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‘The Sympathizer’ Finale Reflected the ‘Tortured’ Audition Process for Star Hoa Xuande

"The Sympathizer" star Hoa Xuande tells IndieWire that he began to think his months-long audition was to prove "that I can handle the trauma and the devastation towards the end of this show."
'The Sympathizer'
'The Sympathizer'
Hopper Stone/SMPSP

[Editor’s note: The following interview contains mild spoilers for “The Sympathizer,” Episode 7, “Endings Are Hard, Aren’t They?”]

In the end, “The Sympathizer” was not a show that kept things simple. An adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel, the HBO limited series helmed by filmmaker Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar concludes in a way that reframes the events of its premiere episodes, and eventually arrives at a thesis that helps ease the protagonist’s internal tug-of-war. 

According to star Hoa Xuande, putting an emphasis on the “nothing” in the phrase “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom” makes his character The Captain, a Communist spy embedded in the South Vietnamese army, who begins to lose himself when he’s forced to follow that community in exile in the United States, “realize that he’s been fighting for these things that have been out of his reach, that are just ideals that are unobtainable, and that he has to be at peace with the fact that he is just another part of this big messy part of the world, and that the humility of understanding that is actually more significant than these lofty ideals of freedom and independence.” 

That kind of heady, philosophical exploration packed into a portrayal of the war in Vietnam and its aftermath that is at times a spy thriller, and at other times a meta comedy, is part of what makes “The Sympathizer” a series that rewards multiple viewings. “The way that Director Park has adapted this novel, is that it’s littered with little clues and bits of dialogue and references that you’ve really got to pay attention to,” said Xuande to IndieWire over Zoom. Upon rewatch, “you get a clearer and clearer understanding of what he was trying to shape in terms of these narratives, because it’s not a linear story,” said the actor. “It’s not straightforward like, ‘This happens, and these are the consequences.’ There’s so much littered in between that’s thought provoking, that hopefully, people will keep engaging with and keep watching, because then they’ll understand that it’s a really complicated story told in a complicated way, in a way.”

Below, Xuande, a breakout star of the current TV season, expands on what the challenges were playing a character trapped between two worlds, why working opposite co-star and executive producer Robert Downey Jr. playing multiple roles provided a certain comfort, and what could be next for him as The Captain.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hoa Xuande in The Sympathizer, shown here standing in a cell with wooden walls, wearing a plain brown uniform
Hoa Xuande in ‘The Sympathizer’Courtesy of Hopper Stone / SMPSP / HBO

IndieWire: Watching the finale made me think of how you’ve said you had a very long, challenging audition process. Do you think that sort of breaking you down to build you up is reflected in the end of The Captain’s arc?

Hoa Xuande: Yeah. Because it took so long to try and get this role that I was like, “Is this some kind of sick, practical joke that they’re trying to play on me, to try to really test me to see if I can handle it?” I did think that, actually, because it was within about three or four months when I just kept getting called back to do more scenes, and the scenes started getting darker and more complicated, and stuff like that. I was just like, “OK. They clearly liked me, but are they just trying to really make me cry, and see me messed up? Is that what they’re trying to do? Because they want to know that I can handle the trauma and the devastation towards the end of this show?” But I stuck with it, because I really wanted to tell this story.

To tell you the truth, I spent many sleepless nights wondering what was going on, if this was even a joke. I would take long 40 minute walks at 3:00 a.m., just trying to clear my head, because I couldn’t sleep, because I was questioning everything, and questioning whether I had even said the right things in the audition process, or even whether my scenes were even good. Was it all just set up for me to just fail, or something? And yeah, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them, but I definitely felt tortured through the process.

Was there any particular scene that you were asked to read in the audition process that felt central to understanding The Captain?

Around the third callback I got these sides, and I was learning it, and doing it, the thing that I did with them. And then I walked into the callback, and I met Director Park and Don McKellar, the showrunners, for the first time on Zoom. And I was very assured and confident with myself. I was like, “I know that if I’ve gotten this far, this is probably it if I just nail this in the room. Back yourself, you can do it!” And I did it for them, and I was really happy. And I walked out of the room, and I was like, “That’s it. If they don’t want me, then that’s their loss.”

And it’s funny, because I got a whole bunch of notes a couple of days later, saying “Your character’s too confident. He’s too assured of himself, and he’s too direct. He’s not vulnerable, whatever that was.” And I was like, “Oh, shit. I was just trying to give you my best performance.” And they were like, “Can we see you again in the next callback? Do that again, but really broken down, really vulnerable.” And then, I did that again, and that started my journey into understanding what they required from me, and maybe me opening up into, “Oh, this is what they’re trying to reveal from The Captain character, and that potentially, I need to rework how I see this character.” So when they were like, “Yeah, tap into the vulnerability, into the conflict, tap into the nervousness, and all that stuff.” I was like, “Oh, this is the beginning of unlocking the character.”

The Sympathizer
‘The Sympathizer’Hopper Stone/HBO

Do you remember what scene that was from the show?

There were a bunch of scenes, but one of them was when I do the Oriental and the Occidental speech in Episode 2. I was very confident when I did that speech, which is fine, I needed to be. But they wanted to see a glimpse of fretting and dreading having to explain myself to a crowd. So that’s what I needed to tap into there.

And then, it was the scene after, as well, with Miss Mori [played by Sandra Oh], telling the squid story. They wanted to see the shame in that a little bit more, as opposed to the confidence of owning that story. They just wanted me to be a little bit more bashful and shameful about it. But yeah, I think they were just trying to test to see whether these confident speeches could be flipped on their head, and be told in a more vulnerable way.

Some people may have felt there’s a lack of interiority with The Captain, others could say he has too much. Has that been the core challenge, playing someone with such a variable interiority?

Yeah, definitely. I still think that was probably the throughline for the character. Obviously, he’s a spy, and he’s swayed by his allegiances in terms of who he has to fight for, for survival, and for the benefit of his friends. That’s the surface of it all. But deep down at the core of his psychology and his ideology, he’s constantly in conflict. He’s trying to figure out what he really believes in, despite trying to survive. What does he actually believe in for the benefit of him, his friends, and his people? And that really is the toe-to-toe between the Oriental and the Occidental within himself, is that he’s just trying to figure out whether he believes in his individualism, and his actions, and that carrying through what he wants for himself is ultimately going to benefit his friends. Or, does he give in to the sacrifices of his indoctrination of what he’s been brought up as, whether he thinks that his sacrifice is ultimately who he has to be? Well, his sacrifice is ultimately what he is, because that is really going to justify all of these actions. And even up to the very end, he’s still really trying to figure out is everything that he did right, to his beliefs? And obviously, it’s all questionable.

'The Sympathizer' HBO
‘The Sympathizer’Hopper Stone/HBO

I had seen some worry that Downey ultimately playing five roles would take attention away from the Vietnamese performers, but now having seen the show, was it helpful having one person play each character that represents this specter of white oppression?

It really was. And it helped in the way that he was just a really generous and giving actor. I always say he fathered me in that way. But it’s helpful that I probably looked at it that way. Because, as we see in the reveal, his other character was my father figure. And it was actually director Park Chan-wook’s idea to have all these figures of the American establishment be played by one actor, and that would all relate back to the Captain’s father. Because a lot of these figures are, in a way, either mentors or have characteristics of his father, and they are all different parts of the American establishment that have a profound effect on The Captain’s life, especially while he’s living in America.

You’ve got the CIA handler who’s really in control of his life. And then, you’ve got the mentor character through Professor Hammer, who’s probably the most lovable of the characters. Then you’ve got the antagonistic director/auteur, who is really the nasty part of his father. And then, you’ve this really distant Congressman who is always judging and looking from afar, which is really that distance and separation you find within his father. So Director Park linked all of these characters together, and said, “We’ve got to have one actor playing all these characters for this throughline of the reveal that happens at the end.” I thought that was a really smart choice, because it definitely helped me seep that idea into all of these characters, once I met all of Robert’s characters.

In the finale, we get a great line about the way in which The Captain speaks Vietnamese like it’s been translated from English. How much went into the accent work of representing this person who has become a ghost between two worlds, as The Major (Phan Gia Nhat Linh) suggested?

When you live in a different country, even if it’s your native tongue, even as I’m doing now, and I haven’t lived in the States for six, seven, eight years, as The Captain has, but my picking up of the American accent has been even through just living and talking to Americans. And right now it’s all over the place, but when I was doing the role, I really had to be in it, and I really had to stay in it, and it really altered the way I even interacted, or my personality, and stuff like that. And a lot of the crew that worked on the show didn’t even know that I was Australian because I just stayed in it.

Duy Nguyen, Hoa Xuande and Fred Nguyen attend the Los Angeles Premiere of HBO Original Limited Series 'The Sympathizer' at The Paramount LA on April 09, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
Duy Nguyen, Hoa Xuande and Fred Nguyen attend the Los Angeles Premiere of HBO Original Limited Series ‘The Sympathizer’ in Los Angeles.Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

I guess what I’m saying is that even if you’re a Vietnamese speaker from a young age, I had to learn. The thing is, I had to grasp the language, but I never spoke it until I had to do projects like this, where I really had to get back in touch with my abilities to speak the language. But when you’re from somewhere, and you live somewhere else, ultimately, it changes how you even speak your native language. So that was a concept and an idea that I took on board for doing this role, that regardless of whether he’s a Vietnamese native or not, when you live somewhere else, the way in which you speak will change. And I kept this character Southern, with a Southern Vietnamese accent, which is probably not a big deal for people who aren’t Vietnamese, but for Vietnamese speakers, they’ll understand there’s a huge difference between the Northern and Southern accent. But I wanted to keep it Southern, because it’s just the accent of my parents, and what they had. And it’s a post-1975 accent, as well.

But yeah, wrapping that all up, the point is that I made a conscious decision to keep this accent that my parents had because it was relative to the time, but also understanding that for someone who was fascinated and repulsed, but absolutely fascinated with America, and lived there, and wanted to come back there, [The Captain] retained a bit of that Westernization of his Vietnamese, which shows. Because he did have this appeal and attraction to America.

What’s next? Is the goal right now to continue on as The Captain in a sequel series?

If we’re ever so lucky that we get to continue telling this story, I would be jumping on board immediately. There is a sequel to this book, and a lot of people have actually read it too, so they know that the journey does continue. I hope we get to continue telling the story, because it’s something that I’ve been so proud to do, in terms of a project, and a character to play. But we’ll see. The reactions and the reviews have really been great so far. Hopefully, people will demand and want that. But I would be the first in line to do it again, for sure.

“The Sympathizer” is available on HBO and Max.

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