Sandra Oh, Hoa Xuande: 'Sympathizer' rare show that puts Vietnamese people in the spotlight

Sandra Oh's "The Sympathizer" premieres Sunday. Photo courtesy of Max
1 of 5 | Sandra Oh's "The Sympathizer" premieres Sunday. Photo courtesy of Max

NEW YORK, April 13 (UPI) -- Emmy-winning actress Sandra Oh says she wanted to co-star in The Sympathizer because representation matters and the satirical espionage thriller was a rare show for American television with a largely Asian cast, telling their own story frequently in Vietnamese.

"I want to be a part [of it] to support this cast, to support this production and to get the cast members, what they, hopefully, will need to tell the this story," Oh told reporters in a recent Zoom roundtable interview.


"For me, when I finally was able to play a character who actually had a Korean name, that meant a lot to me and that was not that long ago," the Grey's Anatomy and Sideways actress said, acknowledging she saw that as "a step forward" for the way the Asian narrative is depicted in the media.


Premiering Sunday on HBO, the adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, follows The Captain (Hoa Xuande from Cowboy Bebop), a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy through the final days of the Vietnam War in 1975 and into his new life as a refugee in Los Angeles.

Oh plays Ms. Mori, the Japanese-American lover he meets at Occidental College, while Oscar-winning Oppenheimer actor Robert Downey Jr. plays four different, but equally opportunistic characters he meets along his journey.

"I don't think The Sympathizer is so much of a blueprint. That is too big a responsibility to put on it," Oh said about whether the series is breaking new ground that Hollywood might follow in the future.

"But what I hope is that it is a vital step or just a beautiful piece in the puzzle of storytelling and I do think it is a new piece and it's a new piece that has been missing for a long time -- maybe like 50 years it's been missing," she laughed. "But, now, it's being brought to life and brought to life with some masterful artists who want to take on the story."


Xuande agreed with Oh's assessment of the show's importance.

"This book is a depiction of the Vietnam War, something that we've seen in the mainstream media for the last five decades and, a lot of the time, that version of that part of history has been [portrayed] through a very western-centric lens," he said.

"We are all too familiar with how these things are usually perpetuated onto Asian people and we can't be saved or we are usually people waiting to be saved or we are helpless."

Oh chimed in, "You see this, honestly, through all of Robert Downey Jr.'s characters, that perspective."

Xuande said this series puts Vietnamese people at the center of the story, showing them in control of their own actions and their destinies.

"Right or wrong, they are able to feel things," Xuande added.

"They go through emotions and they are battling with dilemmas of their loyalties and their allegiances and their emotions and their friendships and their loves, which is not usually depicted in that way when we talk about even the Vietnam War for Vietnamese people."

Xuande said he was able to understand his complex character's internal conflict of wanting to please others, while also standing up for himself and what he believes in.


"Growing up in Australia as a Vietnamese person, I guess on inherently struggled with my idea of what being Vietnamese was and then what my idea of being Australian was, [being] in a western society, a western culture," he said.

"That duality is really at the core of who The Captain is," Xuande added. "It not only feeds into his biracial identity, but it feeds into his ideologies and his psychology, of what he believes in, how he is brought up, what his purpose is, what he should fight for, who he should trust. I found that quite familiar to be able to play that through the character."

Oh said she sees Ms. Mori as a "modern lady" who won't let herself be "bossed around."

"But she starts questioning her Asian-American identity through her relationships with Sonny (Alan Trong) and The Captain, in that kind of love triangle," Oh added.

"I think she is really inspired by one of their arguments to examine her own hypocrisy, to examine how she has assimilated and why she has assimilated the way that she has. I feel -- because it is a period piece -- her stance is dated," she said.

"What's my identity? I'm an American. I understand that. What is that coming from? That's coming from the survivalism of assimilation. ... You want to fit in as fast as possible, but you ignore, cut off a lot of what you are."


Oldboy filmmaker Park Chan-wook and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World director Don McKellar are the showrunners for the series, which co-stars Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Phanxine, Vy Le, Ky Duyen, Kieu Chinh and Duy Nguyen.

"When you step on set for the first time with someone who is a master of his craft, you have these inherent ideas of what you believe you need to do to match his level," Xuande said about Director Park.

"For awhile, I was really put through my paces. I was really nervous and insecure about being able to do what he wanted me to do, let alone what I wanted to do," he added. "I think he is just very calm. He garners confidence in people when he speaks to them and he's got a lot going on that he doesn't divulge. He is quite mysterious in that way."

The actor eventually became comfortable with his director once they got to know each other better.

"You build this sort of shorthand language about trying to create moments in a scene," Xuande said.

"I was able to do one-takes by the end of this. He really inspires confidence in you. He trusts you. He chooses you. So, he is just trying to put you in his frame of the world," Xuande added. "It's like he puts the dots on the board and it's your job to connect them."


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