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The Performance

Jimmy Tsai: The newcomer has bounced from playing a taunting basketball player in comedy shorts online to starring in the comedy 'Ping Pong Playa.'

September 04, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

"THERE was this Reebok campaign -- not that I don't have love for Reebok -- but they got their hands on this home video of this little 4-year-old kid who made 20 shots in a row" on an 8-foot-high basketball hoop, says fast-talking Jimmy Tsai. "And, apparently, he got an endorsement deal out of it. I said, 'You're kidding. I could take this kid!' " he says laughing, all 6 feet, 1 inch of him bent over a table at the ArcLight theater in Sherman Oaks.

Tsai is the star, co-writer, co-producer, assistant production accountant and occasional janitor of "Ping Pong Playa," a new indie comedy about a hip-hop-obsessed hoopster wannabe with some growing up to do who finds his way as a table tennis terror. When his doctor brother is injured, he must defend his family's Ping-Pong dynasty . . . after the eventual paddle pusher hustles a few extra bucks out of the kids to whom he's teaching the game. The character had his roots in that Reebok tot.

Tsai and a producing partner created a series of Internet shorts featuring a stand-in for the child getting shot after shot decisively rejected by an aggressive, taunting, twentysomething called Christopher "C-Dub" Wang, played by Tsai. He and Joan Huang of Cherry Sky Films set the shorts up as faux commercials for a fictitious clothing company, "set up a website and everything," he says.

"Then one of my friends said, 'Why don't we do a small run of clothing?' " says Tsai, wearing one of the Venom Sportswear jerseys. "We make about one sale every three or four months. People log on to the site but just to watch the commercials."

One might expect a more successful venture from a business administration grad from Cal, but Tsai confesses he was always more partial to the film studies that originally drew him to Berkeley from Houston. Much to the consternation of his Taiwanese parents, he started making short films in high school that he admits were "pretty violent."

"I grew up on John Woo Hong Kong films. We did a commercial for our yearbook based on 'Reservoir Dogs.' My mom was like, 'You're such a good kid, why do you make such violent films? They're so bloody!' "

After college, he moved to L.A. hoping to break into the industry as a writer-director in the "heroic bloodshed" genre typified by the gore-spattered machismo of Woo classics such as "A Better Tomorrow." In the meantime, he worked as a production accountant for a number of small movies.

When he and Huang started work on the Venom ads, Tsai was no slam-dunk to play C-Dub; the acting novice was looking for an actor who could not only play that character but appear in many more of his projects, a De Niro to his Scorsese or a Chow Yun-Fat to his Woo, if you will. When he and Huang couldn't agree on a star, the role fell to him.

"Most of my friends will probably say it's a slight exaggeration of my persona," Tsai says.

While working for Cherry Sky, he met director Jessica Yu (Oscar winner for the documentary "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien"), who had seen the Venom spots. Huang mentioned an idea for a comedy centered on Ping-Pong to Yu, who came up with the idea of transplanting C-Dub from the courts to the tables. So, the die-hard baller Tsai picked up the paddle (and calculator and broom, as the budget required). But it's all just an expression of his hoop dreams.

"You know how there's no Asian American players in the NBA yet? There are Asians -- Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi -- but no Asian American has yet broken that barrier. My theory is that that guy exists or did exist who had the natural ability and the physiology and everything, but his parents were so fixated on him playing the piano or violin, studying for the SATs, that they didn't cultivate his natural talent. So that guy is probably now doing bookkeeping," Tsai says, laughing. "Or in the IT department of a big company."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where you've seen him

Jimmy Tsai is a new presence in front of the camera. His appearances as C-Dub in the Venom Sportswear ad campaign can be found at www.venomsportswear.com or on YouTube. He produced the upcoming documentary "The Killing of a Chinese Cookie," which he says is about the history of the fortune cookie "and its place in the pop culture pantheon," and is working on another script with "Ping Pong Playa" director Jessica Yu.

-- Michael Ordona

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