‘One Child’: How A Theme Park Executive Landed One Of The Lead Roles In The BBC Two/SundanceTV Co-Production

Mardy Ma - One Child (FT)

Even before the more formal tie up between the two companies, the BBC and AMC Networks have enjoyed a strong working relationship.

That relationship has seen the two companies collaborate on a number of high profile dramas including Top Of The Lake, starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss; and the Maggie Gylenhaal fronted The Honourable Woman. The next such high profile drama is the upcoming two-parter One Child, which premieres on SundanceTV in the US this December and will air on BBC Two in the UK.

Toplined by Harry Potter star Katie Leung, One Child is a provocative drama from Complicit scribe Guy Hibbert that explores China’s controversial one-child policy. At the centre of the two-parter is Mei (Leung), a first-born Chinese girl adopted by an American mother and British father, who is asked to return to her birthplace, Guangzhou, when her birth mother desperately seeks her assistance in saving her son, who has been accused of murder.

One Child aims to ask questions about the meaning of family and to do that convincingly it required a strong cast. With Leung as the lead, the producers were off to a good start and before long Elizabeth Perkins and Donald Sumpter had signed on to play Mei’s adoptive parents. But, arguably, the key role was that of Mei’s birth mother. The role called for an actress with a strong presence who could convincingly play a tortured mother, torn between her son and the daughter she gave away.

The actress who ultimately landed the role had little prior experience, had really only acted as a hobby (with the occasional bit part on Chinese television) and did not expect to get the job. Her name is Mardy Ma (pictured, right). A Chinese born resident of Los Angeles, she was working as an executive in the Theme Park industry – where her Chinese background was instrumental in closing numerous deals in the country – when she was asked, out of the blue, to audition for One Child.

Mardy Ma was in China at the time, brokering a number of large deals for her employer. After deciding to give it a shot, she took a short 3 hour flight to Beijing and auditioned for the part. Despite thinking she had done well, Mardy Ma knew the competition would be fierce and so chalked the whole thing up to a “fun experience” – not expecting to get the part. An assumption that would be proved wrong only a few weeks later, when she got the call welcoming her to the cast.

Even though she was a newcomer when it came to acting, director John Alexander had no reservations when it came to casting Mardy Ma. “I was determined to find an actress who could bring truth and authenticity to the part of the mother, and who would also have a genuine cultural understanding of the story and her character’s situation”, he said. “Mardy’s [audition tape] stood out immediately. She brought strength, warmth and vulnerability to the part. Mardy was an amazing discovery – she is an instinctive and intuitive performer with a genuine talent for acting.”

That’s an opinion shared by writer Guy Hibbert, who had nothing but praise for the actress. “Mardy has that rare quality in an actress – and it is genuine – she has a really special presence. She brought my character off the page and into real life with an earthy, honest and heartfelt performance. From her first scene, we become intensely and emotionally involved in her dilemma and in her fate”.

Lead actress Katie Leung was equally impressed, calling her co-star a “fascinating actress” who inspired her. “Mardy’s ability to create such honest work during our scenes together also pushed me to challenge myself as an actor. When she wasn’t being fabulous in front of the camera, she continued to entertain the cast and crew with her wicked sense of humor behind it. Her presence on the set was a real pleasure to share”, she added.

One Child premieres on SundanceTV on Friday December 5th at 9/8c and will air on BBC Two in the UK.