"If we can hold up a mirror for our audience to see that they are represented, there is no better work out there, is there?" Ma says.

By Rachel Yang
April 21, 2021 at 01:00 PM EDT
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He may be known as "Hollywood's go-to Asian dad," but Tzi Ma has embodied many other types of roles throughout his prolific career. He's acted opposite Tom Hanks, Andy Warhol, Michael Caine, plus Rush Hour's Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan (the first Asian and African American leads in a film), worked with directors like the Coen brothers and Lulu Wang, and he's helped represent all the different ways Asians have been part of the "American fabric."

Of course, Ma is proud of being a collaborator and on-screen father to numerous Asian actresses, from Awkwafina to Olivia Liang, with whom he stars in the CW's new series Kung Fu.

"I tell everybody, 'I have an all-star daughter team, so anybody up and down that line-up, you'd be fortunate to work with any of them,'" Ma tells EW. "And really fantastic women directors that I've worked with and I really appreciate. Niki Caro, who directed Mulan, an extraordinary Kiwi director. So generous and so loving. Mina Shum, a Canadian Asian director, she's also fabulous. And I believe the door's open, I believe you can see women directors are finally getting their opportunity to shine."

In EW's Role Call, Ma reflects on some of his personal highlights and most memorable roles from his career.

Cocaine Cowboys (1979)

Ma made his on-screen debut with Cocaine Cowboys, a crime drama about a rock band that smuggles cocaine. Though his role as Jimmy Lee was small, Ma has fond memories of hanging out with co-stars Warhol and Jack Palance. Plus, the hijinks that occurred behind the scenes might've been more exciting than the actual movie, Ma adds, as the local authorities thought the production really did sling cocaine.

The cast was "woken up in the middle of the night" by the police in Long Island, New York, where they were filming.

"The Nassau police department came and surrounded the compound in the middle of the night and got all the actors out into the open ground. They confiscated three duffle bags and a couple of hundred thousand dollars in cash, production cash," Ma recalls. "And that was over a weekend, so we had no idea what was going on. On Monday they came back with three duffle bags of powdered sugar and the cash. They thought we were real, they thought we were cocaine smugglers."

"So that was my humble beginnings," the actor says with a laugh. And when they weren't fearing for their lives, the cast got to hang out with Warhol, and "Palance used to do poetry readings on the weekend," Ma adds.

COCAINE COWBOYS
Credit: Everett Collection

The Cosby Show (1984)

Ma has appeared on a slew of television shows and looking back, Ma says his first TV appearance playing Mr. Lee on The Cosby Show made strides in Asian American representation.

"I have to give that show all the credit, they gave me a character who was an ex-Marine working on the pipeline," he recounts. "Because you never see an Asian American face as a veteran. Never. Not to my knowledge, at the time. And I embrace those opportunities. Any time we can show the world how different we are and how well we've represented ourselves in the American fabric, I'm happy to do it."

The Cosby Show
Credit: NBC

The Quiet American (2002)

Directed by Philip Noyce, The Quiet American was adapted from Graham Greene's novel of the same name. The film, set in 1952, was about early American involvement in the Vietnam War and starred Caine, Brendan Fraser, and Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen. Ma, who portrayed Hinh, the assistant of Caine's Thomas Fowler, said the film gave him the chance to meet his real-life counterpart.

"The guy was a triple spy, never caught. He worked for North [Vietnam], he worked for South [Vietnam] and he also worked for the French, for 35 years," Ma continues. "An extraordinary individual I had the opportunity to meet. So that's an added advantage for us as actors, that we get to meet extraordinary people."

THE QUIET AMERICAN
Credit: Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Ladykillers (2004)

Ma counts Joel and Ethan Coen as two of his favorite directors he's worked with, given how much they involve the actors on their projects. In the duo's 2004 black comedy The Ladykillers, Ma starred alongside Hanks, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, and more as a group of robbers.

"The fellas are terrific and confident to include the entire cast for every aspect of the production in terms of costume, facial hair, what type of material you'd like to wear for this character," Ma says. "I love them to death ... they always give you that feeling that 'I cast you because I trust you and your decisions are important.'"

To play General, the tunneling expert in the criminal outfit, Ma says he and the Coens decided his character would wear Thai silk "because he was a tunnel rat so he needs to be smooth and just slide right in there."

"They're the only directors I've ever worked with that every morning you get your sides, you get a storyboard attached behind, so you know every shot," he adds. "It's crazy because I know how they're going to do this, I don't have to guess. You get on the set, you do your work and then we always have more time than we need, so we get to improv and do other stuff."

THE LADYKILLERS
Credit: Touchstone/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Farewell (2019)

Lulu Wang's critically acclaimed film The Farewell not only marked a breakout performance for its star Awkwafina but also allowed Ma to shine as her character's father. Again, Ma got to meet the real-life star of one of his films, and this time it was Wang's nainai (paternal grandma), whose unbelievable-yet-true experience of being kept in the dark by her family about her cancer diagnosis formed the crux of the drama.

"When we were shooting in China, nainai was [around]," Ma says. "She's just so energetic and vibrant. And she got like an electric wheelchair. Yeah, she terrorizes the town, man, she's just like 'zzzzz,' buzzing everybody, because we're shooting in her neighborhood."

In fact, Ma says the real nainai is a "revolutionary hero" in China and was one of the first women to join the revolution. He points to The Farewell's banquet scene, which depicts nainai's former comrades' reverence for her (she's played by Zhao Shuzhen in the movie).

"You gotta watch that scene, it's crazy," Ma says. "They're fighting for her affection, 'Oh so-and-so is so lucky' and 'If he didn't get her, she would've fallen in love with me.' I'm telling you, they should do a movie about that, when nainai was young."

THE FAREWELL
Credit: A24 /courtesy Everett Collection

Tigertail (2020)

In his directorial film debut Tigertail, writer Alan Yang tells a tale based on his father's experience immigrating to the United States from Taiwan, with Ma playing the older version of his father.

"His courage of telling his family story to share this with the world, I think it's just remarkable," Ma says. "It's a love story, a love letter to our parents' generation, where they gave up another life to come to America to find a better life for the kids."

TIGERTAIL
Credit: Sarah Shatz/© Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Kung Fu (2021 - present)

A reimagining of the 1970s show, the CW series features Ma as Jin Shen, the father of Olivia Liang's Nicky Shen, who takes up the Shaolin mantle to fight off evil forces in San Francisco.

Kung Fu is led by Christina M. Kim, and it's the first time in Ma's career that he's worked with an Asian American female showrunner. Moreover, "I have never seen a writers' room so diverse," Ma continues, as 50 percent of the room are women. And thus far, he says almost all the guest directors have been people of color and women.

"We're giving you a realistic portrayal of a Chinese American family and how they juggle two cultures because basically, that's what it is: two immigrant parents raising a bunch of American kids," Ma adds. "And if that does not reflect reality, I don't know what will, and this transcends color, because we're an immigrant society. So if we can hold up a mirror for our audience to see that they are represented, there is no better work out there, is there?"

And unlike past roles where he's had to audition, Ma says he was approached by Kim to get involved with the show. And funny enough, they first met thanks to a Lunar New Year party hosted by Lost's Daniel Dae Kim (pre-COVID, Ma stresses). Christina M. Kim also worked on Lost and wrote for the character Jae-Young Lee, played by Tony Lee, who encouraged Ma to meet his now-showrunner.

"We met and she didn't pitch the project yet. She was going in to do it. I said, 'Wow, that's really exciting. I wish you all success,'" Ma recalled. "And sure enough, she called me and said, 'I pitched a project about an Asian American family.' That's her first pitch. And then [Warner Bros.] said, 'We got an IP, Kung Fu, can we marry this thing together somehow?' That's what she did. She called me and said, 'Want to do my show?' I said, 'Tell me when and where, I'll be there right now.'"

KUNG FU
Credit: Bettina Strauss / ©The CW / Courtesy Everett Collection

Connection to Mulan (2020)

Ma likens his Kung Fu role to a "Mulan dad, 3000 years later," as both of his characters are supportive fathers with daughters skilled in martial arts.

"He really believes in his daughter's abilities. He didn't say 'I have a daughter,' in Mulan he says, 'I am blessed with two daughters,'" Ma remarks, referencing his appearance as Mulan's father Hua Zhou in Disney's live-action remake.

With Kung Fu, the performer remembers having conversations with Kim about how to portray Jin, as he wanted the character to be "different from other dads I've played."

"I have friends who have kids now, and I want them to see that their way of support and love and gentleness reflected so that the world can see that we want to see more of those behaviors in a father," Ma adds. "And that was a discussion I had with Christina very early on. That this was the dad that I want. I want him to be a guy who's lighter, he's supportive. He's more gentle with everybody. I don't want the hard-nose dad I've done before, and dads who have so much angst."

MULAN
Credit: Jasin Boland/Disney

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