Interview: The Sympathizer Co-Stars Duy Nguyen and Fred Fred Nguyen Khan Talk Working With Park Chan-wook

The two Canada-based co-stars are supporting players in HBO's latest hit miniseries.

The United States has been at war for 93.5% of its existence between 1775 and 2018. Peace, therefore, forms a mere blip in the nation’s consciousness, an aberration so rare one could conceivably argue that it is the very definition of a miracle. Many of those wars are not a part of the broader national consciousness – the American occupation of the Philippines, the assassination of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-colonial President Latice Mumumba, and the widespread carpet bombing of Cambodia by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are rarely talked about. But even the wars that the general public is quite aware of are often understood from a narrow series of perspectives that center on the American experience.

Americans often learn of the Vietnam War as one of the country’s most ignominious defeats in American history. HBO’s The Sympathizer, based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Viet Than Nguyen, shatters that narrow frame of reference by injecting a series of different perspectives about that war, primarily one of an unnamed Captain (Hoa Xuande) who balances a state of dual-loyalty for both the CIA and the Viet Cong. The limited series from co-showrunners Park Chan-wook and Dom McKellar is not – and should not – be treated as the definitive Vietnamese perspective on that war. Vietnamese people are not a monolith. However, it does offer a window into the war that breaks the usual perspective and it does so in a stylish and surprisingly comical manner.

Duy Nguyen and Fred Nguyen Khan are two of The Sympathizer‘s supporting players, portraying the Captain’s childhood friends. Best friends who are both based in Montréal, the actors offer a candid conversation about the biggest project of their careers so far and the impact they hope it has on audiences. Here is that conversation, edited for clarity.

So often when we see stories about a war where the United States was involved – which is a pretty lengthy list – we only see those stories from the perspectives of American soldiers. The Sympathizer changes that – is that something that drew you to this story, this project?

Khan: Historically, yes, the perspectives of American soldiers take precedent. They’re important perspectives to share, but showcasing Vietnamese perspectives on the war hasn’t really been done in the same way. As Vietnamese actors, Vietnamese people, the chance to be a part of something like this was enough of a draw on its own. But the addition of such heavy-hitters as HBO, A24, Park Chan-wook, Sandra Oh, and Robert Downey Jr. just made this project even more irresistible.

Nguyen: The Sympathizer delves into South Vietnamese perspectives, the perspectives of mixed-race Vietnamese people. You know, growing up in Vietnam, we called this the American War and it’s important to showcase that side of this conflict.

Khan: The audition process for the show was pretty intense and took around nine months. But Duy was actually my reader when I started the audition process, so he was involved in this story from the very beginning even though I was actually shooting for two months before Duy was cast.

Nguyen: Fred is more experienced than I am but we were both nervous as this is the biggest project both of us have been involved in so far.

Fred, you have credits as an actor, director, producer, writer, stuntperson, and editor. Being a modern Renaissance man of filmmaking, what does being behind the camera mean to you?

Khan: I love writing. When I was younger, I did stand-up and wrote jokes. As I grew older, I didn’t do as much stand-up but I started to become really involved in stunts, especially fight choreography and action design. But writing is still the part that I love the most.

Dev Patel recently made his directorial debut in Monkey Man. With your interests in fight choreography and action design, is that akin to something you’d like to do? 

Nguyen: Yes! When we first talked about the film Fred turned to me and told me “This is my dream role!!”

Khan: I’d love to do something akin to Kung Fu Hustle. Stephen Chow did such a masterful job of blending action sequences with an astounding level of humor and I would love to pull something like that off.

I look forward to interviewing you when your actioner debuts.

Khan: Deal!

Duy, you moved to Montréal at the age of 17 without knowing English, which is quite the feat!

Nguyen: I don’t know if I would recommend moving to a country before you learn the language. [Laughter]

But you did it! And you’ve worked with one of Canada’s most celebrated directors, Xavier Dolan. Are there other directors whom you would really love to work with? 

Nguyen: If we were talking before I joined The Sympathizer, I would have said Park Chan-wook. To work with a director whom I admire and to work with him on a Vietnamese story to boot has been really special.

Khan: He is such a detail-oriented director. He is involved in every single department. Even for the episodes he didn’t direct this season, he was a critical part of crafting those episodes.  And visuals aside, there’s so much about his direction that makes such an impact.

Was the season shot chronologically or out of order?

Khan: Out of order, which makes Park’s detailed structure even more impressive.

Nguyen: There was one day where we worked with all three of the directors in one day, so it was like getting to experience working on three films in a single day, right after each other. That was special. 

Unfortunately we’re about to run out of time, but I wanted to ask you that if there was one thing you would want audiences to take away from The Sympathizer?

Nguyen: Even if you have no knowledge about the war – no one talked to me about the war growing up, no one talked about the people who had left – the story is really about the familial love and bonds between people that transcend the divisions of North and South. That is something that everyone can connect to.

Khan: I hope that it’ll spark a conversation. There’s people who don’t want to talk about their experiences of the war and they’ve… they’ve bottled that trauma within themselves. There were actors in the production who have personal experiences with the events in the series and it was very cathartic for them to explore those experiences in this new way. This is a big step in the right direction and we’re proud to be a part of that.

New episodes of The Sympathizer air Sundays at 9 PM ET only on Crave.