. 1 show on TV to brighten your day. After two pilots she filmed last year failed to get picked up as series, actress Ming-Na was bumming.
"I was kind of depressed," she said. "Then I got a phone call from my agent saying, 'ER' wants you back, and I was thrilled. There's nothing better for an actor than being asked to do a job."
Ming-Na returns as Deb Chen in tonight's episode at 10 on NBC. She had a recurring role in the show's first season as an ambitious third-year medical student who butted heads with John Carter (Noah Wyle). At the end of her story arc she messed up a medical procedure and decided to forgo medicine because she wasn't interested enough in the patients.
But now, Chen's back.
"We figured that she decided that being a doctor felt too good," said Ming-Na, who grew up in Pittsburgh, graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School and studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University. "It is something she really liked, so she went to New York and got her training there and for whatever reason decided to come back home, maybe to confront her demons in the ER ward in Chicago."
Ming-Na said Chen and Carter pick up where they left off, but they're a little mellower with age.
"I think one of the reasons why I was brought back was because in the back of their minds there was a good chemistry between Carter and Chen," Ming-Na said. "It's nice that they remembered."
When she last appeared on "ER," Ming-Na was credited as Ming-Na Wen. She dropped Wen two Christmases ago after having a picture taken with her family -- who go by her stepfather's last name, Yee -- and her husband's family -- the Zees.
"I had the Yees on one side and Zees on the other, and I was the only Wen," Ming-Na said. "Wen was my real father's last name and it didn't fit anymore. For whatever psychological reason, I was holding onto that name, and I wanted to get rid of it. It didn't feel right to keep it for professional reasons.
"So now I'm like Ann-Margret, because she's got the hyphen, too," Ming-Na said. "I'm the Asian Ann-Margret."
Ming-Na was back in Pittsburgh in early December, surprising her mom, Lin Chan Yee.
"I called her from my cell phone outside her door," Ming-Na said. "I'm talking to her on the cell phone and rang the doorbell. She was so shocked!"
She'll be back again sometime in the next few months to film a Head & Shoulders commercial in her family's Downtown restaurant, the Chinatown Inn.
In addition to "ER," Ming-Na has several projects she'd like to develop, including a reality series for women she's pitching to various cable networks.
She's also talking to HBO about a film based on Japanese-American Iva Toguri, who was known as Tokyo Rose during World War II.
"She's an amazing human being and a die-hard American who was completely destroyed by the propaganda and issues that happened back then," Ming-Na said. "I'm very interested in Asian-American stories, because there's just not enough of them. We're part of America, we're not foreigners. My parents' restaurant has been in Pittsburgh for three generations."
Ming-Na's interest in Asian-American life will see its way into her "ER" character, who also returns with a slightly altered name.
"She wants to embrace her culture a little more," Ming-Na said. "Hopefully a direction we'll go with her explores what being an Asian-American is like."
And this time, she plans no abrupt departures from "ER," which she left to star in the short-lived sitcom "The Single Guy."
"I want to be the Susan Lucci of 'ER' and stay with the show for its run," Ming-Na said. "I was still green five years ago. Now I know a good thing when I see it."