Tzi Ma and Diana Lin on The Farewell, being at Sundance, and what makes Lulu Wang such a great filmmaker and storyteller.
I was lucky enough to attend the Sundance Film Festival back in January. This is where I got to see Lulu Wang’s The Farewell which, six months later, I still believe is one of the best films of the year. There are a lot of films that premiere at Sundance and while the line-up for 2019 didn’t feature as many Oscar -caliber films as in previous years, I do think that The Farewell will be the film out of Sundance that you will hear a lot about starting this week and in the months ahead as we move out of the summer movie season and into award season.
The Farewell opens in limited release this weekend in New York and Los Angeles. As part of a recent press day for the film, I was lucky enough to sit down with veteran actor Tzi Ma and Diana Lin to discuss the film.
Scott Menzel: Good afternoon, Tzi and Diana, if you don’t mind, let’s sort of take a trip back to kind to start this interview. Let’s go back to Sundance.
Tzi Ma: Oh, okay. Were you there?
Scott Menzel: Yes, I was.
Tzi Ma: Terrific.
Scott Menzel: The Farewell had the honor of being in the biggest venue for the world premiere of this film. How did that feel?
Diana Lin: Surprised. I didn’t know the film was that good because Sundance was the first time I saw the whole film. So, yeah. Surprised, so grateful, and happy. Really, I didn’t know it could be that good. I know it was going to be good, but not that good.
Tzi Ma: As actors, we have very little control of the final product as you know. So, whatever comes out is always at the mercy of the filmmaker, the editor, producers, and distributors. There are so many hands in this movie or any movie for that matter. As far as that goes, I was really happy with it. A story was told and it was told in a way where it’s so moving for the audiences to relate to. As we were sitting in the audience, and it was the first time we’ve screened the film as well. So, we’re going through the journey with them. That’s unique. We, as actors, normally don’t really have that kind of connection with the audience with film and television. We’re so removed unless we’re doing theater. Then, we have a firsthand feel of what the audience is going through.
At Sundance, the venue was huge. So, my main concern on that day was actually how Mom and Dad really feel about the film. They were sitting right next to us in the same row. Every so often I would glance over and see how Mom’s doing and how Dad’s doing. I think they were very happy with their daughter’s work. We actually felt that they were confident about our performances to portray them in a way that they’re happy with. That’s important to us.
Diana Lin: I don’t think Lulu’s mom thought that Lulu was going to be really that good at being this cool artist. But, I think that day she was, “Oh, she’s good.” That was the first time I think she really realized how good her daughter was, don’t you think?
Tzi Ma: I don’t know. I have no idea how she feels, but, if I was her parents, I’d be very proud.
Diana Lin: When you look at this movie, there isn’t one second that is a waste of time or throws off the pace. Everything is just perfect. A very smart girl, Lulu is.
Scott Menzel: That being said, how closely did you work with the family? In order to research the roles and get an understanding of how this story essentially played out since it is based on a true story, or a true lie as the marketing says.
Tzi Ma: We had the opportunity to spend a lot of time, a lot of quality time, with Mom, Dad, Grandma and the entire family.
Diana Lin: We lived together for a while. I wanted to eat and even had Lulu’s Mom cook us lunch in Grandma’s home. We had lunch there with the housekeeper. We want to basically wanted to see where the whole thing happened so we spent a lot of time with the family.
Tzi Ma: I think that they were very generous and very accessible to us. They share a lot of intimate details about their lives, which we really appreciated as actors and that’s what makes our profession special. We were able to look into the lives of these extraordinary people and to be able to hopefully capture the essence of who they are and present it to the world. We’re very fortunate.
Scott Menzel: Tzi, you’re a veteran actor. You’ve been in so many different projects. One of the things that, of course, we’ve been talking about pretty consistently over the last couple of years is representation. To see a film like this one where 80% of the movie is subtitled and to get this sort of response out of a festival is a big deal. I think this movie is going to go on to have a big presence around award season. What do you have to say about that? How do you feel that the times have changed and how these types of stories are now being made and you being able to be a part of that? You can answer as well Diana, if you’d like. I would love to hear your take.
Diana Lin: Tzi is very experienced and an extraordinary actor. Let him talk more and I will just chime in a little bit if he forgot something.
Tzi Ma: Sure, I’m sure you can back me up on all of this. I think there is definitely a climate change in the business. I think the quality of the story is important, that we cannot keep on telling the same story in the same way. Right now, you’re looking at these wonderful filmmakers coming up and Lulu is an exceptional filmmaker, but she’s not alone in this, you know? I feel that, finally, there is an opportunity for the world to see the different voices and different colors that we have, and who we are and how we’re being presented, and the fact that, as a filmmaker, Lulu is able to move an audience. We continue along these lines about being able to move an audience in some way and we’re going to be in good shape. There is this kind of amalgamation of this kind of movement with Me Too, with inclusion, with Oscar So White, and all of these things that happens for a reason, and it’s happening now.
The fact that you have this is kind of like a three stage rocket. This particular movement will boost up into another level. This movement will boost up into another level and, hopefully, we’ll hit the atmosphere and we’ll go to the stratosphere on what we can do as artists and hopefully the audience will also benefit from all these wonderful stories that haven’t yet been told. I’m excited about the future. I wish I was 20 right now, you know what I’m saying? To be amongst all of this excitement is, it’s kind of the golden age once again of television and film.
Diana Lin: So many Asian stories. I was thinking maybe all these Tiger Moms like me, the kids will grow up and be so talented and they will tell so many great stories and be great writers and great directors. A Lot of them really love their family story. All their talent can show the world what’s happening in America or in western world. I think these story will become so popular.
Scott Menzel: Last summer, as we all know, a little movie that came out called “Crazy Rich Asians.” “Crazy Rich Asians” was a very mainstream movie. The story and almost everything about it was mainstream. Then there was all this talk in the U.S. where everyone was like it was making a ton of money and we are so glad it didn’t go to Netflix. Then, it opens overseas. It opens in China. The box office return is flat. Yet, there’s movies like “The Farewell” and “Shoplifters” which is another fantastic example where these movies have this appeal overseas but they’re not box office gold over here, but they’re well respected here and over in other countries, they’re also popular. So, what do you think is different about a movie like “The Farewell” versus “Crazy Rich Asians” where it actually be appreciated from all different perspectives?
Tzi Ma: I saw “Shoplifters.” That is a great film. But as you say, this is a very different movie to begin with. You really can’t compare apples and oranges. I was fortunate enough to see it because I just came in from Shanghai. I was at the Shanghai International Film Festival where “The Farewell” was screening to two different audiences. I found that the American audience would laugh at a certain place, but the Chinese audience would laugh at a different places. So, there is a difference obviously. I think “The Farewell” would probably fare well because I think it’s the kind of story that the Chinese audience would appreciate. The fact that there’s actually a very strong Chinese cast in the films. Diana is a notable face, Grandma, I think the aunt, nephew, and all of these people, and the uncles. Really, these are familiar faces in China. I think you have that hook where the audiences in China are familiar with the actors, whereas with “Crazy Rich Asians,” there are none except for Michelle and Lisa. Michelle Yeoh and Lisa Lu are the only faces that they would recognize as actors that the Chinese audience would know. But, everyone else would be like, “Who are these guys? I don’t know who they are.” But, for the American audience, what’s important and I think the success of “The Farewell” is the story.
Scott Menzel: I think the story of “Crazy Rich Asians” would hold it back from being a universally loved film is the fact that it’s very much grounded in American culture. Where, something like “The Farewell,” anyone who watches this movie can appreciate it. I may not get some of the inside gags, but, at the same time, I can appreciate the value of this story being told and the relationship with family and kind of seeing the cultural differences. It is such a smart, well-written film. Jumping off that, Lulu knocked it out of the park. You’ve worked with so many different directors. You’ve worked with a bunch of different directors in your own way. What is something special that you feel she has that maybe another filmmaker that you’ve worked with previously hasn’t had? Is there something that’s different or that stands out about her directing style or the way she talks to actors?
Tzi Ma: You know what, I think the similarities with great directors are the same to me, and Lulu has that ability. This is only her second film, you know. The fact that she, to be a good director, I think you need to cast well, which she did. She put a cast together. Secondly, trust. She trusts the cast to bring the story to the forefront for her because she, this thing is still on the page. We need to lift that off the page and she has that trust in our abilities to do that. The third thing is preparation. The fact that she armed us with the family all around us for so long, such a long period of time. Not a day, not a week, but they were there for the entire shoot.
In that sense, all good directors do the same thing. Great preparation, trust in the cast, and really hold to your guns about the way and your ability of telling the story, and it’s the right way of telling the story. I think it’s the similarities to great actors that, great directors, that I think it’s unique as opposed to their differences and how great they are as directors. All really good directors that I’ve ever worked with have those three ingredients and it makes them unique and it’s the trust and the respect they have for the cast is unsurpassed in anything else that they do. At least they make you feel that way.
Diana Lin: Lulu gave us a lot of freedom. She wrote the story and didn’t mind changing the words. She would say “this is not bad but how about we put it this way?” She gave us a lot of freedom even when we asked her about spending time with her father. Okay, Tzi was with him, I said, “no, I wanted to be with him by myself.” She gave us anything we wanted. She seems to know the way we work, so she’s really there to help. Another thing about Lulu is you feel like she’s a little young who just excited. Everything for her she gets excited about. She is really genuine like a child, but because she’s so emotionally involved in everything. She just in it 120% and puts everything into it. I think that is what makes her different.
Tzi Ma: That’s a very good point. I think the fourth thing is about passion. All good directors have this passion, and they’re very child-like in that sense.
Diana Lin: And when she too stressed, we would go to the lake and have some family time together.
Tzi Ma: A little outing, you know?
Diana Lin: She’s just there with Awkwafina. They so enjoyed that moment. I think in life if everything you do you give it 100%, you will do well whether its work or just enjoying life. I think same thing as a actor. Good actors, they all genuinely emotionally involved with everything they do. So that you can put out something really good.
Tzi Ma: The passion is important
Scott Menzel: They’re going to come wrap me up very soon so I have to ask one final question, because I did not ask about someone who I feel has come out of nowhere and become a huge superstar in the last two years, and that, of course, is Awkwafina. I think this is, without question, her best performance to date and her most layered performance too. What was it like working alongside her?
Tzi Ma: For me, it was easy. We’re from the same city, so we have a lot of shared, common interests. Given the fact that she went to Laguardia High School, that’s a fame high school, so come on. She’s definitely well-trained, it’s just that the audience had had yet to have a chance to see her shine in that arena, as opposed to people seeing how great she is as a rapper, how great as a musician, as a comedy artist, and now they will get a chance to see a very dramatic actor in this respect. Very generous, very open, and without any pretension whatsoever.
Diana Lin: I didn’t know who she was. When she was coming on set, I said, ” I don’t know who is Awkwafina.” I hadn’t seen her work. Nothing. For me, this is my daughter (in the movie) and I need to build a relationship with her because I’m going to play her mom. I didn’t really know her until this film. I asked Tzi, “so, she’s a rapper. Does she know how to act? ” We didn’t know. We just genuinely build our family relationship.
Scott Menzel: I’ll be honest, before “Crazy Rich Asians” came out, I had no idea who she was. Like, “who is this person?”
Diana Lin: I said that but after I seen her acting. I’m like, “Oh, she’s good.”
Scott Menzel: Well, thank you for your time. This movie’s going to have a lot of talk starting now and throughout the rest of the year. I’m telling you that right now.
Tzi Ma: Thank you. Your word to God’s ears.
Diana Lin: Thank you very much.
Tzi Ma: Nice chatting with you as well.
Scott Menzel: Nice chatting with you, too. Have a good one.