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Interviews: Sandra Oh, Susan Downey, and the stars of The Sympathizer discuss the ambitious HBO drama series

Last Updated on April 25, 2024

With the first episode of The Sympathizer premiering this past weekend on HBO, the world is seeing just how wild this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is. A stunning blend of war story, satire, and powerful drama, The Sympathizer boasts impressive performances from a cast featuring Hoa Xuande, Sandra Oh, and Robert Downey Jr in five distinct performances. Written by Don McKellar alongside Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, The Sympathizer is incredible. The seven-part series will be a big contender for series of the year. I got the chance to speak with the cast and producers about bringing the book to the screen, and their insights are below. Check it out.

First, I asked Sandra Oh about her layered experience making recent films like Umma, which focused on Korean identity, and the comedy Quiz Lady with Awkwafina, which touched on race and culture without making it a central part of the plot. With The Sympathizer, those elements are blended together. I asked how she balanced light and dark in playing a character like Sofia Mori.

Sandra Oh: “I think I’ll answer it by saying that I feel Miss Mori is a full character. I understood the tone of the piece. There is satire going on, but that’s actually mostly played by Robert Downey Jr’s characters. The satire is mostly in those archetypal pieces. So, for me, I’ve tried to make it as grounded as possible, and if you saw all the episodes, you’ll come to find that she has a revelation. And also a deepening of her examination of what it means to be an Asian American woman. So I’d say it’s not so much that I must balance it. She herself, I think, was already balanced. Yeah.”

Sandra Oh The Sympathizer

Next up, I spoke with executive producers Susan Downey and Niv Fichman. I started by letting Susan know my wife went to high school with her and was in her creative writing class, giving the super-producer a flashback to a long time ago. I then asked them if the plan was always to focus on adapting The Sympathizer as a standalone series or whether they had considered building the sequel novel into their plans.

Susan Downey: “It really was just adapting The Sympathizer, and that was it. The fact that there are additional books is exciting to me and Niv. But just for us right now, there have been no official conversations about doing anything with any of these projects. It’s important to launch that first one correctly, keep your eye on that, and not think too far beyond that. So our hope is that an audience finds this, loves it, and demands more of the Captain.”

Niv Fichman: “Yeah, I mean, if you read The Sympathizer, the second book, it’s so different from the first. And so we just have not been in that creative space yet, you know, we hope to go there one day. But yeah, we’re concentrating on this series premiering. We’re actually still finishing the show. I think you have all seven episodes, but the final ones are not the fully mixed versions, as you know. So yeah, a couple more weeks on this post-production, even though we’re launching it tonight, before we even consider what comes next.”

The Captain’s best friends, Bon and Man, are two key supporting characters in the series. Bon, played by Fred Nguyen Khan, and Man, played by Duy Nguyen, do not get to share much screen time, but their paths in the series are individually very harrowing and dramatic. The two share a memorable scene towards the end of the final episode, and I asked the actors what that sequence was like to film opposite one another.

Fred Nguyen Khan: “It was a weird way to shoot actually because when I was acting towards the camera, he, Duy, wasn’t there. We shot it at a different time. Yeah, we shot at different times. So, I was just picturing one of my closest friends lying there. It’s just like it does trigger the emotion that I needed.”

Duy Nguyen: “So that’s actually one of the last things we shot. It was towards the last stretch of the production. So everybody’s gotten so close and so it was easy to draw the emotion needed. Even in episode one, you know, to me, it was the emotion came out easily just because I have Fred on set with me and also how, how heartbreaking the story is. Just really imagining my friends seeing me for the last time and maybe we’ll never see each other again. We shot that very quickly just because you don’t even have to give me notes. Just tell me where to look and I just imagine Fred and that was it.”

The Sympathizer

I also chatted with veteran actors Toan Le, who portrays the Captain’s boss, The General, and Ky Duyen, who portrays The General’s wife, Madame. I also spoke with Vy Le, a new actor who plays the General and Madame’s daughter, Lana. I asked all three about which other castmember in the series they were impressed by on set.

Toan Le: “I think it has to be Hoa who plays the Captain. Even though Hoa has had experience, but never in a project this big that is so demanding. Not just remembering the lines but the lines in two languages and be able to speak both eloquently. But he did it, you know, he had no time to prepare for it. Every day, just pounding it and just but the result is is just incredible that he has achieved. So I have a lot of admiration for Hoa and his abilities.”

Ky Duyen: “Yeah, I the same thing for Hoa. But since you already said all the good things about Hoa, the two actually three other people that I’m impressed with are the ones on either side of me. First of all, Toan Le because he’s so mild-mannered outside. Yet as the General, he’s like nothing like the General on the outside. So that shows me his acting ability is incredible. A second person I was impressed by is Vy Le, who has never acted before. But to see her, she is so natural. She makes it effortless. The third person I was impressed with was Duy Nguyen because, outside again, he’s so soft-spoken. He’s nice. Just when I watched him on the screen, I was scared there were parts where I would fast forward, and he just embodied this evil character and, wow, just the range of acting beside what they’re really like outside. So, yeah, those are my favorites.

Vy Le: “I could sit here and talk about every single person on the cast for hours. But, I was, I think I was most struck by, Robert Downey Jr and Sandra Oh. Honestly, they are just masters of their craft. They knew exactly what they were doing. They really took command of, of, you know, their work and the, the room, and they just, it was very inspiring. It was just watching them. That’s how I knew. Like that’s what I aspired to be like.”

The Sympathizer

Last up, I spoke with longtime actor Kieu Chinh, who has been in films for decades, including a role in The Joy Luck Club, about her role as The Major’s Mother. She was accompanied by Phanxine, who plays her son, The Major. I asked Kieu about a comment she made about all of the interesting projects led by Asian casts, including Everything Everywhere All At Once and Crazy Rich Asians, and if she thinks there is a realism in The Sympathizer that Vietnamese audiences will recognize and whether they will have difficult watching some of the more horrific scenes.

Kieu Chinh: “Yes, some, some are so real, so related to the history. But that’s not all; like in the movie you follow later, you will see that this is about espionage, loyal betrayal, loving, and fun together. I know it, it is not about only war; of course, it is based on a war story. So it’s there. And this is the first time you know, years back when you see a movie or series related to Asian faces. For example, long years back, you see The King and I with Yul Brynner, a Caucasian playing an Asian. But nowadays, Hollywood casts Asian for Asian, Vietnamese for Vietnamese roles. So that is a big change that, that we are are very happy about it. And we see that especially in The Sympathizer, the Asian community comes together like an ensemble. Director Park from Korea, and Sandra OH and the primarily Vietnamese cast. We are all actors working together. We don’t talk about nationality or discrimination or something like that anymore. And I believe it’s about time because movie language is international. So especially in this project, we have an ensemble of many different nationalities working together in front of the camera and behind the camera.”

Phanxine: “Even though this is like a fictional fantasy in a way, they have true emotion. For example, I tell you the story; there’s one extra I met on set. We played, we’re doing the scene at the refugee camp where, you know, like the General comes and one lady stands up and yells at the general. This extra came to me, and we chatted and she said that, like in the script, it calls for an angry woman. So she’s supposed to be very angry. Still, then when the camera rolls, she feltlike all her memories about those days when she was in the refugee camp just like come back to her in that moment, and she keeps reliving that moment again, and she can’t hold her tears, and instead of angry, she feels like really hurt, really sad. When she said the line, she was in tears. She told me that when she did that, she worried that Director Park was really mad at her because she was supposed to be angry. But Director Park came in and said he loved it; it was amazing. I was born after the war, and I live in Vietnam. So that is a part of the story I don’t know, but this woman had that emotion. I feel like maybe this series when it comes out, people will talk about this kind of like the untold story of many people. And then, like in my generation, we will have a chance to hear this story again.”

The Sympathizer is now airing on HBO and streaming on Max.

Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/interviews-sandra-oh-susan-downey-and-the-stars-of-the-sympathizer-discuss-the-ambitious-hbo-drama-series/

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