Hoa Xuande Still Finds It ‘Bewildering’ That He’s the Star of ‘The Sympathizer’

Hoa Xuande probably isn’t a name you’re familiar with — not yet, anyway. But that is all likely to change thanks to his lead performance in HBO’s “The Sympathizer,” an ambitiously dense adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In the seven-part limited series from co-creators Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, Xuande (whose name is pronounced Hwa Shan-day) takes charge as the nameless (and sometimes unreliable) narrator known only as the Captain, commanding the screen opposite Robert Downey Jr. — all five of the characters he plays — and Sandra Oh.

The Captain is a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist spy caught between two worlds who embeds himself in the Los Angeles refugee community — all while selling secrets to North Vietnam. His dueling loyalties leave him in a constant state of turmoil.

The gig wasn’t easy to get. It took Xuande — who was born in Australia to Vietnamese parents who emigrated following the fall of Saigon in 1975 — nine months and about as many callbacks to land the role. At the time of his audition, he had worked mainly in Australia, apart from a supporting part in Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop.” Naturally, doubt crept in the longer the audition process wore on. “By the end of it, I guess they liked what I did,” Xuande, 36, said.

Acting, though, was never his master plan. After spending years where he “f—ed around” doing random jobs, including a brief stint as a journalist, Xuande befriended a group of actors while bartending and soon enrolled in one of Australia’s top drama schools, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth. “Either I found it or it found me,” he said. “I’m letting the journey take me on whatever ride it takes me and seeing where it drops me off.”

The Sympathizer” is your first major lead role. It must have been a whirlwind experience. 

It’s bewildering. Never in a million years would I think that I’d be doing something like that. I would sit out some nights and look across the set as people were setting things up and moving on to the next shot — director Park getting up from the monitors and giving instructions and watching Robert do his thing — and just thinking to myself, “Am I really here? Is this all a dream?” I’m still in amazement. It still feels quite surreal.

How are you staying grounded amid the increased attention? 

I’m never caught up in the frivolity of all this. It’s lovely to be recognized. But for me, it all comes down to the work. If people believe in the work and they think the work is worthy, that’s what really matters to me. I try to ground myself in that.

Hoa Xuande, The Sympathizer
Hoa Xuande (Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap)

Your path to acting was a circuitous one. What about it did you connect with?

One of the first movies I watched that really got me into this profession was “Requiem for a Dream“. There’s a monologue where Ellen Burstyn is proud of her son and she wants to go on national TV and wear a red dress. She’s in tears but they’re tears of joy, though you can see the pain behind her eyes. It reminded me of my own mother. I was quite rebellious as a kid and I used to upset my parents a lot. I always did everything they didn’t want me to do just to spite them, which is why I’m an actor today, right? I felt so affected by that (performance) that Ellen Burstyn could have been my own mother. That really spurred me on to figuring out how she was able to do that in such a real and natural way, and I wondered if I could do that for somebody else through inhabiting a different person.

Now that you’re a year removed from the experience [of making “The Sympathizer”], has your perspective changed?

It’s one of those things where you don’t know what a special moment it is until you look back on it. I was rolling around in the mud a year ago with Fred (Nguyen Khan), who plays Bon, doing stuff for episode 7. It was so cold and miserable; it was 3 in the morning and we were trying to get these shots quickly. I was so tired and feeling overworked, and I wasn’t getting the directions properly. I didn’t feel like I was good with what I was doing. But looking back at it now, that was making a TV show. I wish I’d, in that moment, cherished the hardship of it. Even though it was miserable, it was fun.

Hoa Xuande as The Captain in “The Sympathizer” (Hopper Stone/HBO)
Hoa Xuande as The Captain in “The Sympathizer” (Hopper Stone/HBO)

The Captain is charming, intelligent and funny, but also angry, depressed and conflicted. How did you break the character down?

When you talk about the character — the anger, the depression, the humor, the charm, the deceit or the truth — I never approached him as, “When am I lying? When am I being deceitful? When am I angry?” I tried to get into the mindset or the psychology of the Captain. I tried to understand him as a person, his beliefs, what he’s motivated by and what he’s fighting for, because that was the full human being. If I figured that out, it would motivate me to do everything else and everything else would spur from that.

The story unfolds nonlinearly, constantly jumping back and forth in time. How did you keep the timeline straight?

The time-jumping really screwed around with me. If you look at my scripts, I’ve got millions of notes on each page and a lot of it pertains to the timeline: What happens before this? Why is this scene here and not there? What happens after this moment? Is this the first time this has happened? Is this the last time it happened?

The way I was working with the script is probably the first time I’ve worked in this way. It’s full of things I would think about or ruminate over. The things we say aren’t necessarily the things we feel or want — and that happens throughout this show constantly.

Hoa Xuande, The Sympathizer
Hoa Xuande (Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap)

It sounds draining. Did you feel your body breaking down?

If you were to see me towards the end of the shooting schedule, I was a ghost of a person. My brain was fried. There were no more thoughts going in and out of my head. Doing this show, because I was on everyday — I had one day off the entire time and I think that day I was sleeping — I had to think of it as a marathon. Don’t look at the finish line, it’s miles away. Look at the next hundred yards, look at the next week. I was exhausted, but I was not overwhelmed.

Did you draw parallels from your own experience as a Vietnamese Australian in your portrayal of the Captain?

A lot of immigrant diasporas can relate to the feeling of growing up in a place that’s outside of your parents’ heritage and feeling like an outsider. I never spoke my language when I was growing up. I felt like it was unnecessary and insignificant, which is quite shameful to say. It’s a deep fear of being seen as not part of the culture or society that you’re being brought up into. For a long time I was trying to fit in by taking up sports, but also understanding that I could never fully be that because I didn’t look like a lot of my friends. But then I wasn’t Asian or Vietnamese enough.

That’s what the Captain goes through. This was at the core of the Captain — this feeling that he could never belong. His beliefs and psychology were a muddle of two things he could never reconcile. He wanted to believe in one and the other as opposed to one or the other, but it was a constant conflict of which would win out. For me, it was a lot of that, too. As you grow older, you realize that you’re both at the same time.

Your ability to go from Vietnamese to English is seamless. How much prep did you do?

They put me through a two-week course. I felt like I was in first grade again. I was learning to read, write and speak. To be able to speak it with the proficiency and the fluidity that I did took a lot of practice, a lot of hours. Even while they were setting up the next shot, I would be running my Vietnamese with the on-set consultants.

Hoa Xuande in "The Sympathizer" (Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO)
Hoa Xuande in “The Sympathizer” (Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO)

What scenes still resonate?

The escape from Saigon in episode 1. We shot that towards the end of production. I felt like I was finally able to bring this moment to life, to justify this whole production, because of this terrible moment we were about to reenact. It felt really powerful to do it. It’s something that I watch now and it’s just as devastating as how I read it in the book.

I really love the torture stuff towards the end. (Laughs) Maybe not the torture stuff, but after the fact when I’m in the room with Man (Duy Nguyen) and I’m discovering nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. That scene is the big discovery of this whole show and it’s a big discovery for me — the idea that nothing is more important than independence and freedom.

What surprised you about working with Robert Downey Jr.?

He’s really good at reading people. He’s really good at staying in the moment. You might conceive of things that might happen a certain way, but until you’re actually locked in with a person in conversation, anything can happen — and that’s the same with a scene. It was nice to learn that from him, but to also feel like he was always with you, that he wasn’t just there to do a scene, which I’ve sometimes experienced in other shows.

Has your family seen the show? What were their reactions?

I brought my parents to the premiere. I wanted them to see this because it was a story that they would be very familiar with — the fall of Saigon and the memories it would provoke in them. I was a bit scared that they would think, “Oh, this is just another retelling of something we know about.” But I could see they were really moved. I saw a tear coming out of the corner of my mom’s eye. I could feel she was deeply moved seeing this representation of her former city being torn apart. The way she felt in that moment in the cinema was how she felt on the day Saigon fell when she was in her 20s while she was there. That meant a lot to me. What I was saying before, it’s almost like a full circle thing. How I was affected by Ellen Burystn in “Requiem for a Dream,” and how I wondered if I could affect other people that way, it was a nice moment to recognize I could have that moment from my own parents.

What’s in your immediate future? What projects are you looking to do?

There is a second book (“The Committed”) as part of the series. I would love to be able to tell that second story. I would love to work with Denis Villeneuve and Yorgos Lanthimos; “Arrival” and “The Lobster” have had huge impacts on me. But we’ll see what happens. I’m looking for something that will fulfill me the same way this project has. I’m going to take my time and figure out what my next move is.

This story first ran in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Hoa Xuande The Sympathizer cover
Hoa Xuande photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap

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