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Tzi Ma on the power of changing perceptions through art

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

Tzi Ma, star of The Farewell, Mulan, Arrival and The Ladykillers, talks to us about his acting career, advice for new actors and for filmmakers on working with actors, waiting for the right project to play a villain onscreen, and the freedom that comes with wider ranging roles for Asian-American actors.

Photo Credit: Diana Ragland

"Well, we're in a bit of a soup."

When I sit down with Tzi Ma, we begin by discussing the current state of the world. In particular, how a certain former President has churned up of some ugly elements of American society that had previously been bubbling just below the surface - elements that were all too keen to jump on the idea of a 'Chinese virus', and use it as another excuse to extol racist ideals and abuses.

Such was the hate and vitriol the Asian American community was faced with - and Asian communities around the world - Ma was compelled to post a video addressing it on his Twitter account. It's almost a year since the video was posted, and sadly, it's still just as relevant. Had the removal on January 20th of the most offending ingredient in the aforementioned soup helped?

"Unfortunately, soup leaves a residue. It's actually gotten worse, because it's a much bigger problem than him. He dug stuff up and the roaches came running out."

Photo Credit: Nancy Wong

We turn our attention back to the purpose of our chat - Ma's incredible career. There's no doubt you will have seen his work, but what is perhaps less known, is the road he took to make it.

"Acting was something that I wanted to do at a very early age. So that helps, knowing what you want to do. It began in elementary school. I enjoyed doing plays, and then in Intermediate School it was even more intense. Interestingly, the school play has always been a very popular event for the year, and being a minority you find ways to gain acceptance, right? So, doing drama, doing plays, was one way of doing that. That really pushed it along. Then once I became a young adult, and decided that's what I really wanted to do, I was relentless. You have to be relentless."

"Everyone knows that starting out in this business is never easy. You want to find ways to facilitate that by finding jobs that pay you OK, but don't take time away from your goal. I drove a taxi in New York City, which helped a lot because I had the night shift. You're supposed to begin about 4pm, but you can begin a little later and knock off earlier. You need to find things that are flexible, and to keep your needs to a minimum. You can't go thinking about a Lamborghini, you have to stick with the Hyundai! Make sure you don't have the kind of financial strain that's going to force you to make decisions not conducive to your career. Your choices matter. What you pick and choose to do is important."

Making choices in which work pays the bills is one thing, but Ma believes in being just as selective when deciding which acting opportunities to take as they appear.

"When starting out, I think contrary to conventional wisdom, which is to do anything. My personal feeling is, particularly for minority or actors of colour, we need to be choosy. We need to fine tune ourselves. If you do anything, then you don't really have any taste. Develop a sense of things that you really want to do, because when it's things you really want to do, you excel. Doing things because you need the money usually leads to, 'Oh my God. How did I get myself into this one? And how do I get myself out of it?' There is no way out, it's film and TV, this stuff is forever! You're not gonna get away with any of it. So, I think it's important to develop a sense of good taste."

FOB (1980)

Ma began developing his taste treading the boards, on and off Broadway, in his native New York.

"I've had the good fortune of working with some brilliant playwrights who believed in what I could do. They gave me the opportunity, and I took full advantage. Opportunities that came in quick succession, too. I was able to do a number of good plays by two of the most brilliant playwrights in America.

"One was David Henry Hwang, who wrote some beautiful plays and lent voices to our community. I'm always grateful and indebted to him. Eric Overmyer was another, pretty much an American Shakespeare. Working with him, I was able to deal with language in a way I'd never dealt before. Both are so gifted, now with thriving careers in television, so the proof is in the pudding, that the cream always rises to the top. And what I mean by that is, perseverance. The cream needs time to rise to the top. If you persevere, if you stick around and if you believe it enough, you're gonna be the cream."

The Ladykillers (2004)

As with most actors who begin their careers on the stage, the transition to screen acting was a period of significant adjustment.

"Oh, absolutely! Even today, sometimes you forget how powerful and how much of a microscope the camera is. So you really have to bear that in mind, you need to be very truthful. On stage, it's always a wide shot, with the audience at a distance. In film and television, the audience is sitting on top of you, looking you right in the eyeballs! You learn to negotiate the fact that this machinery has such an intense and watchful eye on you.

"The cinematographers and camera operators have their thing going on too, right? Although I must say, the good ones, they're invisible. You take a guy like Roger Deakins, you'd never know he's there, or any of his crew. Christopher Doyle, too. That's what separates the good ones from the exceptional ones. They know they're not there just to photograph someone, but there to capture a performance that tells a story."

Not only has Ma worked with some of the great cinematographers, he's worked with many great directors too. When working with new directors, what common trappings has he seen them fall into that he would advise others against?

"That's a very good question. I think, given the fact that new and young directors and a little bit inexperienced, it's about their confidence, right? When they're unsure, they over cover. They over shoot. If you do that, you start relying only on the technical aspects of capturing a scene, and then you're in something of a paint-by-numbers situation. Don't question your instincts. The more you trust your instincts, the more you develop good ones.

"It's also about trust, how you as a director create a safe space for the actors to explore and feel they can do no wrong. That's a really important lesson, I believe."

Mulan (2020)

When asked about some of the standout collaborations in his career, he's quick to reference his recent working relationship with director Niki Caro on Disney's live action remake of Mulan.

"Oh, man, I'm telling you, there's nothing like it when you have a good collaborator. Niki Caro is an amazing director. She shows tremendous trust in what you can bring, and that she made the right decision to hire you in the first place. She had a great rapport with Mandy Walker, another brilliant DP. She's really well prepared, she never wastes time. She sees something that we all agree is a good take, she moves on. That's very well welcoming, because some scenes cannot be done too many times. You lose the spontaneity, the emotionality, when you start to repeat things.

"Alan Yang is a great, fun director to work with. Phillip Noyce is a very intelligent director. He will prepare you like no other director. He gives you all the material, all the reasons to be who you are in the character. The Coen brothers are fantastic. They involve you in every aspect of production, they never shy away from bringing you in the room and make decisions together. The ones that I like to work with all the time, are the ones who trust you, who create a safe space for you to work."

The Farewell (2019)

Ma was thrilled to be part of such an international cast of Asian actors, not just Asian-American, in Mulan. While an all Asian cast is not new to film, it is new for a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.

"Absolutely. There are other Asian American cast films, but they're mostly independent films that are not financially supported very well. You really have to have to make a lot of compromises just to be in those projects, you're lucky if you get coffee money [laughs]. So to have an epic film such as Mulan so brilliantly supported by Disney, these things don't really happen for us. To have this huge Asian cast from around the globe? It's terrific. And it was a pleasure to see these young actors thriving. I think they are very fortunate to have been able to work with a director like Niki Caro. That's their yardstick of a director now."

I ask he's seen improvement in representation of the Asian and Asian-American community in film and television across the course of his career.

"Absolutely. No question. And there are many reasons for that. I think, most importantly, is that the business is much more of a global business now. You don't just worry about the box office in North America anymore, the global box office is taking a lot more centre stage. So the business itself has changed. I also think we have a lot more people of colour behind the camera, and that's hugely significant. Before, writers, directors and DPs who are people of colour didn't get that opportunity to participate.

"There's one fascinating story of this Chinese-American guy who went to film school some years ago in UCLA, and he couldn't get a job anywhere in the industry. No one would give him a chance. So, he went to the porn industry because that was the only job he could get... and then he became very good! He discovered some interesting porn talent and he was one of the first guys who actually did stories. I mean, everybody knows it's a porno, but his was like James Bond, you know? He just wanted to direct, and nobody gave him a chance. A character in the film Boogie Nights was based on this Chinese-American director, and Dirk Diggler was based on someone he discovered."

Putting the power of filmmaking into more diverse hands, is something that really can help shape a better society. Shaping perceptions through art is something Ma wholeheartedly believes in. Especially, in the face of any advice that discourages those who want to pursue a career path that's far from certain.

"Asian American, or Asian parents, can be very specific about what success is, right? Now the paradigm has changed a bit, but I always say to Asian parents, 'Look, if your kid has a knack for writing, give them a pen. If they start shooting footage on their phone, give them a camera. They don't have to be doctor'. I encourage that. I think what we do is a noble profession. We have the opportunity to change millions of minds in one sitting, if you can imagine a film being in 1000 screens. It's amazing that you're able to communicate a point of view, and you can change perceptions of who you are, who we are, or how you're being perceived.

"And the beauty of it is, they want to be there! Nobody says 'Sit down, I'm gonna preach to you now.' People pay their money to be there, and that's half the game won already. They're much more receptive to the stories they're seeing and hearing. And given the situation we're in today, we need all the help we can get to communicate the fact that we are a lot more similar than different, and when we are different, these are things to be embraced. Films and TV shows are very powerful tools to help stem the tide of systemic racism, and hopefully, we can make a difference."

With that in mind, does he feel an added weight of responsibility when choosing the roles in which he will be seen on screen?

"Actually, a lighter weight. Now I can forget some of the things that constrained me early in my career when I would say 'I cannot do that'. It's important for us to be multifaceted in the way we're seen. So the more multifaceted we appear, the less pressure I feel. For the longest time, I refused to be the antagonist in a film, because that's all we'd get. We were always the bad guy, and it was always the white knight coming in on a white horse, saving the damsel in distress. I didn't want that. I shied away from that until the right project, which was Rapid Fire with Brandon Lee. He was the hero. He was the guy who came in on a white horse and saved the day. So I said, 'You know what? I can be a bad guy in this film'. And I'm a good bad guy!"

Rapid Fire (1992)

And how was it finally playing a villain in Rapid Fire?

"It's so much fun to be a bad guy! Are you kidding me? You don't have to do anything, you just point a finger and say, 'Go there! Do that!'. Then you get to fight the hero, and then make him more heroic because he beats the crap out of you. We serve a purpose, right? That's what it's about. You're useful in the telling of the story. So, if I can make an Asian American hero more heroic, all the better. And I can be pretty bad! I can make you hate me!

"So, that was my first and after that, because the film was very successful, all these bad guy roles started coming in. I said no to all of them, until I felt there was enough representation of what we do, in terms of what you see. Then I saw that, and that freed me. Now I know there is a good balance for us to be seen in a different light. Now I can take on bad guy roles like in 24. So it's liberating, actually. I really like that I see a promising future for all the young actors I see coming up, so now, I feel like I am free to do whatever I want to do."

And looking back at his career, with everything he knows now, if there was one piece of advice he could give himself at the start, what would it be?

"Don't spend all your money! Especially when you get your first big job, because you've been broke for so damn long. I'm telling you, man. You go out and you just think, 'Oh my God, I got money in the bank and I'm so sick of being broke!' and you go crazy.

"In the television world, you sign a 5-year option, but that's just an option! You don't know if it's gonna happen. When you first sign, you think '5 year option? 5 years of easy street, baby!'. That's dangerous, it's not a good idea. Don't spend all your money."


Follow Tzi on Twitter and Instagram, and catch him in the series reboot of Kung Fu premiering on April 7.


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