Arrival’s Tzi Ma likes Hollywood’s Chinese embrace


Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Hong Kong-born actor Tzi Ma is known for bestowing his characters with an edge that allows them to transcend typecasting. His villainous Cheng Zhi gave Jack Bauer a run for his money in 24. As The General in The Ladykillers, Ma got most laughs than Tom Hanks.

Ma has a pivotal part in the sci-fi drama Arrival (reviewed on the next page) as Amy Adams’ counterpart in China. While his relationship with the Americans is adversarial, his desire to communicate with the alien visitors supersedes fear or suspicion.

The jocular Ma couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome, particularly since a pivotal development hangs on a scene with him front and center: “Given the volatility of the world today, the message of the film couldn’t be more relevant. Whatever bias we have towards China, Russia or anybody, we owe it to ourselves not to pass judgment. We may discover that the similarities among ourselves are much greater than the differences.”

I spoke with Ma recently about Arrival, and his career.

In the film, the Chinese government tries to communicate with the visitors using games. Do you believe this is an accurate reading of the culture?

It’s absolutely appropriate and it shows the intelligence of the script. Mahjong and Go are two games that require strategy and imagination, and are very militaristic.

For most of Arrival, we see you through blurry, black and white screens. How challenging is this for an actor?

Initially, I didn’t fully grasp what Denis [Villeneuve] had in mind. We shot it for real and trusted the director to do justice to my work. I also had the advantage of all these brilliant actors — Amy, Jeremy [Renner], Forest [Whitaker] — talking about my character. In a sense, they did all the acting for me (laughs).

One of Arrival’s theses is that learning a new language can reshape one’s mind. As someone who speaks several, is that your experience?

It’s something we don’t focus on enough in North America. By learning multiple languages, one develops a ‘sixth sense’ of sorts, a subliminal awareness. It’s a bit esoteric, but I believe it gives you a sensory perception of things to come.

Lately we’re seeing more co-productions between the U.S. and China. As a working actor, have you noticed an increase in opportunities?

Absolutely, and not only the quantity, but the quality. We have learned more and more what’s necessary in terms of sensibility. Creatively, it’s exciting as well. It has made the creative community in Hollywood rethink how to build a storyline with new elements in mind.

You’ve become a recurring presence on a number of TV series, most recently Once Upon a Time. Do you have an inkling this may happen when hired to do a job?

No, but social media is playing a huge role on how our work is being promoted and perceived. When the fans clamor “we want to see more of this guy”, that speaks volumes. It has changed the dynamic.

Ten years ago, you participated in the documentary The Slanted Screen (about the portrayal of Asians in film and TV). How do you feel the industry has changed since then?

There has been improvement but there is room to grow. Technology has helped our cause: knowledge is at our fingertips and it’s unforgivable to write something that’s not truthful. If we take advantage of these advances, we should be able to produce meaningful stories for audiences to enjoy.