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New HBO series looks at Vietnam War from Vietnamese perspective

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The new HBO show "The Sympathizer" is a rare piece of Hollywood entertainment that tells the story of the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective. The series is based on Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and it centers on a Vietnamese double agent known simply as The Captain. But you won't find much gunplay with this spy.

HOA XUANDE: It's more true to the humanity of a person who has to wade through these allegiances and loyalties and friendships. It's more about the human behind having to trade his identities and his beliefs - more than running around with a gun.

CHANG: That's Hoa Xuande, who plays The Captain. He told us he could relate to the role in part because of his own history, wrestling with his own Vietnamese identity, being born and raised in Australia, where his parents fled to after the war.

XUANDE: Growing up in Australia, I inherently just didn't feel like that part of my identity was ever really something that I could be proud of, which is kind of shameful to say because I just didn't grow up thinking that was who people thought of as important. And then, you know, being Asian, it's just like, I could never be Australian enough either.

CHANG: Right.

XUANDE: So I guess I was walking this fine line between who I was for a long time and I guess fighting with myself, fighting with my parents, fighting with what I thought my idea of the perfect person should be. And it's a form of assimilation, if you think...

CHANG: Absolutely.

XUANDE: ...About it that way.

CHANG: Yeah.

XUANDE: And so inherently, when I read the book, it was just in me. I could understand what it was to feel like an outsider all the time, to feel like regardless of what I tried to do, that I would never fit in. Yeah, so that part of The Captain was something that I was easily drawn to and understood from the moment I worked on his character.

CHANG: I can imagine. So I want to talk more about that assimilation you refer to because I read that as you were getting into professional acting, you decided to change your last name from...

XUANDE: I did.

CHANG: ...Nguyen, a really common Vietnamese last name...

XUANDE: Right.

CHANG: ...To Xuande, which is this totally...

XUANDE: Yeah. Yes.

CHANG: ...Made-up, ambiguously Asian-like last name.

XUANDE: Right.

CHANG: And you did that - right? - so you wouldn't only get cast as Vietnamese characters. Tell me more about that decision to change your name.

XUANDE: Yeah. You know, it's hard enough trying to be an actor, let alone being an actor of Asian descent.

CHANG: Yeah.

XUANDE: And when, I guess, I started out trying to have a career in this industry, I wanted to just open myself up to as many opportunities as I could. But I guess I'm harping back to the idea that I knew I could never be whatever the so-called ideal image of being an Australian was. But at least if I could play, you know, the gamut of Asian stereotypes, then I thought I could at least forge a career that way. So I tried...

(LAUGHTER)

XUANDE: Yeah, it's sad to think about, but...

CHANG: I'll be the token Asian. Sign me up.

XUANDE: Yeah, that's - I mean, honestly, that's exactly what I was thinking. And I just wanted to - I didn't want to completely just, you know, make up an entirely random name. And I just thought I'd use my middle name, which is X-U-A-N, Xuan, and then put a D-E behind it just to give it that, I don't know, flair. I don't know what that was, but - yeah.

CHANG: Yeah, a je ne sais quoi.

XUANDE: Yeah.

CHANG: Well, what was so funny was that this TV series makes a joke about how Hollywood does clump Asians together a lot. Like, there's this scene where your character is a Vietnamese consultant on a...

XUANDE: Right.

CHANG: ...Big-budget Hollywood movie about the Vietnam War, and the director, played by Robert Downey Jr., is told that his, quote-unquote, Vietnamese extra is actually Chinese.

XUANDE: Yeah, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SYMPATHIZER")

XUANDE: (As The Captain) None of them speak Vietnamese. That's the thing.

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Claude) None of the extras speak Vietnamese. I see. Did you know this?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I speak Vietnamese.

XUANDE: (As The Captain) Are you an old lady?

DOWNEY: (As Claude) Somebody explain to me why I'm shooting a Vietnam War movie with Vietnamese extras who aren't Vietnamese.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: I mean, how did that scene feel to you? - because you had changed your own...

XUANDE: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Last name professionally to encourage the industry to cast you as any kind of Asian, right?

XUANDE: Right. I mean...

CHANG: (Laughter).

XUANDE: It's actually quite funny, even on the day as we shot that because, like, it - I think a lot of the crew and us and people laughed because the woman who played the old lady was so funny and great. But also, it's funny because it's sad. It's sad that for a long time, our Asianness (ph) was just sort of seen as the same.

CHANG: I understand that the author of the novel, "The Sympathizer," Viet Thanh Nguyen, he had said that in early meetings with Hollywood producers, they were uneasy about his demand that the show center Vietnamese people speaking Vietnamese. How much do you think the TV series benefited from casting actual Vietnamese people?

XUANDE: Yeah. Look, I - fear at being confronted with that, to me, is not surprising. I think sometimes Hollywood is scared to approach new shows in a foreign language because they don't believe that their audiences want to see these things or that they can financially benefit from them. But, you know, as we've seen in even the last five years, with so many movies and TV series that I could sit here and name for 10 minutes, they have been hits. And they've had second seasons renewed, and they've had - they are shows that have big, significant cultural influence as well.

CHANG: I couldn't agree more. How hard was it for you to get your own Vietnamese language skills up to par?

XUANDE: Yeah. Growing up, I didn't speak the language very well 'cause I just never wanted that to be a part of who I was or a part of who - what my identity was 'cause I never saw myself that way.

CHANG: Yeah, yeah.

XUANDE: So it just sounded really foreign for me to ever even try to attempt to speak Vietnamese. But yeah, I think it's probably more when I started to realize that, you know, if I'm going to have a career in this, then I'm probably going to have to touch on speaking Vietnamese once in a while.

CHANG: Says the man who changed his Vietnamese last name to something not very Vietnamese (laughter).

XUANDE: Right. It's like I tried to get away from it, and then I guess doing projects like this brought me back to it. And I'm hugely appreciative of it because I guess it's taught me a big part of my identity that I never felt comfortable talking about or even getting in touch with, but also a big part of the language that I - that is a part of me that I never felt comfortable speaking.

CHANG: I think it's so amazing that doing this work on the show reconnected you with that past shame you felt when you were much younger about being Vietnamese because, I mean, I can relate to some of that. As a girl, I hated going to Mandarin school on Friday nights.

XUANDE: Right. Oh, you did that? Yeah.

CHANG: Yeah. And I was such a bad student in Chinese school, and I so regretted that years later.

XUANDE: Right. Yeah.

CHANG: But now you get a chance to redeem yourself.

XUANDE: Yeah, I love that. I've kind of redeemed myself, maybe. I mean...

CHANG: Yeah, I think so.

XUANDE: Yeah. Like, I guess I've found a little bit of redemption even in my parents' eyes, potentially, I'm sure. You know, I brought them to the premiere to watch this 'cause I thought it was important for them to, you know, forget about me. It's - like, I didn't bring them so that they could watch me. I brought them so that they could watch a Vietnamese story being told in the Vietnamese language from the Vietnamese perspective. And I thought it was really important for them to see that and for them to get to see me speak Vietnamese was a bonus, so I feel redeemed in that way.

CHANG: Hoa Xuande is the star of the new HBO series "The Sympathizer." You can watch the first episode now on Max.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMON AND KANYE WEST SONG, "THEY SAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.

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