Hoa Xuande Is Here to Stay

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Hoa Xuande Is Here to StayJamie Green

This story contains spoilers from HBO’s The Sympathizer.

Hoa Xuande’s mother teared up when he brought her to The Sympathizer’s premiere. Though the thirty-six-year-old actor grew up in Australia, his parents watched the Fall of Saigon from their televisions in Vietnam. “They escaped after the war, but they were there watching as the tanks rolled into Saigon City,” Xuande tells me over Zoom. “I kept my attention on them more than I did what was on the screen, and I saw a hint of a tear in my mother’s eye. It evoked a lot of emotion in them—memory and trauma. That meant a lot to me. It made me feel like we’d done our jobs properly [on The Sympathizer].”

The aftermath of the Vietnam War, which is depicted in HBO’s adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s espionage novel, is told through the eyes of Xuande’s Captain. He plays a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist spy who embeds himself in South Vietnam’s secret police. It’s a dangerous story of dual identities, heartbreaking trolley problems, and a near-constant existential crisis. His harrowing and often humorous journey from Vietnam to Los Angeles—and then back to a Vietnamese re-education camp—comes to an end in the finale, when the Captain escapes the war-torn country in a small boat. It’s a bittersweet and nuanced final episode from a project that aimed to finally tell the story of the war from a Vietnamese perspective.

“I felt the responsibility and the weight of doing that justice,” Xuande says. “Although there are always sides in a war, they’re fought by people. People who are just the same as you and I. People who fought for good purposes but inflicted a lot of harm and damage. The Vietnamese and the Americans are not so far apart in their ideologies and beliefs. They just went about it in a devastatingly traumatic way.”

Though The Sympathizer was originally pitched to HBO as a limited series, Nguyen wrote a second novel in 2021 titled The Committed, which continues the Captain’s story in eighties-era Paris. Currently, there are no plans to upgrade the limited series to a continuing drama, but crazier things have happened. Shōgun, another popular limited series that debuted this year, recently saw a two-season renewal from FX.

“If we get to continue this story, we get to shoot this in Paris,” Xuande teases. “There’s so much more action, devastation, and loss. I want to get back into the character, because a lot of the first season was exploring identity and the philosophical dilemma of belief in ideology. It was a little bit more neurotic. But when we get into the second book, it’s a lot more physical, more action-packed, and I would love to continue to tell this story.”

Below, Xuande shares where he sees himself in the Captain, filming the finale’s torture scenes for a week, and the encouraging words he received from his legendary costar Robert Downey Jr.

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The Sympathizer marks Xoa Huande’s first leading role.Hopper Stone/SMPSP - HBO

ESQUIRE: I just watched the finale, in which you spent a good portion of the episode tortured in a Clockwork Orange–esque electrocution device.

HOA XUANDE: That was an interesting week. They actually fully taped my eyes open, and we were only allowed to shoot for thirty minutes at a time. It helped me, to be honest, and everyone on set was very supportive. They made sure that I was never uncomfortable. The batteries in the device were real, but it was obviously never switched on. It all had to come from me. But they did a great job of torturing me. [Laughs.]

You’ve said that getting the part was like “winning the lottery”—I’m sure you didn’t imagine spending the whole finale being tortured.

When I won the lottery, this is not what I was envisioning for sure. But it’s such a pertinent part of the book and I knew that it was coming. That week, knowing that we were going to do it all out, I was prepared. But I sometimes feel like maybe I was not that prepared for even some of the stuff that we had to do.

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Robert Downey Jr. costars on The Sympathizer as several of the Captain’s antagonists. “He definitely takes away all the fear of failure,” Xuande says.Hopper Stone/SMPSP - HBO

You previously told Esquire that Robert Downey Jr. told you on set, “We're going to screw this thing up together. Don’t worry about it.” Did that ease any of the nerves that came with taking your first leading role?

A hundred percent. It’s just his vibe and his approach to the work. He definitely takes away all the fear of failure. I’ve watched him just play, try things that may not work, and then try something new to keep things fresh. It makes me feel comfortable that I can do the same. And he’s totally open to that as well. When you work with him, it’s just two people trying to do a scene, and whatever accolades, status, or experience that he has, he just tries to allow you to feel like you’re as capable as him.

One of the biggest changes from the book is that—more or less—if the character is a white guy, he’s played by Robert Downey Jr. What did you make of that creative decision? Especially the reveal that the final Downey character is the Captain’s father?

That was a really clever choice from director Park [Chan-wook], because obviously he read this in the way that—when you think about it—it’s the Captain's confession. As an unreliable narrator, he obviously is never fully objective about anything, let alone any character. So it was really clever to mesh these characters that have all betrayed him along the way. It just made sense to have an actor play nuances of these different characters that all come back to a similar trait—and then to reveal that they all have characteristics that pertain to his father. It’s just like, of course! It makes sense that the Captain would see these people that are antagonistic—or have a fatherly figure to him—because they are all essentially parts of his father. That was a really clever choice to adapt into this script that you don’t see in the book.

You’ve mentioned before that the duality of your character on the show, and his struggle to fit in, was something you also dealt with growing up in Australia. Is that something you still feel today?

Yeah, even now I’ve had a lot of these conversations with people and friends along the way. It’s funny, because a lot of the time we want to feel more a certain way, but we know that we’re not fully that because of what we’re told, or how people treat us, or how we look. Culturally, I was brought up in Australia, I spoke English, and the only Vietnamese thing about me was the way that I looked. I didn’t really have a good grasp of the Vietnamese language or feel attached to that part of my culture. I had very few Vietnamese friends, let alone Asian friends. I hung around a lot of people that were Australian, and we played a lot of sports. That was my way of assimilating to the culture, and I was very into it. It’s not like I felt like I had to do it—it’s just what I loved, because I thought that was who I was. But I was never [Australian] enough to be Australian. And I remember going home to Vietnam with my parents, and I just never felt attached to it enough to consider myself Vietnamese.

Meeting people in Australia, I just never felt like I could talk to them. They didn’t interact with me the way I was used to—that although I might look like them, my mannerisms and behavior was nothing like them. For a long time, I was just floating between who I was. That’s essentially what the character is. It’s someone who, on the surface, has both qualities but never really fits into either. He lives life on this fine line between Who am I? and Who am I, really?

On The Sympathizer, the Captain states that being mixed race doesn’t mean that you’re half of anything—you’re actually “twice of everything.” Did that resonate with you?

Yeah. I’m not sure if I’ve ever come to that conclusion. I love that, though. I love that piece of encouragement—that you’re actually both. Double. Now, in Los Angeles, I feel like I have this special quality of being Australian. It sets me apart a little bit. Culturally, Australia and America are very different. So I feel like whatever I’ve inherited from being raised there I can carry into who I am here in L.A. It makes me feel that what I’ve been fighting within myself for a long time is actually really significant.

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“I feel like I have this special quality of being Australian,” Huande says. “It makes me feel that what I’ve been fighting within myself for a long time is actually really significant.”Hopper Stone/SMPSP - HBO

Tell me about your experience speaking two languages on The Sympathizer, as someone who was brought up speaking English in school but understood Vietnamese at home?

It’s funny, because from an early age, I didn’t speak Vietnamese but I did have a grasp of the language because I heard my parents speak it to me. I just shamefully denied that ability to speak for a long time. So when I got the role, they had to put me through a crash course on grammar, forming sentences, sounding my words, and how to read and write in Vietnamese. It was really helpful. My proficiency for speaking Vietnamese at the time was basically like, “Where’s the train station?” But to be able to say things like “public execution,” “comrade,” “commandant,” or “dialectic materialism”? Those are words that we don’t even necessarily say in English, let alone Vietnamese. Once I’d learned the words, it made me feel like I’d been speaking these sentences for years, and it felt really good to be able to say really high, philosophical concepts in a different language.

We never learn the Captain’s real name. Did you give him a secret name just for yourself?

Actually, this is a little Easter egg. If you look at the letters that are sent to me, and if you look at some of the mail that I post, there’s a quick little freeze-frame. If you can do it on your TV, you’ll notice that the letters are addressed to a name. There’s actually a name on it. So that’s a little Easter egg for people, if they want to see if they can find that out.

Photographs by Jamie Green

Styling by Thomas Townsend

Grooming by Sarah Tammer

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