Tzi Ma has starred in a multitude of TV series and movies including huge franchises like Rush Hour, and more recently, Lulu Wang’s critically acclaimed The Farewell. He will also be featured in Disney’s forthcoming live-action adaptation of Mulan and in The CW’s reboot of Kung Fu. The Hong Kong-born actor has a very storied career working alongside icons on stage and screen. From the 1978 cult film Cocaine Cowboys with Jack Palance and Andy Warhol to appearing in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi pic Arrival to stirring up laughs on HBO’s Veep, Ma has unbelievable range. But over the years, he has garnered the reputation of being Hollywood’s go-to Asian father figure — and often times his character is navigating a relationship with his daughter. Even in his role for Alan Yang’s Netflix film Tigertail (debuting on the streaming platform April 10), he plays a father who is struggling to connect with his daughter. Yes, he is playing a father, but this role — along with many of his other roles from the past — transcends the paternal label for which he is known.
“I never think about it that way,” Ma tells Deadline about being known as Hollywood’s go-to Asian dad. “I mean, I always thought about it as a character. You approach it and ask, ‘Who is this guy?'”
Ma reflects on his recent roles: The Farewell, Mulan and Tigertail, pointing out that he is not too calculated when it comes to choosing these roles. “I enjoy all of these roles,” he said. “If it gives us an opportunity to hold a mirror up to ourselves, I’m happy to do it because these are all very different people — they just happen to be fathers — and they’re so different.”
“I’m not going to say, ‘okay, well this is going to do this to my career, that’s going to do that to my career’,” he explains. “I only think about one thing. I look at a script.”
As for the script for Tigertail, Ma applauded the Master of None co-creator for telling such a bold and personal story that was rooted in Yang’s relationship with his family and his father’s story as an immigrant.
“After I met [Yang], I said, ‘holy shit, this kid is nothing like what he’s written!'” admitted Ma. “The fact that he is such a film historian was a surprise to me — he can do chapter and verse. He reminds me of Martin Scorsese.”
Ma said that Yang could have easily wrote a script from the American-born daughter’s point of view, her accomplished friends and her “first world situation as a lawyer”. He adds that Yang focuses on the Asian side of Asian American narrative by telling the story from the father’s immigrant perspective.
Tigertail puts an intergenerational lens on the immigrant story through the eyes of Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee), a young Tawainese factory worker who leaves the woman he loves and heads to the United States through an arranged marriage. Seeking better opportunities in New York City, he finds work at a bodega and as the years pass, his work becomes monotonous and his loveless relationship with his wife begins to decay.
Fast-forward to the present and an older Pin-Jui (Ma) is feeling the emotional ramifications of his past as he is unable to sympathize with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). As a result, Pin-Jui must reconcile his past with his present so that he can finally build the life he once dreamed of having.
Yes, we have seen Ma as a father in the past, but Tigertail puts him in a light that seems fresh and allows him to stretch acting muscles we haven’t seen him stretch before. Filled with emotional heft and nuance, Yang knew that Ma was the leading man he needed to embody a character like Pin-Jiu.
“He has the incredible ability to do so much by doing so little,” Yang said of Ma in the latest episode of Deadline’s New Hollywood Podcast. “He can really convey a universe of emotions without being flamboyant, over-the-top or melodramatic.”
He added, “We wanted the movie to be emotional without being sentimental — we wanted to show not tell. We wanted to have moments of silence where you could understand what was happening without us holding your hand — and Tzi perfect for that…you could look at a still image of Tzi and it speaks volumes.”
The film hops back and forth between the past and present and we see how young Pin-Jiu connects with older Pin-Jiu. Because he was filming Mulan and Wu Assassins, Ma never really met Lee until they connected in Taiwan. Other than that, they never really had the chance to compare notes on the character of Pin-Jiu.
“We met briefly, but by then everything was in the can for him. He did all the work already,” he said “I never really felt the need to meet him either, because I feel that that’s Alan’s job — it’s the director to sculpt the vision of young Pin-Jiu and the old Pin-Jiu. These are very different people.”
As more inclusive storytelling becomes more nuanced, immigration narratives have become more varied, showing different sides of the immigrant experience. We have seen this through a variety of recent TV series and films like Fresh Off the Boat, One Day at a Time, Bob Hearts Abishola, The Big Sick and Little America (which is also executive produced by Yang). Tigertail presents yet another layer to the immigrant narrative: Asian romance.”It’s a love story,” said Ma. “It’s not familial love… this is hot romantic love.”
“Other ethnicities tend to have an easier time exploring [romance],” explains Ma. “[Asians] have this kind of block… it’s probably influenced by all the stuff that we see or grown up with from Asia. There are certain parameters in terms of morality. You never see Asians kiss on-screen — and if it does happen then it becomes a scandal.”
That said, 10 — maybe even 20 years ago, a movie like Tigertail may have existed in the indie space, but whether or not people would have paid attention is a totally different story.
“It could have been made, but nobody would have seen it,” Ma points out. “There are a lot of independent films that don’t see the light of day. I have shot a few and you are probably never going to see it.”
The big difference with Tigertail is that there is an entity like Netflix decided to support it,” Ma continued. “It’s all about access.”
The release of Tigertail comes at a time when Asian and Asian Americans are being harassed and accosted due to the misrepresentation of the culture during the coronavirus pandemic — which can be traced to Donald Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus.” That said, now is a better time than ever for the Asian community to represent themselves through authentic, representative narratives on TV and film.
“We’ve been pretty successful in the last two years in terms of telling Asian stories,” Ma said. “I thought that would lend to building a lot of bridges out there. You’ve got Crazy Rich Asians, Won’t You Be My Maybe, The Farewell, Parasite — all of these wonderful works are so different and offering different perspectives of Asian American life — and we still catch this bullshit.”
He said that films like Tigertail offer another perspective to help counteract hate with hope. “It has the potential to change minds…and I’m excited to that revelation, I’m fairly optimistic,” he said. “I see what’s going on, but I also see the brighter side. The brighter side is that there are projects really coming down the pipe that’s going to really drive that cause.”
“We have to continue to tell our stories,” said Ma. “And if we change one mind, it’s one mind that we changed and I’m happy with that.”