Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

More Reviews for ‘The Sympathizer’ on HBO (The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Nation, and Salon)

Read more reviews for the HBO limited series, ‘The Sympathizer’ from The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Nation, and Salon

From left: Robert Downey Jr.—who plays several roles—Duy Nguyen as Man, Hoa Xuande as the Captain, Fred Nguyen Khan as Bon, and Sandra Oh as Sofia Mori in The Sympathizer.  HBO

The Atlantic

The Key to Understanding HBO’s The Sympathizer

Think of it as a ghost story.

In a recent scene from HBO’s The Sympathizer, a communist spy whom we only know as the Captain (played by Hoa Xuande) sits outside a Los Angeles car-repair station, staking out the man he’s planning to kill. His target is a former senior military officer, Major Oanh, who fled with him from Vietnam to the U.S., and who is starting over as a mechanic. When the Captain learns that Oanh is importing expired Vietnamese candy as a side hustle, he confronts him. To his shock, the man embraces him. “It’s a new world here,” Oanh tells the Captain. “If you fully commit to this land, you become fully American. But if you don’t, you’re just a wandering ghost living between two worlds forever.”

Adapted from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning novelThe Sympathizer follows a protagonist who seems perennially trapped in this between. The Captain is a North Vietnamese secret-police agent embedded high up in the Southern Vietnamese military. As a biracial, half-French man, the Captain is at once strikingly visible in public and yet socially invisible; he’s been, as he says early in the first episode, “cursed to see every issue from both sides.” But what vexes him even more is the realization that he uses his identity as an excuse to avoid taking frm moral stances. By circumstance and by choice, he moves through society as a specter. Although The Sympathizer isn’t a literal ghost story, this is a compelling prism to view the adaptation through. The series, created by Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, introduces the Captain after he’s been captured by the North Vietnamese army (which he’s spying for), sent to a reeducation camp, and stuck in a room to write his confession. He begins by writing words we hear in a voice-over: “I am a spy, a sleeper,
a spook, a man of two faces,” a nod to the opening of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel,
Invisible Man, whose similarly unnamed narrator unpacks feeling adrift and anonymous “because people refuse to see me.” In The Sympathizer, the word spook takes on a dual meaning, describing a spy—a job that hinges on being imperceptible—and also a disembodied presence that’s neither dead nor alive.

The Captain narrates his imperfectly detailed memories, which span decades and
move between Vietnam and the U.S. He jumps back and forth through time,
revealing a man caught as much between physical and psychic worlds as between
loyalties. The two people he cares most about in the world—his best friends and
“blood brothers” Man and Bon—were on different sides of the war: the former was a
higher-up in North Vietnamese leadership, the latter was a South Vietnamese
paratrooper and assassin.

But unlike in many traditional ghost stories, the Captain isn’t an omniscient figure narrating from the afterlife. He is wrestling with competing political
and cultural ideologies and with Vietnam’s legacy of colonialism and
war. He is a frequent subject of derision as a mixed-race man: In one scene in Vietnam, the Captain
explains that he’s long endured acquaintances and others “spitting on me and calling me bastard,” dryly adding that “sometimes, for variety, they call me bastard before they spit.” Even those who the Captain believes respect him see his humanity as conditional. In the novel, his longtime boss—known only as the General—frees him for flirting with his daughter: “How could you ever believe we would allow [her] to be with someone of your kind?” the General asks.

This sense of alienation is exacerbated in the U.S., where the Captain embeds within
the exiled South Vietnamese community. There, he and his fellow countrymen are, as
he describes in the novel, “consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation
and susceptible to the hypochondria of exile.” At one point in the show, a fellow
émigré and journalist named Sonny (Alan Trong) tells him, “Arguably, I’m more
Vietnamese than you … biologically”—and yet the Captain is regarded as being too
Vietnamese by many of those he meets in the U.S. In an especially atrocious scene
after the Captain’s arrival in Los Angeles, a former professor he connects with (Robert
Downey Jr.) gives him the dehumanizing assignment of writing down his “Oriental
and Occidental qualities” side by side. Afterward, the professor pressures the Captain
to read the list aloud to university donors at a cocktail party.

Not even the Captain’s Marxist proclivities can anchor him after he moves to America,
a bastion of capitalism that he’s been taught to hate but secretly enjoys. Though he
technically identifes as a Communist, in the series he doesn’t come off as an active,
passionate believer. He also becomes involved in American pop culture, when he’s
asked to be a cultural consultant on an Apocalypse Now–esque flm. Yet the Captain is
frustratingly static in these Hollywood scenes. He’s unconvincing when he implores a
movie director named Niko Damianos (also played by Downey Jr.) to hire
Vietnamese actors in speaking roles. Even the way he pushes back against the
inclusion of an unnecessarily violent scene feels tepid; when the director fres him, the
Captain walks away in indifferent silence.


In interviews, Nguyen has said that hauntings are inextricable from stories about war
and the trauma it leaves behind. He has also noted that Vietnamese culture is full of
ghost stories, whose spirits bear both malicious and benevolent intent. The visual
language of The Sympathizer takes care to point out that those hovering in the afterlife
stay close to the living. Shrines to the deceased, many adorned with fruits, incense,
and vases full of fowers, pervade the show’s world, including in the Captain’s home
and in the General’s office. Later in the series, literal ghosts also take shape: Major
Oanh and another person the Captain murders constantly reappear to taunt him and
offer unsolicited opinions.

As the series progresses, the Captain becomes more and more numb, stymied by the
realization that neither communism nor capitalism—nor either of the two countries,
or racial identities, or best friends he’s torn between—will make him whole. The
Sympathizer
drives home the salient point that social invisibility has a way of
hollowing someone until they’re unrecognizable, even to themselves. It gestures
toward a haunting truth: To stand for everything is akin to standing for nothing.

Read it here

Foreign Policy

HBO’s ‘The Sympathizer’ Leans Into the Tragic Absurdity of the Vietnam War

The series lampoons the military, academia, and Hollywood portrayals of the era.

The first frame of The Sympathizer reminds us that what is known in the United States as the “Vietnam War,” the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War.” When something as basic as what to call the catastrophe that killed and uprooted millions of people is in such fundamental dispute, it’s clear that nothing about this is simple.

Dichotomies and seeing things from both sides are at the heart of this series, an adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel. Our hero, the child of a French father and Vietnamese mother, known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), spins this yarn as a confession in a North Vietnamese reeducation camp shortly after the end of the war. He was working, he claims, as a deep-cover mole for the Communists with the secret police in Saigon, where he was assigned to a somewhat buffoonish General (Toan Le). Though eager to celebrate the liberation of the south, the Captain’s handler orders him to join the General and his coterie when they flee to America. He was educated in the United States, understands (maybe loves?) the culture, and has an established rapport with the General’s CIA connection. His job is to monitor the situation there and report back.

So how does he end up captured by the North Vietnamese? Well, this is complicated, and the route to get there wickedly lampoons the military, academia, Hollywood, and, perhaps a bit more painfully, the mindset of war refugees incapable of adjusting to new surroundings. The Sympathizer is about tragedy, but, like Catch-22 or MASH, can also be called a comedy. I guess it’s all where your sympathies lie.

One of the bigger gags is the casting, with Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr. hamming it up in several makeup-heavy roles. (This is not an explicit nod to the Vietnam War film spoof Tropic Thunder, but that history adds some extra spice to the stew.) We first meet him as Claude, the gruff CIA man who helped groom the Captain when he was educated in America. (When, specifically, he decided to align with the Communists is unclear, though the real-life spy that The Sympathizer is very loosely based on already considered himself a mole at that young age.) Claude later assumes false identities, just because there’s nothing this story loves more than complications.

Robert Downey Jr., wearing a light suit, holds a microphone and gestures as a character in The Sympathizer.Robert Downey Jr., wearing a light suit, holds a microphone and gestures as a character in The Sympathizer.

Robert Downey Jr. in The Sympathizer.HBO

Some of Downey’s other roles include a condescending professor of Oriental studies (swishing around in a kimono and demanding his Japanese-American assistant take more pride in her culture); a right-wing congressman (“Napalm” Ned Godwin) who grunts like Clint Eastwood and whose maniacal hatred of Communists helps him overcome his racism, thus aligning him with the General and having an anti-Castro Cuban wife; and an egocentric film director working on an Apocalypse Now-like Vietnam picture, the portrayal of which is a little unfair to Francis Ford Coppola. (Sure, he was and is dedicated to his vision as an artist, but in a mostly benevolent way, not like the snot portrayed in The Sympathizer.)

Mirroring the Captain is left-wing journalist Sonny (Alan Trong), who stayed in America after college. The Captain secretly envies his ability to be open with his Viet Cong sympathies but scorns him for not “earning it” in the homeland during the war. Naturally, they are both sleeping with the same woman (Sandra Oh).

The other key characters who double as big honkin’ metaphors are Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), which, yes, is French for “good,” and Man (Duy Nguyen), which is English for, uh, “man.” At age 14, they formed a three-way blood bond, but the big secret is that the Captain and Man are loyal to the Communists—indeed, Man is his handler, with whom he corresponds using invisible ink and complex codes. Bon, however, is a defiant South Vietnamese who escapes to America with the Captain and the General, but whose wife and child are killed as they race to make the last flight out. This tense sequence almost one-ups the real-life chaos of the fall of Saigon.

One man stands with his hand on his hip while two men site leaning forward, all looking at the same thing off camera left. A table in front of them holds glasses of drinks.One man stands with his hand on his hip while two men site leaning forward, all looking at the same thing off camera left. A table in front of them holds glasses of drinks.

From left: Hoa Xuande as the Captain, Fred Nguyen Khan as Bon, and Duy Nguyen as Man in The Sympathizer. HBO

There’s more to the tableaux of characters, especially in the Los Angeles refugee community, and while the series keeps the story moving, a great deal of the clever writing that made the book such a success translates over nicely. There are examples at every turn: The professor teaches Oriental studies at a thinly veiled Occidental College (zing!), and his book of highly influential political theory is attributed to one Richard Hedd. (I’ll let you work that one out on your own.)

That book, Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction, is used by the Captain and Man as the foundation of their cipher, but it also contains the line eerily similar to a notorious statement by Gen. William Westmoreland: “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as that of the Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient, and as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.”

That preposterous sentiment is rebuked by the psychologically convalescing refugees—some of whom have turned to alcoholism, defacing property with images of the “Saigon execution” photo, or, as mentioned in one dark moment, “beating their wives just to feel like men.” As the series heads into its final third, the General (backed by the CIA) crews up for a quixotic attempt at a Bay of Pigs-like invasion via Thailand, which, of course, quickly falls apart.

A man grimaces as he holds up a burning piece of paper.A man grimaces as he holds up a burning piece of paper.

Hoa Xuande as the Captain in The Sympathizer. HBO

The Captain isn’t just a witness to the scheme; he’s an active participant in two cold-blooded murders. (He’s still a likable guy; Hoa Xuande gives an incredible performance.) The moments of violence, however, are shot through a bleakly funny lens, in the style of the Coen Brothers. One includes a doddering half-deaf granny in the same frame as a life-or-death struggle.

The first three episodes are directed by the series’ co-creator, Park Chan-wook, the South Korean auteur of OldboyThe Handmaiden, and the recent John le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl. His episodes all contain a noticeable cinematic sparkle, making clever use of match cuts that weave the complex narrative in simplifying ways. The remainder of the series is directed by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles (The Constant GardenerThe Two Popes) and British director Marc Munden (The Secret Garden).

All seven episodes look terrific, from the period automobiles and Budweiser cans to the Vietnamese “hamlet” in both the Captain’s memory and the Hollywood film production where the Captain is acting as an authenticity consultant, blending art and life with helicopter blades. There’s also a keen deployment of fresh music from the era—not a hint of Creedence Clearwater Revival!—but instead tunes like “Dynomite!” by Bazuka (a funky number with a mention of armaments) and fiery free jazz by Ornette Coleman. It all builds to our hero’s tortuous showdown with his homeland, his identity, and himself. Unless you’ve read the book, there’s really no way to predict the ending, and yet once you see it you realize that it’s perfect.

America’s counterculture, instigated significantly by the Vietnam War (but also civil rights and the pill), is just about the most heavily covered topic in movies and television, but there are so few projects from the Vietnamese perspective. Of course, as with any group, there isn’t just one Vietnamese point of view. The Sympathizer, almost magically, is able to fit many in, even if it almost destroys everyone in its path. There hasn’t been a series this complex—and also so funny—in a very long time.

Read it here

The Nation

Coded Messages

The many worlds of HBO’s The Sympathizer.

(Hopper Stone / HBO)

HBO’s The Sympathizer is a confession. We meet the confessor, narrator, and protagonist (played by Hoa Xuande) in a makeshift prison camp in Vietnam. Reading his confession, his interrogator plays the critic, saying, “Rewrite… and this time remember everything.” Our hero goes back to solitary confinement and the loneliness of the writer’s desk. He starts over again. His first words are: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” The camera dips down in front of the prisoner, and then we cut to the gigantic face of Charles Bronson, hoisted onto the marquee of a movie palace in Saigon, taking us back to an earlier and vastly different Vietnam.

This matching shot is not merely a graphic lubricant, propelling us through time and space, but also an example of the very juxtaposition that is at The Sympathizer’s core. Adapted from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, it’s the story of a man caught between worlds. The unnamed protagonist is a double agent: a captain in the US-backed secret police of South Vietnam as well as a mole for the Northern communists. The story we see is his retelling of his life, and though he speaks to us in the intimate tones of a noir detective, he is also writing from a reeducation camp in communist Vietnam. His words are a self-justification and, whether he realizes it or not, a story about the loss of home.

Displacement is at the center of The Sympathizer, which means that the show’s center is always in flux. Charles Bronson’s head is our first introduction to the looming presence of the United States. It’s promotional material for a movie and for a culture and a way of life. But it’s flat and two-dimensional, artificial and without substance, and as the narrator is pushed to embrace his fascination with the United States, the same dream is also constantly reduced to hollow signifiers—a box of candies, a bottle of Coca-Cola. Our confessor’s homes are always in dispute. He is not Vietnamese enough in Saigon, but not American enough in Los Angeles.

Our narrator’s splintered consciousness feeds into The Sympathizer’s almost anxious jumps across time and space. The first two episodes in particular bristle with ideas, exposition, rationalizations, all moving backward and forward at a hectic pace, connected only by images and memory. Park Chan-wook, who created the series with Don McKellar and directed the first three episodes, is a master of transition, and his fingerprints are all over the show’s match cuts, the way it barrels into scenes at full speed, and the constant tension between foreground and background. So much of The Sympathizer is always insisting on our attention.

From the present, we are transported back to the year 1975, when the war in Vietnam between North and South—and, as in so many parts of the world, between communism and capitalism—is being decided. Our narrator, the Captain, works as an aide for the General, the head of the South Vietnamese secret police. He is the General’s speechwriter, English teacher, and chauffeur, but he is also a spy, embedded with the enemy and sending coded messages back to his communist handlers. He never tells us how he fell into this kind of work; his ideological commitments are simply treated as an established fact. His most important mission seems to be avoiding suspicion and ensuring his own survival.

The Captain proves very good at the latter, even when it comes with a cost. His conscience haunts him more than any actual enemies. When the South Vietnamese intelligence agents stage a communist spy’s interrogation as an entertainment for the General and his CIA handler, Claude (one of Robert Downey Jr.’s many characters in the series), the Captain fears that she will reveal him as the source of her information. He sheds a tear as the agent is tortured, but like the rest of his moral scruples, it remains private.

As the official end of “the American War”—or what Americans call the Vietnam War—approaches, our hero is pushed to follow the General to the United States. There, he will continue his work as a spy. Nguyen has written, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” And as the Captain settles in Los Angeles, The Sympathizer settles into the story of this second war: the war over a home that exists only in memory.

A war is not an event but a structuring frame in which loss destabilizes people’s sense of identity, politics, and community. It’s a destabilization that reverberates in memory and makes itself present and visceral as a sensory experience. Even when it ends, it doesn’t end. While history is in some sense the struggle over official memory, distance tends to simplify the messiness of those memories.

The Sympathizer’s voice-over narration continually reminds us that we are watching an imperfect retelling. The Captain gets ahead of himself, has to double back and re-explain. An image transports him to a painful memory. We jump from location to location freely: the reeducation camp in Vietnam; Saigon before the fall and then torn by war; the open vistas of Oklahoma; a university in Los Angeles, a shitty apartment in the same city, a liquor store under the Hollywood sign; Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, where thousands of refugees wait to be processed; Vietnam again, years earlier, when the Captain and his two blood brothers were scarcely teenagers.

Foreground and background vie for our attention. In one scene, our hero talks to Man, his friend and communist handler, who tells him that he must flee with the General and continue in his role as a spy. Our hero is processing the loss that such an action would entail, but as they talk, an elaborate bar fight unfolds behind them, as their friend Bon single-handedly takes on three Marines. In a later episode, a young journalist in the United States interviews the Captain, who toys with the American’s naïve attempts at solidarity while enjoying the more exciting action behind him, as an older woman takes notice of the handsome, newly arrived refugee.

That woman is Ms. Mori, an administrator at the Department of Oriental Studies of a fictionalized Occidental College. She’s Japanese American but has no interest in playing along with the oriental fantasies of her white department chair, Professor Hammer, by whose whims the Captain has been plucked from Fort Chaffee earlier than the other refugees. Our protagonist is caught between allegiances—between North and South Vietnam, but also between the General and Claude and Professor Hammer, all of whom see him as a potential asset in their own plans. Ms. Mori tells the Captain that he has a way of smiling and nodding that makes everyone feel as if he agrees with whatever they’re saying. He survives by acquiescing.

The Sympathizer is a catalog of all the forms of belonging that are provisional, contingent, or even denied. It is about being a migrant in the way that Stuart Hall described when he wrote that every migrant faces two questions: “Why are you here?” and “When are you going back home?” And it is only upon hearing the second question that the migrant realizes “that really, in the deep sense, she/he’s never going back. Migration is a one way trip.” The Sympathizer is about the impossibility of that return. You turn and expect to see where you came from, but the path is always dissolving behind you. You turn and don’t recognize what you see. And you, in turn, are misrecognized.

Once the Captain lands in California, the series’s focus on exclusion is thrown into a higher gear of complexity. Almost everywhere he goes, he is treated as a tool or, failing that, an interloper. Lest you think him blameless, the Captain is continually abdicating the responsibility for his own actions, attributing them to other people’s desires. Under the alibi of self-preservation, he deflects, accuses others, and even kills.

Xuande’s character is not the only one caught between multiple roles. In the series, Downey is credited with four different characters, a casting tactic that connects the ecosystem of America’s power from the CIA to the academy but also shows the refracted multiplicities of American chauvinism—from imperial agent to orientalizing professor.

At a time when TV production is becoming more conservative and moving more and more to second-screen status, The Sympathizer pushes the limits of the overcrowded TV screen. Even when the nuances of the Captain’s situation flit by too quickly, the show succeeds in a tonal and temporal dexterity, a gift from Nguyen’s novel as well as the skill of Park’s directing. But the series is also a testament to the merits of trusting your audience: It is confident not only in its storytelling but also in the ability of its viewers to navigate the shifts between satire, spy thriller, political intrigue, and moral introspection.

If there’s a fault with the series, it is that it doesn’t keep up the pace of the early episodes—but who could? Whether due to the nature of the story (there’s way more plot to set in motion early on, as well as more location changes), or to the fact that the show’s other directors are not named Park Chan-wook, the series eventually sputters rather than speeding ahead. The Sympathizer also expends its stores of pathos too early—or maybe it’s a deliberate consequence of the series fully committing to its satire about a spy who loses our sympathies.

Either way, The Sympathizer succeeds on its own terms. It is a story about migration—the transitions between contexts, identities, and loyalties, between different historical periods and different registers and genres. Our hero is a spy in every setting, which means that he is never quite at home: He is always in a state of movement, always migrating to the next place. By the end, it’s not clear whether the coded messages that the Captain sends back home are even being received—but that, too, is beside the point. The larger question is whether he will learn what Stuart Hall taught us: “There is no ‘home’ to go back to. There never was.”

Read it here

Salon

“This happened with Vietnam too”: “The Sympathizer” star Alan Trong on the power of anti-war protest

The actor discusses the role he first read for, the legacy of US Vietnamese journalism and who Sonny is based on

Fiction reflects reality in HBO’s “The Sympathizer,” in a way that feels both eerie and timely, where a young anti-war journalist reports on the effect of a war on innocent children and families. Alan Trong who plays Sonny, says the one person he was mostly in fear of watching the show was his mom. Having left Vietnam by boat in the ‘80s, she watched the show for the first time and was markedly shaken up. 

“She was like, ‘I don’t cry during movies.’ She’s very Vietnamese, but she cried during this,” Trong tells me in a Zoom interview.

As someone born and raised in Seattle, Trong lamented that American textbooks would often summarize the Vietnam War in a brief paragraph and conveniently leave out the effect the war had on Vietnamese civilians and refugees. “The more and more conversations that I have with non-Vietnamese people, the more I don’t blame them [for not knowing],” Trong says. “People just don’t know how our parents came here. It was never in any of our curriculums to know about this.”

But now all of that changes for the next generation with “The Sympathizer” which aims to depict the story of Vietnamese refugees in America post-1975, from their side. Inspired by the real-life Vietnamese American journalists who opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s to 1980s, Trong’s Son Do, nicknamed Sonny, is an investigative reporter who edits a newspaper that serves the Vietnamese American community. Similar to how the character is written in the novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Sonny left Vietnam with the goal of one day returning with his education to help liberate the country from the United States. While studying in California, he led a group of Vietnamese anti-war students in monthly discussions at his college, which is wheen he befriended the Captain (played by Hoa Xuande). 

When Captain returns to California after the fall of Saigon in 1975, he reunites with Sonny, who is revealed to have never left America since his student days. Where the Captain is sort of a calmer, morally ambiguous character intent on survival – striking a delicate, tenuous balance between the Southern Vietnamese refugees and his communist higher-ups – Sonny is a passionate, naked leftist, eager to solicit a direct quote or debate his opponent’s inconsistencies for his newspaper. 

“He’s just so frustrated with hearing about his people, kids and families that are being killed that have nothing to do with the war.”

Their relationship begins to clash when Sonny becomes entangled with Captain’s former lover, Sofia Mori (played by Sandra Oh), and when he starts to report on the General’s (played by Toan Le) grassroots, anti-communist military group, garnering him suspicions as a potential Viet Cong communist mole. At the same time, Sonny’s self-confidence begins to falter when Captain calls him out for his role in the Vietnam War effort, or specifically his lack thereof, leading to a violent debate and confrontation in Sunday’s episode.

Trong is currently co-starring in the Broadway play “An Enemy of the People,” with “Succession” star Jeremy Strong in New York City. In the Henrik Ibsen play, a man dares to publicly expose the hypocrisies and truths of his society and is punished for it. Even Trong found similarities between his current work and “The Sympathizer,” sharing how in both works, “people don’t really care about the people in the middle.” In other words, the people who get stuck in the crossfire deserve to have their stories told. Likewise, while chatting, I couldn’t help but bring up how Sonny’s fictional student journalism in the show mirrors the current real-life student reporting on the university protests against the Palestinian genocide, both of which have received backlash.

Trong sat down with me to discuss Sonny’s arc and the parallels between the show’s political messages and the current student campus protests. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Did you read the book before or after getting the role of Sonny? 

I read the book eight to nine times. People don’t know this, but Hoa [Xuande] and I auditioned for the Captain. I never read anything for Sonny. It was all just for the Captain. They flew me to Korea for the first screen test. And there were certain directions that [Director Park Chan-wook] would give me on certain scenes where I’m like, the Captain wouldn’t do that. He’s an emotionally repressed kind of character. Looking back on it now, I’m pretty sure early on he knew that he wanted me as Sonny instead. But yeah I had read the book to just prepare for this. It was surprisingly informative for me, as someone who was born and raised in Seattle. It sounds weird to even say it out loud, but as a Vietnamese person, I just didn’t really know a lot about my history.

I read that Sonny from the novel was a character loosely inspired by real-life Vietnamese American journalist Duong Trong Lam, who reported on anti-war activism and was assassinated in San Francisco in 1981 at 27 years old. Did you take any inspiration from this real-life journalist when prepping for the role? 

Yeah, absolutely,1,000%. I didn’t know that Sonny’s character was written based on Lam Duong. We share the same middle name, which is Trong. It’s so crazy. I [spoke with] Viet Thanh Nguyen at the longevity party scene [in the show] because he had his little cameo there. He had told me that when he was writing Sonny there were parallels between the character and Duong Trong Lam. It’s the historical fiction adaptation of that, literally. There’s the PBS Frontline documentary that’s great about the Vietnamese journalists from 1981 until 1990 who were, as they would say, assassinated in America. Not a lot of that is in the script story-wise, but some parallels that helped activate a feeling of self-righteousness, anger, protectiveness, empathy, melancholy and guilt of maybe [Sonny] could have done something more. I could have done more to save my people. That’s kind of the thing that drove Sonny. 

Alan Trong and Sandra Oh on “The Sympathizer” (Beth Dubber/HBO)

Let’s talk costume, hair and makeup. I read that Sonny’s look was partially inspired by another journalist, Rolling Stone American rock journalist, Ben Fong-Torres, from the 1970s. How did Sonny’s appearance inform your performance? How much preparation and research went into Sonny’s look? 

When I was doing “The Sympathizer,” I had a buzz cut. We were looking for a wig for a long time. I had sent photos of Ben Fong Torres. There’s a documentary that came out about him during the ‘70s era. What you see in the show is [Torres’] swoosh. And it’s crazy because if you go back to the other documentary [I mentioned], that’s the exact hairstyle that [Duong Trong] Lam had when he first came over through the American Field Society, which sponsored the students to study in America. There’s a photo of him in black and white. I was really geeked out. We didn’t even plan that.

What do you think are Sonny’s primary character motivations as a journalist in the post-Vietnam War, post-1975 era? What did he feel was his responsibility? 

You see this in Episode 2. I was really nervous about being in Hoa’s face like that, but Director Park was like, ‘\”Just trust me on this. Just go in with full conviction in what you’re saying. Almost cross the line right away. Then that way you can mask any guilt you have of, maybe you didn’t do enough to stop this war.” Because the Captain went back during the war, and Sonny stayed in America. Sonny will never admit this, but later on in the story, he feels like a poser and like he’s not doing enough. Those types of human beings, whether they’re journalists or not, it’s an interesting human study. It’s like, why are you acting with so much gravitas? It’s because there’s probably something under that that you’re trying to cover up. And that was really interesting for me to play with.

In the novel, Captain describes Sonny as a very radical leftist character. He has communist sympathies in the same way that Captain is a sympathizer for the refugees in America. So I was curious, in your opinion, what communist beliefs does Sonny believe in? Any beliefs he disagrees with? 

Can I read you something? This is kind of in that world. This isn’t in “The Sympathizer,” but there was a quote from [Duong Trong] Lam that he had when he was getting a lot of criticism for being a communist where he goes, “If you think I’m a communist, then prove it.” Journalists love to stir things up like that. It’s fun for them. That was very helpful for me to make this guy human. Lam was not only a journalist but he also ran the VYDC, the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, which helped refugees with legal jargon for the Department of Social Services. If you’re doing something that specific, then that means you care about your people. And it doesn’t have anything to do with politics necessarily. A lot of the criticism that Lam was getting there was: one, they thought he was too young. Two, they thought he was too liberal. And three, they thought he was too Americanized. These are things I can relate to on a personal level that’s like, why don’t you take me seriously? 

“When you look at journalists who have been assassinated, there are a lot of cases where there was never justice.”

To be further honest with you, I never put myself in a headspace of “I’m a communist” when I was playing Sonny. I would focus on printing photos of children from that era and listening to Trinh Cong Son, the Bob Dylan of Vietnam. These are songs of poetry where he’s painting a picture of mothers sweeping the front of their yard, and then next thing you know it’s getting bombed and then she doesn’t have a yard anymore. That’s what was activating for me. 

Can you break down Sonny’s emotions leading up to that shocking scene in Episode 6 when he gets assassinated by the Captain? 

It’s so funny, my family was like, “So do you die in it? Are you gonna die?” Because I die in everything I’m in. I’d say fear. Guilt. Loss of connection with another person who is my age and looks like me. Unexpressed grief. Franticness. Frustration that we couldn’t communicate effectively. I remember shooting some stuff in Episode 5 where there were moments where Sonny’s obviously poking at the Captain. I look at the Captain and think, is there a world where we could be family or friends? Are we actually on the same page here? Because this war s**t is really lonely. Hoa’s a great scene partner. You see so much behind his eyes, saying, “Can we be together in this? Does it have to be like this?” A lot of unexpressed stuff. I think that the ripple effect on the Captain for the deaths of Sonny and the Crapulent Major is that these are things that he didn’t want to do. Guilt. I think the Captain in the second half of the book and show, he’s living through a state of perplexion and confusion because two ghosts keep on haunting him. 

Alan Trong, Sandra Oh and Hoa Xuande on “The Sympathizer” (Beth Dubber/HBO)

Why do you think that the war in Vietnam became such a flashpoint at that time?

We’re living in such a different time with social media now, but back then, thanks to these brave journalists, there were physical representations of civilians being massacred, innocent families. That is the reason I think why it sparked. And as you see why it’s sparking so much right now because you see people who have nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with an agenda, a regime, anything, they’re just trying to find grains and rice for their kids. I think there was a statistic from a panel that Viet Thanh Nguyen did at either Harvard or Yale, where he said there were approximately 58,000 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. But there were 3 million Vietnamese that were massacred or didn’t make it out. And then other additional millions in Laos and Cambodia, which many people don’t even know about.

There’s a line in the play I’m in right now called “An Enemy of the People” that gets a rumble of laughter every night thanks to Amy Herzog, our playwright. Also, Henrik Ibsen. But the line is, “In America, we wouldn’t have to worry about anything like this.” And it gets a rumble of laughter every night. Sometimes I’ll be backstage listening to that laughter before I enter the stage. And I’m like, wow, this is kind of heartbreaking in a way that thousands of people are able to relate and recognize this pain that in America, we feel completely lost in leadership and empathy and these things. And that’s why the joke hits so hard. And that’s like watching Episode 4 of “The Sympathizer,” there were so many moments where I would just be laughing so hard. But then after the laughter, I’d be like, “Damn, I feel kind of sad inside.”

Do you think there are any similarities between the conflicts and motivations that Sonny navigated in the show with what’s currently going on right now with the student campus protests sweeping the nation? 

If anybody follows Viet Thanh Nguyen on any social media, you’ll see that he’s attending a lot of these protests. He used to do it when he was younger as well. Of course, there are parallels. Yeah, of course. Going back to the feeling of frustration that Sonny had, at a certain point, he’s not taking a clear political side. He’s just so frustrated with hearing about his people, kids and families that are being killed that have nothing to do with the war. That’s why people are protesting. There was this other thing I saw from my favorite poet Ocean Vuong. He was saying something along the lines of, “I can’t believe I’m living in a time where it’s a crazy idea to stop killing children. It’s like what are we living in right now?” This is not really a political thing. It’s like a human thing. At least what I’m talking about and what Sonny is talking about. But of course, there are parallels. 

In the play [I’m in], Petra who’s the daughter, sits down and goes, . . . something along the lines of, “I hate that I feel this way. I keep on having this thought that they deserve what comes to them.” Dr. Stockman, who is played by Jeremy Strong, whose character has every human right to be cynical, to be like, you’re right. F**k those people. Yet he’s kneeling down and he goes, “We shouldn’t think like that. In a few years, I’m going to be gone. You’ll be gone. But your little brother will still be here and the truth will be told.” The through line of the play is that we just have to imagine. It hits every night. Part of me has avoided looking at [the news], because I’m just so sensitive to it. Because this happened with Vietnam too. 

Do you think Sonny views the act of the protest and its ability to create change in a pessimistic or optimistic light? Or do you think maybe he started out viewing it one way and then by the time he died, he viewed it in another way? 

I don’t think anything is ever linear. With Sonny, I think it fluctuates. People will call him a poser and he feels like a poser himself. He feels like a complete fraud. I think a person like that has to have high feelings of pessimism. You can only feel that when you’re alone when you come home to your apartment. The moment you walk out, you act all, “I’m confident, I’m convicted in my power.” That’s how I felt playing him. Let’s fake it til you become it, you know? Sonny loses hope over the course of the show whether he shows it or not. That’s why you see him getting frustrated with the Captain. Perhaps pessimism and cynicism are a byproduct of that frustration with the Captain. He looks at the Captain and he’s like, “You are somebody that can absolutely help this cause. And you’re choosing not to. Like the war is over. What the f**k are you doing? You know this is not right.”

How does the character of Sonny reflect the legacy and impact of Vietnamese journalism, student journalism or even Vietnamese student journalism in the U.S.? Any combination of those.

That’s a great question that I don’t know if I have the answer to. When you look at journalists who have been assassinated, there are a lot of cases where there was never justice. I’m not an activist. I look and I observe the situation I see. This is a show with some parallels to that. I don’t know if it’s even my place to answer that, because I’m not family of these victims, because that’s what they are. I really hope that having Sonny’s character written as a character contributes to some way of showing that somebody tried, you know? I’m being super vague, but with the kind of things that we’re living through today. These students are trying. Whether there’s something that comes out of it or not, they’re trying to stop the war or bring attention to a specific region of a country, to stop military funding. That’s what Sonny was trying to do in the story. He’s a representation of the anti-war movement. 

Alan Trong and Sandra Oh on “The Sympathizer” (Hopper Stone/HBO)

You’ve made it to “The Sympathizer” and you’re working with heavyweights like Sandra Oh, Robert Downey Jr. and Director Park Chan-wook. What was that like? 

It’s like a masterclass, honestly. I don’t really have scenes with Robert, but he’s just been a supporter. He and [his wife] Susan came to see [“An Enemy of the People”]. He and Jeremy Strong did a movie called “The Judge,” which I really recommend to anybody who hasn’t seen it. That movie is one of my favorites. But Robert’s been supportive of not just me, but everybody. He’s aware of what self-esteem is. Sometimes we as humans need a little boost. He’s like, “Hey, just want to remind you how dope you are.” He has that understanding of human behavior that’s like a real leader.

Sandra is an effortless scene partner. I think all of us hope to evolve into someone like that, someone who is questioning everything openly in a non-combative way. Just a very, “I’m holding responsibility for my function in this story.” The level of care that’s put into everything. It was dope to see an experienced, very seasoned Asian female actress who has so much power in her body and conviction in her creative choices.

Speaking of seasoned Asian American and Asian female actresses. Because I’m somebody who grew up watching “Paris by Night,” what was it like getting to work with Vietnamese legends Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen and Kieu Chinh? 

[Laughs] Ky Duyen must get this all the time from our generation. “Oh my god, we used to watch you at karaoke parties!” It’s just weird. It’s like, “Whoa! Aren’t you the emcee of that one show?” That’s crazy. Like my uncles were so lit off of Heineken, Cognac and f**king Macallan and there’s belligerent music blasting. This is Seattle for me, and I’m watching “PBN” on VHS tapes. It’s like, [to Ky Duyen], “That’s you, isn’t it?” [Laughs]. I didn’t really have any scenes with her, but we were together a lot. 

My Ba Ngoai was telling me about Kieu Chinh. I really had to catch up with Vietnamese cinema. And I finally watched “Journey from the Fall” (2006), which starred Kieu Chinh. Which is an amazing film. Oh my god. To be honest, I wasn’t too familiar with it. But as my Ba Ngoai was telling me, she’s like earlier generation. She did all those movies. I felt so honored to be working with them both. 

What was the dynamic like working with the other actors on “The Sympathizer”? Was it cool to get to work with a mostly Vietnamese cast?

Oh, I can’t stand them. I can’t stand them. [Smiles]. I mean, no, it’s hard to not get close, you know? You’re completely thrown into this thing that’s so nerve-wracking, joyful, fulfilling and stressful. You have to lean on each other. Vy [Le], who plays Lana, is from Nha Trang, but she went to a boarding art school in Boston. So her Vietnamese is on point. But I feel like the more she hangs out with us, her Vietnamese gets s**ttier and s**ttier. We have that broken, five-year-old Vietnamese, you know? Then there’s Fred [Nguyen Khan], who’s from Montreal. Hoa is from Australia. I’m born and raised in America. There are these three different diasporas. But at the same time, we have a shared sense of humor of not feeling like we belong. We traveled together in Thailand and we went to Vietnam afterwards. We spent a month there just to get away and eat and drink. And we went to these gay clubs in Saigon, which I had no idea even existed. Yo, Saigon is getting progressive. When I would travel with my dad to Vietnam, I was always told that this is what Vietnam is, but until I went on my own as an adult and experienced the country for myself, I was like, yo, this is actually not what my dad told me it was. 

Yeah, it’s because [our parents] left at a very specific time. I think Vietnamese Americans, who don’t visit the motherland often, or who just get their information from their parents, get information that is stuck in time. We’re told Vietnam is conservative, that it’s very homogenous. But when you start to craft your own relationship to Vietnam as an adult, outside of your family, you realize that Vietnam is very diverse. They’re actually much more open-minded than you think they are. And it’s because they’re humans and not just quote-unquote Vietnamese people that we’ve been told growing up. I’m really glad that you and the cast got to experience that after the shoot.

That was so beautifully said. I’m definitely a Saigonese kind of guy. 

The Sympathizer

Vy Le, Ky Duyen and Toan Le on “The Sympathizer” (Beth Dubber/HBO)

You’re in a play on Broadway right now called “The Enemy of the People.” Congratulations. What has that experience been like for you? What’s it like working with Jeremy Strong?

It’s the best acting job I’ve ever had in my life. 1,000%. There’s no contest. I’ve never done theater, like a real play. I did a small musical as a background character and some stuff in community college. But I’ve never done a real drama play on stage. It’s so fulfilling. I have so much gratitude for even being able to be a part of something like this. Because it’s like I kind of feel like I’m relearning how to act. It’s like free education. 

Jeremy Strong is . . . there’s a reason why he’s nominated for a Tony. He’s different every night. He cares a lot about what he’s doing. I share similar sentiments of feeling that the space is sacred and somehow almost being drawn to this dangerous element of theater. There are moments when we think, why did we sign up? Like this is crazy. There are nights when the nerves start kicking in because of certain circumstances. But then we enter the stage anyway, and it’s a lot smoother than I thought it was going to be. 

Your character Sonny in “The Sympathizer” has a calling when it comes to his profession. Do you feel similarly, that you have a particular purpose as an actor?

Yeah, 1,000%. I have a little brother. I feel like not only him but there’s a lot of younger Vietnamese kids who may or may not have access to a role model. Now we’re talking about representation and all these cliché things, but it’s important to me. Because when I was growing up, I never felt sexy. I never felt like I was allowed to cry, that I was allowed to be scared of something, that I was allowed to be self-righteous about something, that I was allowed to be petty if I wanted to be petty. It’s a very common thing in our culture, you know? I remember what it was like to want to date a white girl because that was what made me feel powerful. This sounds kind of self-important, but at times it does feel like, “Well s**t, I’m lucky enough to get this far.” I would like to keep on being selective about what I do and being curious and checking in on my humanity so that my little brother or somebody that is under 10 years old can see me. If I would have known that I could be more than enough through watching movies, it would have saved me at least a lot of pain and self-doubt as I was coming into adulthood.

“The Sympathizer” airs Sunday nights on HBO and streams on Max.

Read it here

Share

More Reviews