‘The Sympathizer’ Star Hoa Xuande On How The Complexities Of War Affect Relationships & Possible Miniseries Continuation

‘The Sympathizer’ Star Hoa Xuande On How The Complexities Of War Affect Relationships & Possible Miniseries Continuation

For Australian Vietnamese actor Hoa Xuande, the Vietnam War was a compilation of incredibly sad yet impactful stories shared by family members that up until recently, he didn’t fully understand.

But since joining the cast of the HBO miniseries The Sympathizer, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, Xuande wishes he could have those moments with his loved ones again with a better understanding of what their experiences might’ve been like as well as the atrocities of war.

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From Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, The Sympathizer is an espionage thriller and cross-culture satire about the struggles of Captain (Xuande), a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the final days of the Vietnam War and his resulting exile in the United States. As Captain keeps himself as a double agent across the 7-episode project, he meets and befriends a variety of interesting characters, four of which were portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., also a producer of the project under his production banner, Team Downey.

Looking at the project as a whole, there is a love story amid the slaughter and chaos. Three friends who met at a very young age and became brothers were faced with the harsh realities of war, forcing them to grow up quickly and apart. However, no matter how different their opinions varied, they remained a family who ultimately sacrificed everything for what they believed would be the betterment of their country.

Xuande spoke to Deadline last week about working with his small screen siblings Fred Nguyen Khan (Bốn) and Duy Nguyen(Man), channeling his character and whether or not he’d like to bring The Sympathizer‘s follow-up novel The Committed to life next.

Hoa Xuando as the Captain in ‘The Sympathizer’
Hoa Xuando as the Captain in ‘The Sympathizer’

DEADLINE: What details can you share regarding your process in bringing the Captain to life for the series?

HOA XUANDE: For me, it starts with the book. When I first read it, I imbued within the lines. A lot of what’s written is from the captain’s perspective, so you have to try and get into the psychology of why someone speaks that way and why they see the things they see. A lot of this narrative and the perspective is really fun to figure out and explore because oftentimes when we talk about what happened during the Vietnam War, the perspective is usually from a very Western-centric lens. Now, we’re getting a Vietnamese perspective on how things went down and it’s very nuanced and complicated.

There’s a lot of trauma and devastation within these lines that are written and there’s a lot of sarcasm and polarity as well. I wanted to get more of an idea and build more of an in-depth world of what it was like to feel the way that it was written. I also did a lot of reading and research in terms of what people at the time felt during these periods, especially Vietnamese people. That’s how I formed the core of this character, this Captain, how he felt and what his beliefs were and the way he felt in terms of his ideological beliefs, what he was drawn to, his loves and his friends. Once I figured that out, the lines were just layering on top.

DEADLINE: While this is a story about the Vietnam War, it was interesting to see it through the lens of these three friends turned brothers, who started together in the same place and how their life experiences shaped who they would become.

HX: I love Fred and Duy dearly. We continue to speak to one another. Fred and I spent the first two weeks shooting together as we started with episode two. The beginning bits of Episode Two are about us dealing with the trauma and the aftermath of the escape. But when I first met him, we were both new to this project and to being able to carry a show like this, in terms of our leading roles. We were both precarious in terms of how we treated each other and trying to be generous with how we approached it. We took to each other quickly and we made the other feel like we were going to be just fine. We looked out for each other being thrown into this massive project.

WDuy came in a little bit later into the project, like two months after we began shooting. He was nervous too because he was the new kid on the block but by that point, we knew what that feeling was like, so we took care of him. Fred and Duy were already good friends from Montreal, so that helped too. Our goal was to look after each other in terms of telling the story and we ended up becoming real friends through it all. I hope that all showed on screen.

L to R: Hoa Xuande as Captain, Duy Nguyen as Man and Fred Nguyen Khan as Bon
L to R: Hoa Xuande as Captain, Duy Nguyen as Man and Fred Nguyen Khan as Bon

DEADLINE: It really does come off on screen. The casting of you three worked perfectly.

HX: We were just really generous with each other. And I think through the story, it’s kind of heartbreaking because of the relationship between us. The three of us are metaphorical in terms of the split between Vietnam: Man is a communist, Bon is for the Republic and I’m caught in the middle. It was a metaphorical illustration of how the people were split in terms of the conflict who were Vietnamese.

DEADLINE: Seeing these three boys who started their lives together, go through the war and how their experiences lead them to become the men they become, was the center of the story to me. They all have different ideas and opinions, yet they still find a way to be friends.

HX: That’s it. And that’s something that’s still relevant if you think about it in terms of how we view politics and ideology, and stuff like that. But at the core of it all, despite their allegiances and which way they’re being pulled, inherently, all three brothers are trying to do the right thing for their country, for their beliefs and what they believe will be the best for their futures and that of the country. But, they’re just all split on how they feel they should do that and that’s the conflict that is the devastating throughline for the journeys of these characters. They’re trying to maintain this friendship that they’ve had since childhood, but they’re being split by this big force, a conflict of ideology.

DEADLINE: By the end, they’re reunited under the worst of circumstances and while they do risk their lives for one another, this is probably the last time they will see each other.

HX: Yeah, that’s the thing. Yes, they’re all trying to fight for what they believe in and what’s best for each other, but they all make decisions that ultimately, for lack of a better word, fuck each other up. Bon has been instilled with this new life of trying to return home and fight for his country again because that’s the only way he sees he can live this painfully traumatic life. He lost his family a year prior, and this is the only way he feels like he can avenge them and live a fulfilling life again. The Captain is trying to keep his friends safe but understands that this is the life force that has taken them. So, this may be the only way in which he can fulfill his mission, going along and protecting him and being dragged back into this war that he so wishes would end. That’s the dilemma of a lot of the characters in this show. It’s putting personal wants and needs aside from the overall love and care for things that are higher than them and the duality of which one is more important.

Duy Nguyen as Man
Duy Nguyen as Man

DEADLINE: It’s so sad because, in another place and another time, these could’ve been three friends, maybe who went to college or started a business together, who could be carefree and enjoying life. From the time we meet them until the time we see them in the finale, they’ve lived so many lives.

HX: Right? That’s it. Especially with how we see them in episode one. They could have just been any bunch of friends, walking the streets, enjoying their coffee at a cafe, but no. They’re dragged into this war, and now they’re just having to do the best that they can. I feel like that’s a relatable theme, even in today’s world.

DEADLINE: So, there’s another book. Are you interested in delving into this story further?

HX: Yeah, there is and hopefully we get to do it. I would love to do more but we’ll see what happens there.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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