Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Variety | ‘The Sympathizer’ Star Sandra Oh on How the HBO Series Shows the Vietnam War Through the Vietnamese Lens: ‘This Perspective Has Been Missing for 50 Years’

The upcoming HBO series “The Sympathizer” is bringing an unsung voice to a story that has been told and retold from the American point of view, providing actors like Sandra Oh a chance to finally be involved in a project that puts the Vietnamese refugee experience into focus for Variety

“This perspective has been missing for 50 years,” said Oh, who plays the recurring role of Sofia.  

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the miniseries boasts a majority-Vietnamese cast and crew, including celebrated “The Handmaiden” director and screenwriter Park Chan-wook and esteemed “The Joy Luck Club” actress Kieu Chinh. 

Many of the acclaimed talent included are making their American film debuts, and others are getting their big breaks on the international stage. Duy Nguyen was raised in Hanoi, Vietnam, and later immigrated to Montreal, Canada. His story encapsulates Oh’s commitment to the series. 

“He has such a deep emotional connection to this project,” Oh related. “He moved to Canada 10 years ago. Then he read ‘The Sympathizer’ when it came out and [he was] 15 or 16. Because he was learning English, he read it like 10 times. His journey from that to this momentous moment right here – to be fulfilling his potential and the depth that he brought [to the role] – that kind of stuff is what I’m all about.” 

She added that the authenticity brought by actors like Nguyen allows portrayals that “metabolize very, very deep, painful stories on behalf of many people.” 

Nguyen said that being in a project that includes “Vietnamese language and culture [was] a dream.” 

“[The cast and creative team] all felt this responsibility to make this the best that it could be, because we finally have a moment to shine,” he continued.  

“The Sympathizer” follows the character of Captain (Hoa Xuande), a North Vietnam operative who is a plant in the South Vietnam army. After he is forced to flee to America and take up residence in a refugee camp, he continues to spy for the Viet Cong.  

“It’s really nice to finally see a story that’s led by a Vietnamese cast – to be able to tell their stories in their own way, and to have them at the forefront of this project,” Xuande said, going on to explain that as serious as the topic is, the show is a unique meld of a black comedy and a spy thriller. “These stories that [audiences are] about to see are just as devastating, just as riveting, just as traumatic, but also just as exciting and wonderful and funny.” 

A producing collaboration that included A24, Rhombus Media and Robert Downey Jr.’s Team Downey spent years bringing the project to fruition. 

“Reading the [novel] just [showed] how history books have only told one point of view, the American point of view … And the thing that was so exciting about the book was it was [another] point of view, and it was actually about real, ideological conversations,” executive producer Amanda Burrell said. “It felt urgent that we had to get out there and tell it.” 

The story was especially personal for Chinh, whose life includes fleeing the Viet Cong twice – first when relocating from North to South Vietnam at the beginning of the war, then later to America when North Vietnam was about to invade Saigon. Her journey is one of many experienced by Vietnamese refugees in the 1960s and 70s, real-life struggles that “The Sympathizer” shines a light on.  

“So many stories have not been told,” Chinh said. “We should make history alive again to remind people what [cruelty] war has made.” 

“The Sympathizer” premieres on HBO and Max April 14. 


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