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Tzi Ma is changing what it means to be ‘Hollywood’s go-to Asian dad’

Tzi Ma, left, and Christine Ko play a father-daughter duo in “Tigertail.” (Sarah Shatz/Netflix)
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When actor Tzi Ma was in elementary school, his family moved from Hong Kong to New York, where they ran a Chinese restaurant on Staten Island. As the youngest of seven children, Ma found another father figure in a brother 18 years his senior who, with the move, left behind a promising career in architecture. Working in the restaurant, he always seemed moody to his kid brother, who could “see the silence” within him. Ma didn’t find out what his brother had given up until years later.

The brother’s story of leaving his true passion behind parallels that of Ping-Jui, the character Ma plays in the new Netflix film “Tigertail,” loosely inspired by writer-director Alan Yang’s own family. The film, released Friday, tracks two eras of Ping-Jui’s life: his boisterous young adulthood in Taiwan, where he lives with his mother, and his hollow middle age in New York, where he struggles to connect with his grown daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). Romantic sacrifice is a fixture of “Tigertail,” as young Ping-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee), in an effort to financially support his mother, leaves a happy life with his girlfriend to marry — and eventually divorce — another woman whose father can pay for the move to the United States. But the father-daughter relationship remains the backbone of the film.

“Tigertail” is Ma’s latest project to depict such a relationship, following Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” in which he plays a character based on Wang’s father, and the delayed live-action remake of “Mulan,” in which he plays her family’s frail patriarch. The 57-year-old actor is well aware of the pattern; his Instagram bio once jokingly described him as “Hollywood’s go-to Asian dad.” But he stresses how different the characters are, proof of how far the Asian American storytelling community has come.

As a supporting character in “The Farewell,” about a family who travels to China to say goodbye to their ailing matriarch, Ma drew from Wang’s father’s past as a diplomat for his character’s main task of mediating conflict between the “very strong women” at the story’s forefront. With “Tigertail,” on the other hand, Ma dove into Ping-Jui’s inability to confront his emotions, whether related to his strained relationships or his disillusionment with life in the United States.

“It’s beyond acting for me, because as a multicultural, multiethnic society — the Asian American unit, in this country — we really need different voices,” Ma says. “We’re still underrepresented. We’re still putting all our eggs in one basket. Every time we see something, ‘That doesn’t represent me, that’s not me.’ Because there’s still not the quantity that we need to be out there, to really speak to all of us.

“So the more diverse these characters are, the better my service to the community.”

Ma lives in Pasadena, Calif., and in recent weeks has only left his home to purchase groceries. On such a trip to Whole Foods, he was verbally harassed and told he should be quarantined.

“I’m from New York, so I’m pretty alert, street-wise,” Ma says. “But I’m in Pasadena, for Christ’s sake. I’m in Whole Foods, for Christ’s sake. My guard was down. This is my neighborhood grocery store.”

While he froze in the moment, Ma says he doesn’t feel paralyzed by the surge in hate crimes against people of Asian descent. “It’s not the first time,” he says. “I’m a child of the ’60s. We’ve been through a lot.” That extends to the community at large, he adds, pointing all the way back to the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in the late 19th century, and to Japanese American internment during World War II.

Speaking a day before former presidential candidate Andrew Yang launched a debate on respectability politics by advising his community to “show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” Ma instead advocates for Asian Americans to call attention to the hate they’re receiving, and for the community to rally and stand with other advocacy groups against all forms of discrimination.

“We’ve made contributions in many areas, but we can never get past the color of our skin,” Ma says. “Everybody needs to speak up. Because silence is a vote for the other side.”

Ma doesn’t have any children of his own, which he has found to be advantageous with his recent roles because he has “no preconceived notions” of what fatherhood should look like. But in speaking about his life experiences, he shares advice in a measured tone, as a father figure might. In working with him on “Tigertail,” Alan Yang was taken by Ma’s expertise and ability to lead by example.

“He’s the rare Asian American actor who’s really had so much good experience,” Yang says. “On set, he just knows how many more setups we’re doing: ‘This is the close-up,’ ‘Okay, I’m not in this coverage but I’ll still give you a performance so the other actor has something to play off of.’ It’s a lot of work. Tzi works, man. I knew he was working on something before the movie, after the movie. It’s just a comfort level, to know you’re working with an old pro.”

Ping-Jui is only loosely based on Yang’s father; the latter is a doctor in real life, Ma notes, whereas Ping-Jui leaves a factory job to run a small store in New York. This departure gave them the opportunity to tell a working-class Asian American story, Ma explains. The little information he received about Yang’s father allowed Ma to craft the character as he saw fit, by relating to his older brother’s story.

“Every scene was a challenge,” he says. “I’m serious, man. Alan doesn’t waste any time. There’s not a scene where you can kind of throw [it] away.”

Outside of these recent roles, Ma is most often recognized for playing the Chinese consul in “Rush Hour,” Yang’s primary memory of seeing him on screen. Or the government official turned terrorist in the television series “24.” Or the Chinese military commander in the film “Arrival.” Or the leader of China in the HBO series “Veep.” But Ping-Jui is one of the more difficult roles the actor has taken on, given the character’s closed-off nature. In the scenes with Angela, she is more outspoken, more willing to unleash emotions bubbling up inside. Ping-Jui is difficult to read.

“One of the things I really wanted to find was someone who could do a lot with a little,” Yang says of Ma. “The character contains multitudes in the sense that, as a younger man, he was so full of passion and charisma and life. That’s still inside of him, but he’s sort of become reserved and taciturn and dignified and quiet. I wanted there to be that hint of life inside of him. It’s both of those things.”

Ma worked on “Mulan” and the Netflix series “Wu Assassins” around the same time as “Tigertail,” which made it easier for him to get out of Ping-Jui’s mind-set. “It is that affecting, you know?” he says. He’s grateful to be able to take on such a diverse range of characters, and credits their depth to a new crop of Asian American writers finding opportunity in Hollywood and telling authentic stories.

“I am hopeful, in the sense that as far as the Asian American storytelling community is concerned, we are finally on solid ground,” Ma says. “It’s no longer [that] we’re the flavor of the month.”

His latest project, on which he worked for a week before production was suspended over the coronavirus, is the CW’s reboot of the Ed Spielman series “Kung Fu.” Arriving almost 50 years after the original, the CW show stars a Chinese American woman and will be written and produced by Christina M. Kim, whom Ma notes is among only a handful of Asian American women to run a drama series.

And guess who Ma is playing?

“If I do nothing else in my career than just be the dad of somebody, I’m happy,” he says. “I really am.”

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