Things were going a little too well for Tzi Ma. Over the past few years, the veteran actor has taken on some of the best roles of his career: nuanced portraits of immigrants, generals and intergalactic senators. In the midst of a larger push for Asian-American representation, Ma has found himself at the center of the action: he played the father of Awkwafina’s Billi in The Farewell, and in March, was about to embark on press tours for both Mulan (in which he plays Mulan’s father) and Tigertail (Alan Yang’s Netflix drama in which he serves as the lead), before Mulan‘s release date was postponed and all non-essential in-person business was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a few weeks ago, Ma was hit with a harsh dose of American reality when he was racially profiled and verbally attacked outside of his local Whole Foods in Pasadena, Calif.
“A man stopped right in front of me with his car and said straight in my eyes, ‘You should be quarantined,’” Ma says. “Then he took off.”
Ma saw red; he went home and along with several other Asian-American celebrities, soon launched #WashtheHate, a social media campaign raising awareness about the sharp rise in anti-Asian xenophobia across the world due to coronavirus. Ever since, the hashtag has consistently been used to share stories of racism during the pandemic.
Protesting is nothing new for Ma, who has spent much of his life fighting bigotry and unjust structures. He grew up fighting his way out of attacks from other schoolchildren on Staten Island; in 1974, he was arrested for protesting discriminatory hiring practices at Confucius Plaza in Manhattan’s Chinatown. After repeatedly being asked to play villainous kung fu caricatures early in his career, he set strict rules for himself about what roles he would and would not take. While his credits piled up—including Rush Hour, 24 and NYPD Blue—he frequently sparred with writers and directors about his token characters’ lack of depth.
Ma hopes that this moment of acute anti-Asian xenophobia will serve as a wake-up call about the tenuous position of Asian-Americans—who are often thought of as a model minority—within American culture. “Yes, we’ve made strides. But we are still, in the public eye, a perpetual foreigner,” Ma says. “We have a long way to go.”
He also hopes that films like Tigertail, released on Netflix on April 10 during a stretch in which the streaming giant is hitting all-time traffic highs, will help viewers see the humanity in Asian faces. In the film he plays the protagonist Pin-Jui, a Taiwanese immigrant whose years of hardship and long-lost romance have turned him bitter and regretful.
“One of the reasons I cast Tzi is he can do so much with so little,” Alan Yang, Tigertail’s writer and director, tells TIME. “And he’s one of the people we really should be bowing down to in terms of overcoming obstacles and persevering.”
Reached by Zoom at his home, Ma talked about the new film and the battles he’s waged throughout the years. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
TIME: Tell me about what happened at Whole Foods the other week.
Ma: This is my neighborhood grocery store—that was the surprise. I parked my car and a man drove up slowly, and I mistook it as a courtesy for me to cross. But he didn’t stop. He just kept on rolling, in the meantime rolling his window down. He stopped right in front of me with his car and said, straight in my eyes, “You should be quarantined.” And then he took off.
At first I was like, “Ohh, you got me. I was not alert enough to see that coming.” And then I really got angry. You know how you look into a kaleidoscope, when everything starts to turn? Things just didn’t feel right. Disoriented. I felt so violated. I just started screaming at him. But of course, he’s gone. He’s at the exit gate, making a right.
You grew up working from an early age in your family’s restaurant in Staten Island. What did you learn about being Asian-American in that environment?
Obviously, those were the only two livelihoods that were afforded to us: restaurant and laundry. Across the street from our restaurant was the Chinese laundry—and we were the two Chinese families in the entire neighborhood. You really feel that you are isolated. You are pretty alone in those days.
In elementary school it was a little easier to deal with, because everybody in school came to the restaurant, so they know you. But junior high was a different story: it included kids from other neighborhoods that don’t really know you. And that’s when you feel a lot of the discrimination. I remember fighting practically every day in the first week in junior high school. Obviously, my mother was very upset by it because you come home bloody, shirt ripped, every day.
I found solace in acting. Because by joining the drama club, the school play is the event of the year. I became accepted—the cool kid in school. That changed my life, it stuck with me. I think it’s something we can do to hopefully change perceptions of who we are.
How did you have the courage to break out of the restaurant/laundromat mold and pursue acting?
Lies [laughs]. For the longest time, nobody knew. I was a closet actor. I picked the school farthest away from Staten Island: Lehman College in the Bronx. I said to my dad, “School is really far. Can we buy a car?”
He bought me a car. After school, I would study acting in Manhattan because it’s on the way home. Needless to say, I wasn’t very good in school because I cut a lot and was devoting all my time trying to be a good actor.
But at the time, being in the theater was a lot easier. There was a lot of funding: National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, New York State Arts Council. We got paid to study. I don’t think it can happen today because arts funding is terribly cut.
How difficult was it to navigate the film and TV world in those early days?
There were so many of these martial arts films where we’re always the bad guy while the hero’s always white. And there are always Asian women victimized: the white knight comes in, saves the girl, and they’re in bed together. That alone made me upset.
I really believe that as an actor of color, you really need to be more [selective] about the roles you take. Because whatever you do, people are going to be like, “Oh, that’s got to be them. This is how we see you.” So I set these three rules for myself. One, I’m not going to do anything unless the hero is Asian or Asian-American. Two, no Asian-American women are victimized. And number three, that there’s a balance of good and evil of my race.
Obviously, all of that evolved. Right now, I feel that I don’t have that burden anymore, because I feel that there’s enough representation out there today. Whatever changes may come, you have to follow the change. Let’s say, for example, there were too many doctors being portrayed onscreen. That’s a problem too. I hope in the next one, I’m an auto mechanic. Because my mechanic is Asian—and I’ve never seen an auto mechanic onscreen who’s Asian. So I want to continue to explore those roles.
Were you involved in other types of Asian-American activism at the time?
We protested Confucius Plaza, which I was arrested for in 1973. We tried to get onto the construction site where they were building Confucius Plaza to ask the workers to help us, to stop—because they weren’t hiring anybody from the community. [Protesters alleged that the DeMatteis Organization refused to hire Asian construction workers for a new high-rise in Chinatown.] And obviously, they had hired some goons. I got hit across the leg with a rebar and I fell. I got up and he was ready to rearrange my face.
But actually, a cop saved my ass—because I ran past him so he was upset that I got away. When he saw I got hit and fell to the ground and the other guy grabbed me and was ready to hit me, the cop screamed, “Leave him alone! He’s under arrest!’ He kind of saved my life by arresting me.
You’ve been jokingly referred to as Asian-America’s dad. In just this past year, you’ve played father roles in The Farewell, Tigertail and Mulan. Have you thought about the significance of being a paternal figure to an entire generation?
Man, I don’t know what I did in my past lives to gain all my credit in this one. Because it’s a wonderful journey. All these dads are so different. And hopefully, they will create some kind of dialogue for people to say, “Hey, pop, what was life like?”
All of these characters are so nuanced and textured and deep. They have so much going on, and sometimes without a single word. That’s what I enjoy: unless the words coming out from your writer are so brilliant, I’d rather not say anything at all.
Does it feel like you’re hitting a renaissance in terms of the roles you get to play?
It does feel like that to me. The change happened, I would say, maybe five years ago. In the past, reading scripts has always been, “What can I salvage? Is there anything about this story that I can resuscitate?”
But recently, our characters have become three-dimensional. Finally, I think we’re on solid ground for the first time: that we’re not the flavor of the month. That we’re not taking that ‘one step forward, two steps back’ tango. Because I see it. I’m looking at these scripts coming my way. I’m looking at them and saying, “Wow! These stories are compelling. These are different voices we have in the community.”
And it’s not just about the quality: it’s also about the quantity of the films being made and understanding that other people were afforded the chance to fail. I understand when people complain, “That’s not such a good film.” You know what—yeah, maybe. But what about the next film? What about the next film? You have to see the long game—the totality of it.
I’m excited for the younger generation of actors. They’re going to be able to be exposed to great writing so that they don’t have to do what I did: to really go through scripts with a fine-tooth comb and figure out, “How do I fix it?”
Tigertail arrives at a moment of quarantine and heightened xenophobia. What role can it play in this moment?
I just hope that we present another look at how human we are: How we are as flawed and complicated as anyone else. As long as we’re getting that opportunity to share this immigrant journey, hopefully you’re going to have a better understanding of us.
At the center of the movie is the fraught relationship between your character, who reluctantly immigrated to the United States, and his daughter Angela, who was born here. Did you pull from any personal stories to bring that relationship to life?
Pin-Jui is a character I dedicated to my brother, who had the same kind of journey. He was an architect in Hong Kong, but his degree was not recognized here. So he would have to go back to school—but we’re a big family, so we have to go buy the restaurant. He became a cook, and he’s a very accomplished cook because of it—but no longer an architect.
He’s 18 to 20 years older than me. In Hong Kong, I remember him going to New Years Eve parties and bringing back noisemakers and hats for us to play with. He never went to a New Years Eve party here in America, ever.
When you make these sacrifices, it does something to you. He was a different man: very stoic, very quiet. That makes relationships very hard, because you have this pent-up anger. And you can’t be angry, because these are your kids. So you keep on pushing and pushing deeper and deeper inside of you. And there’s gotta be some kind of release somewhere—and god forbid if you’re on the receiving end of it.
The relationship between Angela and Pin-Jui is like that. She is yearning for this parental love—and a different kind of parental love. With kids at her school, it was, “My dad hugs and kisses me. My dad says he loves me.” But she ain’t getting that. So you have the double whammy: not only is your relationship strained, but you’re not getting the same kind of “love” you see your friends are getting.
Last year, Mulan star Yifeu Liu came under fire for expressing support for the Hong Kong police on social media, and many called for a boycott of the film. After that blowup, did Disney give you any directives about what or what not to say about the protests?
As far as us making statements, people shouldn’t take us that seriously. Dr. Fauci, yes—listen to that man! But you put us on a pedestal. It’s tough in our position in a lot of ways. We are the delivery of pop culture that the world sees. And we try to be responsible: to promote things we feel that are important. But pay attention to people who are in the trenches. Pay attention to people who can tell you honestly about the world’s situation, as opposed to us.
The Farewell was a surprise hit in the states, but it did not do well in China. Do you think it’s possible for one film, like Mulan, to unite eastern and western audiences?
[Sighs] One can only hope. We do it and we send it out there. Some, I hope, will find it as entertainment; maybe it can plant a seed in your minds that possibly there is a bridge, somewhere.
Is xenophobia permanently embedded in American society, or can it be eradicated somehow?
I’m a pretty optimistic guy, but this is something I’ve faced throughout my life, so I know it ain’t gonna change that much. We’re going to continue to face it: to be perpetual foreigners.
As far as what we can do: we need to reach back and think about history and who came first. When we came to this country, we came to build a railroad. These guys are not ordinary guys. They are strong, resilient, vocal, unified. Thousands of men went on strike, communicating not with cell phones; they went miles up and down the line, getting everybody on the same page. The biggest labor movement ever: we did it. We have to channel those guys.
We were heavy participants in the civil rights movement. We were not shy about it. You see amazing Asian-Americans recognized in that capacity, like Yuri Kochiyama. So really, I think we’re forgetting ourselves a little bit. We’ve bought into our own stereotype: that we’re quiet and more docile. We’re respectful—and that’s okay. But we do stand up for ourselves.