left: shirt- GOOD FIGHT ,pants-MAISON KITSUNE, necklace-AZLEE, right: top-CORRIDOR, pants-JACK VICTOR, shoes-ALLEN EDMONDS

Hoa Xuande & Fred Nguyen Khan

On sympathizing with the struggle


Talent: Hoa Xuande @hoaxuande & Fred Nguyen Khan @frednguyenkhan

Photos: Haven Kim @thehavenkim

Fashion: Chloe Keiko Takayanagi @chloekeiko (Hoa), Savanah Mendoza @savannahkmendoza (Fred)

Grooming: Anna Bernabe @heyannabee (Hoa), Simone @simonegrooming (Fred)

Photo Assist: Eugene Ham @bobloblawlawbomb

It was a hot Monday late afternoon in West Hollywood, Los Angeles. For actors Hoa Xuande and Fred Nguyen Khan, it was just another press day of photoshoots and interviews for their new HBO series, The Sympathizer. “Looking fresh, my guy!” Xuande teased Khan in Vietnamese when he arrived at the shoot for their group shots. Khan chuckled and responded, “Thank you, brother!” While switching to different poses, they continued to make inside jokes and tease each other in Vietnamese, a language they scarcely knew before being cast into their individual roles.

“I remember talking to [Khan] and feeling [him] out, ‘Hey, do you want to try and run the Vietnamese dialogue in the scene we have coming up?” Xuande recalls. “We both started and we could just tell we were both as proficient as each other in terms of our ability to be fluent in the language and that’s how we connected. We’re both gonna be okay. We’re both at the same level. We’re gonna look after each other.”

In the new series, Xuande and Khan look out for each other as “blood brothers.” Xuande plays the Captain, a mixed-Vietnamese/French communist spy under the South Vietnamese army and the CIA. After fleeing the country during the Fall of Saigon, he grapples with his loyalties toward his comrades back home and his new life in the United States. His best friend Bon, played by Khan, was a former South Vietnam soldier, who lost everything because of the communist regime and is unaware of the Captain’s secret allegiance.

Through their roles, Xuande and Khan explore the impact of the Vietnam War on their characters and how they might have influenced the course of history. The two skillfully captured the political and moral dilemmas central to their characters’ journeys of self-discovery.

left: jacket-VINCE, pants-RAILS, boots-ALLEN EDMONDS, right: suit-SANDRO, shirt-BASIC RIGHTS, shoes-MANOLO BLAHNIK, necklace-AZLEE

The Captain struggles within himself because of his biracial identity. On one hand, he works faithfully for his own country but deep down he doesn’t feel accepted enough as Vietnamese by the people he wants to liberate. When tackling the role of the Captain, Xuande drew parallels with his own feelings of cultural dislocation. “I never felt Vietnamese, but I also never felt Australian enough,” he says. “I leaned into that in trying to find this character's core. From there, I built other things on top—the circumstances of the war, what my beliefs are in terms of the East and Western ideologies, [and] figure out my friendships and what they meant.”

Similarly, Khan’s character struggles with grief and identity and evolves over time, and he took inspiration from his own experiences for the role. “When you lose what you consider your identities, you just don't have a purpose,” the Vietnamese Canadian actor explains. There was a time when I wasn't doing well in school. I didn't know acting was going to be a career. It was like that. I didn't know what to do.”

Khan explains that, as much as Bon has lost because of the war, he ends up finding “a cathartic salvation in a way [in his] love of violence—a very unexpected way of satisfying the craving of death that he desperately needs.” Yet, the character never gives up on living. Khan attributes that to the character’s motivation to protect the family and friends he has left. In essence, Bon's actions are driven by a complex interplay of love and loss.

“There was one line that I remember performing with Hoa in the jungle,” he recalls. “I'm going to paraphrase, but I said, ‘You dumb bastard, if you didn't come with me, I could have just died here right now.’ Everything is based on his love for the people around him.”

These themes of loyalty and loss resonate deeply with Xuande, who reflects on the broader historical context. Xuande muses, “When you read the book and think about all those stories about the refugees that made it to America and didn’t have a place in the American system, and things that they did to try and resolve that, it’s just tragic. I find myself thinking about things like, was the battle in Vietnam to attempt to liberate the South worth the death of so many people? If you look at it from that level, you start to think that these loyalties are really about trying to save people who are important to you, who potentially never had a voice, or trying to save people who shouldn't have found themselves in the middle of such horrible conflict.”

But, for the Captain, his fealty extends beyond the country to his two best friends—South Vietnamese soldier Bon and fellow communist comrade Man [played by Duy Nguyen]. The three have formed a bond during their childhood always to protect each other, no matter the circumstances. “He’s trying to figure out how he can exist in this world in a way where they can still be friends and still have that very profound bond of brotherhood that they found early on as kids, and trying to stay in the innocence of that even though the world is pulling them,” Xuande explains. “Playing these different loyalties and allegiances and trying to survive—it came down to keeping together the innocence of the friendships that the Captain had, but ultimately struggled to maintain.”

left: jacket-VINCE, pants-RAILS, boots-ALLEN EDMONDS, right: suit-SANDRO, shirt-BASIC RIGHTS, shoes-MANOLO BLAHNIK, necklace-AZLEE

Xuande and Khan's deep understanding of their characters and the story offers viewers a nuanced exploration of many universal themes, bringing depth to the complexities of identity, loss, and loyalty. Their powerful performances entertain and invite empathy and understanding among audiences that transcend the screen.

In one instance, the Captain must interpret Ho Chi Minh’s famous quote, “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom.” As the clock ticks, the Captain reflects on every decision toward “the greater good” for his country.

Khan approaches the idea with a Buddhist mindset. “The way that I’ve seen it—and it’s changed over time, just by reliving this quote while on set and reading about it in the scripts and book,” he shares. “Impermanence is the only thing that is forever permanent in a way. Freedom and independence are important, but they won’t always be there. It might be there or it might not. If you embrace that, you should not suffer too much in life.”

Xuande thinks back to the scene and contemplates its significance. “A lot of the times when we analyze that phrase, we take the terms ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’ as the keywords. But, even in the Buddhist tradition or Eastern ideology, the idea of being nothing is the key to this sentence—that ‘nothing’ is more important than freedom and independence, [...] to not think that somehow you are more elevated than any ideology. To put it in very basic terms, the idea of individualism versus collectivism.”

Khan reveals his character didn’t have to think much about the quote, but he thought about it for himself. “My character never really had to think about that quote at all. I'm in a box outside in my own world.”

Xuande laughs, “I had to analyze that for these sorts of questions. I had to sit with it and think about what the hell I was saying at that moment… and that’s what I’ve come up with.”

left: shirt- GOOD FIGHT ,pants-MAISON KITSUNE, necklace-AZLEE, right: top-CORRIDOR, pants-JACK VICTOR, shoes-ALLEN EDMONDS
left: jacket-VINCE, pants-RAILS, boots-ALLEN EDMONDS, right: suit-SANDRO, shirt-BASIC RIGHTS, shoes-MANOLO BLAHNIK, necklace-AZLEE