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Tzi Ma Talks Tao, The Railroad Story, and Hell on Wheels [Exclusive Interview] 

Photo Credit: Chris Large/AMC
Photo Credit: Chris Large/AMC

Last week, Hell on Wheels bid adieu to Tao after Chang orchestrated his murder, surely cementing that Bohannon and/or Mei will end him. [A girl can dream.] This week, we jumped on the phone with Tzi Ma to talk about his experience on the show, commiserate Tao’s demise, and tease what’s next.

Ma was offered the role of Tao outright, and he was pleasantly surprised when it came his way. He’d been familiar with the series when it launch in 2011, but from the perspective of the Chinese-American blowback that occurred when the Chinese were nowhere to be found in the early days of the show.

“I was flattered and surprised [about the offer] because I actually knew about the show but hadn’t watched it, for two reasons, which kind of came full circle. When the show first started, the Chinese-American community had heard about it and [wondered] if they were going to tell their story,” he explains. “Unbeknownst to us, it was chronological. I think some community groups contacted AMC and never got a response. The community doesn’t know the inner workings of a TV show. You couldn’t promise seasons [that weren’t guaranteed yet]. So I think it was wise for them to [not commit] because it might be a promise they could not keep.”

“In some ways, I had the same kind of feeling and I forgot about it. And then I realized they were finally telling the [Chinese] story. I was surprised and floored and overwhelmed that they were offering me this wonderful role. I went back and watched and had to behave like a professional and study and catch up. Thank God it’s on Netflix.”

Once he was on board, he was thrilled will the level of research and detail that had gone into the accurate portrayal of the Chinese, and he came to the project with his own background from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “The Dance and the Railroad,” a 1980 play written by David Henry Hwang that he did opposite John Lone.

“I probably had more knowledge than most people because I’d done this play at the Public Theater. It was the longest running Asian-American play at the time. We did 350 shows and we were sold out every night. It was one act, two characters, 67 minutes. Back in 1979 when David was researching the play, there was no Internet. There’s not that much stuff,” he recalls. “The play was commissioned by the Department of Education [for] children in primary school…so we really had to make it simple.”

“[It] was about two Chinese railroad workers during the strike in 1867. Two guys who worked 8 hours on and 8 hours off. What happens when they have nothing to do? [Lone’s character] was a Peking opera performer who was forced into servitude. My character was the newcomer who had all the Gold Mountain dreams.”

Ma says that 35 years later, with so much information online, the history is still incomplete. “Even today, there’s not enough material. [The Hell on Wheels team] found the most knowledgeable man, Professor Gordon Chang at Stanford University. They’re still looking for personal letters and documentation of what life was like at the time. He’s not been that successful because the records are very sketchy. If you remember from the show, they never give their full names…so there was no way to really find these people and trace their roots. [We] know more about that situation because Stanford, Huntington, and Durant ultimately…had to answer to Congress.”

Ma didn’t know when he booked the role, but did find out at the first cast read-through that Tao had a fixed arc. “[Initially, I] didn’t know what the commitment was at the time. [I knew] it was a great role. I had a character description but I didn’t have a script [until the deal was done]. He was an interesting guy. He was bilingual, Western educated from missionary schools,” he says. “[As an actor, I] understood that in any dramatic series you need to move the story in a compelling way. There ware sacrifices that need to be made, particularly with characters that are [well received].”

“We had a sense that Tao would be fairly likeable [but you don’t know for sure until it airs]. I was astounded by the accuracy that was on the page. I knew they were tapping into somebody who knew what was going on. Once you’re on a series, there’s no time. Everything’s got to be prepped, and prepared and ready to go. All actors in series TV know that. It’s a fast-paced, grueling schedule.”

Ma echoes what we’ve heard from other Hell on Wheels folks–that Calgary is as much a part of the show as the people. “Given the fact that we shoot in Calgary, there’s that other element called Mother Nature. It’s a character in the show,” he laughs. “Marvin [V. Rush] will shoot in the rain, in the snow, in the mud. We plowed on.”

When asked to highlight a favorite scene or moment, Ma says they were all fantastic, but he does appreciate the importance of the graveyard scene two episodes back. “I never say this [but in Hell on Wheels], every scene has equal importance. That’s how well the show is written,” he says. “Every scene has a goal that you really must reach. Because if you don’t [you] wouldn’t be satisfied.”

Photo Credit: David Bukach/AMC
Photo Credit: David Bukach/AMC

Ma is proud of Mei’s storyline this season, and Tao’s role in it. “I thought it was a wonderful reinventing of the Mulan story. Instead of going to battle for her dad, she’s going to battle with her dad. I think it important to have some female presence on the Chinese side. I really thought it was brilliant that they could add this element where it was a challenge for a woman to be in a frontier situation as a laborer,” he says. “These characters have such strength–of character [and also physically]. I think the fact that Jami [O’Brien] is on staff is important for gender representation. All the good shows have that kind of balance.”

We also talked about that last conversation Tao has with Bohannon, about Mei. “So many things are rolled into that conversation, from the perspective of a Dad. Dad’s have a way of picking this stuff up,” he points out. “And…it increases the dilemma that Bohannon has to deal with. It’s going to echo in his head. [Going forward] is he going to be a father figure? Now you have that layer. For Bohannon, his head is going to be spinning.”

Last month, Ma was part of a contingent that took the show to the Asian-American International Film Festival in New York. He says it was a terrific experience. “We were received with open arms and warmth and love. The theater was packed. You could really feel the appreciation that the show had so much integrity, that the characters represented onscreen were something they were very proud of, that the story being told was touching,” he shares.

“It’s an interesting setting. I didn’t expect the audience to be so knowledgeable. [I wondered] if a TV show would stand up to the same rigor a film would stand up to. It looked great. It should be a movie. Marvin is a genius. Unforgiving but a genius. He’s like Calgary. All kidding aside, we know he’s going to capture the moment the way no cinematographer can.”

Photo Credit: Richard DuCree/USA Network
Photo Credit: Richard DuCree/USA Network

Viewers might also recognize Ma for his recurring role on an other TV Goodness favorite, USA’s Satisfaction, which returns for its second season in October. He pays the Zen Master to Neil Truman, and we’ll see him again this season. “You guys are going to be surprised. I can’t tell you much more than that. You’re going to love it. There’s a lesson in everything. It’s glossed over by surreal sexual tension but they’re working though some stuff,” he teases. “Their relationship changes somewhat but you’re going to have to see. You won’t be disappointed. They touch on a lot of contemporary things that people in relationships grapple with.”

He’s just wrapped a role for Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) starring opposite Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forrest Whitaker in a science fiction film that was shot in Montreal. “I just finished [Arrival]. It had a wonderful cast. Montreal is a lovely, lovely place,” he says. “It’s a wonderful, heartwarming story. It’s about goodness. I play a very important Chinese general, General Shang.”

Ma has had a considerable career in film and television, and last year he revisited another popular role as Chen Zhi,  Jack Bauer’s nemesis, in the 24: Live Another Day micro-series reboot. He says he looks for characters who are integral to the story, whether that’s as the hero or villain. “I prefer characters who have an impact. Those are the roles that challenge you as an actor. Otherwise, who cares? It doesn’t even matter the size of the role,” he says. “I look for characters who are pivotal…and have an impact on where the story goes. It doesn’t matter what side of the fence he falls on. These roles are not clearly defined. There’s pretty ambiguous. Chang was ambitious, but so it Tao. He wants change, too, but for him, it’s personal.

You can keep up with Ma’s latest projects on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, where he’s getting use to the real-time interaction. “I’m fairly new to social media so I don’t know if they’d react this way to some of the other projects I’ve done. My niece set up some kind of notification that it goes to my phone [and my phone blew up Saturday night],” he laughs. “The show happened and I hadn’t seen it, and the phone kept vibrating.”

“I was in shock. I was overwhelmed by the response. The fans are amazing. You should see some of the Tweets. [I thought] that was pretty cool. I haven’t gotten this kind of visceral reaction unless I was doing a play. My heart sings. It’s unexpected and overwhelming. I’m flattered. I’m grateful.”

Hell on Wheels airs Saturdays at 9/8c through next weekend, when the fifth season wraps its first batch of episodes (too soon!!).

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