Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

New York Times | This ‘Sympathizer’ Star Wasn’t Sure He Was Right for the Job

Hoa Xuande had only one Hollywood credit when he was chosen to lead this starry HBO adaptation of a prize-winning novel. He needed all the encouragement he could get—Brandon Yu writes for New York Times

Hoa Xuande has gone from playing bit parts in Australia to starring in an HBO drama with an impressive pedigree.Credit…Ricardo Nagaoka for The New York Times

Some three months into shooting “The Sympathizer,” Robert Downey Jr. sat Hoa Xuande down. He had something to show him.

“I remember Rob walking in — he had this cheeky grin,” Xuande recalled on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. A teaser trailer for the HBO series, an adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, had just been cut. Downey, who is the show’s executive producer and plays multiple roles in it, saw definitive proof of a star-making turn in “The Sympathizer.” He wanted Xuande, the star in question, to see it too.

“There’s only one time that I’ve had this experience before, and it’s when I saw the teaser that we brought to Comic-Con for ‘Iron Man,’” Downey said. Seeing himself onscreen in the Iron Man suit was what finally convinced Downey that he had done justice to a daunting role.

“And because I’d had that experience,” he said, “I knew that he needed it.”

In many ways, Xuande (pronounced Shawn-day) did. A 36-year old Vietnamese Australian actor who had one Hollywood credit to his name, he still wasn’t sure he was the right choice to lead a series with such an impressive pedigree: an HBO adaptation of an acclaimed novel, produced by the Oscar-winning art-house studio A24, directed by the revered Korean auteur Park Chan-wook and co-starring a screen legend in Downey. He needed all the encouragement he could get.

“I made him watch it six times,” Downey said.

A man in a suits and a man in a blue shirt stand in a closet full of soda and beer
Based on the novel of the same name, “The Sympathizer” stars Xuande as a double agent and Robert Downey Jr., right, in multiple roles.Credit…Hopper Stone/HBO

Seeing himself in the trailer had finally quieted his doubts, Xuande said, over lunch at a Venice restaurant. He had flown in from his home base in Sydney hours earlier and had barely settled into Downey’s spare live-work space, where Xuande sometimes stays.

He first met his co-star on the fourth day of shooting — Downey was wearing a bulging prosthetic nose and had a skittering Yorkshire terrier in tow. Is that really him? Xuande remembers wondering from afar.

Downey had arrived on set in costume for one of the multiple characters he plays in “The Sympathizer,” including a cartoonish professor, an empty-suited congressman and a gonzo filmmaker — different people who together embody the face of the American establishment. On this day, Downey was Claude, the C.I.A. handler for Xuande’s character, who is known as the Captain, a nameless Communist spy whose undercover assignment leads him to Los Angeles after the fall of Saigon in 1975. His role as a double agent in the United States becomes increasingly dicey, bloodying his hands and landing him, for reasons we don’t quite know, in the Vietnamese re-education camp where the show opens.

“He made me feel really at home, as much as I could feel,” Xuande said of that first encounter. “And then he just put his hand on my shoulder. He was like, ‘Buddy, you and me, we’re going to screw this up together.’”

It put Xuande at ease — slightly. Before he got the role that could change his life, he had already let it go many times over. He was chosen through a worldwide casting call and a monthslong audition process that included long stretches of radio silence. During those times, he would take nighttime strolls from his home to the Sydney Harbor, where he would sit for hours, making peace with the fact that he probably hadn’t gotten the part.

Finally landing it was a profound professional leap: Beyond a side role on Netflix’s live-action anime adaptation “Cowboy Bebop,” he had spent a decade taking minor parts in Australia. Hollywood had been a faraway notion.

Xuande grew up in Melbourne, the son of bakers who had fled postwar Vietnam.

“They had to escape on a boat,” he said. “They were months at sea, and they made it to Indonesia, where they made it to a refugee camp.”

A man in white pants and a white shirt and black jacket leans in the corner of a room full of mirrors
“I hope that it leads to other opportunities,” Xuande said of the series. “But I’ve been saying to my friends that this could be it.”Credit…Ricardo Nagaoka for The New York Times

Naturally, something as fanciful as acting wasn’t on Xuande’s radar, and for years he dreamed instead of playing Australian rules football professionally. “I did a random school play once,” he said of his early acting experience. “I came on for the last scene of this two-hour play and said two lines.”

He added, “I did it because they needed an Asian guy for that moment.”

After moving to Sydney for college and juggling odd jobs in his early 20s, he fell in with a group of creative friends and began doing amateur theater. A director saw his potential and pushed him to get training, leading Xuande to the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts in Perth. After several years of hustling in mostly bit parts, he had a breakthrough with “Bebop,” his introduction to the machine of a major Hollywood production. “The Sympathizer,” though, was a trial by fire.

Because of visa issues he was unable to join the production until just a week before the intense six-month shoot began. It took place mostly in Los Angeles and Thailand. After a crash course to upgrade his Vietnamese, he found himself on set acting opposite Sandra Oh, another award-winning co-star, and the many versions of Downey, under the direction of Park, who communicated via a translator.

Don McKellar, who was co-showrunner with Park, said Xuande appears in nearly every scene. In describing the demands of the role, McKellar said, “He had to have that kind of charm, he had to have that kind of masculinity, but he still had to have the sensitivity,” adding that the director “really wanted him to have an edge, too — something mysterious about him, that we can look at him and think he’s withholding something.”

The show’s tone strikes a tricky balance between political satire and outright tragedy, and the Captain is the character most responsible for pulling it off. It is a role that is, in essence, about playing roles: In most scenes, Xuande seems to be wearing a mask — a perpetual knowing smirk, as if he is reacting to a joke he’s telling only to himself.

“Everything has to have that flavor of, if I didn’t laugh at this, I’d cry about it,” Xuande said of his approach.

A man in a military uniform looks intense, talking on a green phone.
Xuande’s character is a Communist spy whose undercover assignment leads him to Los Angeles after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Credit…Hopper Stone/HBO

It was a great deal of pressure for an actor new to Hollywood. But Oh, who plays Ms. Mori, the Captain’s love interest, said, “if he was terrified, I never felt it.”

“I would always say, ‘Are you sleeping?’” she recalled. “And he was just kind of like, ‘Nope.’”

On set, Oh often stepped up for Xuande, demanding time or boundaries for a newcomer who was suddenly at the top of the call sheet. “Sandra mothered me — she would speak up on my behalf when I didn’t feel comfortable to,” Xuande said. “And Robert would father me. He would just look after me on the other side of things.”

Xuande shares more screen time with Downey than anyone else, but with Downey’s multiple roles, most days required rediscovering their dynamic.

“It was kind of like we were blind dating,” Downey said. Their partnership made the recent Oscar winner (for “Oppenheimer”) nostalgic for his days as a younger star making films with seasoned actors like Anthony Hopkins and James Woods.

“I was trying to bring the best of what I got and pass it on to him,” Downey said.

Xuande is trying to stay levelheaded about his own exposure to the spotlight and what it means for his career. He hopes “The Sympathizer” gets another season — Nguyen wrote a sequel, “The Committed,” published in 2021 — but Xuande knows the industry can be fickle.

“I hope that it leads to other opportunities,” he said. “But I’ve been saying to my friends that this could be it.”

He’s joking — sort of. Even with such a big-ticket series under his belt, he still has the mentality of a gigging actor, climbing his way up.

“You never know: It could be months, years, in between work,” he said with a hint of the Captain’s smirk. “But I’m happy I got to do this.”


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