How ‘The Sympathizer’ Casting Director Crafted a Vietnamese Ensemble Over an ‘Insane and Cathartic’ Eight-Month Journey

“The Sympathizer” is an epic about Vietnamese histories — plural.

The HBO series takes its title from the experience of a North Vietnamese spy known as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), who embeds in a South Vietnamese community in 1970s Los Angeles after the war. By the end, he has nearly lost his sense of himself after struggling to make sense of the infinite political ideologies held by his country’s people and the fact that none had put an end to human suffering.

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That’s a lot to hold — too much, in fact, for one person. So casting director Jennifer Venditti, known best for crafting the ensembles of “Euphoria,” “Uncut Gems” and more, went on an eight-month worldwide journey to find actors whose overlapping performances, and personal histories, would add layers to the Captain’s journey.

Traditional auditions aren’t Venditti’s style. “Part of my process is I do interviews with people as well,” she says. “Their stories and their relationships with their family, made [the show] intense and cathartic.”

For example, of the actors who play the three “blood brothers” — the Captain and his best friends Man (Duy Nguyen) and Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) — only Nguyen grew up in Vietnam, having immigrated to Canada later in life, which is fitting, as Man’s letters become the Captain’s only connection to Vietnam after leaving L.A.

Man and Bon’s opposing politics make them foils to each other despite their blood oath. That chemistry was natural, as Khan was Nguyen’s first close friend upon moving to Montreal. Venditti calls it “kismet.”

“They’re such the odd couple,” she says. “Fred had been cast early on, and then Duy had auditioned for other roles he didn’t seem right for — then we came back around, not knowing at all that they had a connection.”

Xuande was an early favorite to play the Captain. “His tape came in right away, and everyone thought he was amazing. He wrote a letter to director Park [Chan-wook]; he was very passionate about this,” Venditti says. She continued auditioning other candidates for due diligence, “but always with him as the benchmark: ‘This is our person.’”

The Sympathizer
Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. in “The Sympathizer”

While portraying the war experiences of the Vietnamese people as nuanced and immeasurable in order to try and undo the historic stereotyping of Asians in Hollywood, “The Sympathizer” had a different take on its white characters. Each one represents an archetype previously seen in countless iterations, so Park turned that paradigm on its head, casting Robert Downey Jr. in all five roles to suggest that maybe those men have something in common worth paying attention to.

In one episode, Downey plays a film director who doesn’t understand why a Chinese actor doesn’t speak Vietnamese. Conversely, “The Sympathizer” had a multitude of Vietnamese background actors.

“It was really important for us to have people from the community,” Venditti says, noting they went on a show called “Vietface TV” in addition to putting a casting call in a Vietnamese newspaper serving Orange County and working with the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. “We did all this outreach in those populations.”

“The Sympathizer” also highlighted bigger names in key supporting roles: Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen plays Madame, while Kieu Chinh plays the Major’s Mother. “Ky was the host of something called ‘Paris by Night,’ and Kieu is such an iconic actor,” Venditti says. “We were just populating it with people that the Vietnamese community adores, and the rest of the cast was honored to be around them and share stories.”

Ky Duyen in “The Sympathizer”
Ky Duyen in “The Sympathizer”

She continues: “A lot of people didn’t speak Vietnamese with people other than their family. I remember people saying, ‘I haven’t been to Vietnam,’ then experiencing that culture with their castmates. It was about more than just the project. It really affected people’s personal lives, too.”

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