What if language was the key to all the universe’s unsolved mysteries? In Denis Villaneuve’s latest film Arrival, that’s exactly the case. The film chronicles the landing of twelve alien hovercrafts and humanity’s struggle to decode their language. It’s a tantalizing and emotional film that calls each of us to consider how integral communication is, not only in our day-to-day, but also in our greater understanding of the world around us. And veteran actor Tzi Ma is pivotal in bringing that understanding to life on the big screen.
In Arrival, Ma plays General Shang, the Commander of the Chinese military. Though sparsely seen in the film, Ma’s character is an ever-present and important reminder of how critical it is that people—and nations—work together when the odds are stacked against us.
I spoke with Ma, who you might also know from Once Upon a Time and Hell on Wheels, about his role in this critically acclaimed new film:
TARA MARTINEZ: Arrival has been getting some serious Oscar buzz! General Shang is a big part of the story line, and a key part of the emotional twist at the end. What was it like to play that character?
TZI MA: Oh gee, you know, it’s one of those gift-wrapped roles that you don’t get too often in a lifetime. First of all, it’s well written. I think that’s always the key, so you have this wonderful blueprint that you can build your wonderful Taj Mahal on. And then, you have a good architect in Denis [Villeneuve]. And then you have Amy [Adams] who you can really do a scene with without any trepidation and without any drama. You know? You just go and do the scene because she’s so present. So really, it’s one of those roles that was pretty much gift-wrapped for me to do. That was really easy, actually. [laughs] I got lucky, I’m telling you! Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, you know?
TARA: How did you become involved with the film? What about the project drew you in?
TZI: I was offered the role by Denis with General Shang, and at the time I was shooting Hell on Wheels in Calgary. So, good thing. Calgary, Montreal—it wasn’t that far, so really, it kind of worked out. I was booked and both projects were north of the border.
TARA: The cast also included Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. How did you feel when you learned who your fellow cast members would be and who did you work with closest?
TZI: Amy, for sure. Unfortunately for me, I’m not really in the film that much, but everybody talks about me. So, it’s like, you’re kind of doing your acting without doing any acting because you have these kind of A-list, Academy Award actors who are talking about you. So, you kind of sit back and reap the rewards of their labor. [laughs] I tell you, it’s just one of those things, like I said, Christmas came early for me with that role. It was a lot of fun. I mean, if you have Forest Whitaker talking about you, you’re doing good. You don’t have to do anything. Just let them talk! Everything is good!
TARA: You do make appearances in the film, but we don’t get to hear you speak until the end. But you play such a pivotal role. It’s interesting how even a small part can impact a film and an audience.
TZI: Absolutely. I think, as an actor, smart actors don’t really look for the size of the role. You look for the role that’s pivotal. So, this is one of those pivotal roles where you have a presence throughout the film. And those are roles that you don’t normally get too often in a lifetime. When it comes, you just say, ‘Yes, thank you. Thank you everybody—the Lord, Buddha, Allah.’ [laughs] You thank everybody. It’s just one of those wonderful things.
TARA: You recently returned to Once Upon a Time as The Dragon. What’s it been like reprising that role?
TZI: Once Upon a Time, again, it’s like the only TV show that I know that gives you a positive lesson every episode. And I think it’s really nice to have with such a strong, young following. I think it has certain, really valuable life lessons in it and The Dragon carries on that legacy. In this season, we talk about the responsibility and just because you say it’s so and it benefits you does not necessarily benefit the world. So, every episode you have something like that. I really, knock on wood, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to get involved with projects that are really meaningful. And a lot of times, you don’t get a chance to do that. A lot of actors—because you have to make a living, you have to accept certain roles that you may not necessarily like or have a certain value or statement or message of some kind and you do them. But knock on wood, I really have been very fortunate in getting involved with a good number of projects that are able to make a statement and have a message for the audiences.
TARA: Is that something you typically look for when you’re looking for a project?
TZI: Absolutely. I think I have a certain pecking order. One is that I will always be interested if an Asian-American writes it, if an Asian-American directs it, an Asian-American produces it. And any actor, director, producer of color—that’s the next rank. And the third thing is the quality of the project. And the fourth thing is that I’m going to have a whole lot of fun! That’s the pecking order, basically.
So, anytime, if I see a project that’s written or directed or produced by an Asian-American or a person of color, I want to support it because I think it’s important. Even today, you look at—I’m on a jury of the Whistler Film Festival. That’s why I’m up here [Canada] and I noticed that the films that I’m screening, even with the Canadian sensibility where inclusion is very important for them, I still feel that it is still very white. So, it is something that we need to put more effort. I think it’s something that we need to shine a light on and continue to stay on the soapbox and preach it because there’s still not enough. Not even close to being enough. It’s something that I look for, and also, even when you look at a project and you go, ‘Okay, the writing is really not up to snuff,’ you want to put your feet into it and go, ‘listen, we can help this’ because you’ve got to start somewhere. You can’t just go, ‘Okay, there’ and every time you get to the plate, you hit a grand slam. It just doesn’t happen. The whole point is that everybody has a chance to fail. We don’t. We have to succeed which I think that’s unfair. It’s a learning curve. You don’t just come out and be the master of anything. You come out, you try, you fail, you learn, you move on. And that’s important. If we continue to support the young filmmakers and eventually, I believe, they’re going to get somewhere. Give them the opportunity, give them the opportunity to try and fail and succeed. I think that’s what we need to do.
TARA: I agree with you. Over the course of your career, how have you seen the portrayals of Asian-Americans or just Asians in general change?
TZI: I think it’s getting better, for sure. I think today, really, there is no excuse. And unfortunately, we still see it because today research is really at your fingertips. Literally at your fingertips. There isn’t anything, given due diligence, that you don’t know or you cannot find. You can do it. For the stereotyping to continue to happen, for whitewashing to continue to happen, it’s inexcusable. And people come up with the strangest, strangest excuses of why they do it. For example, like Doctor Strange. They go, ‘Okay, we’re going to cast a white woman in an Asian male role.’ And they call it diversity. The director actually said that. He said, ‘This is diversity. We’re casting a white woman in an Asian male role.’ I mean, okay, well if you really want diversity then you would really want to push the presence of women in film and make it an Asian woman. Make it a Hispanic woman. Make it a Black woman. Then we talk about diversity! Not a white woman. I mean, come on. You sit there and you look at these things and go, ‘Are you serious? You actually said because of diversity, you cast a white woman?’ So, it tells you where we need to go.
TARA: Now, back to Arrival and Once Upon a Time. Those are kind of on the Sci-Fi spectrum of the entertainment spectrum. Do you consider yourself a sci-fi fan?
TZI: I am, actually! I love Sci-Fi, good grief! [laughs] Because I think sci-fi writers are scientists. And it’s just that they put it in the context of a creative realm where they let their imagination take over. However, it’s based on some kind of scientific research or scientific fact of some kind—good science fiction writing, that is. Of course, bad is bad, no matter what it is. And then, of course, we were so fortunate to have a Ted Chiang short story, Story of Your Life, to be adapted into what became Arrival. Ted Chiang is, you know, one of the top Sci-Fi writers we have today. And again, he’s another Asian-American writer who gave us this beautiful story about humanity. So, those are the things that make me happy at the end of the day.
TARA: You’ve also joined the cast of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. What can you tell us about that?
TZI: Let’s see. It starts December 16th! That’s it! [laughs] No, no. It’s tough because you don’t want to ruin it for the audience. It’s like Arrival, you don’t want to talk too much because then you kind of deprive the audience of their discovery. But I am a new character in season two for the series, and I am also a general in this particular endeavor. I am General Onada who is the head of the military for the Imperial Japanese army. He comes to the Pacific region, the Pacific territory, which is occupied by the Japanese in America and he has a mandate, a mandate to make sure that the Japanese empire lives on forever.
TARA: Do you have any other projects that we should be on the lookout for?
TZI: I’m shooting a really cute, lovely movie of the week type of project next week, and it’s called An American Girl Story: Ivy and Julie. It is so cute! I love it! And again, Asian-American woman writer!
TZI: I know! That’s what I’m talking about! And it’s a period piece, it takes place in the seventies, about this young Chinese-American girl in the Bay Area who wants to be a gymnast, but she needs to do well in school and all of these amazing demands that you have from an American girl who happens to have a lot of Chinese cultural influence. And she talks about it to this best friend of hers, Julie. Really, they come to this rite of passage with them as young ladies and how the family kind of starts to understand what acculturation is about. So, it’s kind of a nice little project I’m going to be shooting. That’s going to be fun. And then I’m going to be shooting another feature in January in Vancouver with Mina Shum who’s a wonderful lady, another North American-Asian writer and director this time. She’s a writer-director, so even better! She’s amazing; she’s really good. She’s really a pleasure to work with so, I’m looking forward to that. Both projects definitely will have some kind of a message for the audience to ponder and provoke some conversations.
Be sure to check out Tzi Ma in Arrival and follow him on Twitter at @tzima8.
Tara Martinez is a New York-based writer with a passion for pop culture and a penchant for analysis. She frequently covers film, television, and representations of women in the media.