In honor of a widely-beloved, long-running series recently coming to an end, Casting Networks sat down — via Zoom —with an actor who experienced a breakthrough moment from working on its penultimate season. Anthony Ma took time out to share the casting story that landed him on the fifth season of This Is Us, an experience that altered the way he approaches his career. Keep reading to learn how Ma booked the role, as well as to hear a bit about his experience filming opposite Sterling K. Brown.
It’s great to virtually see you, Anthony. Before we dive into your casting story, I’d love to hear how you’d sum up your character of Andrew on This Is Us.
Andrew is a transracial adoptee — he’s Asian American and was adopted by Jewish parents. He’s struggling with his identity and his past, which are some of the same things that Sterling K. Brown’s character, Randall Pearson, is dealing with in the fifth season of This Is Us. Andrew and Randall end up in the same support group, where they’re both the “new kids on the block.” And when my character begins sharing during the session, it kind of catalyzes Randall to start thinking about his own past more deeply.
How about booking the role? What can you tell us about the casting process?
The timing was notable because it happened right at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 when we were still really figuring out how to safely resume production during the pandemic. On a personal level, a notable aspect of the timing was that I had recently signed with a new agent. I went into that new rep relationship with the idea that I was ready to do more guest-star roles. My new agent agreed, but she also checked to see if I was willing to do more work at the co-star level if it were opposite a notable actor. I answered in the affirmative, and then things just went quiet on the audition front. I wasn’t getting any auditions, and my confidence was just getting lower and lower by the day.
I feel like our actor readers can relate to how that goes.
Right. Then all of a sudden, the audition for This Is Us popped up, and my agent asked if I wanted to do it since it was a co-star role opposite Sterling K. Brown. I said yes, and when I saw the sides, they just really spoke to me. At the time, I was already in this place of processing issues with my own identity and confidence, which I was able to channel into portraying Andrew for the self-tape audition. I actually sent in two takes of the audition scene, which I don’t normally do. I remember going into it thinking that I wanted to try playing him as this very damaged person. So, I tried it that way and then did a more casual read in which Andrew was going into this support group meeting as just one of the new guys. In that take, he was a little shy but not coming across in such an emotional way. I sent in both reads, and I think showing my range in that way may have helped me book it. I got the call from my reps just a few days after submitting the self-tape, and they were all very happy because it was my first booking since the pandemic started. I was on this conference call with my agents and managers, and I’m pretty sure my baby started crying while we were still on it. [Laughs] But yes, it was a good moment.
I’m impressed with your ability to balance life as both an actor and a parent! And you shared a great “self-tape-to-screen” post on your Instagram page that touched on what it was like working opposite Sterling K. Brown. What can you tell us about that experience?
It’s a funny thing, getting to meet one of your idols through a job. You know? It’s a matter of suppressing the related anxiety and keeping yourself from just gushing over them on set. [Laughs] Sterling was so inviting and such a class act, though, which helped. He was surrounded by 12 other actors in our support group scene, and rather than keep to himself between takes, Sterling took a moment with each and every one of us. I was sitting closest to him, and Sterling even patted me on the knee and asked where I was from. I told him the Arcadia area, near Monrovia, and it turned out he had some friends that lived nearby. Sterling even asked for some restaurant recommendations in the area. I mean, it was small talk, but it felt like this guy could actually be your friend! [Laughs] You may think that taking the time to interact with other actors between takes would disrupt his process of portraying Randall, but that was not the case. Sterling was so precise in each and every take.
Take after take, he would get to this emotional place, and a tear would drop from the same eye at the same moment every time. It was incredible to witness him doing it — he never dried up. I felt so lucky to get to learn from watching this master of the craft at work. And it affected us, too. It started with Sterling, and then I began tearing up during the scene. Another actor’s eyes started welling up, and pretty soon, we were all crying. At that point, it really did feel like we were in a support group together. [Laughs] But yes, Sterling brought that energy to the scene, and it was just wonderful to work alongside him. I cannot say enough good things about him.
It’s nice to hear that it was such a great experience all around. And how has working on a high-profile series like This Is Us impacted your career so far?
I think working on This Is Us actually served me mentally and spiritually the most. I’ve been an actor for so long — more than 15 years now — and it’s definitely a journey. I’ve been on other high-profile shows, but this experience helped me realize that the most important part of it all is how you feel about yourself along the way. It’s a matter of gaining peace of mind about who you are in the process. From a career standpoint, though, This Is Us did lead to a lot of auditions for other big shows. And around the same time I booked it, I got a voiceover agent and started getting a lot of jobs in that world, which hadn’t happened before in my career. I can’t say too much about those credits because they haven’t released yet, but it’s been great to be a part of big projects in that way. I also started exploring other sides of my talent in the area of developing projects, and I’m writing and producing a couple based on true stories that I’ve been researching. For example, one I’m working on centers on the case of Vincent Chin, which was the first Asian American civil rights case in America.
Before we wrapped, Ma shared one last insight that came from his experience with This Is Us. “Whatever jobs I get now, I just have fun with them,” he remarked. “You know? Whatever opportunity comes my way, I just go with it.” Those interested in learning more about Ma’s career journey can check out his IMDb page — previous credits include other big titles like S.W.A.T. and Scandal — as well as his official site.
This interview has been edited and condensed.