Interview by: Orchee Sorker | Photos by: Diana Ragland | May 26, 2022
Tzi Ma talks with HAZZE MEDIA about his story, role as Zhou in the Disney live-action Mulan, AAPI representation in Hollywood, and wisdom for aspiring POC creatives in this industry.
How did you begin your career in Hollywood? Why did you decide to become an actor?
T: I started really young. I had really good teachers in junior high school. I came from NYC. New York has a really strong theater tradition. My art teacher (Ms. Hopper) and math teacher (Mr. Goodman) were both Broadway enthusiasts, and they would find time to do field trips to Broadway. The first musical I saw was Annie Get Your Gun. The school play is the event of the year, right? They created a drama club and I was invited. The first play I did was also Annie Get Your Gun where I played Buffalo Bill. It gave me an opportunity to kind of circumvent a lot of the racism that was happening at the time because I was kind of a minor celebrity in school, so that really helped. That kind of planted the seed for my love in acting. I started doing a lot of theater in New York for the first, probably first 25 years of my career, mainly. I had an opportunity to do a play in 1988 called In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe by Eric Overmeyer. That play was written for me and I did the four characters in that play. In 1988, that was the first writers’ strike in town. There was no, no work and they all came to see the play in Orange County. They were like, “Nice to meet you and saw your play. We like what you did and you are a New York actor.” Back in the day, New York was seen as having better actors. Anyways, the writers went back to work the following Monday, and I was working on Wednesday. The first TV show I did in Los Angeles was LA Law. I had the intention of going back to New York. Then, I realized that film and television is such an incredible medium, it has such a bigger, wider reach than the theater. I was going to at least give an opportunity to change perception of who we are. You know, in Hollywood, because there's already a lot of damage done in terms of who we are, how we have been portrayed. Since then, all the projects I was involved in hopefully made an impact.
You have many years of experience in the industry. How has representation on screen and in the industry changed over the years?
T: In the last 10 years, there has been significant change in the industry – I believe because there are more people of color involved behind the camera. Diverse people who are involved in writing, producing, etc. I think that's really important. We produced some really wonderful things. As actors, everything comes from that page. Right? And if the page is already challenging, that means we have to work many, many times harder to try to flush out the character, trying to lift them off the page. Lately, all the stories have been able to give us multiple levels.
A lot of times negative portrayal, to me, is anything we do too much of. So if all of us are doctors, then it’s not so good. I think diversity is really important. In diversity, meaning not only our make up as a cast but also the roles. It’s important that the world sees us in all of these different shapes.
You played Mulan’s father ‘Zhou’ in the live-action Mulan which was released back in March 2020. It was considered a success. Even though, the release was during the start of the pandemic where most theaters were closed and streaming brought in a lot of revenue, increased subscribers, and downloads for Disney Plus. All to say, what was your favorite scene when shooting? How do you think the release of Mulan during that time affected its audience? Do you think it would have been different if it was released now?
T: Well, if it was released now, it would be seen in theaters. Mulan is a really epic cinematic experience. These are some things that need to be enjoyed in the theater. It was our misfortune that it premiered the day before everything shut down…at least people got to see it. We spent a lot of effort and time and money making it. I hope maybe Disney will think about re-releasing it in theaters. I think it's really important that the story is told. It's a love of family and a young lady who took huge steps. The love really is between father and daughter. I think that's important to show the audience. In our culture, we tend to favor boys. This image of a father daughter relationship is compelling.
My favorite scene is the reunion scene when Mulan gets to come back home. The scene embraced the fact that she is the most important thing in Zhou’s life. Not all his glory and being a hero, but that he gets his daughter back home.
You also star in CW’s “Kung Fu”. Kung Fu was originally a show released in the 1970s. How was filming the new adaptation of “Kung Fu”? What aspects from the original show do you think has changed?
T: It's very different from the original show. The original show stars a supposedly half Asian monk in the Wild West. Our vision was a young woman who is in present day San Francisco. Our hero is a heroine, as opposed to a hero. We promote the love of a family that encourages their children to pursue their endeavors as opposed to dictating what they should be. Our delivery device obviously is the martial arts because the martial arts is really exciting and it's something that I believe crosses all ethnic lines. Something that is easily absolved.
It shows how we relate to one another and all the trials and tribulations of any family. If you won, we would be able to see the universality of the family dynamic. This has been a dream project for me. I feel that the character of the Asian dad is a very positive portrayal. Our dads, you know, a lot of times they're so wrapped up in providing and maybe a little lacking in terms of emotional support to our children. In this portrayal of the father, they can see that providing needs and love are both important.
For aspiring creatives who are POC wanting to work in the entertainment industry, what is one advice you would like to give to be successful? What do you hope we as the younger generation can accomplish? How can we help bring equal representation in Hollywood?
T: Do not be afraid to tell your story, and don't let other people dictate what your story should be. Tell your story and the audience will find you. Don't compromise. Really stick to your guns and eventually you will succeed. The more you compromise, the more you'll be unhappy about it. Success is not about having it right; success is about having it done.