Tzi Ma is an esteemed actor who has been in the business since the 70s! He’s been in a plethora of television shows and movies. You’ve probably seen him in projects such as Rush Hour, Arrival, The Farewell, Mulan, Law & Order, Deadwood, and so much more. Ma’s recent project includes the upcoming CW show Kung Fu. The show is a remake of the original Kung Fu show, which premiered in the 70s.
Here is the synopsis:
Kung Fu follows a young Chinese American woman, Nicky Shen (played by Olivia Liang), who drops out of college and go on a life-changing journey to an isolated monastery in China. But when she returns to San Francisco, she finds her hometown is overrun with crime and corruption and her own parents Jin (Tzi Ma) and Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) are at the mercy of a powerful Triad
Ma was kind enough to sit down with me the other afternoon for a lovely conversation about Kung Fu, activism, and his future projects. This is the transcription of our interview, but I do wish you could have heard the audio or seen the video. Ma is incredibly kind and has a very soothing way of speaking. Needless to say, I’m a fan! Guess we’ll just have to have Ma back for another interview where I can use the audio!
Enjoy the interview below!
When I was first presented with the opportunity to speak with you, I was looking at your filmography and I was like, “Geez, he has been in a lot.” You’ve been in Arrival, you’ve been in Rush Hour, you’ve just been in so many projects, and Mulan, by the way, that was just out in 2020. And you’re in the upcoming CW show, Kung Fu. I was wondering if you could take a moment to describe your character. Who is he? What can we expect?
Okay. He is Jin. This is his name, Jin Chen. He’s the dad, he’s the patriarch of the family, and he is a person that puts his family ahead of himself. He’s very supportive of his children, and he is a dad that you might want to have as a dad, when you want a dad. So that’s the kind of dad he is, and that’s the kind of character he is in this show.
In the show, it centers around this young woman who, she drops out of college, she learns how to fight. From say, a dad’s perspective, how do you play that? Is he going to be very supportive of her decision to drop out of school, or does that cause tensions at first?
I think all parents want good for their children, no doubt. However, he also trusts the fact that he’s brought up his children right, that they’re independent-minded, they know how to discern right and wrong, they know that the choices they make is important for themselves. It’s part of growing. So I don’t, as this particular Jin, the dad, is that mistakes can happen. However, you can learn from them as well. So you really want that opportunity, that if you’re going to have a person who is independent, who has agency, particularly girls, that they should be afforded the opportunity, at least opportunity to succeed or fail. And I think that’s his attitude is that, “We’ll keep an eye out, we will make sure you’re okay. But you need to explore and make these decisions, and you will grow and you’ll get better at it.”
I can see already why you say that this is a dad that you would want. How was it working alongside Olivia Liang, who plays the lead character, Nicky?
Yeah. I feel that chemistry is something that you cannot anticipate, you cannot buy, you can’t pay for it, you can’t create it. If it’s there, it’s there. And we have chemistry. It’s just one of those things. We got very lucky. And I tell you, do not discount luck. It’s really important. You have to get lucky, and we do get along well. We have a certain synergy, we have a certain way of communicating without really spelling it out, so there’s a certain amount of shorthand that’s involved. She’s a very exciting young talent that I appreciate. Oftentimes, people will say, “Oh, you’re the veteran. You have been giving them pointers,” and all this stuff.
I’m going like, “No, man. I’m learning a lot from them,” because that is the situation. It’s a brave new world, and we need to keep an open mind. Just because you’re the older guy, it doesn’t mean you know everything. They are very exciting. This is an exciting young group of actors that I’m working with, and I’m very proud of them, they work hard. I see their work ethic, I see how they improve show after show, and these guys are very talented, and you haven’t seen anything yet.
The trailer looks so exciting, especially it looks like it’s different than what you see on the CW, because the CW has been say, a lot of DC superhero shows, and now we have this show that’s just a lot more grounded. It’s not a superhero, it’s just this young woman who is a formidable young woman, but it’s family it centers around. So even though the show is called Kung Fu, there’s going to be a lot of fighting, what would you say is at the core of the show?
Well, you’re getting two for the price of one. That’s what you’re getting. You get an action show and you get a family show. It is unique, I think, to the CW audience, and I hope they enjoy it. I think it’s something that I’m excited about because I have never done a CW show.
Oh, this is your first one? Cool.
Yes, this is my first CW show, and I’m excited. I’m excited about the audience base that the CW have, and they have wonderful shows.
It’s just I haven’t had the opportunity to be in one. So I know other people worked on the CW shows, and I’m excited to see what the outcome is.
Come on, give us a chance. Come watch the show.
Yes. I believe April 7th it comes out, so that’s very exciting. Did you guys film this in 2020?
Let’s see, 2020. What time is it?
[Laughs] I know.
Everything blurs, man. I’m telling you. So yes, we’re still shooting, so we’re into 2021. There you go, so 2020 and 2021.
I was going to ask, filming now seems to be so different than prior to 2020, because I see this a lot in pictures of other shows. What are the precautions that everyone has to take while filming this show?
Well, 2020 bleed right into 2021, so there’s no difference between the two years. It is harder. It takes more time. There are precautions, there are protocols set up by the studio. I think it’s very effective to have zones, and then the main cast have very little contact with anyone else in the working environment. Normally, it’s everything, just people hustling and bustling here and there. But there are only three people that really come close in contact with us, is hair makeup and sound, not even costume. So even costume, they have to put everything in a suit bag and then just leave it and you are on your own.
So really in that sense, we’ve been very successful keeping everything in check, but it does take longer, and it probably costs more. That I wouldn’t know because that’s the studio side. I’m sure they are like, “Oh my God, this is costing us a million dollars.” Anyway, rehearsals are a little more difficult because when you have a mask on, you don’t see the lips moving and then the mask also pushes against your eyes a little bit, so it’s harder to see too. So it does present some challenges, but we’ve gotten used to it now. Sometimes even shooting, we forgot to take the mask off.
I wish we didn’t have to because it is more difficult in hearing and seeing with the mask, but we understand. This is the way in rotating the cast then we have to leave if there’s tweaks, that you, “Oh the flag’s in the shot,” or something, we have to leave the room, they have to make the adjustments and stuff like that, and that’s necessary. So it just elongates the day a little bit, but we get things done. People are getting used to it.
Your character, on top of being a very understanding father, do we get to see him fight at all in the show?
Wow. You are planning to see it or something. We haven’t discussed it, so we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see how it goes. We’ll see how it pans out.
Is that something you’d want to do?
I’ve studied martial arts for a long time. I started when I was eight years old, so I’m not unfamiliar. I’ve done fights before on other shows. You’ve seen me probably, if you’ve seen other shows that I’ve done in film and television, I’ve had my chance for some action. But the young ones are good, let them take over. They can carry the heavy weight. I’ll be happy to do the talking by now.
Yeah. It looks so much fun, and it actually is a remake. How does that feel to be bringing a show like this back to TV?
Uh-huh (affirmative). I think the original show also was quite successful. It is intellectual property for Warners. And the fact that they had confidence enough, put us in that brand is very exciting, and we are grateful that they actually had that idea that we could propel the story. Not the story itself, but some ideas from the original show, I think you will see is the sense of the hero in our case, a human, seeking justice. So I think that’s very exciting, and particularly today’s day and age, I think we need to explore that a lot more, about seeking justice for all. Not just us, justice. So that’s a big difference.
I think the old show had the opportunity for a lot of Asian- American actors to show their talent because there weren’t that many opportunities for them, and I was blessed to be able to see the original in real time. So I was very excited to see all these wonderful actors be able to demonstrate how talented they are. And you are going to see the younger generation, the younger iteration of the Asian-American actor at this point, so I think you are going to be very excited with these. And they’re good looking. Oh my God, this is a good-looking cast. I’m just like, “Oh, okay. You all represent, go out there and carry the weight, man. I’m here to support you.”
We talked a little before about you being in just so many amazing projects. We mentioned Arrival, and we mentioned Mulan, Man in the High Castle. You were also in Wu Assassins, which I loved that show. That was amazing. Very addictive. You were also in episodes of Law and Order. Just again, your filmography is so long and that’s just fabulous. How do you go about picking your roles?
Carefully. I think particularly for actors of color, we have an added responsibility. I think under normal circumstances, if the playing field was equal, then you just do. You do whatever comes your way and you do the best job you can. For us, it’s a little bit different, I think. I think we need to exercise and develop our sense of good taste. I think we need to see characters that are three- dimensional because Hollywood has not done such a good job in the past on how to represent us. So we need to untie a lot of those expectations that are something that is not exactly representative of who we are. So that is something that we need to be cognitive of.
So that’s how I do it. I look at something and whether or not I could bring something to the table, whether or not, if not a three-dimensional character, can I make it a three-dimensional character? What can I do to help it? If I can’t, then I say no. I say, “Hey, thank you. Thanks for meeting you, and hopefully down the line, we can work together sometime again. But at this moment, I need to pass on this particular project,” because I don’t think I can help making it the way that I think that would help us. So really, I think choices matter. Choice is important. Words are important. All of these things are important. You got to keep that in mind.
I hope you don’t mind me going into a more serious direction, but from what I’ve been told, you do a lot of activism to help stop, frankly, this rise in hate crimes against the Asian community that’s happening recently. You’ve even worked alongside a US representative. What has that been like for you to rise up to that occasion, essentially?
I think my present experience with this whole thing is that it’s only news to you guys out there. It’s not news to us. We’ve seen this throughout, and I feel that the long-term solution, we’re on our way, but that takes time. People are talking about it, people are coming on board. We have a lot of allies, and that’s really important because this is a big fight. This is a big battle. We need everyone involved, and I think it needs to be a look back to the early civil rights movement, where everyone is involved of every color, people would take buses down to Selma to support it. So I think we need that kind of effort.
The immediate fixes are very difficult. I don’t have any answers for that, and it hurts me so, because we have seen mass killings now. We have seen our most vulnerable being attacked, senior citizens, the young, and kids being bullied in school. We need to do more. Personally, I think in the community, the police really should have decoys. I think they should dress up like senior citizens. At least plant the seed, then the next time you pushed an elderly Asian man or woman, and this is not crazy, because they’re the most vulnerable, 70% of the attacks are against women.
So we need to address that. I think they do decoys for everything else. I think they should do decoy. In terms of marching around with police cars, I’m not that crazy about it because I think we come from cultures where that’s been abused. So the abuse of that kind of power is weary to us. I think some is okay, but I think the decoy formula may do some help, and I think all of our martial arts schools should take their workouts outside. Forget the dojo, forget the guan, go outside, run around the block instead of the gym, show your presence. And martial arts schools are very diverse. We can see the unity and the diversity within that school. If they’re out in the neighborhood, I think that would do a lot of good.
Every day should be Lunar New Year. Bring out your drums, bring out your gong, bring out your flags, bring out the lions, and do your thing. Every day, you should be marching up and down, having fun, and showing the people we are vibrant, we are here, we are ready. It’s too quiet right now because of COVID. All the ethnic communities are suffering in a lot of ways. Businesses are going out of business. So I think we need a presence. This is my two cents about it because nothing works so far because it’s just every day I’m reading something about this violent, and we need to think a little bit outside the box.
For those who want to support, what would you suggest doing for people who are reading this, once I transcribe it, what would you suggest for them to do?
There’s so many things that we can do. Again, all of it is part of the long-term solution, so that’s going to take time. Immediate fixes, that’s a whole nother ball of wax. But right now, I think for the long term solution, donate to organizations in the communities that do good work, and we know who they are. You can always find out who they are. I ask everyone to speak up. You see something, say something. Support, really just to be there, to see that the most vulnerable of ourselves, because this could be your grandparents too. So I think empathy is a great deal that we need to access. Love, all that, that needs to happen. I call our own community you need to be aware and you need to rise up as well, and do not buy into the minority scenario because that doesn’t exist.
So we need to do all of those things. And I hope that people who are successful in our community step up. Finance is important. These organizations need money. Donate, help out. It’s important because it’s your future too. So just keep that in mind, that all of us have to pitch in, everyone. These kinds of crimes against one is against all, it is about humanity. So if you think you’re doing something, you could do more. We could all do more because it’s not just us, it’s global.
It’s global. So keep that in mind. So we’re not isolated. There are things that are happening around the world that hopefully, we could take the lead, hopefully we can show the world that we can do this. We can be together and overcome this hate. So we can take that position. I’m telling you, whatever the outcome, let the chips fall where they may. At least our effort is there. And just keep on going, don’t give up. Don’t give up. We have to do it.
I wanted to bring it back to Kung Fu for just a second because these are things that I saw online, and I wanted to get your opinion of it. Some people online, of course, are very happy for Kung Fu to come out, but some people are saying that having a show like this perpetuates maybe a stereotype of just the Asian, Chinese community with martial arts. How do you feel about that?
Well, they have a right to their opinion. That’s number one. You can say whatever you want, because now, today’s day and age, nobody’s held accountable. You can just be in your basement and say things, and that is it. For my feeling is this, martial arts is a powerful bridge to other communities because it’s becoming part of our culture.
You may think this is still typical, but it’s a positive stereotype. Come on. There are other things that we have to worry about. Being a positive stereotype, I’ll take that any day. And really shows that we are not the low-energy, soft-spoken, doesn’t fight back, and show that we are vulnerable. No, we are not vulnerable. We’ve had histories of activism. So martial arts is an important statement, that we are physical. So don’t come our way, my friend, because if you do, I’m going to take care of business. If you’re going to attack me, I will fight back.
And hey, the show has a female lead, kicking butt.
[Laughs] Hello? Woo hoo.
I’m really excited for it. Again, comes out April 7th. You said that you’re still filming. I know that we haven’t seen it yet, but are there any talks of a season two or anything that, or are you guys just seeing how things are going for season one first?
Yeah. Well, we don’t really have time to think about that right now. Like I said, shooting under COVID is really intense because we are always under the gun with, “Are we going to make our day?” That’s what’s on my mind. I say, “Oh, what time is it? Man, we got to get that done. We’ve got to get that scene in there.” So really for me, I’m one of those guys that always try to live in the moment. I don’t think about anything beyond that, and we just keep on going, put the best work, put our best foot forward and see what happens.
Besides Kung Fu, again, since you’re a very busy man, what else should we look out for you? What other projects do you have coming out?
Not shot yet. So we’re trying to figure it out under COVID, how are we going to do those things? Because it was postponed from 2020. Everything is shifting. I did do this amazing short film in New York City. I think that’s ready to birth and see the world, and it’s based on a wonderful set of novels written by a very dear friend of mine, Harry Chang, a kind of noir detective series with a Chinese-American cop.
So we did a little thing on that, that’s called A Father’s Son. So I’d keep an eye on that. I’m excited about that. Right now, that’s all the announcements I have. Watch Kung Fu. And Father’s Son is good, and I think it’s out there in social media somewhere. I don’t keep up that well. And figuring out how are we going to shoot these films? I think we’re going to try to shoot in June or something. That’s the closest we can get. I just did a live cast yesterday.
I hope that you can get a sense of Tzi’s amazing personality through the transcription. I really enjoyed speaking with Tzi and hope to get him on for future projects. Make sure you check out Kung Fu on The CW – airing April 7th at 8 pm EST!
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A girl with too many fandoms to count.