Actor Focus: Chris Masters Mah

“My mates get a kick out of it; some have me in their phones as
First Asian Jesus!”

Interview by Joanne Kmaid

How does an American actor fit into Australian talent?

I am not entirely sure (smiles). I’d like to think that the Australian film industry is smart enough to cast interesting actors and not base its characters on the stereotypes we often see on TV. We’re getting better, but cultural reparation within the media is far from over.

What was your first acting role?

I always credit my first major role to the Melbourne Annual Passion Play where I was privileged to play the main man himself, Jesus Christ. The play itself transports you to Jerusalem. The story was covered by the news twice, including the Leader Newspaper. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s known as the greatest story ever told, one of selfless and unconditional love. My mates get a kick out of it; some have me in their phones as “First Asian Jesus!” (Laughs).

Do you consider yourself American, Australian or Asian?

What a great and loaded question! Why can’t I be all three? When people ask what my nationality is, I often say Australian; I have been a naturalised citizen for many years now. But what they’re really asking is what my ethnicity is. That’s when I say more accurately, I am Asian-American.

I don’t normally give away my exact nationality as it doesn’t serve me in this industry. If I said I was Chinese, a Japanese commercial may rebuff me, because I don’t fit their specific request; when in fact I have passed for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Hawaiian. I have even played Inuit in the play, Ground-Truthing, and I have played part-Irish for a festival film, Drugs Not Thugs, by filmmaker Declan Cole-Flynn.

I love it when a production looks beyond ethnicity and appreciates mixed-race characters. Look at my circle of friends and you will see they reflect who I am on the inside – Very mixed up! [Laughs].

Has your diverse culture helped you gain additional roles?

Yes and no. Sadly, much of the industry operates on a superficial level in terms of commercial work. Unless it’s a big project, most commercial casting directors hold small criteria. Castings take place based on your looks first. Fair enough, it’s like dating, you’re attracted to someone first then the rest follows.

We recently shot AFTER, a post-apocalyptic short film for the 168 Hour Film Project based in L.A. Although a factor, I wasn’t cast for my ethnicity, but rather for my talents. I love Indimax Productions for that! Proud to say, we were nominated for 13 awards and won 6, including Best International Film. My character, Dillinger, is a selfless survivor, but you meet him as this shady stranger caught in a bear trap. He just happens to be Asian and looks like me!

It’s important to know who you are as an actor. First impression is essential, so is being professional and punctual. Arriving 30 minutes early is ‘on-time’ advice I heed most of the time. When I am in the role of casting director, I look for the best in new actors and I like to give people time to shine. If you want a solid and loyal actor, look at them not as a one-off employee, but as a friend and long-term collaborator. Show interest in their dreams, the roles they have played and the roles they want to play. Find their strength; that says more about a person than where they come from.

Do you favour working in film, TV or commercials?

I prefer acting in projects that have compelling stories with great and interesting characters. So I gravitate towards film and TV, however, commercials pay, so that is my bread and butter! I mostly do paid work. I just finished shooting a commercial with Jean-Claude Van Damme. A double blessing!

That sounds awesome! Jean-Claude Van Damme was my hero growing up.

[Laughs]. He was the best! He is the nicest guy and highly professional. I was blessed to work with him! We were on-set filming an Ultra Tune TV commercial – An incredible experience working with a beautiful cast and crew, and the ever-living JCVD. He’s still got it. Between takes, he would guide the actors with their stunt choreography.

Do you think actors are supportive of each other?

I’d like to think so! Personally, I put out in my universe the philosophy of collaboration over friendly competition, but both are important. My world view revolves around actors supporting each other. In the short film circuit, we see the same actors over and over again, so for us career actors, we have all the reason to be collaborative.

What was your career defining moment?

I once asked my former agent, back when I did extras work, “Why aren’t I being put up for bigger roles with dialogue?” Her reply was simple – “Actors who audition for those roles do workshops and never stop training.” Never mind that I did IB Theatre Studies, University level theatre for 2 years in high school and countless plays every year to keep my acting muscles going. She said, “How can I put you in an audition room against acting school graduates who have done 100 workshops?” Perhaps it was hyperbole, but I took it to heart.

I promised myself I would be one of those crazy actors. Soon after, I enrolled in the VCA Winter Intensives for 2 years, and after a life- defining moment which kicked me into gear, I enrolled into the first acting school that came in my radar – Meisner Melbourne. It was to remind me that acting is why I’ve been put on this earth.

Since then, I have trained in Strasberg, I have done Chicago-styled Improvised Comedy, I have dabbled in stand-up comedy at the Comics Lounge, and I have done self-taught voice and accent training. Whenever in need, I have an exceptional voice coach, Anna McCrossin-Owen. I treat short films and theatre plays as training too. I owe credit to my high school for teaching me the most valuable lesson – “Never stop learning. Always look at the world with fresh eyes.”

Do you pursue genres that complement or contrast your personality?

I don’t look at projects in terms of genre. The VCA taught us to look at films and theatre in their component parts and not so categorically. I embrace roles both far and close to my normal personality. You need to have a part of yourself in the role you play, but honestly, I can be too nice sometimes, so I do enjoy an authoritative role; in other words, a bad ass.

I did the Greg App’s Self Testing course recently and I had to do a lot of soul-searching to find my niche. The role I picked was an undercover cop which is a highly skilled person and great actor. It’s a scene from The Departed by Martin Scorsese, the role made famous by Leo. We share the same school of thought in acting, so a few mates now call me, “Asian Leo DiCaprio.” (Laughs).

Who is your mentor?

Interestingly, my former coach was your recent interviewee, Peter Kalos. A generous man; amazing to hear he took a day off training to host West Side Shorts. Would have loved to see him!

After so many years of training, I have reached a weird phase in my life where it’s hard to find a great mentor. So currently, I self-educate daily, I feed my mind and Soul, and I feed my acting. I draw from various great teachers, including Tony Robbins and Stella Adler. I follow the biographies and documentaries of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the late Heath Ledger. If you see a next level mentor though, let me know!

You sound like a self-taught genius!

[Laughs]. Self-taught is a funny word; it’s just a fancy way of saying, Learn. God knows I have done a lot! To unload would take a lifetime. I feel I have hit a plateau in my acting career and the only way I can grow from here is to pass on my knowledge. I have started training a small group of actors privately. They are career actors in it for the long-run or new actors who are highly driven. The tribe is very new and we welcome newcomers. We’re in it for the love of the craft, we’re in it for the work and we support each other. Training with us is pro bono (free) for a short while then we will start charging industry rates.

How does one reach career satisfaction?

Great actors never stop training and they try new things. I have been training as an actor since 2002 and I have gained a wealth of life experiences! I have worked in almost every industry the world has to offer – The car industry as a dealer, tournament director for poker, emcee and host, telecommunications as a phone retailer, server and host for the world-class Hard Rock Cafe, bartender, and security for my fraternity.

I have done deep research on soldiers, doctors, lawyers, cops, and recently the world of male strippers. I am currently an introducer for home loans with lower than market rates, a promoter for alcoholic beverages and a brand ambassador for Crown. I don’t stop. Promotions is an interesting side job too as it touches on every industry.

How does charity fit into the craft of acting?

It’s a personal mission of mine. I was raised in a very giving spiritual family – If you love people, charity is just the symptom. Every year, I pick one new charity to support. I have supported Beyond Blue, ALS Association, Salvation Army, Breast Cancer and The Leukaemia Foundation to name a few, all on the quiet side. The World’s Greatest Shave was a special one for me, because it taught me the nature of generosity.

I worked with Pat LaManna (OAM), well-known for LaManna Group, LaManna Supermarket, and in earlier years, LaManna Bananas. I will never forget his kindness. On breaks during The Passion Play rehearsals, which he single-handedly funds, I went around collecting donations from cast and crew for the Leukaemia Foundation. Most were receptive and gave between $5 and $40. I came to Pat and asked him like everyone else, “Would you like to donate to the World’s Greatest Shave?” He surprised me and said, “No, no, I couldn’t, you see Chris I already sponsor a sports team for youth.” All cool, I keep going, collecting… Thirty minutes later, he comes up to me, apologising profusely. “Oh I’m so sorry, I thought you meant sponsor not donate!” He gave about ten times the average person in cash. He is the most generous person I have met personally, someone I look up to. Of course, then there’s Keanu Reeves! (Smiles).

This interview was submitted by Cinema Australia contributor Joanne Kmaid. If you have an article or interview you would like to submit for our consideration please contact us today.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s