Sami Ma is an actress based in NYC and former band nerd. After taking up dance and piano classes at a young age, she auditioned for “a very illegalproduction of Wicked Hairspray” that shaped her career path! Since her days as Tracy Turnblad, Ma is currently in the world premiere of Nativity Variations at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, made her off-Broadway debut in Once Upon A (korean) Time (Ma-Yi Theatre Company), performed regionally in The Chinese Lady, The Great Leap,and Gloria, and starred as Jen in Tender Ears (a film to premiere this October)! Offstage, Ma is a diehard Celtics fan and “self-proclaimed Chinese grandma to all!” in the process of creating a cookbook with her family’s Indian and Cantonese recipes.Her advice for young artists? “Get into the habit of cheering for everyone and remembering that their successes are NOT your failures. There’s room for every single person in this industry and all you have to do is focus on enjoying your own path!” Read on to learn more about Sami Ma and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Sami Ma
Heritage: Chinese American
Hometown: Henderson, Nevada
Current City: NYC
Current Project: Nativity Variations (World Premiere)at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
Off-Broadway: Female Swing in Once Upon A (korean) Time (Ma-Yi Theatre Company), Regional faves: Afong Moy inThe Chinese Lady (Adirondack Theatre Festival), Connie Fong in The Great Leap (Portland Center Stage), Kendra inGloria(Hatch Arts Collective), Film/TV favorite: Jen in Tender Ears (Premiering October 2022)
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Get into the habit of cheering for everyone and remembering that their successes are NOT your failures. From a young age, there were many people who led me to believe that there wasn’t enough room at the table for everyone who looked like me. I think for many actors from marginalized communities, we feel the need to compete and fight to be the one who gets the seat at the table but as I’ve gotten older, I have found that supporting and celebrating others’ wins has wildly changed my outlook and mindset. Everyone’s journey is uniquely different and there’s no one way to do it. There’s room for every single person in this industry and all you have to do is focus on enjoying your own path!
How did you get your start?
I started piano and dance lessons at a very young age, maybe five or six years old? I also used to be the lead singer of the high school church rock band. Then in middle school, I auditioned for a very illegal production of Wicked Hairspray and got to play Tracy Turnblad. The rest is history!
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
I have two moments that really stick out in my brain!
First, at the very end of our production of The Chinese Lady,our brilliant director, Shannon Tyo, had directed this moment in which I took off the Afong costume and came all the way downstage in my street clothes and the lights came on in the audience so I was able to see every single person watching me and connect with them. I will never forget the feeling of walking downstage after experiencing and recounting 90 minutes worth of Chinese history, triumphs, and trauma in America, the lights coming on, tears are streaming down my face and I looked up into the audience and made direct eye contact with my mother and father with tears streaming down their faces. I have never felt so intensely connected with them than I felt in that moment.
The second moment is the absolute thrill and fear of swinging a show as large as Once Upon A (korean) Time.I covered all four women in the show and one day I got several texts and phone calls telling me that someone was sick and I had to go on that night. Up until that point, I had not had a single rehearsal, never really walked any of the show with all the tech/set/props, had never tried on the costumes, and had no idea what the traffic patterns were backstage. I was so terrified and simultaneously very calm in the thirty minutes leading up to places. I distinctly remember trying to run lines in my head as I waited for my first entrance and my brain was simply empty. I had to just trust that I had done enough work and that my cast and crew would carry me and wouldn’t let me fail. I love every single one of those people so, so much and it was a night I will never forget!
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
This career is so full of ups and downs and surprises out of left field. I think the biggest challenge is not living in the downs for too long. I’m still working on acknowledging the upsets and disappointments, allowing myself to honor those big feelings, and then continuing forward with my head held high.
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I’m a huge band nerd. I was in Symphonic and Marching band for all of middle school and high school and I took it very seriously. I played flute year round but was a drum major for my last two years. I still miss marching band to this day and love to go on a Youtube wormhole watching videos of marching band competitions. I am a Celtics basketball fan and really enjoy the sport, even though I used to get hit in the head with basketballs as a kid in P.E. on the daily. During basketball season, you can find me screaming for them in front of my television. I am also a big foodie/cook. I worked in a lot of restaurants and learned a lot in these high end kitchens. I brought a lot of that knowledge home to my own kitchen and when I'm not working, I can be found cooking. My dad and grandmother are culinary geniuses and I learned so much from them as a kid. I don't think I'll ever have kids so I push a lot of my cooking onto my friends and am a self-proclaimed Chinese grandma to all! I’m also in the process of documenting all of my family’s Cantonese & Indian recipes and memorializing them in a cookbook. Also also, I can't ride a bike and I have an irrational fear of automatic self-flushing toilets.
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?
Up until I was sixteen, I thought I was going to college to major in Equestrian Business and Management. I grew up with a sibling who was born with Fragile X Syndrome. The activity my brother and I shared a love for as kids was horseback riding. I was always drawn to horses as a kid and have always felt so comfortable on horseback (more than a bicycle). I have always dreamed of owning an equestrian center that specializes in therapeutic riding for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities because I saw how incredible that kind of program access was for his developmental skills and it combined two things that were so important to me. I still have plans to achieve this dream someday in the future!
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Stop stressing so much about your “timeline.” This industry is incredibly non-linear and such a big part of being an artist, especially an actor, is understanding that there is so much you cannot control. There’s no deadline for when you will achieve certain things. Just go with the flow, stay curious, keep learning, and keep going!
Do you have any self care practices you do to stay focused and sane? What was your self care routine before the pandemic and how has that (as well as your views of self care) changed throughout the pandemic?
Every few months I try to plan a trip away from the city and the hubbub. I’m a huge astronomy nerd, so especially in the warmer months, I like to plan trips to get out to areas where there is little light pollution, lay out a blanket, and watch the meteor showers. It’s a time where I can just be alone with myself or my fiancé and remind ourselves that whatever we think is huge in our lives is nothing compared to the vastness of space and our planet. It’s very humbling and also a beautiful escape from the chaos of life. If I can’t get out to stargaze, I try to spend a lot of time around water. The beach, lakes, rivers, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, even just sitting on the shore. It’s a great way to just listen and breathe. Another major self-care routine is going to the 99 Ranch, buying ingredients for dumplings, and then spending an entire afternoon quietly wrapping dumplings. I don’t know what it is, but it helps me feel close to my grandma and dad even though we are 4,000 miles apart. It’s my zen time as I don’t allow people to help me :)
Since so many of us spent a lot of time isolated during the pandemic, how has that experience specifically changed your creative or preparation process or your outlook on life?
During the pandemic, I knew our industry would come back eventually, but didn’t know when. With all the free time in the world, I started to consider what else was important to me and I realized how much travel/family time I had put on the back burner in order to be as available as possible for my career. I promised myself that when we came back, I would not hold myself back from the other activities I loved for the sake of missing auditions. I have always loved traveling and am incredibly close to my family and I now choose to actively prioritize them while trusting that this career isn’t going to get derailed just because I plan a trip abroad or go home to spend time with my parents.
If you could name one point in time when everything changed for you, what was it?
Shortly after I turned fourteen, my brother passed away. I felt so alone and honestly the arts were the only thing that comforted me. I was in band and theatre and I really immersed myself in music because it felt like the one thing that could drown out all the sadness. I have since experienced the joys of therapy and to this day, I still fully believe he is my guardian angel and is always watching out for me whenever I step into a new project. I very much carry him with me at all times and I think he’d be very proud and supportive of me!
To find out more about Sami Ma, please visit her at:
Photo from the set of Tender Ears
Headshot by Lauren Nakao Winn
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