13 Mar Q&A WITH DUSTIN NGUYEN, DIRECTOR OF LITTLE FISH
Dustin Nguyen stars opposite Cate Blanchett in the Australian independent feature, “Little Fish.” After a five year absence, ex-boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) reappears in Tracy’s (Cate Blanchett) life and threatens her attempts at a clean, honest life.
JESSICA CHANG: In “Little Fish” you are working with a great ensemble: Cate Blanchett, Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, and Martin Henderson. What was it like working with them? Tell us about some of the experiences you had working with them—favorite moments, funny stories.
DUSTIN NGUYEN: I mostly interacted with Cate and Martin during the three weeks of rehearsal. But Hugo is the coolest; a gentleman. It’s a very intense film so everyone just focused on what they’re doing. Not to say we didn’t have fun because, we did. Working with Cate and Rowan, the director, was a learning luxury. They approach the rehearsal period with such care and meticulousness. An already fine script was constantly examined and challenged, many choices on how to play a scene were explored. What’s appropriate but yet unpredictable? Their tremendous talent lies in the choices they make.
CHANG: This was a move away from action genre that you are often known for. How was that experience?
NGUYEN: It’s funny that you said this because I’ve never really thought of myself as an action guy. I’ve always craved dark, interesting material. And I have resigned to the fact that these kinds of materials are almost impossible to find in Hollywood, for an Asian man. I felt when we were shooting that this is exactly what I was meant to do. A sense of belonging, home at last.
CHANG: You were in Sydney two months prior to shooting to get acquainted with the culture. How do you feel that impacted your perception and characterization of Jonny?
NGUYEN: It was imperative for me to spend as much time in Sydney as possible to absorb not only its rhythm and its culture, but the Sydney-Australian accent. Rowan and the producers were generous enough to foot the bill for me to come a full month before the three-weeks rehearsal began. Without this I wouldn’t have had the confidence to pull off the character—especially when I was the only non-Australian in the cast.
CHANG: I read somewhere that you eventually wanted to develop your own martial arts TV show or movie. How is that coming along and what new projects do you have in the pipeline?
NGUYEN: My partner Vincent Ngo, [who is] a tremendous writer, and I have a few things in the works. As a rule, I try not to talk about things until I’m doing it.
CHANG: What was the toughest challenge you faced during the filming of “Little Fish?”
NGUYEN: I would have to say, as silly as this may sound, I would have to say trying to not come off as an insecure actor. One that needs hand-holding and a pat in the back all the time. I hate them. And I’ve worked with a few. I wanted to give Rowan everything I had in me, and more. And I was in the company of acting greats like Cate and Hugo, trying to play ball. But I had to keep remind myself, “Don’t ask him how you’re doing! Don’t ask him about the dailies!”
CHANG: What impact do you feel this movie, garnering so many accolades from critics and audiences while providing a multi-dimensional Asian character, will have on the Asian community and the future of Asian actors?
NGUYEN: I’m not really in the position to make any prediction. I’m just grateful for the amazing creative experience. It’s a small art-house film, and won’t be seen by millions. But I’d hope that people in the industry and in general will have a different take on Asian men.
CHANG: You look in top form in “Little Fish.” You are an acclaimed martial artist, too. What kind of workout does it take to stay in shape?
NGUYEN: I’m blessed in that I don’t need to do much to stay in decent shape, in that I don’t put on a lot of weight. There was a time when I was younger and felt the pressure to have a “manly” physique by working out like crazy. I’m by nature lazy. The last five years, I hardly exercise anymore. I try off and on to do some yoga here and there. But that’s about it.
CHANG: There have been many social critiques on how common it is white men dating Asian women, but not so much vice versa. How do you think this film brings in a different perspective on this situation and what effect do you think it will have on public perception?
NGUYEN: Well, I have been told by people who have seen this film that there’s definitely a social and cultural significance with Tracy (Cate) and Jonny (me). Their relationship is a rare case of a love story without any racial baggage. Just a man and a woman. My character was raised in Australia and is practically an Australian. None of the exotic accent or stoicism that usually comes with an Asian-male character. Jonny is a bloke, and he’s very accessible for Western audiences. As for what effect this will have on public perception, I honestly don’t know.
CHANG: Having been involved with so many great projects, you are arguably one of the most successful Asian-American actors. How did your ethnicity play into establishing yourself? What has been your most rewarding role from your personal body of work?
NGUYEN: I would have to say that whether I like it or not, my ethnicity puts me into the category of an Asian-American actor. And for better or for worse, this comes with its limitations. Ones that are imposed upon me. I do the best I can to always bring some dignity and inner strength to all my characters. By far, the most rewarding role would have to be Jonny in “Little Fish.”
CHANG: What is your favorite movie?
NGUYEN: It’s hard to say just one. But my most favorite lately is “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” by Park Chan-wook. But, the film that made me want to act is “Dog Day Afternoon” by Sydney Lumet. Al Pacino is a revelation in it.
CHANG: In many ways this story parallels your own experiences of early youth; both you and Jonny fled from Vietnam as refugees to your respective countries. What was it like for you growing up? Did this role bring up difficult emotions?
NGUYEN: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri pretty much as an outsider, not unlike Jonny. I really related to Jonny’s loneliness. There’s a sense of lost innocence with Jonny. And a role like this demands you to dig deep for emotional ammunitions, but not in a showboating-look-ma-I’m-acting kind of way. Rowan was very much about me internalizing my emotions.
CHANG: Your father is Nguyen Xuan Phat, a famous Vietnamese entertainer. How did this influence your choice to become an actor?
NGUYEN: Not at all, actually. If anything, I had no interest to act growing up around it. I did, and still, have a strong love of films at a young age. And acting was something I stumbled upon after my failed attempt at film school.
CHANG: We were honored to have you as a guest last year. What is your favorite memory from the San Diego Asian Film Fesitval?
NGUYEN: Thank you for having me. The defining moment for me was…I remember sitting there after the screening of “The Motel”, after having seen “Saving Face,” and I looked over to my friend Vincent Ngo, and we both had a smile on our face. Vincent said, “We’ve arrived.” We both were so proud to be Asian-Americans.
CHANG: Finally, what are you working on now?
NGUYEN: I’m finishing a film in Vietnam about the 1920’s conflict between the French and the Vietnamese Revolutionaries. And at the same time, [Vincent] and I are prepping our own film while we’re in Vietnam. It will be my directorial debut.
Jessica is a former writer for the San Diego Asian Film Foundation (now Pacific Arts Movement)