Veteran actors James Hong, Tzi Ma and Elizabeth Sung were in New York in December to shoot the Season 4, episode 14 of “Elementary,” entitled, “Who Is That Masked Man?”, which stars Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, with Larry Teng at the helm. The episode aired on Thursday, February 25, 2016 on the CBS Television Network. For more information, click here.
When three gang members are murdered, Holmes and Watson are amazed when an elderly woman emerges as their prime suspect.
The fact that they were working on the same set in the same city is a rare occasion. Their relationship is quite familial. They were gracious enough to sit down with me on their day off from shooting to talk about their collective histories in the business.
James Hong’s career as an actor, writer and producer spans seven decades. Hong has acquired credits of 500 roles in feature films and television, probably the most of any actor. His credits include Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner, Chinatown, Wayne’s World 2, and “Seinfeld”. He also recently starred in “Agents of Shield” with Ming-Na Wen, Kung-Fu Panda 1, 2 & 3, Balls of Fury, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Lost Medallion and RIPD starring Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon and Jeff Bridges.
Hong is one of the founders of the East-West Players, the oldest and largest Asian American theater in Los Angeles. He served as president and charter member of the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists and was a former member of the SAG Board of Directors under Charleton Heston as president.
Elizabeth Sung was raised in Hong Kong and is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Her first TV role was with Hong in 1988, on the set of “The Equalizer” with Russell Wong as her love interest. From 1994-96, she was a series regular in the 1st Asian American storyline on the “Young and the Restless” as Luan Volien Abbott and is memorable as the second wife in The Joy Luck Club.
Other roles on film include Memoirs of a Geisha, Lethal Weapon 4, Falling for Grace, Ping Pong Playa, Finding Madison, The People I’ve Slept With, House Under Siege, Go for Sisters, Tango and Cash, China Cry, Death Ring and Yes And. Her television credits include “China Beach,” “Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes,” “Kojak: Flowers for Matty,” “Knots Landing,” “Charmed,” “Border Line,” “ER,” “Touched by an Angel,” “Passions,” “NYPD Blue,” “For the People,” “Crossing Jordan,” “House M.D.,” “E-Ring,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “The Sopranos,” “Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,” “The Suite Life on Deck,” “The Forgotten,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Flashforward,” “Bones,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Awake,” “Mike & Molly,” “Shameless,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. She has appeared in the short films Godlike, Woman in Fragments, Nuptials of the Dead, The Boxer, and the webisodes Who’s in Charge, Miss Guidance and Meet the Kayak.
Sung was in the Directing Workshop for Women at the American Film Institute where she made her first award winning film, Requiem (1995). Her graduate thesis film, The Water Ghost (1998), earned Sung an MFA in directing from the AFI. She garnered the 2013 Golden Angel Award for Best Supporting Actress at the 9th Annual Chinese American Film Festival, and the 2013 Asians on Film Best Supporting Actress Award for her role of the mother in Steve Myung’s Anita Ho, one of her favorite projects to date. She holds a BFA in Dance from The Juilliard School and was a member of The Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Company. Her current projects include the pilot “Lees of LA,” and she can be seen in the films Front Cover, Pali Road, Fallen Stars and The Unbidden at film festivals around the country.
Tzi Ma has worked in film, television, and on stage for four decades creating such memorable characters as the recurring role of Cheng Zhi, nemesis to Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer on the hit series 24 and 24: Live Another Day, and playing opposite Tom Hanks in Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of The Ladykillers. Ma worked with Hong on the the film Red Corner (1997), and two TV series,” The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” (1994) and “Millennium” (1999).
Ma’s distinguished body of work, also includes roles in such films as Million Dollar Arm, Rush Hour, Rush Hour 3, The Quiet American, Akeelah and the Bee, Dante’s Peak, Chain Reaction, Golden Gate, Diablo and Rapid Fire. His television credits include “Satisfaction,” “Commander-in-Chief,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Fringe,”” The Practice,” “Law & Order,” “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Boomtown” and “Chicago Hope”. I caught up with Ma last summer when he was in New York for a screening of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” at the Asian American International Film Festival.
Since then, Ma has worked on Denis Villeneuve‘s sci-fi film Story of Your Life in Montreal and on The Jade Pendant directed by Po-Chih Leong, a wonderful Chinese/English director, in Salt Lake City. He finished the second season of “Satisfaction” in his recurring role as the Zen Master in Atlanta; worked on Lorne Michael’s “Man Seeking Woman,” with Simon Rich in Toronto; guest starred on the ABC procedural drama “Stitchers” and on the TNT sitcom “Angie Tribeca” with Rashida Jones. Ma is the youngest of seven children born in Hong Kong and was reared in New York City.
In-depth profile: In Conversation With Tzi Ma
Sung and Ma are featured as husband and wife in the independent film Pali Road which is set for theatrical release on April 29, 2016, and is currently screening on the film festival circuit.
Lia: What was your first project together?
Tzi: Elizabeth and I started out as lovers on a film called Half Ass by Vic Huey in 1986. We played lovers. We sang this Cantonese opera song. (they sing) For Pali Road, we were in Hawaii for 3 ½ weeks. We had a great time. I fed her everyday. (laugh)
Elizabeth: Fresh fish from the ocean that he caught with his bare hands. I first worked with James on an episode of “The Equalizer” in 1988. I was a poor dancer/maybe prostitute. James played my father. Mako was the gangster lord. Russell Wong played my love interest.
James: Kim Chan and Mako were in it. Mako was a very memorable person, actor. You can never forget him. He had that style of silence, when he goes hmm- it means yes and it means no. Wonderful guy.
Lia: Last April, the Japanese American National Museum in LA had a sold out screening of Big Trouble in Little China, and we enjoyed a reunion of our fellow cast members Peter Kwong, Gerald Okamura, Al Leong, George Cheung, James Lew, Jeff Imada, and screenwriter Gary Goldman. Please share your experience with Big Trouble in Little China.
James: There’s many more films on the horizon for me, but there will never be another Big Trouble in Little China. I’ll tell you why. I started East West Players, 51 years ago. We paid for the theaters ourselves, out of our own pocket to perform, now they are on a sizable budget. I hope they keep going with new leadership, now that Tim Dang has stepped down. It means a lot to the Asian American actors to have an organization like East West Players, someplace to go to. And look at how many actors and actresses got their chance, coming out of East West Players. They perform such good plays. It’s getting a lot of recognition, nationwide. We need that to augment the actors that we have now, and the ones that are coming. I see so many faces on the television of people that have sort of graduated from East West. It’s a wonderful place for training.
Big Trouble in Little China was the kind of movie for us, martial artists, the greatest of all, actors, writers, that movie, John gave us all a chance. In fact, Jim Lau, James Lew and Jeff Imada were stunt coordinators, choreographers, and were promoted to associate producers by the end, that’s how hard they worked. So that was the kind of atmosphere that existed on the set. I slept outside the stage, overnight in a little small trailer, got up and put on the makeup. In those days, we couldn’t afford much. It was a tough shoot but it was the best we could do at that time and everybody had high hopes. Believe it or not, that whole film was made for 25 million dollars. Now it would cost you close to 150. Everybody here put 150% of effort into that movie, way beyond what they were paid. But for some reason, the studio did not put the publicity behind it. They put it into Alien, which became a huge hit, so Big Trouble lagged behind. It’s found it’s own cult audience.
Lia: David Lo Pan is such an iconic character. What is the reaction that you get from fans?
James: It’s amazing, when you do a film, you don’t know which one is going to become popular. Blade Runner also was a great film, and you could see that coming. But Big Trouble, you didn’t know because it was so new for its time. John Carpenter got the idea from Raymond Chow of Hong Kong to do a film as such. But he put his own trademark on it. For some reason, the hidden values and gimmicks that Carpenter put in have become alive nowadays. When I do go to the conventions, that is the most popular role I have ever done, among the 100’s that I have done. They remember that one. I have no idea why. That’s the way films are, you don’t know which one will grow.
Lia: What are your three top favorite projects?
James: Big Trouble is my top favorite because I did do three roles rolled into one. Blade Runner, Chinatown. One of the movies that has never been shown here in America is L’Idole, a French film, which stars Leelee Sobieski. I went to Paris for two months and made it in 2002. It was all in French. I didn’t speak a word of it, but I learned approximately 400 words in French. I was about 80 or so. It was a taxing situation, but I loved it. The French people are so great. There is something about them that is very different from the American people. I wish them luck in the future. I play an older man, but a main character, as a human being, rather than being a cliché.
Lia: With the long career that you’ve had, is there some role that you’d like to play, or a director that you would like to work with?
James: I’d like to work for myself. I’ve produced and directed some films before. Now I’d like to get back into it and do a couple more films before I retire, travel a little and enjoy life. I look at these wonderful actors next to me and say yeah, I knew them before.
James: All of you listeners and readers, please let us know, we seldom get a reaction from an Asian American audience as to what is happening. Do they like our work, do they not like it? Please write in and we will answer your questions.
James: Something about Tzi Ma, he is so busy these days, he reminds me a little bit of what I used to do. He’s hopping from one film to another. He was late getting here because he was on another set in another city. Congratulations on that.
Tzi: Thank you James. If I could follow in your steps, I’m good.
Lia: What did you mean when you said that you are currently being accessed for your funny?
Tzi: It’s kind of weird, I don’t know where it came from. My last sitcom before “Man Seeking Woman” was “Head of the Class,” which was 1000 years ago, with that kid, Jonathan Ke Quan. I’ve always turned those things down, because we are the butt of the joke. I don’t want to be the butt of the joke. There are a lot of great sitcoms that ask for our participation, like “Seinfeld” or even “Friends”. And every time I look at those scripts, I can’t do them. We’re always the butt of the joke. Not really the participant of the joke. Whereas “Man Seeking Woman” and “Angie Tribeca,” we are the motivators of the joke. So it is a big difference. I’ve often had a problem with sitcoms, but all of a sudden, two sitcoms back to back. I don’t know what generated that interest. I don’t know why they asked me to do it, because these are all straight offers.
Lia: What is your character in “Elementary”?
Tzi: I haven’t had time to read the script. I will read the script over the weekend. The only thing that we are clear about it since these characters are Triad characters is that they need to speak Cantonese as opposed to Mandarin. The script was written in Mandarin. Liz and I had a discussion about it, so we brought it up to the director and he agrees. The director of this episode, Larry Teng, is Asian American. It goes to show you the advantage of having a director who knows the background. He knows that Triads do not speak Mandarin, they speak Cantonese. That is the advantage of working with someone who is Asian American or Chinese American because you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or recite the encyclopedia for them to understand what your motivations are, what you are doing, what your relationships are. It’s something that we do, practically on a per project base. We practically have to explain ourselves on a daily basis because they don’t know. It is a lot easier to work on a project when you have three actors who know what they are doing, who knows where they are, and a director that knows everything about us. That’s kind of cool.
Lia: Pali Road is currently on the Film Festival circuit. Can you tell me more about it?
Tzi: Pali Road is a new experience. It is the first time for me working with a Chinese director who cut his teeth making films in China. He was educated in Australia and Vancouver. His directorial debut was a Chinese film. The film was financed and already had distribution in China. The lead actress is from Taiwan. She has done some films in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
Lia: Did you like working in Hawaii?
Tzi: Yes. We were in the North Shore. The North Shore is not Waikiki. The North Shore is serene, spiritual, and it rains more on the North Shore. You really get all the benefits of all the native ions coming from the ocean. We were staying at Turtle Bay resort, and we were at the apex of the island. Every morning, I just opened the lanai doors and absorbed all that good energy. It was relaxing for us. It was something that I think given the circumstances on a low budget film, everybody is under the gun, and a lot of pressure on everybody to make the film within 18 shooting days, so I think that if we were in another location, it might have been very taxing for us. The fact that we were on the North Shore, it really gave us the opportunity to at least take a breather. We don’t feel like we’re constantly on edge, given the schedule and all the work that we had to do with the script, rehearsals, locations. I think as a location, it served us, served the project in a very meaningful and positive way.
Lia: Can you speak to your relationship?
Elizabeth: I’ve known Tzi for more than two decades. When I heard of Tzi then, we were both dancers, coming from the dance world. When I saw his face at The Public Theater, Dance and the Railroad, I thought, “Who is this guy?” Then, I got to know him through friends. At that time, we’d not had the chance to work together until our friend created the film short Half-Ass in 1986. By then, we knew each other a lot better.
He’s always been an inspiration, like spearheading a lot of things. He never just takes a script at face value. He always digs and finds other angles. That’s very inspirational. If you have a mediocre script, or not so very good script, Tzi is going to make it live. He’s always been my challenge. To work with him, that’s what I love. You have a good sparring partner.
One of the things that I treasure, with Pali Road, how do we make the characters that we play, husband and wife, the parents of this girl- how do we make this relationship with her, the parents, live? We were from China, and yet we’re concerned for her. How do we make that intriguing, exciting, familiar, with depth to provoke thoughts within the audience’s mind? Or have them look at themselves to be reflective.
Lia: What was your favorite project that you worked on?
Elizabeth: For me, never the big budget projects. It has always been the independent project, where the script comes to you and it’s not quite there. And the filmmaker, the ones that I choose to work with are open-minded, you can have discussions and they will take input. You see the script evolve. My romantic comedy project, Anita Ho, the character, the mother’s character was not quite present. Through discussions and working at it, that became a major counterpart to the two leads.
Lia: And your favorite project with Elizabeth?
Tzi: I would have to say, Half-Ass. The first one. That scene was supposed to be the genesis of a script. It was like a sizzle reel. It was the beginning, a germination of a project that he wanted to do, which we participated in. Sometimes, you don’t see things at the moment. Sometime later, you realize that those things are the most valuable things that you could do. We got to know one another better. We formed a relationship. We know who we are. It just so happened that somehow the universe put us in the same city, because I went out to LA. Next thing you know, she was in LA. Before that, we were in New York together. Once we parted ways in terms of where we are going, and then to see each other, the bond became stronger. Through the years, these things lead to other things. Without Half-Ass, I may not even know Elizabeth. So really, hindsight is always quite rewarding when you look back and say, wow, if that didn’t happen, some of these things may not have happened.
Lia: How has it been navigating as an Asian American actress in the industry and directing?
Elizabeth: Not easy. As an Asian American actress, from my time in the industry, because what was available then, and what is more available now, it was either prostitutes or waitresses. Sometimes you may have some social worker roles, or reporter. But now, it’s a lot more professional women, not just fresh off the boat. It’s still an uphill battle. Not easy. That’s why I said, for the independent projects that I participate in or that I can lend my support, I really do enjoy them. Especially to Asian American directors who write a story that is compelling and that has something to say.
In terms of my directing, it all came from realizing after the Miss Saigon protest, where the role of the Engineer role was supposed to be half Asian and went to a Caucasian who put prosthetics on his eyelids. Tzi was a very vocal representative of all of us. We sweat and we fought for, after the show opened, that this part needed to go to an Asian American actors. In that big movement, what I did learn is somebody who put the project together, with the money, as long as you talk about it, they are the ones that initiate it. If you don’t have the story, and you don’t have the money to give life to a project. The voice many not be as powerful. I went to the director workshop at AFI first. I went back to school to get my degree in directing from the American Film Institute. I realized from my dance background that one short project does not make me a director. Coming from Hong Kong, I need structure. I’m not that self-motivated, like Tzi. I need to be in an environment where there are classrooms so that everything is there for me to do a few more projects. I have put my directing on hold for a little bit, strictly for financial reasons (student loans are high).
With the whole digital revolution, I want to reconsider. It is a very different time. Especially with the possibility of doing co-productions, with like-minded people with East and West. The chance of getting film projects off the ground is a lot easier, if one can find like-minded people.
Lia: Have you ever considered directing?
Tzi: I have. I’ve directed theater. I enjoy the directing process. I think I can make some contribution as a director. I feel my strength would come from working with the actors. I do understand their journey, I understand their experience. It’s really a welcoming sight when you see a Chinese American director. With this particular episode, we don’t have to recite the Bible for this guy. At least you don’t have to worry about these little things like, I remember working on two or three projects back to back, when I go to the set, I see the same Qing Dynasty painting on three different shows. You run into these kinds of generalities of who we are. They don’t know it.
I think our contributions as directors, is that we have the innate understanding of the culture; we have experienced their experiences, so that they don’t have to go home and struggle and say how do I present the right picture for this director? Which is what we do all the time. We go home, beat our head against the wall. Ok, what are we going to say to this guy? How are we going to say it? In what context do we present it? I just want my actors to go home, do their work, do their preparation, come to the set and I will be there to protect them. I think that’s key, for our presence behind the camera.
Because the struggles that we went through, such as what Liz said about Miss Saigon, is that there’s also a genesis to that too. That character was not Eurasian. At first, the character was Asian. Then after Jonathan Pryce took the role as the Asian with prosthetics, and we saw the cast album, there were pictures of him in yellow face. That’s when we did the complaint. After we complained, that’s when the character became Eurasian. They said, “well why not, because it is a Eurasian character, we can cast Jonathan Pryce. Now the character is Eurasian, and it is okay to cast a white actor. So we know that again, we need to empower ourselves, in every aspect. That’s why I approach scripts the way that I do as an actor. I want to empower me as an actor. I don’t want to walk in a room and relinquish the creative process to someone else’s hand. I know it is untrustworthy. Now, if he is Asian American, then I feel a little better, because then I don’t have to worry about not trusting him.
It’s a process. My advice to young actors is never shy away from saying what you need to say. Eventually, you’ll get better at it. In the beginning, it was terrible. The stuff that came out of my mouth was offensive and abrasive. I couldn’t get anywhere. I didn’t know how. Eventually, I learned how to say it. That comes from experience. Every opportunity you get, speak your mind. Because the more you practice on how to present that, you’ll get better at doing it. You’ll become more articulate. Your points will become more precise. You have to be very specific about what those points are, because time is precious. Usually when a project gets going, once the actors get involved, it’s off. It’s a bullet train that’s left the station already. You’ve got to go in there with your guns loaded, everything laid out on the table. ‘These are my concerns. What do you think?’ So there is a point of departure.
The beauty of working with somebody you know, like working with Liz, since we know each other, we can get together before hand. Like this project. We called each other over the phone, talked about what was important. How do we present it to the director? It’s about being specific. Where are we and at what time are we talking about? We are in New York Chinatown, current time. This organization, if you are a Triad or a Tong, they are a very specific organization. It’s not like they are one. The writers don’t know there is a difference. For us, as professional actors, ultimately, we hold the responsibility. You’re not going to see the director on the screen. You’re not going to see the writer on the screen. You’re going to see us on the screen. It’s like self-survival. I don’t want to look bad. I don’t want Liz to look bad. We really have to do our due diligence. That’s made our working easier because we know each other. We’re familiar with each other’s work. We have the respect and the admiration of each other’s work. We can sit down and speak openly about what are concerns are, how do we handle it, how do we deal with it. Some things are not just about reality. Not about the truth itself.
For instance, Pali Road is a film for China. There are some things you cannot do because it is going to be shown in China. So now we have to figure out a way to help the director get over that hump. He doesn’t even know. This is an important part of the script and an important part of the scene. But it may not get past the censor. We need to think about strategies on how to say the same thing, get the same results and pass the censors too. That’s an added responsibility.
Elizabeth: I have to give a shot out to the director Larry Teng. I worked with him on “Hawaii Five-O”. He told me that it was his first freelance project as a director. This time, after Tzi and I had a discussion about the dialect, we contacted Larry and he was open. He was raised in Queens. He had a conversation with each of us, so he said, “I agree.” So after the two voices, plus his initial instinct, it’s a triple reinforcement that he approached the writers to say that this language dialect needs to be authentically Cantonese. So, this way sometimes a director, an Asian American, needs support from the cast. Not just one person holding the banner. It’s not enough. We come in knowing the culture. Tzi grew up in Chinatown. I lived in New York from the 70’s to 80’s, 16 years. I have knowledge, watching TV and reading newspapers that Mandarin will not do. Another thing that I do appreciate Larry, when they were working on my first day, he said, “It is important to me to not perpetuate stereotypes. I want to go for the humanity of this character. Because he said it is too easy to do the other thing. This is one thing that I don’t want to perpetuate as a director.” He had this little sidebar conversation. I said I respect you and I support you 100%. I am there.
Tzi: Most productions that hire one of us or both of us are very lucky because we know, at least to a point where the characters are properly written. For example, if we were shooting “Hell on Wheels,” it wouldn’t have simplified characters, and we’re able to catch it. This didn’t exist in 1870. It has to be the traditional characters. As far as the experience in Chinatown is concerned, we know that experience. I lived it; I lived at 34 Henry Street. IN that sense, we’re an asset.
Elizabeth: And the director appreciates that because he has back up. A lot of time, you pick your battles. As a director, there are many of them. If you are able to support him in presenting his case, then he has one less battle to fight. If we can do that for him, that’s great.
Lia: What’s next for you?
Elizabeth: I am working with an Asian American indie director, who has written a story for Asian characters, two sets of families- how they converge in LA, and how each of them affected each other. They went through a journey. It is an ensemble story. It will be an interesting story to tell and my character is a mother who has done all the wrong things with the best of intentions, and yet learned at the end of the day.
Tzi: I’m working on an independent film called Mediation Park by Mina Shum, who is a wonderful Canadian director. Sandy’s (Sandra Oh) in all her films. I think Sandy is like her alter ego. Sandy is also in this film. This film is really quite poignant. It’s about a woman, who all her life is dependent on the husband to do everything-to provide, to take care of the daily chores, bank account, insurance, and he dies. Now what is she going to do? She’s on her own now, completely. How does this woman learn to not only be self-reliant, but who she is. When you are with this husband who has done everything and has had full control of you, you’ve lost you. You’re only part of him. How does this woman find her? This is a woman’s story.
Here’s the funny part-when I was in Vancouver for a meeting with Mina, I was in a bank to get some money. There was a long line, and I saw that woman online, gorgeously dressed, quite elderly, she walks to the counter and she pulled out about 10 cards. She had no idea what any of those cards were. She said, “These are all my husband’s cards. These are all the accounts that I have. I’ve never even seen them. I don’t know what to do. If I need money, I don’t know how to take it out.” Good thing the staff was so nice to her. I’m standing there. Life is stranger than fiction. I was just mesmerized by this woman, because I just read the script. And there she is right in front of me.
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek, which will screen at Asians on Film on March 10th, The Women’s Film Festival in Philadelphia on March 13th and the Disorient Film Festival in Eugene Oregon in April. She is profiled in Examiner.com, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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