Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Los Angeles Magazine | Sandra Oh and Author Viet Thanh Nguyen on HBO’s ‘The Sympathizer’

The star of the spy thriller and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist discuss the strides made — and tensions felt — by Asian American storytellers for Los Angeles Magazine

Sandra Oh and author Viet Thanh Nguyen reunite at Kato.
Photographed by Jen Rosenstein

In Sandra Oh’s first major role, as a Chinese Canadian teenage runaway and poet in the 1994 TV movie The Diary of Evelyn Lau, she explored the duality of growing up Western in a traditional Asian household. Then came Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve — for which she won SAG Awards and racked up 11 (of her 13) Primetime Emmy nominations. 

In HBO’s Vietnam War espionage thriller The Sympathizer (filmed in L.A. and Thailand, released on April 14 and airing new episodes through May 26), she revisits the post-immigrant experience as the older lover to actor Hoa Xuande’s newly landed protagonist. Oh’s Ms. Sofia Mori, a second-generation Japanese American woman from Gardena, weathers microaggressions in a 1970s-era Oriental Studies department with wit and acquiescence. 

Here, Oh chats with Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel that inspired the series and begins with the protagonist’s bold confession: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.”

Let me start by saying, Sandra, I’ve certainly known about you for a very long time. And then once we got around to doing the series, I swear the first person that popped in my mind, for the character of Ms. Mori, was you. I feel very lucky that we were able to get you to do it. I vividly remember meeting you at Kato. It’s now a Michelin-star restaurant in the Arts District, but back then it was this little plaza restaurant in West L.A. You come in and the first thing you say to me is, “So what’s your process?” And I melted inside.

I still have the menu from that dinner. And we have a great picture of all of us because it was the Wednesday before everything shut down — in March 2020. So thank you for your kind words, Viet. But I’m curious, what was the context of [The Sympathizer head writer and co-showrunner] Don [McKellar] and me approaching you, and how did you come to work also with [executive producer] Niv [Fichman]?

Hoa Xuande plays a spy in HBO’s The Sympathizer. Courtesy of HBO

An Asian American producer whose work I really love went off to try to sell this thing back in 2016. We were thinking of Narcos as a model, which cost about $50 million. And then they came back and said, “Well, people in Hollywood are saying for this amount of money we need Keanu Reeves to star in the series.” And I thought, “I love Keanu Reeves, but he’s not Vietnamese in any way.” And so we couldn’t get it to work. Then Niv came along and it was really through him that we 

There’s a certain kind of protective defensiveness I wonder if many of us — at least of Viet and my generations — have in our own storytelling when it is in the hands of the larger Hollywood system. I feel like, “Oh, my God, we got one in,” during this time where the willingness and the interest to work with Asian American directors and actors and storytellers was more open. Of course, when director Park [Chan-wook] came on, everyone who makes movies is reassured that you’re in the hands of a master.

When you began to become Ms. Mori, what else did you have to think about besides the words on the page? What did you have to fill in for yourself?


What I was trying to uncover for myself and for the character is to think of, generationally, how we have thought about ourselves and where that comes from. We’re going to deny ourselves the uniqueness of our ethnicity because of survival. When we meet Ms. Mori, she is leading with her Americanness. There’s a layer of self-denial that she has to confront.

I wrote The Sympathizer out of deep devotion to the Vietnamese community, but that feeling is not reciprocated by everybody. So when the series comes out, there will be an interesting moment in terms of how it will be received. I’m wondering, have you ever felt any tension around the roles that you’ve portrayed?

I’m so interested in what you just brought up regarding what I feel is a tremendous amount of trauma, honestly, that has not been … When is trauma finally processed? That’s an open-ended question. But what this series does is bring it up and hopefully have people talk about it. I hope, in a very open invitation to the Vietnamese diaspora and community here in California and in America, that they just see the story. It’s very complex, but it’s a story that needs to be told.

Photographed By: Jen Rosenstein
Stylist: Jordan Johnson Chung
Hair: Derek Yuen/A-Frame
Makeup: Allan Avendano/A-Frame


More Interviews