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Cast explains the meaning of ‘Nothing’




Cast explains the meaning of 'Nothing'

SPOILER ALERT: The following interview contains spoilers for “Endings Are Hard, Aren’t They?”, the series finale of “The Sympathizer” on HBO.

Robert Downey Jr. may have played five different characters in “The Sympathizer,” but he’s not the only actor in the cast to take on multiple identities.

The limited series follows a North Vietnamese communist spy known simply as The Captain (Hoa Xuande) who becomes embedded in a South Vietnamese community in Los Angeles after the war. Duy Nguyễn plays Man, the captain’s companion, best friend and only remaining connection to his homeland. But out of fear of surveillance, the two send decoy letters addressed to the captain’s fictitious aunt. All real truths must be short, purposeful, and written in invisible ink. Therefore, when the Captain is lonely and needs connection, he has imaginary conversations with the Human as if he were with him in person.

“I realized that the human in the captain’s head is not who the human is in real life,” says Nguyễn. That required him to understand not only his “real” character, but also a plethora of alternate selves based as much on the Captain as they were on the Human.

“The version of Man in his head really depends on what the captain needs from his friend at the moment, what he thinks his friend would say,” Nguyễn continues. “I had to read the script over and over again to understand, ‘What is the captain thinking?'”

These imaginary scenarios play out in the seven episodes of “The Sympathizer,” which take up much of Nguyễn’s screen time. “We shot all the fantasy scenes in one day: three directors in one day,” he says. “It was intense, like three scenes from director Park [Chan-wook]then director Marc [Munden] appeared in three scenes and director Fernando [Meirelles] for one scene. Then episode 7 is when you get to see the real man.

In the finale, titled “Endings Are Hard, Aren’t They?”, a lot has changed.

Although Man has ordered him to stay in America, the captain is desperate to find his homeland and takes part in an attack on the communists, masterminded by the general (Toan Le), so he can travel back to Vietnam. He still hasn’t revealed his ties to Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), a loyal South Vietnamese soldier he and Man have been friends with since childhood, when they are both captured and taken to a communist re-education camp. There the captain expects to be recognized as a communist and released. Instead, he is forced to make a detailed confession for a year to prove himself – even though the camp’s leader turns out to be a masked man whose face has been completely disfigured by a napalm accident.

“I had to create a completely different character to get to that point at the end, when he’s broken and burned out,” Nguyễn says. “But he still tries to be the person his friends remember, even if they don’t recognize him. That’s the most heartbreaking part.”

Just like the captain, man has also become a kind of ‘sympathizer’. He subjects the captain to intense torture, partly to keep their friendship a secret from his colleagues. But the cruelty also seems like a way to get the captain to admit something Man realized long ago: it’s hard to be proud of their victory in the war when it came at so much human cost.

Near the end, Man the Captain refers to a famous quote from President Ho Chi Minh: “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence,” a principle that the Captain deeply believes in. But Man tells him that there actually is is something more precious, and that he has to guess three times before he can ‘graduate’.

After wasting two tries on “faith” and “family,” his friend tells him, “Read the sentence carefully. The answer lies within.”

Nothing, perhaps even nothing is more precious. But what does that mean? Before the captain realizes the answer, he imagines himself sitting next to the Major (Phanxine) and Sonny (Alan Trong), the two people he killed as a spy. Is ‘nothing’ death? Is it the absence of politics? Whatever it is, it’s all the captain needs to hear. The man apologizes for making the lesson “so torturous”, explaining that he had discovered firsthand that he had to learn the lesson “the hard way”, and the captain grabs Bon and escapes the camp. The human watches them as they run away, leaving behind any loyalty to one side or the other.

As part of an extensive interview about ‘The Sympathizer’ and its historical significance, Variety spoke with Hoa Xuande and Duy Nguyễn, as well as Sandra Oh, who produces the series and stars in five previous episodes, about nothing.

The quote ‘Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence’ and the emphasis on ‘nothing’ – what did that mean to you? What conversations have you had about that? How did you get that out of the show?

Hoa Xuande: It’s so funny because that’s the phrase that President Ho Chi Minh said when he was trying to lead the movement for Vietnam’s independence, and that phrase is taken from American ideology. But the way it is used in the context of the liberation of Vietnam has a very different meaning than how we see it in the West. When we think, “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence,” we think of freedom, and then we think of independence. That’s how we were taught, and it’s not wrong, but in the show, and the realization that the captain has, is that the core of that sentence is the Nothing. Which actually almost refers to the fact that you have to humble yourself.

It’s desperation. It’s the fact that all these efforts to achieve this ideal have caused so much destruction, essentially torn people apart and put so many people in danger that made that thing worth it at all? The idea that ‘nothing’ actually is above freedom and independence. We must try to understand that we are no better than the ideals we continually strive for.

Duy Nguyễn: That’s why I read the book 10 times. Just to understand that part. I had to understand it to understand the whole book. I just took it from the character’s perspective: why does man try to teach the captain that nothing is more precious than independence and freedom? He is an idealist. A revolutionary. He believed that fighting the war, fighting the Americans, means getting his freedom back. But in episode 7 you see him take away the freedom and independence of the very people he tried to free. The Vietnamese people. He captured them. He realized how pointless it was, all this pain. That’s the lesson he wants to teach his friend, and the only way he can teach him is by depriving him of his freedom.

Sandra Oh: If you’ve read the book, that back quarter is pages and pages and pages of torture between these two. I think Man has already passed where the Captain is, and is trying to come to some kind of understanding. What is Nothing? It’s a lot of things. I have my own interpretation of it – almost a Buddhist sense of emptiness. This other space is actually bigger than these ideals. Man, through the torture he forces you into the trauma. You hear all these things, you think: ‘I’m doing well’, but he pushes you: what makes you where you are?

In some ways, that’s the moment the captain begins to free himself. And what’s in that space – the interpretation of nothing – I don’t think we really need to define it at this point, but that’s the key. It’s a very internal and very deep look at purpose, freedom, how to move forward on your journey. When man says, “It’s right in front of you,” that’s also a big part of the lesson. It’s right in front of us.

Nguyễn: And also, I’m sitting right in front of you. Look what it did to me.

Xuande Yes. You are nothing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.