How ‘The Sympathizer’ Puts Vietnamese Voices at the Forefront

(Left to right) Duy Nguyen, Sandra Oh, Hoa Xuande and Fred Nguyen Kahn of HBO’s “The Sympathizer.” (All photos by Francis Ray.)

“It felt like I won the lottery.”

Hoa Xuande recalls the emotions he went through when showrunner Don McKellar told him he landed the lead role of secret communist spy The Captain in the HBO limited series “The Sympathizer.” He had first auditioned for the role in January 2022, and nine months later, after several callbacks over Zoom, a trip to South Korea to meet with legendary director Park Chan-wook and a final meeting with both Park and McKellar in Los Angeles, he was being told he would star in the series. “It was a lot of sleepless nights,” he says. “I was doubting myself. I couldn’t believe it.” 

And it’s no wonder Xuande was in disbelief. Based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel of the same name, which received endless praise from critics and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, “The Sympathizer” was already making waves. A heart-racing and uniquely introspective story about the ramifications of the Vietnam War, the adaptation rights had been picked up by Park and industry heavy hitters A24, Team Downey (Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey’s production company) and HBO.

The process began with a worldwide casting call open to all industry hopefuls, inviting Vietnamese talent of any and all experience levels to apply. Duy Nguyen, who plays Man, Xuande’s direct supervisor and childhood best friend, says the opportunity seemed too good to be true. “This is a scam. … HBO, A24, Park Chan-wook [and] Robert Downey Jr.?” he jokes. “They’re going to make me pay a fee to audition.”

But, it was far from a con. The final cast saw industry newcomers like Toan Le (The General), Ky Duyen (The Madame) and Vy Le (Lana) sharing the screen with veteran Vietnamese actors like Kiều Chinh (Major’s Mother). Director Phanxinê also joined the series in his first acting role as The Major. Outside of the principal Vietnamese roles, Hollywood mainstays Sandra Oh (Sofia Mori) and Downey (playing several antagonist roles) rounded out the cast. In the hands of anyone else, the on-screen adaptation may have fumbled; but, this team seemed more than equipped to give this project the care it deserved. 

The show follows The Captain, a North Vietnamese mole working undercover in the South Vietnamese army. Tasked by his communist supervisors to flee Vietnam and join the southern refugees in the U.S., The Captain is sent to spy on his former boss, South Vietnam’s The General, and his fledgling community. Throughout the series, he must come to terms with his old loyalties and his new life in America. 

For Xuande and Fred Nguyen Khan, who plays The Captain’s grief-stricken best friend, Bon, their casting came with the additional pressure of improving their Vietnamese, which was not yet at an industry-level proficiency. “We’ve never acted in Vietnamese before, and that’s such a difference,” Khan says. “I couldn’t read [the language] when I got the role.” Khan had to turn to a friend, a fellow Vietnamese actor in Montreal, to give him a crash course on the language. That actor was Duy Nguyen, who, unbeknownst to both of them, would eventually join the production as Mon, rounding out the “Blood Brothers.”

From their first day on set, Xuande and Khan bonded through their shared struggle. “I just remember us rehearsing our first couple of lines and then looking at each other like, ‘Great, we’re both exactly at the same level. We’re going to look after each other as we walk through this massive journey together.’” 

The series’ early episodes, which follow The Captain’s escape from Saigon after the U.S. forces’ retreat, also allowed Xuande, Khan, Nguyen and other cast members to re-contextualize their family histories and cultural identities. Khan says:

“Some of the cast members were old enough to have been through the fall of Saigon. They went through the boats, the refugee camps; they left their homeland. For them to revisit these situations, it was very cathartic.”

Beyond the dangerous sea voyages, crowded boats and long-haul flights that bring the characters to the U.S., “The Sympathizer” also focuses on how they adjust to their new reality. From dealing with the loss of their loved ones and homeland to reinventing themselves from upper-class socialites to restaurant shop owners, each character is tested in unimaginable ways. Yet, they’re able to persevere. This was a moving lesson even for Nguyen, who, despite growing up in Vietnam and reading the history books, never knew the full context behind peoples’ struggles after moving out of the country.

“In Vietnam, I did not know anything about what happened to the southern Vietnamese people,” Nguyen says. “We learned that Ho Chi Minh reunited the country and defeated the Americans, but what did we lose? We never talked about the trauma [that] existed.”

In tandem with the refugees’ journeys, the series also highlights internal conflicts that this exodus stirred in the established Asian American population. For Oh’s Sofia, her experiences with The Captain and the left-leaning Vietnamese journalist Sonny force her to examine her own beliefs and role in their society.

“This is a period piece, and Sofia Mori is a very liberated woman who is defiant in a lot of ways and really independent. That was great to bring on screen and to be able to hold the place of Asian Americans already established in America,” Oh says. “But within that, Sofia Mori continues to really look into and question her Asian American identity.”

It has been 49 years since the fall of Saigon, but for many in the Vietnamese diaspora, speaking about the event is still incredibly difficult. But, perhaps for the first time, shows like “The Sympathizer” have centered Vietnamese voices and given the community an opportunity to open a greater dialogue. Xuande saw this phenomenon himself, when he brought his parents to the red carpet premiere this April. “I watched their expressions, even in the first episode, with [the way] we depicted the fall of Saigon,” he says.

“I saw how connected my parents were — the nostalgia, the memories that came flooding back to them when they were experiencing that in real-time, in real life. It meant something deeply to them, that they could finally feel like their experience was validated in this way.”

With the last three episodes of the series soon set to air, this is what Khan hopes the series continues to show audiences — that these Vietnamese refugees are not faceless victims but complex people who’ve defeated all odds to survive. “When a western audience hears ‘Vietnamese person,’ they’re automatically thinking of the war. There’s nothing in their mind that connects to something real,” Khan says. “This is why the story is important — because this is where our story begins.”