Alan Trong’s Mother Escaped Vietnam by Boat, Now He’s Playing a Ship Captain in An Enemy of the People | Playbill

Special Features Alan Trong’s Mother Escaped Vietnam by Boat, Now He’s Playing a Ship Captain in An Enemy of the People

The up-and-coming actor is also playing a Vietnamese journalist in HBO’s The Sympathizer.

Alan Trong Michaelah Reynolds

The common saying goes: wherever you go, there you are. In the case of actor Alan Trong, the shows he’s currently in directly reflect his own life. Sometimes the connection is clear: In the new HBO series The Sympathizer, Trong plays a Vietnamese journalist living in America right after the Vietnam War. In real life, Trong’s grandfather fought in the war, and his parents immigrated to America after the fall of Saigon.

Other times, the connections are a surprise. On Broadway in An Enemy of the People, Trong plays Captain Horster, a ship captain who supports Doctor Stockmann’s (played by Jeremy Strong) controversial efforts to warn their small town about the contaminated water supply.

“My mom's side of the family came to Thailand by boat. They snuck out [of Vietnam]. And they arrived in Thailand on Christmas Eve in 1981,” he explains. When Trong got the offer to play a ship captain in Enemy, “I thought about that,” he admits. “It’s funny, Sam Gold, our director, he's helped me through rehearsals, and he said, ‘Captain Horster, he's been through a lot. And just think about that.’ And I was like, ‘I could play with that.'”

It’s been a busy spring for the actor. After moving from Los Angeles to New York last October, Trong booked his first-ever stage gig: Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, in a new adaptation by Amy Herzog. And while he’s starring in the show every night, he’s also doing interviews for HBO’s The Sympathizer, which will air its finale May 26. 

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer takes place during and after the Vietnam War, following refugees as they attempt to make a new life in America while living with the traumas of the past. Besides its Vietnamese leading cast members, the show also stars Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Oh (who are both also getting ready to take the New York stage). Trong also plays Oh’s boyfriend in the show.

“They're pretty heavy,” he admits, but these works were also a joy to do after a decade of being cast in “unimaginative” roles in Hollywood because of the way he looked. And it’s been rewarding, in the case of Enemy, to play, arguably, one of the few characters in the show who is driven by morality instead of money. “Sometimes when we finish the play, it’s like, wow! It's just scary how Ibsen wrote this in 1882. And it's even more relevant today. Because you have the January 6 insurrection, you have climate change, you have Dr. Fauci and the COVID thing—there's so many different things that are parallel to what this man wrote years ago.” He then adds, gleefully, “This is the best acting job I've ever had in my life, a thousand percent.”

Those two projects are solidifying for him his decision to be an actor. Trong’s grandfather fought in the Vietnam War and lost three sons. In 1981, the family escaped Vietnam by boat, landing in Thailand before immigrating to the States. “My grandma was washing dishes at the hospital. My grandpa was working as a custodian at a high school and delivering pizzas,” he says. “I feel really proud to have that bloodline. I feel really proud to have inherited my grandpa's resilience.”

Alan Trong and Sandra Oh Hopper Stone/HBO

Trong was born and raised in Seattle. He went to college at Texas State University, where he got a psychology degree. Though he admitted that was just to make his family happy. “I knew I wasn't going to do anything with that piece of paper,” he says. “I'm going straight into the arts, and I'm going to be broke for the rest of my life. And that's fine.”

He admitted his family was worried about his earning potential. But his mom recently visited him backstage at Enemy, and he gave her a full tour of the space, including his dressing room. “And she's like, ‘Oh, this is a job. It's a blue collar job. You really are serving something,’” he recalls. “That makes me feel really fuzzy inside.”

Trong admits that playing Vietnamese journalist Sonny in The Sympathizer, who does not take a pro-Communist or anti-Communist side, puts him in a complicated place with his family. His grandfather still hasn’t seen the show, though his mom has watched every episode. But he considers that story of The Sympathizer necessary to tell (“this is our Vietnamese Julius Caesar”). Because while the Vietnam War has been a common backdrop in American entertainment, how Vietnamese people experienced the war and felt about it has rarely been seen.

“What I really focused on was the feeling of frustration that my people keep on dying during this war, no matter if you're a Communist or a South Vietnamese person,” Trong says of his character in The Sympathizer. “I'm seeing these people that are grieving that have been through so much. And I just want them to have a fair chance at the pursuit of happiness, to have housing and to feel a sense of belonging to wherever they end up.”

It's a sentiment that extends to real life. Though it’s been a good spring for Trong, he hopes this current stage of his career is a harbinger of better opportunities for Vietnamese American actors as a whole.

“I just hope that Vietnamese artists can continue to have access to these kinds of scripts,” he says. “We can play the humanity and inhumanities, and flaws and be messy and feel pain in stories. It's how it should be…We deserve to have these opportunities."

Photos: Jeremy Strong, Michael Imperioli, Victoria Pedretti, More Open An Enemy of the People On Broadway

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