Tzi Ma is not new to Hollywood and he's not new to racism. The actor is the epitome of longevity in the entertainment business but he says it's far more complicated than that. He shared with Etalk's Tyronne Edwards that while he and other prominent Asian actors may strike big success, everything they do needs to be a form of activism against racism in their field and the world.
Specifically referring to Sandra Oh's recent appearance and passionate speech at a Stop Asian Hate rally in Oakland, Pennsylvania, Ma commended her activism on the street and on the screen. He says the two cannot be distinguished from one another.
"Sandra has always spoken out so that didn’t surprise me and I've known her for a long time,” he said. “I think we’re obligated to do it. You don’t shy away from it. Everything that we do has meaning. Particularly, we have some kind of profile, some kind of platform, we’ve done some good work and will continue to prove ourselves time and time again.”
“The characters we choose to play is activism in itself. Sandra’s always been that,” he added, saying she's “always been true” and “always up in the front.”
He continued, “It didn’t surprise me that she took the microphone and started talking. I know she was shooting in the U.K. so that’s why it took her a while. Otherwise, she’d be out there already right from the get. I’m very proud of Sandra always."
Ma says that, for him, his activism and acting come hand in hand.
“They’ve always been joined. I can’t separate them because all I know is that when you see me, I am representing a community. And because there were so far and few between projects that you do see us in the past, right? Acting was a buffer for me growing up on Staten Island. I was like the one of two Chinese kids in school."
He went on to join the drama club at school and did a lot of musicals. The club helped him see a career path when he wasn't seeing that type of representation in movies or TV. “I felt that it had an opportunity for us to be seen… you see me in a different light," he said.
“I had a mentor in high school and he told me ‘Tzi, there’s only two colours right now we're seeing -- Black and white. If you ain’t white you’re Black.’ I said, ‘Huh?’ That hit me. I’m telling you because at that time, all people of colour were lumped together, it didn’t matter. I took it to heart so anytime I see any person of colour on stage I say, ‘That’s me.’ Because I’m represented.”
Ma pointed out that the casting of Rush Hour's two leads (and the franchise's success) felt exceptionally history-making.
“Rush Hour was a groundbreaking movie that I don’t think anybody, at least the powers that be, didn’t really anticipate. It’s not like the ‘OK, we're out to do a movie like this.’ It’s the first time you see an African American and an Asian lead in a film. It’s always like 'salt and pepper,' like Lethal Weapon. Never have you seen two folks of colour in the lead of the movie and it was a smashing success,” Ma said.
With Parasite winning Best Picture at last year’s Oscars and Minari up for Best Picture this year, Tyrone asked if Ma thinks we’re finally seeing some momentum building in the right direction.
“I think we do have signs. We have signs that we are moving in the right direction but don’t let up. These things are fragile. We continue to tell our stories. I think the most important lesson for us is that we tell the story the way we want to tell it because, otherwise, then the powers that will be will say ‘Oh well maybe that person should be this way, this person should be that way.’”
Ma stressed the importance of people of colour being able to tell their own stories on screen. “That’s when people will be able to identify and appreciate because it’s not made up in that sense. Truth is important.”
The Mulan actor also dished on his new show, Kung Fu, which is an adaptation of the 1970s series of the same title.
Ma called Kung Fu "the most exciting project" that he's ever got himself involved in. "It is because we represent diversity and inclusion in front of the screen and behind the screen… Our writer's room is women, people of colour and all our guest directors so far are people of colour and women.”
“I’ve been working in this business for so long I have never seen this kind of mixture of the rainbow ever," he added.
Ma said that the new show explores things that haven't been done. "We are the first prime time, dramatic series that features a Chinese-American family. We have had sitcoms of such makeup but never a dramatic series. We’re going to be able to share some cultural significance that normally I don’t think you would get a chance to see, the audience at large. We are very proud of that.”
[video_embed id='2165489']BEFORE YOU GO: Sandra Oh gives passionate speech at Stop Asian Hate rally[/video_embed]