Mardy Ma

Mardy Ma acts alongside costar Bloom Li in the role of Chen in “Chang Can Dunk,” which is set to release Friday, March 10, on Disney+. (Walt Disney Studios/Submitted)

Mardy Ma has lived many lives and worn many hats in her lifetime — restaurateur, theme park negotiator, actress, comedian and martial artist. 

Seemingly, she conquers all that she sets her mind to with a lightness and ease fronted by hard work and an ability to take life’s turbulence with a smile and a wink.

Ma was born to a farming family in the countryside of China’s Henan province. Growing up, her family had no electricity or access to movies or TV, so she created her own entertainment. 

“My entertainment was imitating people,” Ma said. “It was so interesting to absorb people’s personalities, seeing the differences between them.”

Villagers in her town often asked her to perform impressions on her way home from school, encouraging her love of acting; this was before she had seen a television. 

“We were so poor. I had never been to the city and never watched TV; I didn’t even know there were actual acting schools,” Ma said. But that never stopped her.

At 19, when Ma was in her first year of university in Zhengzhou, China, she opened her first restaurant with funds donated by family members. The restaurant was so successful she purchased the eatery next door. By 20 years old, Ma was operating two restaurants and simultaneously attending university. 

Hungry to create opportunities for herself and her family, Ma moved to Shanghai and began investing in real estate with funds from her restaurants. All the while, Ma still yearned to become an actress, so at 25, Ma enrolled at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, fulfilling her childhood dream.

While auditioning for roles in China, Ma began working as a successful negotiator in the theme park business, closing deals for hotels, theme parks, and destination resort contracts in China and across Asia.

Her love of acting took her to Hollywood at 28, but breaking into the entertainment industry was no easy feat. Despite struggling to land jobs, she continued honing her craft — ready for when opportunities would come knocking.

In 2014, while conducting business in China, Ma received a phone call that would test her years of training and preparation; the opportunity to audition for a feature film, the British film “One Child.” 

A few weeks after the audition, Ma, who dismissed the audition as a “fun exercise,” got a call that she would be costarring in her first film. While on set, no one suspected that this was Ma’s first feature movie, which she revealed to them, to her delight, at the wrap party. 

But it was not until 2020, during the pandemic, that Ma quit her job as a contract negotiator to pursue acting full time. Before the global shutdown, Ma had planned to move back to China to continue her career in the theme park industry, but with no outgoing flights to China, she was stuck in Los Angeles. 

The pandemic was a blessing in disguise for Ma, who suddenly began booking role after role. “I was working like crazy; I did over 20 short films and feature films nonstop. It didn’t matter what part or what kind of role I auditioned for; I just got it,” Ma said. Although it seemed sudden, this was the opportunity Ma had been preparing for since she began acting. 

A Pasadena resident, Ma said acting is her passion and that’s why she never gave up trying to break into the industry. She was never a starving artist, and whether she was booking roles or not, Ma doesn’t see acting as a job. 

She took her life experiences outside of acting as fodder for her craft. “Everything I do becomes part of my life experience and allows me to become a deeper actress.”

For her, acting is the opportunity to embody and delve deeper into the human experience. She said, “life is so beautiful and so colorful and so layered up…Being an actress is so human…. it’s a comprehensive art — so rich and so deep.”

In her most recent role, Ma plays Chen in “Chang Can Dunk,” a coming-of-age drama about an Asian-American high school basketball player. Opening Friday, March 10, the film explores the complex relationship between Chang and his mother, Chen, an overworked nurse and single mother struggling to support her son in the American suburbs. 

Pamela Thur, executive producer of the film, recalled, “(writer and director) Jingyi Shao conducted a worldwide search for the role of Chen. Mardy Ma instantly brought a raw intensity to the role. Mardy artfully portrayed the cultural nuance of Chen and elevated the film beyond expectations. The scenes between Chang and Chen are some of the most powerful scenes in the movie. I would certainly work with Mardy again.”

Shao added, “I knew from the beginning of this film that the character of Chen would be hard to cast. Luckily, I found Mardy Ma, who brought the authenticity and strength I was looking for and a deep and nuanced understanding of the character I had not yet discovered. Through her focus and dedication to the role, Mardy truly made Chen her own. This was not easy, considering the character was based on my own mother.” Mardy gave her all on this project — working with her taught me that the unexpected is often what is truly needed.”

“Chang Can Dunk”

Begins streaming Friday, March 10, on Disney+