Damien Nguyen Interview #1
Actor Damien Nguyen turns in one of the summer’s finest performances in his first feature, The Beautiful Country. Nguyen (pronounced ‘win’) sits down with Chris Neumer to go over de-learning English, why you shouldn’t get drunk and do press and the irony of a tragic movie with a very light-hearted and silly set.
CHRIS NEUMER: I really enjoyed The Beautiful Country. I was looking up your info on imdb and noticed that you had only one other credit.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Yeah.
CHRIS NEUMER: And thought, “This must be his first press junket.”
DAMIEN NGUYEN: My third actually.
CHRIS NEUMER: Third?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Yes, I did one in Berlin at the festival there and one for Norwegian press too.
CHRIS NEUMER: Oh, that sounds a lot different than dealing with the American press.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Definitely.
CHRIS NEUMER: I was excited about talking to a publicity rookie. And because I was interested in talking to you about how you managed to create energy in your performance by being sullen and looking down a lot. I thought, “We are going to have a good conversation.”
DAMIEN NGUYEN: I hope so.
CHRIS NEUMER: So you were sullen and looked down a lot and said very little. As an actor, how did you go about generating that particular energy and crafting that performance?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Honestly, I wish I could say I had a process, but if I did, it’s not a conscious process. As an actor, you try to do what you can and doing so is having the material before me and understanding the character by reading the script and talking to the director. I think everything comes to play when you’re on set and seeing everything come together. It really brings you into the moment.
CHRIS NEUMER: So the locations helped you?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Definitely. I had the luxury of shooting this in Vietnam and to see the people and their struggles on a day-to-day basis kind of hit home. It’s still going on today. The western dollar is coming in and people are doing much better now and the quality of life is improving, but there are people there who are still struggling every single day. Just seeing the little things like the village people walk miles and miles to bring produce to town to sell–
CHRIS NEUMER: (laughs) I will have to rephrase that for the article. Can’t use ‘The Village People’.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: (laughs) Yeah. The, uh, people who live in the village would walk miles and miles to bring their produce to town to sell. And I can’t imagine that they’re cleaning up with that. And then they have to walk all the way back. But just having that helped me develop the understanding of where [my character] Binh came from. Seeing the trials and tribulations of the people helped me make it more part of my own and bring it alive on the screen.
CHRIS NEUMER: I’m still in that phase where I know you were acting and after even the most cursory amount of research I knew that you were an American, well, Vietnamese-American playing Vietnamese but it’s still somewhat of a shock to hear you using phrases like ‘trials and tribulations’ and ‘contentious’. How did you go about, I guess, ‘de-learning’ English?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: The funny thing there is that my parents speak very little English and it helped me being around them. Communicating with my parents is a kind of schizophrenic conversation because it keeps jumping to English and Vietnamese and hand gestures to convey messages. My Vietnamese isn’t that stellar and their English isn’t that stellar, so we have to find that common ground, the give and take, when we talk. But because they are my parents, we can share ideas and feeling and conversations. I wish I spoke more fluent Vietnamese and I’m sure they wish that they spoke more fluent English, but we make do. I used how my parents speak to kind of come up with that type of rigid, very limited English.
CHRIS NEUMER: So was it the type of thing that you based your speech pattern upon that of your dad’s, or did you use the mannerisms and generalities of his speech and apply that to your character.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: More the mannerisms than a copying of his speaking.
CHRIS NEUMER: I was reading one of the newspapers today and there’s a big deal swirling about a DJ who was mocking Asian-Americans by talking in the stereotypical Asian voice on air. Did you ever make an effort not to do anything that could be mistaken for that?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case. It was a concern of mine, but so far no. The few Vietnamese people that I’ve been able to speak to have actually complimented me about having the ability to play this part with Binh not having the full use of the language and the way he struggled with the language and how he spoke and how he carried himself when he did have to speak English. So far, it has been well received by the Vietnamese community. It wasn’t taken as a joke or as a slam of those who have bad English skills.
CHRIS NEUMER: You always have that fine line between offending and hitting it so right that you’re doing exactly what they would do in real life.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: I was hoping for the latter.
CHRIS NEUMER: You nailed it in my book. Were there any other things that you wanted to steer clear of in your performance? Or that you gravitated towards, wanting to instill in the character?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: One thing I really wanted to come across–something I thought would be really difficult–was the quiet strength that Binh has inside. All these terrible things happen to him and he keeps getting knocked down, no matter how hard he tries, but he doesn’t complain or whine. He has, I call it, the silent strength of Binh, that he somehow manages to summon up. No matter what happens he humbly finds a way to get through it. As his character develops he doesn’t have the same tolerance. At times, he loses control but–
CHRIS NEUMER: He’s pretty good about that though.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: He is, but in extreme situations he does lose it. But he still maintains the humility and that was important part to continually have with the character. He is who he is and life gave him a bad hand and he did the most he could with it. All he had to go off of was this hope he had deep inside that somehow, someway he was going to find answers and his identity.
CHRIS NEUMER: It’s funny, when you describe this movie like that–those are the exact words I tried to avoid. Describing something as a human drama filled with optimism seems like describing something as a snooze fest, but it seems like there’s even more to it than that. I don’t know what, but, it’s like, “No, this isn’t The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it doesn’t suck. I swear it.”
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s definitely a lot of humanness to it. I think when people think of movies and when movies try to portray human tragedy it gets into that hokey arena. People tend to think it’s hokey and drama-laden and it puts the movie into the realm of the unbelievable.
CHRIS NEUMER: I said to Hans that it was very subtle and the music cues didn’t tell me when and what I was supposed to feel and he said, “Well, I liked the story, that was the way it was and the people had this and it was a very powerful story that I couldn’t tamper with.” And, sounding like a teenage girl, I responded, “Hello? You can’t? Let’s go see XXX 2.”
DAMIEN NGUYEN: (laughs) Exactly. And also, I think the story is reflective to real life. These things continually happen and I think people are aware of that but they don’t want to be conscious of these things.
CHRIS NEUMER: Then I’d have to do something about that.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Then they feeling socially or morally obligated to do something about it and save the world. And who is going to make a conscious effort to do that? So it’s enough for them–this movie is supposed to enlighten people, whether they decide to write their congressmen or go out and take an active role in helping these people or people who are suffering in other countries or whatever. Whatever it does to this person, hopefully it will make them think.
CHRIS NEUMER: Hopefully writing a feature about it will suffice.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Or writing about it. I just hope it motivates people to do something. Maybe this will be the first step in their transformation into becoming a person who is contientous of these things. Not just with this issue but others, maybe this is a stepping stone. And if that’s what it does, that’s enough.
CHRIS NEUMER: Couple the social consciousness with the human drama and the optimism and you’re turning off even more people.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: (laughs) Yeah!
CHRIS NEUMER: I’d spoken to Bai earlier. She was interesting in her approach to acting. She’d mentioned the scene where the little boy–
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Tam.
CHRIS NEUMER: He’d offered her a towel because she was crying and he thought she was really crying. She was complaining a little bit about it because she was in the moment and wanted to act and he was essentially ruining the whole thing for her, while the crew is laughing at this all taking place. That’s when it dawned on me that you guys should have include outtakes–like the do at the end of all the Jackie Chan movies–at the end of The Beautiful Country. Then I got off topic and started thinking about outtakes at the end of Schindler’s List and how funny it would be, because it’s wrong. I regrouped and then started wondering what the mood on set was like for you.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: It was very light. I thoroughly enjoyed everyone I worked with. Everybody had a great sense of humor about it. This was one of those movies that was on a very tight budget; time was of the essence. There were times when we were pressed for time and we had to keep working, the pressure was on, everything was going wrong and you could just feel the tension in the air.
CHRIS NEUMER: You say that and I need an example. Preferably something you haven’t mentioned three times already today.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: I haven’t mentioned any today, so you’re in luck. This one instance, we were supposed to have these lanterns float through the sky. They were supposed to float up into the sky, but for some reason, the lanterns would go up about fifteen feet and then go crashing into the water. They were powered by the heat and it just was not happening. We just kept doing it and doing it and finally the few that they did get up they were able to shoot.
There was another scene where we were down to one lantern and Hans really wanted a good shot from it. And it was going up for a bit and started going down. Some of the props guys tried to get out there on their boat to catch it before it hit the water. The lantern is getting lower and lower and the prop guy is struggling around in this little boat and it started to take in water. It started sinking. So the guy is sinking and trying to hold up this last lantern and the director jumps into the water after it, trying to salvage this last lantern and by then it was completely destroyed. At that point, it was like, “What do we do now?” Next shot. Moving on.
It was one of those things, directors are very personally–they have special shots in their mind and the lantern was special for him for some reason, I don’t know what it was. I kind of know now that I’ve seen it, but he was upset about that incident. Everybody knew it and the tension on the set, you could cut with a knife, as they say. Moving on to the next scene it was like, “Hopefully everything will run more smoothly and everybody will be at the top of their game. Let’s move on and hopefully the next shot will kind of make up forget about the travesty that just took place with this lantern scene.” That was one example, but there were definitely others.
CHRIS NEUMER: Better to have a light set than have everybody down each other’s throats.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Definitely. We got along phenomenally. I think at last count we had 14 or 15 countries represented by different people working on set. We joked all the time and laughed on the time. Every time a new talent was brought in, it was an extension of the family. Unfortunately though, once we started filming stuff in the States we weren’t able to have the same people on set. But then new people came on and we developed a relationship with them. It always seemed like a good time.
CHRIS NEUMER: Is it hard going in and out of character–your character is dour, and optimism aside, this is a pretty depressing movie–was it hard going in and out of character with laughter surrounding you? Pulling it all together for the shot.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Not so much.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s why it’s called acting, huh?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Partially. It’s just that everybody was so good at what they did that it really helped support me.
CHRIS NEUMER: You say that and I ask, can you pick out somebody, cast or crew, who did something specific that made it a good personal experience for you? What was something that they did that struck you as being very professional?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Sure. My make up artist was almost like my confidante because I spent so much time with her in the morning. Whatever happened the night before, if I was feeling like “I didn’t achieve what I really wanted to,” she was constantly on the set and when I felt like I couldn’t summon up the insight or strength or something like that, just a few words from this person, to whom I volunteered so much personal information, how I felt on any given day, would come and say a few words, touch my face and look at me–she had these piercing light blue eyes, she was Norwegian, a beautiful woman with red hair–she would touch my face and say, “Damien, you’re doing a wonderful job.” Just from that, I felt a real closeness with her and for her to say something like that with the tender mother-like caress. She’d say, “Everything’s going to be okay.” And I’d get up on set and, regardless of how critical I was about myself, just to have that outlook and have somebody give you a few sweet words, it pacified me as I went through the scene.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s when you look over at Hans and say, “Just once, this is what I need from you, you unfeeling bastard.”
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Exactly. In between takes, she’d always prop me up. Even when I didn’t need it, she always had caring words to say. I had the real luxury of having her by my side. And the director, working with Hans, he had such an artistic vision, he added such subtleties and little nuances.
CHRIS NEUMER: For example?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: When I first meet my mother and we’re riding home and we finally get to her house and little Tam is being tended to by the crippled old lady. I pick him up and I thought the scene ended there, however when I saw dailies, I realized the scene didn’t end there.
CHRIS NEUMER: The guy picks up the old woman.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Yeah, her son picks her up and takes her into their house. Little poetic things like that that wasn’t in the script and I had no idea that it was going to happen and seeing that, it was a really tender moment. It was tender to see me picking up my little brother, but that scene was even more.
CHRIS NEUMER: I think that’s what makes the movie. If this is Jerry Bruckheimer, the scene ends with you exiting stage right, but here, there’s more to life.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: It was the paradox of these older people taking care of this younger child who can’t take care of himself. And then the son goes in and picks up his mother. It’s the child taking care of the elderly. It’s that paradox there.
CHRIS NEUMER: I hope being a male it’s not a big deal but you’re what, 34?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Mm hmm.
CHRIS NEUMER: I got the impression from doing the math in my head that Binh was 19 or 20.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Early twenties, yeah.
CHRIS NEUMER: Did you ever think, “Now I have to lose rationality and logic.” Now I have to go back in time and man, was I stupid at 21.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Well…
CHRIS NEUMER: To give you an actual question that you can answer, did your added experience in life give you an additional handle on how to identify and accurately depict the 20-year old you were playing?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Yeah. Definitely. The age thing, well, the believability of it was whether I looked that much older than 20. I didn’t. As for his mannerisms and how he carried himself and how I portrayed this young man, it was like, does a person who struggled so much in life change that much? I don’t think his mannerisms or who he is changes that much. He doesn’t have the opportunity to excel or grow as a person and in doing so, I thought it was more important that I focused on the character and what he was going through as opposed to trying to be this younger guy and at 21 you’re supposed to behave like this or like that.
CHRIS NEUMER: It is a priviledged way of looking at it. Now that you mention it, I’m castigating myself–great question–but if you have a lot of hardship in your life, I guess whether you’re 21 or 45, you’re just trying to survive.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: If that’s all you know in life, you’re not going to have that much of a chance to change in life, whether you want to or not. That’s what life has labeled you. And in this case, it was more like what life had labeled Binh was what I was portraying. He was less than dust, as the movie puts so. Doing so, I thought it was more important to portray that than to find a specific age. In my eyes, that’s what I was doing.
CHRIS NEUMER: I think the long hair helped. I think you got a little bit older as the movie went along and your hair kept getting shorter. I think you might have also started combing it around New York. Maybe the Vietnam Vets you met gave you a comb or something.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: (laughs) Yeah. Exactly. That was a new surrounding and new environment and Binh was effected by that. Everyone tells me that I’m ugly, but what if I try running a comb over my hair once. I was infatuated with Ling, who was somewhat of my love interest in the movie, so you make the conscious effort to say, “I don’t know where we’re at, but I’m hot for you.” I think Binh was making an effort to kind of build something there. A physical and emotional connection, he wanted something there but, apparently, she wasn’t on the same page as the character was.
CHRIS NEUMER: Nope. The optimism, gone.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: But he tried, he tried desperately.
CHRIS NEUMER: But I think that was the most painful part, was that he actually was trying and you’re like–I remember when you were pulling her out to the boat with Tam and I was thinking, “I wonder if this could be good, there’s a little bit of a family dynamic going on here.” Then I thought, “No, something’s going to happen, I’m going to get hurt.”
DAMIEN NGUYEN: (laughs) Yeah, it’s nuts.
CHRIS NEUMER: And then the kid dies, which I didn’t even see happening and, boom, there you are. Let me ask you this, totally changing topics. I did an interview with Jeff Nathanson who was the screenwriter for Catch Me If You Can and is doing the upcoming Indiana Jones movie and he told me he had just completed his first junket somewhat recently and he said he was just sitting there, white knuckling it, looking at the reporters going, “What do you want from me? What are you going to ask me?” He was kind of a private guy too. How has your first American junket been treating you?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: It’s surreal to say the least. Doing the other junkets was no where near as grand, it’s been different. It’s been surreal.
CHRIS NEUMER: Do you have a hard time talking about yourself?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: At times. Trying to relay a message–the last thing I want to be is coming across as high and mighty.
CHRIS NEUMER: That’s going to be the opening line then, Damien Nguyen is high and mighty.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: He’s perfect and untarnished. I’m human, just like everyone else and I think a lot of times when people see an actor portraying a character on screen they can’t help but connect and think, “Maybe he’s like that off screen too.” And if I was half as noble or decent as Binh I’d consider myself a very good person.
CHRIS NEUMER: I was going to say, you could do a lot worse.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: I don’t want to come off as high and mighty and get on my soap box and preach to anyone.
CHRIS NEUMER: Were you coached by the publicists or your agents or managers or anybody?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: To speak? No. Last night I was supposed to go to a party and they said, “Just don’t come in tomorrow hung over.” I’m like, “Okay, I can do that.”
CHRIS NEUMER: I did that for a couple of months on set, one more day I can handle.
DAMIEN NGUYEN: I’ll show up and do the interviews sober. Having people ask me personal questions about myself is weird. Day-to-day I don’t go around telling people, “When I was four I came to the states” and personal information like that.
CHRIS NEUMER: Yeah, we’ve managed to avoid that here, haven’t we?
DAMIEN NGUYEN: Yeah. For the most part…
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