Tzi Ma is already everyone’s go-to Asian dad. Netflix’s ‘Tigertail’ makes him the star
Over Skype on a recent afternoon as Tzi Ma was discussing “Tigertail,” his first major leading role, the actor couldn’t help but veer into the proud paternal mode he’s embraced as Hollywood’s favorite Asian Dad. True to that title, he showered praise upon his many movie daughters, his eyes lighting up.
There was Awkwafina from last year’s “The Farewell,” who won the Golden Globe for her dramatic debut in a story based on filmmaker Lulu Wang‘s life. Yifei Liu, who anchors Disney’s upcoming live-action epic “Mulan,” in which Ma plays the legendary warrior’s doting father. Christine Ko of “Tigertail,” in which Ma stars as a Taiwanese immigrant wrestling with the ghosts of his own American dream, and many, many more.
Unlike most of the characters he’s played onscreen, Ma is effusive with his affection. “They’re so talented!” he marveled. “I wish more opportunities would come their way so audiences would discover how amazingly talented these women are.”
He even reached back to 1998’s “Rush Hour,” the moment he figures this run of movie dads began, when he played the consul whose precocious Mariah Carey-singing daughter is kidnapped. The real breakout star? Ma says it was 11-year-old Julia Hsu. “Forget Chris Tucker. Forget Jackie Chan. Forget everybody else,” he said with a grin. “Julia Hsu, I’m telling you!”
At 57, Ma has cultivated a place in cinema as the Everydad whose glances convey the kind of deep feelings that don’t need words. That is, if his characters would have been able to find them in the first place.
In person — or rather, via video chat from Pasadena, where he is sheltering at home after filming shut down due to the pandemic on the CW reboot of the 1972 TV series “Kung Fu” — he’s the opposite of so many of his film personas, ebullient and warm, quick with quips, and heavy on the booming New York accent he frequently sneaks into the vernacular of his characters.
With “Tigertail,” the veteran actor finally gets to take his talents center stage in a multigenerational drama loosely inspired by writer-director Alan Yang’s own family. It’s a spotlight role some 40 years in the making. To many Asian Americans and children of immigrants, his character will strike a bittersweet chord, which is exactly why Ma hopes “Tigertail” reaches the viewers who need it the most.
“We are not the culture that confronts and talks about things among ourselves,” said Ma. He remembers his own father tirelessly running the family business, the first Chinese restaurant on Staten Island, too busy to notice the black eyes he’d come home with after fighting back against schoolyard bullies. “We tend to not talk about things that we think are going to hurt the other person. We go, ‘Ok, I’ll keep it to myself.’”
“We can’t just keep putting up this shell and pretend that says, ‘I love you,’” he added, as if to send a gentle suggestion to all the stoic dads out there. “Just saying it a few times would be nice.”
“Tigertail” takes place across timelines: the present, in which middle-aged divorcé Pin-Jui (Ma) struggles with a deep-seated unhappiness and his strained relationship with his daughter; 1960s Taiwan, when he’s a carefree young factory worker (Hong-Chi Lee) who dreams of moving to America; and in hazy verdant glimpses of his lonely childhood, when he was sent to live in the countryside with his grandma by a mother toiling to make ends meet.
Yang, known for his comedy work including “Master of None” and “Parks and Recreation,” calls his fictionalized first feature an act of cinematic therapy. “It’s my dream of my father’s dream of his past,” said Yang, whose understanding of his father’s immigrant story crystallized during a trip to Taiwan where the elder Yang opened up about his life.
In lush flashbacks to Pin-Jui’s romantic youth, punctuated by Western-tinged 1960s pop tunes, we see his idealism and passion. Decades later, he’s been hardened by the sacrifices he’s made in pursuit of a stable life in America. Yang needed a star who could carry his protagonist’s invisible scars in stretches of silence while hinting at the young man he once was.
“I didn’t want the character just to be a stereotype. All the times you’ve seen stern Asian dads, they’re not just one-note. They contain a lot of emotions. They’re human beings,” said Yang, who shared an Emmy with Aziz Ansari for a similarly themed “Master of None” episode. “He’s a taciturn guy, but you want to get the feeling that he’s seen it all and contains multitudes. Tzi was able to do that in a way that no other actor could.”
We can’t just keep putting up this shell and pretend that says, ‘I love you.’
— Tzi Ma
With dialogue including English, Mandarin and Taiwanese, “Tigertail” is an American story rarely told, about the immigrant experience and the cascading toll of all that’s left devastatingly unspoken. “At its heart it’s a very American film, and there’s nothing that we had to change about our identity to get there,” said Ko, who plays Angela, the daughter struggling to bridge the emotional gulf she’s inherited from her father. “All we had to do was tell the truth.”
It was a moving experience for Ma, and a character he found hard to shake after filming. “With [Pin-Jui] I always kept in my mind that this story is for all the people who are silencing themselves,” said Ma. “I’m not saying they don’t have a voice. They have a voice, but they silence themselves.
“I keep thinking about Alan,” he said. “It made me feel like we’ve gone through this journey together, and I feel like he’s my son.”
Complex leading roles are the holy grail for any working actor, but for Asian American performers of Ma’s generation, they were particularly elusive. In his four-decade career he’s been everywhere: On film, he’s portrayed scientists (“RoboCop 2,” “Chain Reaction,” “Dante’s Peak”), a kooky criminals (“The Ladykillers”), businessmen (“Million Dollar Arm”) and generals (“Arrival”) in the movies; on TV, detectives (“NYPD Blue”), doctors, zen masters (“Satisfaction”), politicians (“Veep”) and memorable villains.
A former dancer, he made his film debut as a teenager alongside Jack Palance and Andy Warhol in 1979’s “Cocaine Cowboys,” scrapped with Brandon Lee on sparking train tracks in 1992’s “Rapid Fire,” faced off with Sammo Hung on the first season of “Martial Law,” and can be seen on Netflix’s martial arts fantasy series “Wu Assassins.”
Some of his favorite roles have come on the small screen, like his arc playing a Chinese official-turned-terrorist foil to Jack Bauer on “24”and General Onoda on “Man in the High Castle,” whom he tried to imbue with a Toshiro Mifune-esque unpredictability. “TV reaches across America,” says Ma. “If you’re talking about changing perceptions, TV is really important.”
Alan Yang’s debut feature, “Tigertail,” starring Tzi Ma and Christine Ko, should prompt a few parents to share life stories with their adult children.
Born in Hong Kong and raised on Staten Island, Ma was one of the few Asian Americans kids in his diverse neighborhood. He’d get into fights with bullies who’d lob racist epithets at him, until performing in school plays opened an unexpected path to acceptance. “It acted as a buffer to racism,” he said.
He started sneaking off to Manhattan to explore the New York stage and soon found a scene that excited him, studying experimental theater in the city. “It was colorblind,” Ma remembered. “Didn’t matter who you were.”
His career began in plays by David Henry Hwang, including the 1980 play “FOB” and the 1981 two-hander “The Dance and the Railroad,” a story set against the backdrop of the 1867 Chinese Railroad Workers Strike, which the playwright penned for Ma and actor John Lone.
Phoning from Brooklyn to talk about his old friend and longtime collaborator, Hwang described how back then, artists like Ma were starting to negotiate their own sense of community and identity.
“There was an energy and a commitment and a kind of political passion that really struck me,” said Hwang. “He had an awareness of how the industry needed to change, and a vision for a better world for Asian Americans and for all people of color on stages and on screens.”
Hwang, who would cast Ma again in his “Yellow Face” and “Flower Drum Song,” saw in Ma an emerging artist acutely thoughtful about the kinds of characters he portrayed. “He was conscious that of the roles that he would be able to get, many of them would be stereotypical or demeaning — and had, as a priority, not wanting to perpetuate the images of the past.”
As instances of COVID-19-related anti-Asian racism have risen in recent weeks, both Ma and Hwang filmed #WashTheHate videos to call out harassment they’d directly experienced. In Ma’s case, it was an incident at a Pasadena Whole Foods in which he said a stranger racially profiled him and said he should be quarantined.
“We need to counteract it, counterbalance it, and let the world know we ain’t no pushovers, man,” Ma said of the rise in racist discrimination and attacks against individuals of Asian descent.
Consciously trying to fight negative stereotypes his entire career, Ma says there have been many times he’s turned down lucrative acting opportunities because the roles felt like harmful stereotypes.
“As an Asian American actor, you’d sit there and look at the script and go, ‘OK, what can I salvage? How can I save the script?’” he said. “Good writing, you don’t have to do anything. There’s a lot more now, finally.”
He had an awareness of how the industry needed to change, and a vision for a better world for Asian Americans and for all people of color on stages and on screens.
— David Henry Hwang
He credits independent films, particularly those by female filmmakers centering Asian American stories, with giving him some of his best roles to date, often playing — you guessed it — a dad.
Among them: Georgia Lee’s 2006 indie “Red Doors,” about a Chinese American family in New York; Mina Shum’s 2017 Canadian drama “Meditation Park”; and Wang’s 2019 Spirit Award winner “The Farewell,” which made excellent use of Ma’s seriocomic talents and helped usher in a new era of Tzi Ma appreciation.
Despite heartily embracing the title of Asian America’s #1 movie dad, Ma never had children of his own. He made that call years ago while weighing the career opportunities he believed he’d have. “I knew that the road as an actor is difficult,” he said. “I knew the road as an Asian American actor is even more difficult. So I chose to keep my needs to a minimum. I don’t want to have my life dictate what jobs I take.”
“I would have had to take any job, regardless,” Ma continued. “And trust me, actor friends of mine, we talk about this. They have kids. Either they give up their career or take anything that comes their way even when they are not wanting to do it — most of the time because it’s a stereotypical role that they cannot possibly salvage and save.”
Somewhere along the line as his career went on, he says, playing dads began to strike more of a chord. “For reasons unknown to me or maybe just the way of the universe, my heart opened up to that,” he said. “It just did, I don’t know why. It made me feel good.”
“I think I’d make a good father,” he said with a warm smile. “That’s the hope.”
Given how steadfastly he’s championed his onscreen offspring even long after working together, I asked some of Ma’s movie daughters to weigh in.
“I definitely found a dad in working with Tzi Ma,” said Awkwafina, who played Ma’s headstrong daughter Billi in “The Farewell.” Their onscreen relationship, sensitive and simpatico, was modeled after Wang’s own dynamic with her father. “He’s an extremely powerful actor, someone who seamlessly lives in any role he’s given, and off screen a cheery, kind and genuinely great guy.”
While making the film, Awkwafina said, industry veteran Ma stepped in to support her in what was her biggest and most daunting role to date. “As someone who was pretty new to film, on and off camera Tzi always talked to me, gave me industry and creative advice any time I asked, and has come to be someone I’ll always care for and look up to in my life,” she said. “I am very proud to have been one of his daughters.”
Angela Zhou played Ma’s daughter not once but twice, most recently on the TV series “Stitchers.”
“Coming from New York theatre, Tzi is always on time and is bluntly honest,” she wrote, sharing memories of bonding while making the period AMC series “Hell on Wheels,” in which Ma played a railroad worker whose daughter, Zhou, was posing as a man. “Tzi has this signature warm twinkle in his eye. He’s a great actor but the sparkle stems from much more than craft. He’s passionate, playful, and a true actor’s actor.”
Sandra Oh played his daughter in “Meditation Park,” in which Ma portrayed a philandering grandpa. Ma, she wrote, “is one of the greats. He just is. And it’s because of the way he doesn’t give a [crap] and the profound ways he does. He is a fierce and complex actor and wicked fun. I am so glad to have played one of his daughters.”
Ko, with whom Ma shares a fraught and difficult father-daughter relationship in “Tigertail,” described a kindness he did her one day while filming reshoots. During a tense scene in which Pin-Jui and Angela meet for lunch, Ko says, she froze, flooded with memories of her own late father. Ma reached out his hand and guided her through.
“I’m so thankful to Tzi for giving me that as an actor,” said Ko, the most recent of Ma’s onscreen daughters but certainly not his last. “Also, just as a person, to say, ‘I know you’ve been through a lot of trauma and you’ve healed all year, and now we’re back and you have to open that all back up. But you’re safe.’ He’s such a good dad, and such a good actor, too.”
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