‘The Sympathizer’ star Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen is no stranger to the spotlight

Writer Teresa Tran chats with the Vietnamese American actress about her recent star-making role

Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen plays Madame, the wife of a Vietnamese general who relocates in California with her family in "The Sympathizer."

Hopper Stone/HBO

Words by Teresa Tran

When actress Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen first stepped foot in her trailer in preparation for her screen test as Madame on The Sympathizer, she was surprised to see the hair and makeup artists had pinned up photos of her mother for inspiration. Nguyen’s mother is the renowned Dang Tuyet Mai, the former second lady and wife of Nguyen Cao Ky, a South Vietnamese general, prime minister, and vice president during the 1960s and 1970s. A bit on the nose, because her mother was literally called Madame Nguyen Cao Ky during her parents’ marriage. Thus when Nguyen started prepping for the show, she didn’t have to do much research. “If I’m playing someone like my mom, the Madame, who was known as one of the most elegant women of that era, I’ve been with her all of my life,” Nguyen says. “So it was just a matter of thinking about her and bringing that energy.”

It is certainly a full-circle moment for Nguyen to be cast in a show like The Sympathizer. In Max’s limited series adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning espionage novel of the same name, Nguyen’s Madame is the wife of the show’s antagonist, a Republic of Vietnam general, known simply as the General (played by Toan Le). After narrowly escaping the city of Saigon in April 1975 as a result of the North Vietnamese communists winning the Vietnam War, Madame and her family relocate to California to evade capture and start a new life as refugees with the help of the United States government. Also starring Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Oh, the show follows the General’s aide and accomplice, a young half-Vietnamese, half-French man (played by Hoa Xuande), whose role as a secret double agent for both the South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese gets him into hot water and violently compromising situations.

I ask Nguyen if she feels awkward about the show’s fictional characters and events being so heavily inspired by her family’s real history. But Nguyen harbored no such concerns while filming the show. “There were moments [in the show] when it’s not a good reflection on [my father], but I can’t think of that because that’s not my father in real life,” Nguyen says over Zoom from her home in Huntington Beach, Orange County. “At that point, I have to take the personal out of itthis is a character. It’s a fictional project. If Viet Thanh Nguyen had chosen my father to be a representative figure of that era and to be more known to the international community, then that’s something I’m proud of.” Nguyen compares the show’s historical references as akin to comedic satire. If the show is poking fun at her parents and their relationship, given it’s been almost 50 years since the historical events that inspired the show, Nguyen knows not to take the parallels too seriously and instead take the jokes as they come. “I think I learned this kind of thinking from growing up in America,” Nguyen laughs.

From a political childhood to an upbringing in entertainment

Like many Vietnamese diaspora families as a result of the war, Nguyen moved to the United States during the fall of Saigon in 1975 at the age of 10. From there, Nguyen enrolled in school, became fluent in English, and eventually graduated from Westminster High School in Westminster, California. She then pursued a bachelor of undergraduate education degree at California State Polytechnic University and later received her graduate law master’s degree with honors from Western State University College of Law.

Nguyen is not just known for being the only daughter of Nguyen Cao Ky. A household name in her own right, Nguyen is well known to pretty much every Vietnamese person as the co-emcee of the iconic Vietnamese variety show Paris by Night for more than 30 years. The show has been lauded for spotlighting famous and newcomer Vietnamese-born and Vietnamese diaspora musical and acting talent, and for carving a huge representational space in entertainment specifically for the international Vietnamese community. Nguyen got her start in show business after hosting a pageant competition in Long Beach, California in the early 1980s. Classically trained in piano, music theory, and singing, Nguyen first debuted as a singer in Seattle in 1985 before signing on as the long-term co-host of Thuy Nga Production’s Paris by Night series—a mix of Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show talk show, and contemporary live stage “concert-style” performance adaptations of traditional Vietnamese dance and song—alongside co-emcee Nguyen Ngoc Ngan. Together, they’d present each Vietnamese performer, co-host mini raffle giveaways, and interact with the primarily Vietnamese diaspora audience with timely joke punchlines and relatable Vietnamese cultural entertainment, while representing the show as the de-facto faces of Paris by Night.

While this virtual interview is my first time speaking with Nguyen one-on-one, the first time I saw her in person was in 2015 when I attended the 115th edition of Paris by Night hosted in Las Vegas, titled “Asian Beauty,” with my family, where she co-emceeded the show. I remember she was dressed in a glittering Vietnamese designer gown and full glam makeup. Fast forward to our Zoom conversation nearly a decade later, she looks quite different from how I am used to seeing her on the Paris by Night stage. Fresh-faced with no makeup on, her hair pulled back in a bun, she tells me she is prepping to host a party at her house in California that originally had eight people coming over, but somehow ballooned to a total of 17 guests. Although she is apologetic, she also gives off a carefree, confident energy about her appearance. I note she looks great regardless. “At least you get to see the real me,” Nguyen says, laughing. It seems you can take Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen out of Paris by Night, but you cannot take the host out of Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen.

The audition process and living the Hollywood dream

Vietnamese actress Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, dressed in pink, next to a gift basket, in "The Sympathizer."

Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen plays Madame in "The Sympathizer."

Hopper Stone/HBO

Despite being well-versed in the Vietnamese diaspora entertainment industry, Nguyen’s role in The Sympathizer marks the 58-year-old actress’ Hollywood debut. In fact, Madame was her second-ever audition with a Hollywood agent. “That was the second side [my agent] ever sent me,” Nguyen says. “At the time, I didn’t know what a side was. I didn’t know how to do an audition tape. So of course, I went to the greatest source, YouTube, right? So I was just doing it with my phone and I sent it in. And at the time, I did not have any expectations because I had just wanted to get as many auditions as I could to get the experience.”

Before she met with The Sympathizer co-showrunner, co-writer, and South Korean director Park Chan-wook (of The Handmaiden, Oldboy, and Decision to Leave fame), she admitted she had no idea who he was until she did some Googling. She had been in Vietnam at the time, hosting some entertainment shows, when she got sent the next sides of the script in a callback. One of her friends, who was directing her for a commercial in Vietnam, begged to go with her to the audition and pretend to be her assistant. Nguyen had no idea what the fuss was about. “My friend was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Nguyen says. “‘He is like the ultimate director’s director. He’s the director that every director wants to learn from.’ And then I started researching, and then I started getting shaky and worried.”

Nguyen became excited about the role, sharing it felt like a breath of fresh air and a welcomed departure from her usual emceeing work. “It’s always when you think that you’re not going to get something, and you’re just going to try out for fun, you don’t get nervousbut now you’re getting a callback, and then there’s a glimmer of hope,” Nguyen says. She then laughs. “So maybe I should go through life hopelessly.”

Vietnamese American actress Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, dressed in black and sunglasses, in "The Sympathizer."

While Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen's Madame in "The Sympathizer" isn't based on her mother, the character's life is very similar.

Beth Dubber/HBO

They had set up a Zoom call with her. It was midnight in Vietnam and she had experienced a technical difficulty right up until the last second before director Park came on camera. She had bought a ring light, the kind used by YouTubers and vloggers. Fifteen minutes before the call, her dog tripped over the line and pulled the light out of the socket. She tried reinserting the light over and over again, but it kept failing to light up. Although she isn’t specifically religious, desperately wanting the role, she started to pray. And as soon as the audition call began, the light finally successfully turned on. “Throughout my life, I have had these little moments that really make me believe that there's this other energy, whatever we call it, something bigger than ourselves that will help those in moments of need, you know?”

During the actual audition, Nguyen shares that Park corrected her through his interpreter. “‘You know, tone it down a little bit,’” Nguyen recalls him saying. “‘This is film. This is not like a soap opera.’ And I’m like,” Nguyen makes a panicking face. “I’m acting like I’m in a soap opera. I’m done.” After the audition, she resigned herself to never hearing back from the show’s team again. But to her pleasant shock, she received a text from her agent barely an hour later, where she got the news that Park and everyone in the show said she was it. She had booked the role of Madame, barring Max’s final approval. “‘It’s 90 percent, unless you have some scandal, or have some really bad things where you’re not billable or marketable,’” Nguyen says. “I was screaming. I’ve never won the lottery, but I think if I had won the lottery, that would’ve been the feeling.”

The experience of actually filming the show was just as awe-inducing for her as the audition process had been. Likening it to the way Paris by Night would pluck unknown singers from small towns in Vietnam to perform in front of thousands of Vietnamese people worldwide in a several-hours-long variety entertainment show that thousands of people travel to attend, Nguyen shares how filming The Sympathizer felt like being chosen by Hollywood. She couldn’t help but be inspired by how professional everyone was. “Everything is taken care of for the actor,” Nguyen says. “So the only thing you have to do is act. There's never waiting in line for anything. They move you through your makeup, your hair. And then the minute you're done, boom, someone is calling a van to take you home. It's just incredible how the machine runs.”

Misogyny and classism within the Vietnamese diaspora

Vietnamese American actress Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen stands at a coffee table with food on top, bookended by actors Hoa Xuande and Toan Le, in "The Sympathizer."

In "The Sympathizer," Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen's Madame (center) goes from being the lady of the house with a huge staff to single-handedly taking on household duties.

Hopper Stone/HBO

Opinionated and articulate, Nguyen is well aware of her privileged background that has allowed her to receive these kinds of opportunities. “It’s funny how they say, ‘Life imitates art, art imitates life,’” Nguyen says. “In Vietnam, we were living in a household with 20 butlers and maids. I remember we probably had two or three cooks. My mom was always in charge of the whole staff. And myself? I never had to do anything in Vietnam. But coming over here [to America], my mom cooks, and guess who’s doing the dishes?”

Art imitates life indeed. In The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s Madame goes from being the lady of the house with a huge staff waiting on her in Vietnam to moving to the United States where she single-handedly takes on all of the cooking, dishes, laundry, and raising her child Lana (played by Vy Le). In some ways, Madame is the quintessential Vietnamese immigrant woman who does it all but gets neither acknowledgment nor gratitude. But she’s still more fortunate than most Vietnamese immigrant women. When I ask Nguyen about her thoughts on the misogyny and class struggles many Vietnamese women in the diaspora face, both then and now, I expect her to be indignant and righteously angry. Instead, she finds a thread of female empowerment in the narrative that Vietnamese women do everything. “From my years of going back to Vietnam and working shows, I get to meet a lot of the upper echelons of business people of companies who’d hire me to represent their products,” Nguyen says. “And I’d find out that the true powers of a lot of these big conglomerates in Vietnam are run by women. Even if the husband is the CEO or whatever, it’s actually the wives who handle all the money.”

Nguyen reflects on her own upbringing living with her grandmother and mom during the Vietnam War, noting how the men would go out to the battlefield while the women stayed behind running the family, and hustled. “My grandma was not even educated, because in her family only the males get to go to school,” Nguyen says. “And they were so poor that the females couldn’t afford it. So my grandma learned how to do math and read on her own and she became this incredible businesswoman, owning the equivalent of a Home Depot in Nha Trang.”

I press her a little harder on this topic, asking further about the often difficult transition that Vietnamese women go through after immigrating to a new country, as Madame did in the show. Nguyen acknowledges the transition was likely hard, but if her mother had any difficulty going through it, she hadn’t seen it growing up. “Before my mom married my dad, she came from the working class. My grandma was poor, so the transition wasn’t totally new to her,” Nguyen says. “Just from my experience, I feel like there are still elements of sexism and misogyny, for sure. But I think we’ve made a lot of progress, especially overseas Vietnamese. Over here, a family needs both partners to go to work. But in my mom’s generation, it’s still the women who, even if they’re bringing home the money, they’re still doing the cooking and washing.”

Nguyen’s future

A group of Asian people stand in two rows, dressed in suits and dresses, with a stage and Vietnamese sign in the background.

"The Sympathizer" author Viet Thanh Nguyen (front left) and cast members from the show.

Beth Dubber/HBO

When I ask her about whether she intends to keep emceeing Paris by Night for the foreseeable future, she gets a wistful smile on her face. “I feel like I’m a bridge right now, a go-between until they find another emcee,” Nguyen says. “I do believe that everything has a time and a season. Everything is more beautiful if there is a perfect time to enter and exit. This will be my 31st year as emcee. I do think it’s time to have new blood, new ideas, new creativities, younger people to come up.”

Having gotten her first taste of acting in a full-scale Hollywood production, Nguyen is eager to continue growing her skillset beyond Paris by Night. She plans to take acting classes. “I feel like, ‘Oh my god, what’s next?’” Nguyen says. “Now I don’t have to emcee. I've talked to young people like yourself throughout all these interviews I've been doing and it's inspiring, you know? So I really want to impart more knowledge, to help people. To discuss little issues that I've been through. So maybe a podcast. I would love to travel more, act more. Like I said, take acting classes. I’d love to start living in different cities. I want to live in a different city that I haven't lived in each month.”

As for any advice she has for the young Vietnamese cast of The Sympathizer and for up-and-coming Vietnamese creatives looking to break into the entertainment industry, Nguyen says to not be afraid of failure, be open to new opportunities that fall into your lap, and to take everything easy. “Once you get to where you want to be and you think you’ve got the house, you’ve got the position, then it’s time to keep moving. So you can never reach where it’s going to end. For kids your age who think they’re failing, life is really a journey. Follow your dream.”

All episodes of The Sympathizer are now available to watch via streaming on HBO’s Max.

Published on June 17, 2024

Words by Teresa Tran

Teresa Tran (she/her) is an American-born Vietnamese writer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia, with a background in theater and community organizing. She has a B.A. in English and Women’s Studies and a B.S.Ed in English Education from the University of Georgia and studied British Literature at the University of Oxford. She is currently writing and directing her own short films and working on her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter at @teresatran__.