“I’ve had some really strong daughters. They are independent, forthright and beautiful. These are the women I like to see represent us. If this is all I do for the rest of my career, I’m happy.”
This March, the world will see Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou- Mulan’s father in Disney’s highly anticipated live-action film. Tzi proudly tells me, “I’ve had some really strong daughters. They are independent, forthright and beautiful. These are the women I like to see represent us. If this is all I do for the rest of my career, I’m happy.” With a career that spans nearly five decades, he has established himself as a well-respected industry favorite with a list of upcoming projects any actor would envy. It is not just talent that has made him one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors- it is his kindness, intelligence, and notable wisdom.
He exudes warmth and there is no doubt why he has been the first choice for so many directors looking for the perfect actor to play, dad. When you’re with him, you don’t feel so far from home. Like many fathers, I learned that he has avoided organizing years of clutter in the garage and will go out of his way to give you his coat on a cold day. Unlike many Asian fathers Tzi believes, “for all the parents who only want their kids to be doctors and lawyers, think about this particular profession: writers, producers, filmmakers, cinematographers, actors- can change millions of minds. If you want to nurture your children to be a contributing member of society- yes, a doctor, he is going to save lives, but he can only save one life at a time. I find that what we do is a noble profession. What impacts people’s perceptions? What makes the most impact? This can make a huge impact. Mulan is going to be on 10,000 screens at one time, on average 6-8 screenings per theater. Do the math. Think logically. Understand that our contributions are important.”
Tzi began acting, “to skirt racist discrimination.” Starting in school plays, acting allowed him to find acceptance in his community. He realized at a young age how performance art allowed audiences, “to see how complex and textured we are.” He wants Asian artists to continue creating more opportunities for each other, “it’s not just about quality, quantity matters too.” He emphasizes how, “mainly, today’s writing room is middle-aged white males, what do they know about us?” He remains outspoken about representation because, “We are a very complex multicultural society as Asian Americans. We really need different voices.”
Although Tzi found acceptance in performing, there have been many moments of frustration. In his early days, he would storm out of the audition room. Tzi soon realized that if you leave, you miss any opportunity to make a difference. Through practice, he learned how important it is to articulate concerns in a way that increased the value of not only the project, but his value as an actor. “Always be vocal about your concerns. With practice, you will be able to present your case where it is a discussion. This will help you in many respects. You’re gonna be surprised, they will listen. Look, this business is very expensive. It’s tough to get something financed. If something is already financed and you have a suggestion to make it better- some people are unreasonable- there are people who have reason, there are people who have accepted and understand your point of view. You come from a place of equal respect and they will be more prone to try and incorporate your discussion/suggestion into the project. Then you are going to shine as an actor.”
Tzi has dedicated his life to telling stories and despite such a long career, there are still so many stories that need to be told. “I’d like to see stories about us in history. Particularly Asian American stories which we are completely lacking. We still need to do the railroad story in a proper way. Our existence basically. They stuck around and they didn’t leave. We have an obligation to pay tribute to our forefathers. There also hasn’t been a significant camp story about Japanese American internment and that needs to be told. We need to be shown in the fabric of American society. We need to be part of the neighborhood so we are not constantly perpetual foreigners.”
The biggest film of Tzi’s career, the weight of Mulan is something he has never experienced before. Tzi is aware of just how important the success of a film like this is, “What you do is never isolated with us. We cannot fail. Every hit must be a home run.” He recently had dinner with his Mulan cast members where they discussed in anticipation the premiere of their spearheading film. Tzi is filled with nothing but hope and awaits to see audience reactions to not just Mulan, but for all the great things Asian artists have to share with the world.