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The Veteran Actor Changing Hollywood One Role At a Time

by Mimi Chen, AsAmNews Staff Writer

Hong Kong American actor Tzi Ma’s (pronounced “thai ma”) career has spanned over four decades. He has acted in everything from television shows such as The Man in the High Castle, 24, and films, like Dante’s Peak, Rush Hour, Rush Hour 3, Arrival, The Farewell, Tigertail, and Mulan. 

He currently stars in the Kung Fu reboot on the CW and AsAmNews recently chatted with Ma about his long-time career.

It was Ma’s mad math skills that led him to acting. He credits two junior high school teachers, his algebra teacher Mr. Goodman and his art teacher Mrs. Harper, with exposing him to the lure of Broadway.

They would take these trips to Broadway. Since Ma was a “fairly decent artist and a pretty good math student,” as a reward for the good grades they would scoop him up and whisk him to Broadway to watch the thespians of the day in action.

Ma enjoyed watching great performances from icons such as Ethel Merman and Pearl Baily. He loved the “iconic American musicals.” But something was missing. 

“I wasn’t impressed,” he said. “Because it’s the great white way, right?”

Still, the lack of Asian representation was not enough to deter his enthusiasm for acting.  His ardor helped instigate the installment of a drama club in junior high school. Being a member of the club gave him additional benefits because as a kid, he was often the target of racist bullying where he had papers being nabbed and tossed all over the floor.

“If you are in the play, then people kind of see you a little differently,” Ma said. “My first performance was in Annie Get Your Gun and I played Buffalo Bill and in that little microcosm, we were the hot kids on the block, right?  And it really circumvented a lot of the racism in the beginning of the year in which I was getting name calling every day.”

When asked how it felt paving the way for Asian actors, he replied it wasn’t premeditated, “It’s not something you sit there and go, okay, I’m going to pave the way.” 

He feels that if “you do your work, you do your job, and you give your best effort, you take full advantage because it’s not about the opportunities. It’s about what you do with the opportunities.  I don’t want to be just an actor. That is being a puppet.. Hopefully I give a performance that’s a little different and people will see it and say, wow, that’s a performance.”

Actors often have a ‘process’ but for Ma, when he obtains a script, he says, “the first thing I examine is whether I can salvage it. If I can’t, no, but that’s my job, right?” He notes the reason for that is because he’s seen many scripts written by people who may not “necessarily know who you are,” he says.  Part of the problem, he claims, is because of the way television works, “you have a staff of writers and the writers, they have to have assignments where they say, ‘We’re going to do an Asian episode.’”

When the TV writer’s room is predominantly white, middle-aged male, he asks, “What do they know about us exactly? Not too much.” 

Asked if he read for many stereotypical roles, he responded.  “Well, like I said, when you read something, you want to know where you are. Stereotypes, stereotypes. They’re degrees. You want to see whether or not this writer, because of his lack of knowledge of who we are, is writing something to intentionally belittle us.”

“We need to be very clear. When you do these things and you see, you try to discern rather or not, this is something that is a lack of knowledge. I think most young actors really need to know that because this business is full of egos, people always think they know better.”

Ma says the pandemic has changed the audition process. Actors mostly use self-tape auditions, but he hopes the in-person process comes back soon because when you have a room full of decision-makers, he is able to discuss what he wants to do with the role.

Many times, the concept behind the character doesn’t seem clear in the script. He cited an example where a character he auditioned had a Vietnamese name Vin.  Vin had left Cambodia, travels to America where he is pursued by the Tongs, a Chinese criminal gang. 

When you audition in person, they always ask, “Do you have any questions?”
leaving him room to ask, ”So what ethnicity is this person? Vietnamese. Is he Cambodian? Is he Chinese? What is he? Who is this guy? It’s confusing.”

Ma continues, “And then I said, can you tell me who this guy is? And if they’re sincere, they will know what’s going on.  They say, you know what? They seem confused. They don’t know who we are, and they don’t say it. They don’t say that, but you see it in their faces and they look at each other, and that’s when you have your opening.”

“You know what? I have an idea. I just want to share this with you. This is my take. I think Vin is an ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, which a lot of them are. And he’s a boat person. So in order to leave Vietnam, he ended up in Cambodia. So he’s not Cambodian. He had an opportunity to land in Cambodia in the refugee camp, and he was able to be pulled over to America. So he’s epic Chinese. And he probably ended up in China. But he doesn’t really speak Chinese because he’s Vietnamese. So what happens? He got in trouble with the criminal element in Chinatown, the Tongs, right? So he’s being pursued by the Tongs. I said, ‘What do you guys think of that?’”

“You put together a whole storyline for a character. And you can see that they were relieved. Interesting, because these guys had an assignment… to write an Asian episode. So they go rent everything from Blockbuster because, back in the day, that’s where you go to learn about Asia. Apparently it’s a composite. It’s the things they viewed. And they threw it together, but they really didn’t really understand how that could happen. So instead of a stereotypical character, now you have a character that has some kind of body and meaning and flesh and blood within reason.”

When asked if this is his way of educating the Hollywood community, he says, he “never looked at it that way.” He approaches the situation as professional, trying to figure out how to lift this character off the page. 

“I never go in there and say, I’m going to teach you a lesson,” Ma said. “I’m going to tell you what we’re about. No, I can’t do that. Again, it’s about the ego. People don’t want to be told.”

Ma recounted a film project where they wanted to keep the stereotype, including a rickshaw, which didn’t exist in China at that point.  He made an effort to discuss the script to make the scene more realistic and in tune with the times, but they still wouldn’t budge. In the end, he shook hands with the director saying, “Thank you very much for the opportunity. I don’t think I’m the actor for you, so I wish you the best.”  He said he turned around and walked out.  Apparently, the project was never made.

Ma has found himself cast many times as a villain, which he relishes because, “you get to order everyone around.”  But is still fond of his dad roles too saying he loves the variety.  He especially enjoys the role he currently plays as dad of the main character in the CW reboot of Kung Fu.

Ma says his character is a special dad.  

“It is something,” he said, “I discussed with the creator Christina Kim, one of our finest first woman Asian American showrunners. We were not represented in that area before, but now we’re changing. So we talked about that. We want this dad to be a dad of Asian descent and who is loving, caring, who values daughters and their challenges and encourages them to explore and not be full of judgment. You have a runaway child going to the monster. You see him actually go to China and see with his own eyes how much this means to this child of his in the monastery that she belongs there. So that’s the dad. This is important. I want an Asian American dad that has a much more positive, supportive, warm spin to it instead of so much angst and turmoil and drama.”

When asked about favorite projects, Ma jokes, “that’s like asking which child you like better!”  But he did mention several, mostly film, such as The Farewell, where he was the dad to the Awkwafina character, The Arrival with Amy Adams and The Quiet American because he loved working with the director Phillip Noyce.

He is unsettled about current events, especially the violence towards Asian Americans.

“It’s important because obviously the situation is appalling. It is scary and it’s also upsetting. It raised my blood pressure and it’s not good for my health,” Ma said. “We need to do something more than what we’re doing now.  And really, I believe the answer is at the ballot boxes. Please participate. Join a party, man. Just do something, because that’s what’s going to make change, because otherwise nobody pays attention unless our votes count.”

Next year, Ma hopes to return to the stage to direct and also hopes to eventually have people appreciate the comedy side of his acting.  Watch him on the CW as the second season of Kung Fu returns to the air Wednesday March 9th, check local listings for time.

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