'Arrival' Actor Tzi Ma on Being Outspoken in Hollywood
‘Arrival’ Actor Tzi Ma on Being Outspoken in Hollywood
You appeared in the documentary The Slanted Screen, which discusses the stereotypical portrayal of Asian men in Hollywood. What was it like auditioning for roles back when you started acting? How does it compare to now?
My experience auditioning throughout my career has been a little bit off the beaten path. I was always very vocal. Always. If there were any problems with scripts that I would see, I would ask those questions. Of course, back then, I was less articulate. I’ve been known to storm out, I’ve been known to say some choice words that people didn’t appreciate. Because I focused the first 12 years of my career on the theater, I didn’t have to deal with it as much because I didn’t care about film and television at the time — which was kind of foolish, since they’re such powerful media and we need to recognize the power that they bring. I remember going to a commercial audition and they were asking me, “What are you?” You know, that forever question we [Asian Americans] receive. “What are you?” And I said, “I’m an American,” and they say, “No, where are you from?” Ultimately, they wanted a Cambodian actor. And I said, “Okay, name two.” They couldn’t name any. And they said, “Well you know, everyone wants to do this,” and I said, “I don’t,” I turned around and walked out.
Through the years it has gotten easier because it’s been easier for me to articulate my concerns without lighting the room on fire. I think it’s a lesson. You know, speaking out is not an easy thing to do. It needs practice. The first few times you try it and you fail, it doesn’t mean you will fail again the next time. You will get better at it. Trust me, I know.
Hollywood is full of egos — everyone thinks they know everything. When you walk into an audition, they’ll ask you, “Do you have any questions?” I love when they ask that. “As a matter a fact, I do have some questions. Here’s a character name that’s Vinh, which is Vietnamese, and he’s leaving from Cambodia and coming to America and they are being pursued by the Tang, which is Chinese. Who is he? Is he a Cambodian boat captain that’s ethnically Vietnamese? Is he a Vietnamese that got to Cambodia to make the trek to America?" And there’s always silence in the room. Back in the day, there was no Google, no way to research. You have to feel for these writers. What happens is you have an assignment — “I have a great idea, guys, we’re going to do an Asian episode!” And you know, most of the people in the Writers Guild of America are middle-aged, white, American males — still today! What do they know about us?
They make the decisions on who these characters are. So it’s basically a chop suey of a character that they bring to the table. In a lot of ways they are relieved that an actor can come in and ask these questions and say, “I have a solution to this.”