Liam Ma is an emerging actor and multidisciplinary artist from Mississauga, Ontario, and is now based in Toronto. He is a McGill University Engineering Alumnus specializing in Biomechanics and Sustainable design. Inspired by the works of writers such as Hanya Yanagihara and Ocean Vuong, Liam began to rediscover his essence as an artist and in turn began to carve out a path to pursue his art professionally.
Liam will be officially making his onscreen debut starring in the upcoming series Streams Flow from a River about a dysfunctional Chinese Canadian family, who when trapped by a freak snowstorm in their rural Albertan hometown, are forced to confront the events of a decade prior that tore them all apart. The series will premiere on April 1st, 2023 on SUPER CHANNEL.
Recently Deputy Editor JF Garrard had the chance to talk to Liam about his work and why he chose to leave engineering.
JF Garrard (JFG): Thank you, Liam, for being here!
Liam Ma (LM): Thanks so much for having me.
JFG: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are?
LM: Yeah, wow, that’s such a big question. I think I don’t know who I am. I’m still figuring out this question of identity. I think I’ve struggled because there’s such a want or desire to attach the classic terms and labeling to what you are. I’m an artist, I’m all of these things, and I think it’s hard to put that into a box. Who I am, is maybe best captured in what I’m looking for in life, in my work. I think it’s hard to describe this with an answer. But I think what I’m looking for is that kind of intangible, profound feeling that we get from art; from moments in life that you can look back on and want to bottle up and live through them for the rest of time. And it’s something that is hard to even articulate. I think language fails us in many respects, often. Especially the English language, since it is so limiting. But I think it’s a feeling I’m going that comes into art, in my work as an artist and as an actor. I’m not confined to any one medium for now. I think this innate pursuit of art and the feeling that art provokes right now is satisfied in film, in the role of an actor, and if you ask me in a year, maybe that isn’t the case. Or maybe it is, I’m not sure, but I know in my core that it is something I’m going after in my life and in my work.
JFG: Okay! Since you’re an engineer, do you have an iron ring?
LM: I do. I don’t even have it on today. I was on set yesterday. So I took it off because my character wasn’t an engineer. But I I do wear it often and I wear it proudly. Do you know the story of the iron ring?
JFG: Something to do with the bridge?
LM: Yes, there is this bridge in Quebec, I forget the name of the bridge, they would probably be upset with me, the professional engineers of Ontario (PEO). Anyways, this bridge collapsed in Quebec and it was due to the negligence of an engineer or multiple engineers who worked on it. The original iron rings were made out of the steel from the bridge and it’s worn on your dominant hand to remind you of your due diligence as an engineer to the people and your obligation to the profession. I wear the ring because as you know, I went to school for it. I paid a lot of money for it! Someone asked me a weird question once, they asked, “What’s the most expensive piece of jewelry that you own?” And I answered, “This iron ring!” Because it was five years of university tuition! So it’s prized. I wear it and people recognize it. But I think it’s only engineers that recognize it. When you’re done the schoolwork, it’s exciting to get one and to wear it. The majority of people don’t have any idea what is on my finger.
What led to this moment of your decision not to continue a job in engineering versus going into the arts? I’m really happy. I went to school and studied what I did, I’ll say that. I worked in aerospace engineering for a year and a half in northern Quebec. I think that triggered a period of searching. I was there, and I could see how my future in that space could unravel. And it wasn’t something that I was entirely satisfied with. I had the opportunity to talk with so many people that had had had worked in that space for so long and I was there for an extended period of time and just in conversation. I started to ask myself these questions. But I also posed these questions to the people that I was working with. Questions of, you know, the meaning of purpose, these big things of the passion of what would you be doing if you weren’t here? And I got some pretty crazy answers.
There’s one person I worked with who had given up biking and he could be making and designing bikes instead. He was also a mechanical engineer. He said, I love what I studied, but here I am. Then it’s a mortgage and kids and there was this sentiment feeling of being stuck, of knowing that I wasn’t yet in that place when I still had so much promise and so much potential. It’s never too late to pivot or change if you know what you’re doing. But I think it was over the course of that year, two years, where I kept asking, what is it? Who am I? Your very first question asked who am I and I think going back to who you are, takes you to an inner child before everyone in the world told you what you had to be. You internalized it. And then you told yourself what you had to be. Suddenly, you do look back on your life to say, “Well, how did I get here? How much of this was my choice? How much agency did I have?” When I stripped things down and went back to who I was and who I am and who I am rediscovering even now, there is a desire for intrinsic artistic expression. As for what outlet or medium that manifests, I’m not sure but I found one for now (acting). I think I’ve always been a performer. At one point I thought I was going to be a magician! I remember that. My parents were like, questionable and I spent so much money on magic stores and gimmicks!
JFG: I didn’t realize there were magic stores, I’ve never seen them!
LM: There are! Yeah, magic isn’t real, unfortunately, well, in the magic that I was practicing. Caveat on that statement. But I think there was a desire to perform as a desire to be seen. I mean, isn’t that human nature? We all want that in some respect, that we’d want to be seen. We want to be validated for who we are, our personhood. So yes, I wanted to be a magician. I wanted to be a performer and then where did that get lost? Now I’m going back into the recesses of my mind and my memories and thinking about who I was as this kid, just exploring the world before the world got me. I think that’s helped me land where I am and is continually a reminder of just directionally where I’m headed.
JFG: Your stories are similar to mine. My background is in nuclear medicine. But then I got tired of the radiation. And the same thing, I meet people that’s been 30 years in a unionized job and they’re not going to leave. Actually, it’s very hard to get a job as well, as a new grad because people aren’t leaving. But anyhow, I moved on. I work somewhere else now away from radiation. But my parents were not supportive of the arts. So they were shocked when I came out with a book. I told them I was going to do a Kickstarter and raise money. My mom responded, “But we’re not poor. Why are you telling people we’re poor?” I told my mom the Kickstart was for marketing. But my dad surprisingly called me up and said, “I’ll give you a few $100.” That’s how I started writing and publishing. Now I publish other people too. So it’s been a journey.
LM: That’s such a vote of confidence! If my dad gave me like, $1 I’d be affirmed, in what I was doing! I mean, my parents are both so supportive. Part of it was because I’ve done what I’ve done. I broke into the industry, I’d had work experiences, and I could come to them and say, “Hey, I did it. I went to school. I worked in industry, I saw it, and this is not what I want for myself.” There was overwhelming support for that. I’m lucky to have that because I know it’s difficult. It’s not the reality for many and I was lucky to be received in that way, to be able to rediscover things for myself in terms of career.
JFG: Can you tell us how you found out about Streams Flow from a River? What was the casting process like?
LM: I think my agent sent it to me. I was just blown away. When I opened the script, it was unlike anything that’s out there right now, I thank Christopher Yip. He was a writer, director, and showrunner for this. He put such a talented team together, and I got to know more eventually. He had a great writers’ room and great support. The story that he birthed is so nuanced. It’s so delicate. There were things in that script that I immediately recognized as parallel to my own life and my journey. I play a character named Henry who is the youngest son in a family of four. I read the breakdown for this character and I thought, this is exactly who I am. If I don’t get cast for this, I’m gonna be really upset. This isn’t even acting (for me). This is replaying my life story. It was long, the casting process was probably about a month. It was weeks until callbacks.
I remember I was on set for a commercial shoot, and it was just going so wrong. It was really going awry. We all do commercial stuff because it pays really well. But I think I was just really disappointed with how the set was being run, how the director was treating talent. It was very much tokenized diversity, a panel of people that they just put together for casting for this shoot. There were a couple of other things where I was just getting really frustrated and asking myself, “Is this what I’m going to be stuck with?” As I was just wrapping, I got the email that I was booked for Streams Flow from a River, and then I ran off that set. I was just so excited because this is, again, a reminder of the types of stories that I wanted to tell. It’s an immensely special project. The more I got to see of it, obviously, when we started shooting, I was just so excited. After I got cast, I met Chris for the first time and I told him that we shared very similar stories somewhat. I thought that when you and I were just chatting that there were just some weird synchronicities in our lives and in the lives of immigrants of the first generation, and second generation and, the realities that are faced. Maybe it’s not the exact same contextually but it’s these unspoken feelings and the way that we navigate life is so similar. I told Chris I think even he was surprised by the things that I pointed out which I thought people are really going to resonate within our community, with a story like this, because we, haven’t seen something like this before reflected back to us but we’ve seen it in our own lives. And it’s, it’s often lonely because you don’t necessarily know that that’s a collective experience. And as soon as you do, there’s so much comfort. There’s so much validation in seeing that, and seeing those feelings and those experiences reflected back to you. I think that’s why the push for representation has been important, but at its core, it’s that idea that we just want to see our stories reflected back to us on screen.
JFG: Where was Streams Flow from a River shot? And where’s it supposed to be set?
LM: We shot in Hamilton, Hamilton, Ontario and it’s set in Alberta, though, and that’s Chris’s hometown. I don’t know the realities of growing up in the prairies but it scares me as a person of color. But that was where he grew up and that’s where he sets the story.
JFG: How was the interaction with the rest of the cast? Are you still friends with them? Are you going to see them on their next project?
LM: The cast was so great! It’s such a talented cast. There are a couple of fresh faces and there are very seasoned people. I was trying to learn as much as I could from anyone on set, the crew included. We all chat, the series is going through a festival run right now and is being released at the beginning of April. We have a couple of panels lined up, and a lot of PR stuff and we will finally get to see each other again. But we’ve kept in touch, I talk to Chris, pretty often and we’re trying to figure out what we should wear to these red carpets and such. We chat all the time. It’s so great to just see what everyone else is working on, in between, because it’s been a year since we shot in May of last year. Over the course of the year, just seeing what else people are working on and just being able to celebrate. It’s such a special like family. We shot for three weeks, and you see each other every day for three weeks and become so close. The day after we wrapped I asked, “When am I going to see these people again?” and we’ll never, I think, gather in that capacity unless we get renewed for a second season
JFG: Maybe there will be a second season?
LM: I don’t know. But, it just wouldn’t happen again in that capacity. Over the course of shooting, I thought, “This is so special. These people are really special.” I hope our paths cross again, really soon, if not in a press run but, on a project, or wherever. The industry is so small you’re bound to see people.
JFG: So is acting going to be your medium for the next little while? Or are you exploring?
LM: For now it is. I’ve kind of dabbled in writing and whether it makes it out to an audience that’s greater than myself, I’m not sure. I think about other creative pursuits like fashion because designing clothes is really interesting, but acting I think there’s so much out of my control. The (acting) industry is this big machine that often feels like it just eats you up and spits you out. I’m sure you can relate to like writing and publishing. Sometimes it feels like you don’t have a lot of agency and there is so much an actor can do to write themselves into the story. There are so many great stories and projects that star people who are writers of that story, the director, the showrunner, and, maybe that’s the space that I enter. But I think working on a craft has been something that’s been extremely challenging and one of the hardest things I’ve done, but very fulfilling all the same. For now, that’s what it is.
JFG: What’s your next project? Do you have anything coming up?
LM: I just shot yesterday, with the CFC, the Canadian film center, and Bell Media Prime Time TV, their first comedy cohort. I shot a teaser with one of the six writers, it’s so cool, and I hope it gets picked up somewhere. I think, what I’m hoping for is to continue to make cool things with my friends and with cool people. I recently saw Hart Denton, he’s an actor in Riverdale. He’s a good actor, and he posted something recently because he just made a movie with a bunch of his friends. I think that the bigger that you get, there’s more access to continue doing the things you want to do with the people that you want to do them with. I just want to be able to work and pay my friends to work with me. That’s a dream, to continue telling stories that are super meaningful and surrounded by really great people and make a living off of it. I think those are the kinds of projects that I’m hoping for. Maybe you can write yourself into stories often, and I think being able to continue to tell stories that are for our communities really important for me too.
JFG: Well, thank you very much, Liam, for speaking with us, and I wish you success. Hopefully, we’ll see more of you. I’ll interview you again when you become super famous.
LM: Of course, I’m looking forward to that. I’ll always make time for you!
JFG: Okay! I’ll come after you, don’t worry! Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
LM: Thank you.
For more information about where to watch along with events associated with Stream Flows from a River, please visit the website: www.faepictures.com/streams
The Vancouver Asian Film Festival (VAFF), Racial Equity Screen Office (RESO) and Fae Pictures has a free special presentation on April 1, 2023 which includes the short film NANITIC and the first four (out of six) episodes of Stream Flows from a River, Click here for more info.
To listen to this interview via The Artsy Raven podcast on Spotify, click here.
Watch this interview via The Artsy Raven podcast on Youtube, click here.