Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

HBO | The Sympathizer Official Podcast | Episode 4

Host Philip Nguyen is talking costumes and production design with costume designer Danny Glicker and co-showrunner Don McKellar. Where did he get those suits for the Congressman? How does he think about authenticity when it comes to period pieces? It’s a rich conversation, with lots of BTS details, about creating characters and telling stories through costume design. Then we are joined by author Viet Thanh Nguyen to talk about the depiction of the Vietnam War in literature, art and Hollywood for HBO

Read Below for Transcript

[00:00:00] Cold Open (0:15) 

Audio clip from episode – “ARE YOU A SYMPATHIZER?” <<Theme mux>> 

Phil: Welcome to HBO’s The Sympathizer podcast. Where we are debriefing and decoding the new HBO Original Limited series, the Sympathizer, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. 

I’m Philip Nguyen, a scholar of Vietnamese American culture, and on this podcast I’ll be joined by the sympathizers creators, the cast and crew, and of course author Viet Tengu. After every episode, we’ll get deeper into the characters, their motives, and how this espionage thriller slash cross cultural satire complicates what we know about the Vietnam War, a.rk. a. the American War in Vietnam, and its depiction in U. S. pop culture today. Looking at you, Hollywood. 

<<Music Transition>> 

But before we get started, there will be spoilers. [00:01:00] So go and watch episode four exclusively on max before joining us to listen in. 

So, let’s dive right in. It’s the war episode. Well, sort of, you know, because all of the episodes are kind of about war. Today, we’ll be diving into episode four. Give us some good lines. First, showrunner Don McKellar is back with costume designer Danny Glicker. This time, we’ll explore the art of finding clothing and costumes that are true to history and tell the story. 

And then, the Sympathizer author Viet Thanh Nguyen is back. We’ll chat with him about the depiction of the Vietnam War and other wars in art, literature, and particularly in Hollywood movies. 

<<Mux Transition – [00:02:00] recap >> 

Right, y’all. We are out of LA in this episode and taking a quick trip to the Napa Valley. And as always, before we talk with some of the cast and creators about the episode, here’s a recap and a bit of historical context for episode 4 that takes us behind the scenes. See what I did there? You know, behind the scenes, since it’s about mo Okay, anyway, moving on.

The episode opens with the captain staring at a menacing reptile in a waiting room, while the auteur spies on him from a peephole. When the door finally opens, , the captain is escorted into the auteur’s writing room, where he’s typing away at his epic Vietnam War movie. 

He tells the captain to speak freely. But it soon becomes clear that he’s not exactly asking for the captain’s opinion. 

<<Clip of scene – “As an Asian?” awkward speaking exchange about gent <<1:00 IN: (parrot) Don’t fuck up the movie … 

2:31 OUT they want you to spy on me>> 

in American pop culture and media. Asian Americans have historically been subject to stereotypical portrayals. As a socially awkward and nerdy model minority, the hyper masculine kung fu master, the [00:04:00] reliably silent sidekick, and for women, either as the hyper sexualized cunning dragon lady or submissive and innocent lotus blossom. 

Now, two things are clear. One, the auteur is looking for his quote unquote authenticity for his war film. And two, he’s only interested in his perceived version of authenticity, despite having just hired the captain to be his Vietnamese consultant. 

The captain leaves the auteur’s place, and we see him imagining a conversation with Mung in Vietnam. 

<<music … clips of Man saying … “go be the voice of our people. Give us some good lines.” >> 

<<6:05 IN: You know, confess you fucker … 

7:07 OUT: Of course>> 

So, the captain makes his way to the set of The Hamlet, in the Napa Valley. And as he drives there, he discovers that he has a stowaway in his trunk, Lana, and he’s forced to let her stay. 

<<clip of The Captain talking about how Jamie Yoon is the Asian in every film >>

<<11:09 IN Can I trust you to behave? 

12:20 OUT impending sense of doom>> 

Kickoff party for the Hamlet, we meet the cast Captain Seamus, an intense method actor, Jamie Johnson, the hot black pop singer playing Sergeant Bellamy and James Yoon, a Korean American actor playing for once a Korean American character. 

<<This clip could potentially be trimmed. Clip of James Yoon being like … i’ve play so many [00:07:00] different roles but this is the first korean role>> 

<<17:00 IN Keep similin … 

18:14 OUT the production designer >> 

Ironically, when filming gets started, the captain discovers that the extras playing the Vietnamese villagers don’t actually speak Vietnamese. 

<<Clip – can you put on an accent – could be trimmed if needed>> <<23:16 IN identify, identify… 

25:17 OUT I speak vietnamese>> 

So, the captain enlists the help of the general to find Vietnamese extras. But when the captain attempts to sneak in communist propaganda and slogans, the extras refuse to act, leaving room for Lana and Bon to fill multiple roles. 

Near the end, the captain has been fired as the Vietnamese consultant, and he, thinking that he’s protecting Lana, inadvertently sabotages her big scene with Captain Seamus. And the episode closes with the movie set getting blown up, while our captain is still a part of [00:08:00] it. 

<<MUX TRANSITION>> 

In our first conversation today, we’re welcoming back co showrunner Don McKellar, and also joining us for the first time is Danny Glicker. Danny Glicker is an American costume designer. He’s worked in films and shows like The Whale, Mother, True Blood, and Ghostbusters Afterlife. Danny was also an Academy Award nominee for Best Costume Design for the film Milk.

I’m really excited to talk with you two today. 

<<INTERVIEW IN DON AND DANNY>> 

I want to, um, pitch this question to Danny. I mean, I think in terms of the way in which the, the, the, the series feels and looks, um, and, all the, 

work that goes behind in, making sure that the costumes are on point, right? Um, can you share a little bit about what your job [00:09:00] entails and, um, how it contributes to the series? 

Danny (2): Um, well, there’s a lot of preparation. I really had to go back and kind of decode and unlock a lot of the kind of visual 

cultural issues that built the world that then went and built the Sympathizer. And I think, you know, in the case of something that is such a specific and deeply meta piece of storytelling, I wanted to both understand the reality of the situation. 

And I did that through a lot of research. And in the case of episode four, I was really looking, um, at an enormous kind of culture of filmmaking and it wasn’t just, uh, it wasn’t just the war movies, but I think I was really getting fascinated by, um, the deeply kind of masculine, um, auteur, like this, there’s like this whole, [00:10:00] like, I called them the bearded geniuses and you had like the de Palmas and the Scorseses and the Spielbergs and it was, and it was such like this masculine world of, of, of these sort of like groundbreakers. 

And I wanted to kind of tap into that because I thought that that would be the 

perfect playground for the captain to come into and to sort of like this, this person who is a man of. Deep intellectual ideas fighting his cause in a world of complete testosterone and, and what like a visual kind of fight that would be. 

And. And something that I thought was really interesting was the, um, the auteur has this mandate about authenticity and What’s really fascinating is in all stories you’re controlling the image, including me, right? 

I’m controlling the image that I put on camera. And the auteur, to my [00:11:00] perception, has no interest in authenticity. He has an interest in confirmation bias. He wants everyone around him to confirm what he’s already kind of

discovered for himself. And he just keeps pushing everyone to hear what the truth is. 

And obviously that’s one of the greatest struggles for the captain. And so visually I had to play with that as well. And one of the things was I wanted to figure out what was being seen then in the movies and how to represent that. And, And also knowing that the auteur himself was a talented filmmaker. 

He, he’s actually quite a good filmmaker and he hires quite a good crew, including an exceptional production designer. 

Don: designer. So 

Danny (2): a bit of a struggle trying, trying to play with the, the, the artifice, but knowing that the auteur himself was, you know, maybe, uh, he had a lot of moral blind spots in his worldview, but he was also a talented artist and quite good at his job, ultimately.[00:12:00] 

Don: a lot of those early films, they’re great movies, right? They’re obviously exceptionally talented filmmakers, and there’s no denying that. I remember in early discussions with Robert, um, Robert Downey Jr. Uh, he’s like, oh, I want 

him to be a good filmmaker. It’s like, yeah, absolutely. He’s a talented filmmaker. 

It’s meaning, it’s sort of facile satire if he’s just a hack, right? Like the whole point is that he’s good and still has these blind spots. Uh, still doesn’t, is incapable of seeing from the Vietnamese perspective, even though he’s, wants to, or at least says he wants to. And that, uh, I mean, and yeah, so that was, That was the challenge, I think, that, I mean, Danny did incredible research, like, I wish you could see the boards, uh, when he talks about the testosterone on set, like, the images he had of film crews from that period [00:13:00] are almost comical, and they’re sort of machismo. 

Danny (2): I remember in the research, like there’s the huge cliche of the director in the safari jacket. 

And you’re like, that’s a cliche until you look at the research and you realize Oh, they’re all in Safari jackets and it’s because it’s their tools, right? Like they, they don’t have iPhones. They’re putting everything in their, in their jacket pockets. 

But in the case of our piece, um, you know, we turned the knob a little bit on, on that idea and our Autor Safari jacket. His army green and, and it’s like this little

twist and this little idea about this sort of like, he’s this sort of like he, you know, he has like a deeply anti war viewpoint in some ways, but he’s also, he’s also literally enrobing himself in, in, in the, the, the language of war 

Don: Mm-Hmm. right? 

Danny (2): to be a soldier to tell this 

Don: Mm-Hmm. .Mm-Hmm. . 

Phil: Yes. And I, mean, I wonder also about the, [00:14:00] different ways that you, chose to costume Robert Downey Jr. for all the different roles that he plays. Um, the different patriarchs, as we’ve been calling them, right? Like how, can you speak to some of the subtleties of that too, Danny? 

You know, like, how do we distinguish one version of, RDJ from another? 

Danny (2): I think that what was really fascinating and for reasons that are both like deeply emotional and deeply, you know, like, like important to the, to the whole arc of the show. It was never, the goal was never to hide that it was always the same person, uh, in these, in these kind of patriarchal archetypes. 

Um, I think the bigger issue was the kind of, you know, identify who the models were for these archetypes and then, and then sort of play around. And, um, 

you know, it 

was, it was, you know, it was like a really fascinating process with, uh, you know, with, with, with [00:15:00] Don and with Director Park and with RDJ, um, to To kind of shape all of these archetypes because they’re all unique people. 

They’re not, they’re, they’re not like bland archetypes. But, you know, we certainly, we certainly had our people. I mean, like, you know, in the most sort of basic terms, certainly, um, Claude is this like insane, um, mashup of, like, Graham Greene and Hunter S. Thompson and, you know, uh, and there’s like, like, even like a little, uh, uh, Frank Snap, uh, who is a former CIA intelligence and now analyst. 

And, um, and the idea was to sort of like play with the, uh, the audacity of privilege, right? I mean, you have a CIA agent who, Who couldn’t be bothered to go undercover. I mean, he’s, he’s like maybe the most visible person in the

whole thing. And that is like how that is, that is, you know, the true privilege of the patriarchy. 

Don: like he [00:16:00] knows that it’s like hiding in plain sight, right? It’s like, uh, 

Danny (2): Yeah. And, and, and, and that he, uh, that he’s able to, and . 

And I think for, I think for the RDJ characters, it was so important that they all had a trademark and that they couldn’t cross pollinate each other ever. And so, and so because, because he was playing men who had their own goals and needs and desires, but they also, you know, would appear in the same scenes. 

And we needed to always know who they were, knowing that they would kind of share a vague appearance with RDJ, even though Vincent did incredible work, like to differentiate them, the, you know, the soul is always the same. 

Don: Mm-Hmm. 

Phil: Yeah. Yeah, I think, um, I also want to ask you both about, you know, what it was like to capture the vibe of the seventies. 

Danny (2): um, yeah, creating, [00:17:00] um, the general’s entire, uh, workplace uniforms, all of his support staff, the captain’s uniform. Um, the entire, the entire Southern army really was really challenging because those uniforms, uh, essentially vanished after the fall of Saigon. And it was, it was an enormously daunting research task. 

And, We worked with, you know, an enormous amount of experts, um, archival pieces, uh, archival imagery, everything we can get our hands on to, to reconstruct it. And, um, and then not just reconstruct it, but then also create uniforms that sort of had their own life. So by the time we see them on camera, they, they will have already existed for a long time. 

So we wanted to make sure that they kind of had this sort of wilted quality of uniforms that were being worn day in and day out. Um, regarding, [00:18:00] regarding the refugees, that’s, that was, that was a fascinating experience. And I think that for me, it was, it was, uh, so much about, uh, listening. and, uh, my research. 

And it was about being open to the stories that, that people were generous enough to share with me. Um, because I wanted to, I wanted to sort of, uh,

recreate 

the timeline of people who come to the United States, many of whom are coming here without anything that that they left from, they’re coming empty handed or very, and, and they’re receiving clothes that might be secondhand. 

And I wanted to recreate the experience of people who were taking clothes that were given to them and then through that still expressing their identity and watching how, um, how throughout the [00:19:00] course even of our show, we get to see the characters either hold on to pieces or, or, or start to gain pieces. 

And as they gain pieces, you see their identities coming through in ways that I find to be very truthful and, uh, moving. But for me, I think that it was really about being open and receptive to listening to the stories that Um the cast would share about what felt truthful to them and to and to use the fitting room as an opportunity to explore the things that kind of just like unlock that spark of truth and and help people feel physically connected to their character and so that’s why my job is, is, is, is to sort of set the room up to have the, to have the best possible research and pieces and then to listen very carefully. 

Don: I wanted to remind people, uh, American viewers that the Vietnam War lasted so long. 

Like, I think we have this image of it as sort of this hippie sort of doors era, uh, clearance, clear water revival, but no, it lasted all the way to the disco era. Right. You know what I mean? It was like, it’s so that, that’s 

Phil: And the disco ball 

Don: Yeah, exactly. Like that’s. 

it, 

it’s, it was a longer and more consequential war than, than Americans take it for. So, uh, I think that that’s aware, that’s there in the clothes, you know, like the, it feels like they’re fully inhabiting the era. 

Phil: Was that challenging to really kind of balance the sort of historical authenticity [00:21:00] or, um, the verisimilitude, so to say, um, as in, in

opposition to the, the nostalgia or the vibe of the time? Like, I, I wonder, I mean, for the clothes, were they Like, did y’all hand sew them? Are they replicas? Or are they vintage finds from, you know, the, the Goodwill down the street? Or were they donated? 

from, like, folks? 

Danny (2): well, everything, I mean that we, we built an enormous amount, like it, and then of course the whole joke is, you know, the things that I build then, then we, we take great pain and expense to make it look, you know, like, like trash. Like we just make, make everything look broken and, and, and like, like, like used and, and invisible. 

Um, there was a lot of clothes that were real that were really from that era. And then a lot of clothes that I. recreated for a number of reasons, either for character reasons, for a specific look, or because, I mean, you know, the, the truth is the, the, the [00:22:00] clothes from that era are, are, are you know, are like over way over 50 years old because even in 1975, the clothes are not from 1975. 

They’re from, you know, you know, 10, 15 years before then, you know, just being recycled, you know, in people’s lives. And so they’re definitely not necessarily in the condition, you know, that’s optimal anymore. 

So, I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of nostalgia. Nostalgia is never going to be my goal unless it’s a piece about nostalgia. 

I’m usually kind of, I’m kind of an advocate for truth. And I’m always trying to ask myself, what’s the truth? Like, is this truthful? And, because the thing about nostalgia is, um, It’s always someone’s nostalgia. It always has an angle. And, and, and so what is it nostalgic for? And what are you, and what are you holding [00:23:00] back in order to create that nostalgia? 

And so, um, I think one of the things that I love doing about the 70s in particular, and there’s so many time periods I love, but I have done the 70s a lot. And it’s a very nourishing period because it was so, so. there’s so much vitality in it because it was a huge cultural shift in all segments of the population. 

I mean, you have someone even as conservative as our congressman wearing extremely wide lapels and extremely wide ties. And you have to remind yourself that 10 years ago, before that, The same congressman would be in a micro tiny lapel and a pencil thin tie. Right. And so there’s like a really, you have to imagine that giant cultural shift that was happening.

And I really do love the earthiness of the 70s that even though that even though, um, people think of it as sort of the polyester [00:24:00] era. And certainly there was a lot of polyester being used. It’s actually a very It’s a very rugged era and, and there’s, there’s sort of the textures are such a reflection of the emotional textures that were happening in a, an incredibly tumultuous world. 

And, and I, and I always kind of want to create that. And, and so I felt, I felt very excited to, to view the world through our characters eyes, cause they’re so specific. And, and, just, and just not even focus too much on the, on what the clothes were anymore, but just say the, the clothes are the vocabulary, like the clothes are the language that we use, but what we choose to say is what the point is with the So I kind of, because having done it so much, I don’t even have to 

Phil: Yeah. I, think I’m, thinking a lot about Danny, you mentioned earlier about that balance between, of, being satirical about something but not necessarily parodying it. [00:25:00] Um, you know, this, this episode four is really about the industry, the filmmaking 

industry. 

Don: Um, 

Phil: there are so many metatextual pieces to it. the way in which the characters develop or come back to us, the sort of underlying like sentimentality that the captain has for. Um, some of the ghosts that he, he’s seeing. 

Don: Yeah, you’re right. You’re right. It’s, it’s interesting. I always liked the idea that In this artificial world, this uh, recreated by this American, he 

is, that’s the moment where he actually comes home and reconnects with his mother and his home village, uh, which surprises him, I think. I don’t think he expects 

Phil: that’s Right, the, appearance of the yeah. the second, but anyway. 

I want to ask you what, what parts of the industry were most fun to like satirize or like play around with. Like I mean for Danny, the ghost is not, is not what we would typically [00:26:00] or conventionally see as a ghost, right?

He, he just kind of appears as an image, right? Was that a, was that a conscious or intentional decision too? 

Danny (2): The ghosts were very informed by Director Park’s, uh, perception of how they should appear and I, watching it, it’s one of those things where it was such a perfect brainchild of him. You know, it’s not this, they’re not ghoulish, they’re not rotting, they’re 

Phil: Right. 

Danny (2): a little team now. They follow Captain and they taunt him and They exist with him, but they are very much alive, and they are very much alive in his consciousness, and they are alive as, as the ghosts who live with him. 

Don: Yeah, I think, I think one of the things we, we, uh, when we were talking about the ghosts in the room, and Vietnamese writers that were involved were talking about Vietnamese ghosts, and we read a lot of [00:27:00] books, Vietnamese books about ghost stories and things like that. And it’s, we, it’s a very different kind of ghost. 

And we want to make that really clear that in that sort of folk tradition, they’re not ghoulish, they’re not like horror figures at 

Phil: Right, They are just part, again, like, just part of your 

life. right? 

Don: living, they’re, they’re living with us. And I don’t want to give away where this story goes, but that’s part of it. 

that’s, 

a very important theme for us, that those ghosts of the past don’t die, uh, just as the war doesn’t die 

Phil: And the memory of the war and 

Don: the memories don’t die. 

Phil: Right.

There’s a sort of present absence that exists. 

right? Um, that can come at any sort of time, wherever we’re at in the non linear timeline of the 

Don: Mm-Hmm. 

Phil: <<INTERVIEW OUT DON AND DANNY>> 

For our next chat, we check in with another familiar voice, Viet Thanh Nguyen, as we talk about something that is very near and dear to this episode, Asian and Asian American representation in Hollywood. 

<<VIET SOLO IN>> 

Um, episode four is, there’s a lot going on. 

Viet: I love it. It’s a terrific episode. The Hamlet. It’s the funniest episode, I think, of all seven. 

Mm. 

Phil: What’s, what’s particularly funny about the, this, this episode for you, Viet? 

Viet: So, in The [00:29:00] Sympathizer, I had a huge amount of fun writing the section of the novel that deals with the making of the movie, The Hamlet, so, which references a whole bunch of Vietnam War movies. 

People think it’s only a satire of Apocalypse Now, but in fact, it’s really a satire of the entire genre of Vietnam War movies, and in fact, the plot of The Hamlet owes a lot more to John Wayne’s The Green Berets of 1968 than Apocalypse Now, and if you’ve never seen The Green Berets. I can’t say I recommend it, but it is because it’s wholesale American propaganda. 

Uh, but it is a landmark movie. And then, um, in, in writing the, the novel, the novel, I was also thinking about the fact that by 2011, when I’m writing this, that we’d already reached a moment in American consciousness where the, there was not only a Vietnam war movie genre, there was a meta Vietnam war movie genre.

embodying 

Phil: about Tropic Thunder? Tropic Thunder, right. 

Viet: And Tropic Thunder, the first 10, 15 minutes is a masterpiece. I don’t know about the rest of the movie, but the opening sequence that [00:30:00] satirizes the Vietnam War genre is hilarious. And I wanted to take some of the energy of that satire and put it into the novel. 

And then of course, lo and behold, we have Robert Downey Jr. come in and Phil: a guy who’s playing a guy. Exactly, 

Viet: right? So the meta layers are incredible. 

Phil: Right. Um, you have referred to Hollywood as the, the memory industry, and we are, uh. affronted with that memory industry in this, uh, in this episode. And you’ve spoken a little bit about the, the sort of, the, the, the comedic aspects of it. Um, your criticisms. 

Viet: I don’t just call it a memory industry. I also call it in The Sympathizer the unofficial ministry of propaganda for the United States. And so in one way to satirize Hollywood is just to make entertainment because it’s Hollywood is easily made fun of as anybody who works in Hollywood apparently knows. 

I will point out that, you know, my depiction of the auteur in the novel. I’ve met many people in Hollywood and no one has Ever disputed my [00:31:00] characterization of the auteur as someone who might possibly exist. So, there’s a lot of fun to be had there but there’s also something very serious which is that I really do think that the, the films of Hollywood, um, are, do function as a part of the military industrial complex, as a, as a form of entertainment that serves a soft power to propagate American ideas overseas and to propagate American ideas to the American people. 

and so hopefully the the satire in the TV series demonstrates that. That this is not just entertainment we’re dealing with. This is entertainment that’s completely enmeshed with the exercise of military global U. S. domination. 

Phil: Yes. You called it a machination earlier used that particular word. Right.

That subtext for Vietnamese Americanness. I, I think it’s something that I feel like I, I picked on, picked up on and, and I found, um, some of the most comedic parts about this particular episode is, uh, after when we realized that the, the extras that are playing the Vietnamese characters in the, in the Hamlet are not Vietnamese. Um, and the, the Vietnamese refugees are sort of rolled into the, onto the set, right? Uh, there are scenes where the, the, our captain, the communist sympathizers, uh, trying to espouse some of these communist ideologies and there’s some resistance to it, right? [00:32:00] Um, what was that like for you, you know, and seeing, 

Viet: seeing 

Phil: sort of resistance come out from, from a community level, um, in this particular film, right? 

Especially in, uh, in that the, the captain’s mission is he has an agenda when he’s working with Aotearoa to create the Hamlet or to consult for the Hamlet. 

Viet: In the making of Apocalypse Now, which was done in the Philippines, the Vietnamese, uh, the Viet Cong were really played by Vietnamese people, but who were refugees in refugee camps in the Philippines who had fled from the Vietnamese, from Vietnamese communism. And then ironically, they had an opportunity to do work on this, on this movie. 

So I just wanted to include that in the novel and here it manifests itself in the TV series as well, because it’s just a really interesting story. painfully funny tragicomic layer or little known aspect of Vietnamese American history. And when I first saw this episode and there’s that moment when the old woman villager is speaking, I thought immediately, that’s not Vietnamese. 

What’s [00:33:00] going on? 

PHIL: Right, I was almost offended. 

VIET: I was, I was actually ready to be offended. Then of course that was the joke, right? And it’s so well done. Um, I thought it was hilarious. And then when, uh, the character of the Viet Cong gorilla, who’s being asked by The auteur through, uh, who’s called Damianos in this, in the TV series, asked by Damianos through the captain to say something that is, uh, pro communist and the gorilla responds by spitting and cursing and saying, I, I, I hate the communists.

I would never say something like this. It’s such a well placed question. Performed moment by VN Nels Hong. Um, that I was, I was, I saw him do that in, in real life on, on the set. And I was so, I wasn’t taken aback. I was just struck by the power and the sincerity of what he was saying, because I think that is in fact what a lot of Vietnamese refugees would actually say. 

They would never allow themselves to say anything pro communist. And yet the tragedy for this particular person is that he’s an extra on a set and this is how he’s going to make his money. [00:34:00] And then the painfulness of the satire is, of course, that the Damianos does not get it. He doesn’t understand the Vietnamese, so he just hears this Vietnamese and this powerful performance and he interprets it in a completely wrong fashion. 

And that, of course, is again another layer of the satire. of ironic awareness for so many of us watching these Vietnam War movies and realizing that, uh, these white people who are making these movies and starring in these movies and watching these movies have no idea what the Vietnamese actors and extras are actually going through and what they’re actually saying. 

Phil: Right. Even if they are well meaning and anti war and on, we were fighting on your side, quote 

Viet: Let me just make one other point, which is, the well meaning part, I, I, I dispute that. You know, I dispute that. Because if you go look at Apocalypse Now, which is a great movie, it’s a work of art, it’s a masterpiece, it’s still racist, and it’s still sexist, and if you go look at the credits of Apocalypse Now, no Vietnamese person is given a credit. 

in the movie. But you know who’s giving it credit? Door gunner. Like, just [00:35:00] random dude shooting a machine gun. And I’m, I’m not, I don’t think I’m making, I don’t think I’m making this up. But that guy gets his name in there. Even though he’s not even got a name as a character. But the Vietnamese people who are the extras and so on, who, and there’s even a Vietnamese woman with a speaking role, She throws a heli grenade into the helicopter in Apocalypse Now, no mention of her. 

So that’s just a moment to me of the of that proves this entire symbolic erasure of of Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam. Apocalypse Now is not the only movie guilty of that kind of thing, but to me, I wanted to make sure that audiences who are watching this TV series understand just how deeply embedded the erasure of Vietnamese people has been in the American imagination and consciousness.

Phil: Right. Um, Hua is someone who I think is he. 

I would say for me watching this particular, watching this episode, he sort of comes into himself, himself a little bit more and leans, is maybe more consciousness of his own [00:36:00] double consciousness and his, his, his adjacency to power and authority and the way that he can potentially influence, um, power. Um, I, I also, you know, as I’m, as I’m watching the character, I wondered if, if you and Hua had talked, right? 

Because I, I know that there are aspects of the, the captain that, you know, you draw from your own pers, like, personal life. Um 

So, you know, I wonder, and especially because your memoir is, is named A Man of Two Faces, where some of those parallels or similarities may exist, or if you, if you see them. 

Viet: Let’s talk about Hua first and then about me and the character. But, you know, Hua does an incredible job and, you know, he’s on, you know, 

Phil: screen 

Viet: on on almost every single scene for seven hours, and everything’s being shot out of sequence. 

And yet he has to keep in his mind that there’s gonna be this transformation in the captain’s personality and his understanding of things. So, as you say, we’re starting to see some of the depths of his character in Episode four. Um, and, um, You know, he, Hua, has to, uh, figure out [00:37:00] how to convey to us through very, oftentimes very subtle gestures of his face and eyes and so on, the mechanisms of his own mind that are, that are ticking away in ways that we can’t see being outside of his mind. 

Whereas if you read the novel, you hear his voice and he’s explaining everything that he’s thinking and going through. And Hua, I’ve never talked to him about it. I mean, I’ve had him over to my house for dinner. But Hua in some ways reminds me of the captain himself because he’s humble and modest and and, uh, he’s, you know, I think he’s in reserve, at least around me. 

So I have no idea what Hua is thinking. Anyway, um, and I think you’re right that there’s some of me in the sympathizer of Hua. Uh, because in fact, when I was growing up, I felt like a spy. I felt like an American spying on my Vietnamese parents, and I felt like a Vietnamese spying on Americans, and I

took that feeling and I blew it up in a big way to put it into the character of our, of our sympathizer. 

But certainly the way that he survives and I survive, uh, in this, these worlds that we find ourselves is to maintain the perpetual smile and to hold back what we’re really thinking and to let other [00:38:00] people speak first. Because if you let other people speak first, you learn a lot about them, maybe more than they want you to know about them. 

And that’s one of, uh, the sympathizer’s key strategies, perhaps wise too, but you’ll have to ask him. Yeah, 

Phil: and I think for, I mean, I, I don’t, I don’t speak for all of the, the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans born in the U. S., but for me reading The Sympathizer, um, and having met you, uh, for the first time, uh, at, at UC Berkeley when, I, I think it was right before you won the Pulitzer Prize for a book talk, um, 

Viet: to think 

Phil: nine, 10 years later that we would be in this moment now, um, where we see the way in which these, these, uh, These stereotypical understandings or ways that the dominant society has framed, um, Vietnamese Vietnamese American narratives. 

We are there and we are part of the, the reframing and the, the re narration of what that looks like. And it does feel like an incredibly historical moment. 

Viet: I think the we is important. I think it’s a collective effort. Um, the we goes all the way back to the 19th century as Asian [00:39:00] Americans started to think of themselves as somehow belonging to this country, not just as immigrants and started to build these various kinds of political, cultural, social, artistic movements that have led gradually and gradually over the course of the last, I don’t know, 150 years to this point where we are, where it seems as if there is some kind of real transformation taking place in Hollywood when it comes to the representation of Asians and Asian Americans, far from a perfect world, but certainly hopefully better than it was in, let’s say, the 1950s to the 

Phil: 1970s. And here we are doing it with a smile on our faces. Viet: Yes, viewers can’t see, but we’re both smiling at each other, Philip.

Phil: Thank you so much, Viet, for joining episode four of the Official Sympathizer Companion Podcast and we will, again, be meeting you to discuss more about the series very, very soon. 

Viet: It’s been fun, Philip. 

Phil: <<VIET SOLO OUT>> 

And that’s it for us today. Thank you again to Robert Downey Jr., Fernando Mireles, Don McKellar, Danny Glicker, and Viet Thanh Nguyen for the time and opportunity to peek [00:40:00] behind the creativity. We’ll see you all next time when we’ll dive into episode 5 with actress Vy Le, the multi talented Ky Yuen, producer Niamh Fishman, director Mark Munden, writer Megan Huang, and returning guests Don McKellar and Viet Thanh Nguyen. 

See you all next week. Stream new episodes of HBO’s original limited series, The Sympathizer, Sundays, exclusively on max and subscribe and listen to the podcast after every episode of the show on max and wherever you get your podcasts.

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