Actor Tzi Ma’s paternal, warm face is the kind you’d recognize immediately from the dozens of roles the 53-year-old actor has played over a career spanning decades.
Ma has played everything from a steely government agent to an emotionally distressed father. Now, the veteran actor takes on a tricky role: one of a Chinese laborer in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, which tells the story of the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1860s and includes the brutal--and often ignored--story of the Chinese who literally settled the West.
Ma's character Tao, a Chinese laborer with dreams of democracy for his native country, is one of thousands of Chinese laborers who worked for the Central Pacific Railroad, laying down tracks at backbreaking speed eastward in a rush to meet the Union Pacific Railroad, which was building westward. They were systematically paid less than their white laborer counterparts, and used by management to quell labor grumblings.
Ma said he was interested in the role because of the dramatic nature of the character.
“Are these characters compelling, are the stories being told going to people? Ultimately, that’s our job,” Ma told NBC News.
Like his Hell on Wheels character, Ma isn’t afraid to speak his mind, especially when it comes to the lukewarm development of Asian-American shows and castings in the entertainment industry. Ma, who cut his acting teeth in theatre in the ‘60s, said he has seen interest in Asian-American actors ebb and flow over his long career. The experience has left him hopeful, but cautious, as pushes for diversity quickly give way to a receding tide of business-as-usual.
“You still have that ‘flavor of the month' issue...I don’t feel that there’s an absolute traction in terms of giving actors of color the opportunity that is offered to white actors,” Ma said.
But Ma also finds plenty of blame to go around, and called on Asian-American viewers, as well as the existing entertainment industry, to really take action.
"The audiences that are part of our community really need to understand that if you think there’s progress being made, then I think you’re kind of living in a dream world. There may be some progress, there may be strides, but I tell you if you don’t correct these images that we see everyday…and really represent…[Asian Americans] well, then you’re going to have repeat[ed] misunderstandings, repeat[ed] discrimination,” Ma said.
He continued, “You look at Fresh Off the Boat... That’s just one show. That’s not going to represent the entire Asian-American community, because we’re a multicultural community. So now you have one show? That’s not going to work. We need more shows, we need shows that are within the mainframe of all the other shows."