By Tiffany Wan
For the Northwest Asian Weekly
People rely on certainties in life, especially when thrust into unfamiliar territory. Actor Damien Nguyen, the freshly minted star of the new film “The Beautiful Country,” is firmly aware of that fact. His family left Vietnam in 1975 on a boat that carried him, six siblings, his parents and his grandmother to the Philippines. Eventually, they ended up at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in California that was used to house refugees in 1975.
“I was too young to really remember the events,” said the 34-year-old Nguyen, who was only 4 at the time. “The hardship I endured was more through my parents, seeing them have to struggle and make a new life for themselves.”
So it’s understandable that when Nguyen decided to become an actor, his parents weren’t too keen on the idea.
“They felt it was kind of a betrayal,” said Nguyen, acknowledging how hard his parents worked to bring him to the United States. “Security is such a valuable commodity. Dreams are death warrants, and for me to voluntarily jump into something with no security and no certainty anywhere scared them to death.”
After taking a theater class in college, Nguyen caught the acting bug and dropped out to pursue it full time. He packed his things and moved to the acting capital of the world, Los Angeles.
Steady work was hard to come by, and after four and a half years, he was having marginal success appearing in music videos and other small productions. Nguyen had no glamorous ideas about acting; he knew it was going to be tough. But with thousands of candidates clamoring for one measly line in a commercial, he felt in over his head.
“Whatever comes your way, you jump on it,” said Nguyen. “It’s not by choice. It’s just what’s available.”
One fateful call from his agent about a long-shot project cemented his career. “The Beautiful Country” would put Nguyen amidst established actors like Nick Nolte, Bai Ling and Tim Roth. But since the production was based in New York, Nguyen had to send in a videotaped audition.
A month later, he got a call from someone who said that casting directors were coming to L.A. to see him. That meeting further put off Nguyen’s expectations. After being told he was too tall and too thick, and that his face was too symmetrical for the part, he was certain the role had gone to someone else.
Nguyen was surprised when six weeks later the director, Hans Petter Moland, wanted to meet him in New York.
“I thought, ‘It’s been a month and a half!’” exclaimed Nguyen. “I completely wrote it off.”
But once he got to New York, Moland told Nguyen he wanted him for the part. Nguyen was bowled over by the offer, which he calls his “first big anything.” His parents also applauded his big break, eager for him to revisit his birthplace.
“When this movie came along, they did back flips,” Nguyen said. “They wanted me to go back (to Vietnam) for so long; it meant so much to them and to me.”
“The Beautiful Country” can be taken as a story of the consequences of America’s role in the Vietnam War. More so, it’s the journey of a biracial man who is never truly accepted by his family, and his search for peace. Binh (Nguyen) is referred to as “bui doi” — “less than dust,” in Vietnamese — due to his mixed heritage. Mistreated by his family, he sets out to find his mother and learn the real story of his conception. But financial and employment burdens cause Binh to strike out toward America for answers, braving a Malaysian detention camp, an illegal refugee ship, the hardship of unrequited love and slave-like employment in New York City on the way. He finally discovers a strand of hope when he locates his American GI father, blind and working as a cowhand, on a Texas farm.
Desperate for the part, Nguyen fibbed a bit when he told Moland he could speak fluent Vietnamese.
“I lied to the director,” Nguyen confessed with a laugh. “I really wanted the role, and I’m thinking, ‘By the time he finds out, it’ll be too late. I’ll be in Vietnam and he won’t be able to send me back.’”
Once he got there, Moland’s Vietnamese assistant helped Nguyen polish his language skills. A village boy also helped prepare him for the role of Binh by showing him the ins and outs of life as a village person.
The first actor he recognized there was Bai Ling, who helped calm his acting anxieties by taking him to dinner. Nguyen formed personal bonds with each actor and noted what kind of attitude each brought to the set.
“Bai Ling brought Hollywood to the set. She’s a beautiful woman,” Nguyen said. “Tim (Roth) brought a very down-to-earth, mellow and real quality.”
Nolte, “a god of an actor,” according to Nguyen, surprised him the most with his laid-back attitude. Nolte plays Binh’s American GI dad.
“Nick is quite the joker. He really enjoys having fun in the moment,” said Nguyen.
With a starring role in a feature film under his belt, Nguyen anticipates “The Beautiful Country” will open the doors of opportunity.
“I’m hoping that time will reveal all, and hopefully it will reveal employment!” he laughs. (end)
“The Beautiful Country” opens in Seattle July 15.