In this interview with Close-up Culture, actor Tzi Ma talks about his role in Tom Krantz and John Wirth’s action-crime series, Wu Assassins.
Ma also discusses the success of family drama The Farewell, memories of working with Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams on Arrival, his upcoming role in Disney’s Mulan, and more.
Q: ‘Wu Assassins’ launches this month. I noticed your character, Mr. Young, has a bloodied face in one of the trailers. Can you tell us about Mr. Young and how he fits into this story?
A: Wu Assassins takes place in San Francisco Chinatown and ‘Mr. Young’ is the neighborhood grocer, philosopher, a Vietnam war vet., and ‘Kai’s (Iko Uwais) mentor.
Often Chinatown is nothing more than just a backdrop to action. In our show, our Chinatown is a community of people. And that includes our hero of the show.
Q: The show features two of the entertainment industry’s most thrilling action stars, Iko Uwais (‘The Raid’) and Mark Dacascosn (‘John Wick: Chapter 3’). What was it like being on set and seeing these two martial arts experts in full flow?
A: These gentlemen truly elevate the “art” in martial arts. We, the cast, are no strangers to martial arts and we feel blessed to have them in the show.
Q: Lulu Wang’s family drama, ‘The Farewell’, is out in US cinemas and will release in the UK this September. How has it felt to see this story get such a warm reception from audiences and critics?
A: Feels pretty terrific! It’s a real boost to all the independent filmmakers who struggle to make these very personal stories, which are often underfunded and face an uphill battle to get it to the theaters.
I did another film recently, A Shot Through The Wall, a film which, in my view, is equally compelling, but has not been given a chance for the world to see. Let’s hope The Farewell will help change that.
Q: Did you form a special bond with Lulu Wang, Awkwafina and the rest of the team working on such an emotional story?
A: Yes. We have become very close.
Q: Alan Yang’s ‘Tigertail’ will be coming to Netflix soon. What interested you about this multi-generational story and the character you play?
A: Again, this is another very personal story about Alan’s family as the foundation to our narrative. I am always attracted to personal struggles and journeys that we are forced to confront.
My character, Grover, is the patriarch who goes through a romantic love gain and love lost (rare for a Asian-American man to be seen romantically in our cinema, god forbid). I was attracted to Grover’s complexity. I was attracted to how flawed he was.
Q: You starred in one of my favourite films of this decade, ‘Arrival’. What are your memories of working with on that project with Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams?
A: They are both lovely to work with. Denis watched our rehearsal; explained how he was going to shoot it and just let me and Amy play. It was a beautiful fandango with two great dance partners.
Q: I love the scene you are in as ‘Arrival’ reaches its emotional and mind-blowing climax. What is your favourite film or TV scene you’ve acted in?
A: I have too many favorites. I will name a few to satisfy the question. Arrival is one. I did a scene in The Quiet American with Michael Caine about what it means to be human in war, is another.
A scene in the up-and-coming Mulan with the very talented Liu YiFei was most moving to do. A reunion scene between father and daughter.
Interrogating Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer in 24 was pretty cool. I have to say a scene in Wu Assassins when Mr. Young is trying to convince Kai (Iko) to not to go through with a plan by recounting the horror of a death by poisoning in war.
Q: You keep extremely busy. How did you select the roles you take?
A: Very carefully. No. Not so. I’ve been extremely fortunate and lucky more than most to have these roles offered to me. I just try to focus simply by what moves me about a story. That’s how I select.
Q: What do you love – or appreciate most – about your job?
A: What I appreciate the most my job is working with so many talented people with a single focus to make the best film or TV show possible.
Q: I cannot end this interview without touching more on the fact that you will play ‘Zhou’ – Mulan’s father – in Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Mulan’. How special does it feel to be involved in this project? And can you reveal anything about it yet?
A: Feels like the chosen one. It’s exactly what I mean about a group of very talented people with a single focus to make the very best film possible. The added incentive is an all Asian-American cast in a huge budgeted film. You feel validated that people are willing to make a big investment in you.
Working with Niki Caro (director), Mandy Walker (DOP), and Yifei, these woman warriors, every day were beyond my wildest dreams! I like everything about where the film is going, and that is going with the legend of Fa Mulan more so than the animation.
You already know I am playing the father and that’s all I can talk about really.
Title photo by Diana Ragland