Thursday, September 18, 2014

Interview: Everything's Zen with Satisfaction's Tzi Ma

Tzi Ma as Satisfaction's Zen Master
The USA network’s nighttime drama “Satisfaction” has its first season finale tonight at 10/9c, and I had the chance to talk to series co-star Tzi Ma (“24,” “Rush Hour”) about the groundbreaking show. The series, which centers on Neil Truman, a 40-something family man who discovers he and his wife, Grace, aren’t as satisfied in their marriage as they thought they were. When Grace seeks her satisfaction in the arms of another man, Neil gets his own help by becoming a male escort (it’s a long story). He also seeks the advice of a wise and tell-it-like-it-is Zen master, played by Tzi (pronounced “tie”) Ma.

Celebrity Extra: You were working on “24: Live Another Day” when you got the call to come in to work for “Satisfaction.” How did you work that out?

Tzi Ma: It truly was a logistical nightmare. But thank goodness it all worked out, because I tell you, “Satisfaction” was on the brink of replacing me. I was supposed to be in Atlanta by the middle of May, and I was still in England (for “24”). I flew straight from London to Atlanta, and I was still on hold for “24,” just in case we needed to reshoot anything.

I had shot the first episode of “Satisfaction,” but by the time I was done with “24,” they were on the fifth episode. I went and did four episodes in a row. They waited for me. Sean Jablonski, the creator of the show, is so nice. He’s just so generous and so supportive and trusting. It worked out good. I’m so thankful that they waited.

CE: Tell me about the Zen Master.

TM: The one thing I liked about what Sean was, when we talked about the character, we didn’t want this guy to be your stereotypical Zen master who just sits quietly. We’re playing him as a pretty normal guy. And that’s what I appreciate. It’s hard to do these things. Once they say you are the Zen master, you can get stuck. It’s hard to break out of that controlled, stately idea of the character.

You’re supposed to be wise, and you’re supposed to be able to talk in metaphors, and everybody will just say, “Oh my God, this is so crazy and so wonderful.” That’s not how we approached this guy. We approached him as a true practitioner of Zen in that everything’s in the moment. He has no premeditated thoughts about why this guy is coming to him. That’s how we approached the relationship between Neil and the Zen Master. If it were just a regular Zen master, I may not have wanted to play the role.

CE: When you prepared for the role, how did you approach it?

TM: The one thing I asked from our directors was, “If there’s any time that you feel that I’m just reading a line, please let me know, because that’s what I don’t want.” We have wonderful writers on the show, so you don’t want to mess that up. They get paid the big bucks for a reason.

CE: We don’t get to see a lot of the Zen Master, but when we do, his scenes are always important. Will we get to see more of him?

TM: No, I’m never featured heavily. It wouldn’t work that way. It has to be that he’s the guy who comes in and transitions himself out. But there are some little twists in an upcoming episode where it comes out that he is not really using the “Zen” philosophy to talk to Neil about certain things.

CE: When the folks at “24” contacted you about returning to the series in the role of Cheng, what was your reaction?

TM: I was excited. (Writers) Evan (Katz) and Manny (Coto) called, and they talked to me about it. They said, “We’re thinking about doing this, but it’s going to be really intense. And we don’t want to tell you too much. We really want everyone to be surprised.” We didn’t know what the ending was going to be. But given what they told me, I really felt that this character was almost like a new character. The stakes were much higher because he had nobody to answer to, just like Jack Bauer. That parallel is very exciting.

CE: What was the reaction from “24” viewers concerning your return?

TM: The reaction has been great. The one thing about the fans that’s so cool is that they don’t come up to me and spit in my face, like: “Oh, I hate you! You’re against Jack Bauer!” It’s a love/hate relationship. It’s like: “I hate you. Can I take a picture?” I’m a character actor. I try not to be so visible out in public. To be recognized that way in such a consistent manner because of this show, it’s scary for a character actor. But the fans have been great. They’re writing stuff online like: “Oh my God, I can’t believe it! He’s back! Cheng is back!” I’m really enjoying it.

CE: What are your thoughts on Freddie Prinze Jr.’s statement that during his time on “24,” Kiefer Sutherland was unprofessional and difficult to work with?

TM: Look at what Kiefer’s done for “24.” He’s been in practically every scene, from beginning to end, for nine seasons. That should tell you something about this guy’s work ethic. I don’t know any actor who comes to the set more prepared than him. You can’t carry a show like this being an asshole. Everyone has his moments, even me. The fact is, he doesn’t compromise because he is trying to achieve excellence.

CE: Tell me about your new movie, “Million Dollar Arm.”

TM: It’s a simple movie about an American sports agent (played by Jon Hamm) who’s trying to revive his career because it’s going down the toilet. He wants to create a game show; it’s like “American Idol” but with baseball. He travels to India to find his athletes.

CE: You did a few episodes of “Nash Bridges” back in the day, with one of my favorite actors, Don Johnson. What was that experience like?

TM: I shot the 99th and 100th episodes of the show, so it was a big deal. Don is so generous. He took the entire cast and crew to Vegas for the shoot. We shot at the Mirage, the Bellagio — it was a ball. Don came straight up and said, “Brother, I’m so glad you’re on the show.” He’s another guy who’s really intense. Some people think he’s a diva, but he’s not. The guy is serious about what he’s doing. It’s a bum rap that guys like Don and Kiefer get in terms of being divas or being difficult. They’re not; they’re passionate and professional.

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