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‘This was a personal story’

Viet Thanh Nguyen was previously told that his 2015 novel The Sympathizer was “unadaptable.” Now it’s a critically acclaimed HBO limited series.

The series, which premiered on April 14, follows an American-educated, half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy known as the Captain (Hoa Xuande) who infiltrates the South Vietnam military during the Vietnam War. At the end of the war, he flees to Los Angeles to continue his espionage work while posing as a refugee, but his mission grows complicated when he develops close relationships within the community he’s meant to infiltrate and begins to question his allegiance to the communist cause.

At a screening event in Los Angeles on April 10, Nguyen gave insight into why making the show was more than just another book adaptation. For those involved, especially those of Vietnamese descent, The Sympathizer represented an opportunity to properly depict the nuances of their culture on a global stage.

“As someone who grew up in a Vietnamese language household, it was so moving to hear the Vietnamese dialogue in many different accents and many different generations on this TV show,” Nguyen said.

The author, who is also an executive producer on the series, was joined by some of the show’s cast and crew, including director Park Chan-wook (who directed the first three episodes), executive producers Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey, as well as the show’s stars Hoa Xuande and Sandra Oh to talk about the process of accurately portraying the Vietnamese experience onscreen.

The cast of The cast of

The cast of “The Sympathizer.” (HBO/Max)

‘Telling a story from their perspective’

While Xuande, a newcomer from Australia, impressed early on in the audition process, executive producer Susan Downey said it felt too early to immediately commit to a lead. (Susan Downey co-founded production company Team Downey with actor and husband Robert Downey Jr.)

Team Downey decided to audition more actors over a nine-month period and in doing so, discovered a depth of Vietnamese talent.

“What [the] process has enabled us to do was really discover that there is so much depth of talent in the Vietnamese community,” Susan Downey said. “They just haven’t gotten a chance to be showcased and they certainly haven’t gotten a chance to be the leads in telling a story from their perspective.” With a cast and crew from Australia, America, Canada, England, Vietnam and Korea, creating The Sympathizer was an international affair.

Robert Downey Jr., who was linked to the project from the beginning, echoed Susan Downey’s sentiments.

“I am truly blown away by the sophistication and versatility of this cast,” he said. “Until you experience the richness of what every different culture and identity has to offer, you are ignorant because you don’t see how much there is to learn from what’s right around you.”

Honoring the refugee experience

For Xuande, finally learning he landed the role of the Captain elicited a range of emotions. He was thrilled to take on his biggest acting role to date, especially after the months-long casting process he said left him a “wreck” of a human being. But he was also very aware of the responsibility he had to honor the refugee experience.

“From the set design to the dialogue to the stories of refugees coming to America … [we] tried to give it three dimensions as opposed to just desperate people needing to be saved, which is all too often the narrative that we see a lot of the time,” he said. “I tried to hold all of these experiences that have never been told before at the core of what this character was.”

Downey wasn’t the only big name attached to the project from the get-go. Killing Eve star Oh was also onboard. In The Sympathizer, Oh plays fiercely independent and sexually liberated antiwar protester Sofia Mori, who is also the Captain’s love interest. Behind the scenes, Oh acted as a pillar of support for the young Vietnamese actors that were processing their trauma, both personal and generational, while filming.

“I knew I was witnessing something really, really special,” said Oh, who is Korean and Canadian. “And for me, it was a great privilege to be there as a support for those who are not yet as familiar with this system — to be a safe port to ask anything.”

Chan-wook, who is Korean, was immediately drawn to the project and its source material.

“As a Korean, there’s a special emotion that I have towards Vietnam,” the director explained. “In terms of modern history, we share a lot of similarities. We have suffered long decades of imperialism. Both of our countries have been divided into two. That’s why the story didn’t feel like some next door neighbor’s business to me. This was a personal story that was speaking true to me.”

Ultimately, Nguyen hopes this series helps audiences better understand what Vietnamese refugees went through in the wake of the war.

“One of the things I think this show will really bring home [is] how internally differentiated Vietnamese people are because of politics, history, region, language and so on,” he said. “This is a very international production. People from around the world, from different parts of the Vietnamese diaspora … it’s a very specific story to the time and to the place.”

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