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Interview: An Nguyen (Year of the Fish)

The Saigon-born actress popped up as a couple of blink-and-miss-it characters in The Brave One and Definitely, Maybe before landing the part of Ye Xian. With an all-star cast including Randall Kim, Tsai Chin, and Ken Leung it is Nguyen who manages to shine the brightest – instilling her Cinderella with a doe-eyed innocence and quiet integrity that carries the film.

Year of the Fish is a film of simple ambitions. A Cinderella story by way of Chinatown, the pic is an unabashed fairytale told with a straight forward, modern-day charm in lieu of a meta-deconstruction approach – A Princess Bride or Amelie this is not.

The film follows Ye Xian, a fresh-off-the-boat Chinese immigrant who arrives in the Big Apple with dreams of making a life for herself. Of course, little does she know the job opportunity arranged for her is at a “massage” parlor where she is expected to service the male clientele with a smile. Unwilling to debase herself, the Evil Aunt proprietor makes Ye Xian her whipping girl tasked with doing the parlor’s grunt work. It is in this capacity that she meets Johnny, an accordion-playing grandma’s boy with his own problems. Along the way she also crosses paths with a collection of fantastical characters who help her overcome her obstacles to Johnny’s heart.

The picture stars newcomer An Nguyen in her first leading role. The Saigon-born actress popped up as a couple of blink-and-miss-it characters in The Brave One and Definitely, Maybe before landing the part of Ye Xian. With an all-star cast including Randall Kim, Tsai Chin, and Ken Leung it is Nguyen who manages to shine the brightest – instilling her Cinderella with a doe-eyed innocence and quiet integrity that carries the film.

I talked to Nguyen about the role, her background, and being Asian in Hollywood.

 An Nguyen

An Nguyen Year of the Fish

Imran Jaffery: Year of the Fish is your first starring role in a film. How did you land the part of Ye Xian?
An Nguyen: The producers and David did an exhaustive casting call for the film and I went through the audition process through my agent. The callback was really grueling from what I remember. The audition scene was a tough one and they grilled me for what seemed like a half an hour and when I finally left I was spent. Much later after I was offered the role and had been shooting the film, David had told me in passing that I had barely made it to the callback, which is very funny. So I’m glad I made it to the callback and ended up in the film even though I wasn’t the front runner!

IJ: The film is very much a Cinderella tale told through the prism of the Chinese-American immigrant experience. Is that how you approached the role, as that classical archetype?
AN: Yes, I wore authentic clothes from a Chinatown shop where many immigrants buy there clothes and tourists in Chinatown would look at me as if I was fresh off the boat. Also we shot entirely on location and a lot of these places I had never actually been to so it was new to me.

IJ: Are you a fan of fairy tales yourself? You rarely see such unabashed modern fairy tales such as Year of the Fish these days.
AN: Really? I feel like many movies today are fairy tale inspired or use a fairy tale structure as a device to tell the story. Romantic comedies come to mind as well as anything female driven.

IJ. Can you speak a bit about your background? Were you brought up in a close-knit Asian community and if so, how do you feel that was depicted in the film?
AN: I’m originally from Vietnam and grew up in St. Louis where my family immigrated. I was always surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins. So definitely, we were close and spent time together. I can recall the elder generation trying to hand down our culture and history to us. In the film, the family I inherit may be bad but they never evict me. It is a dysfunctional family, but its a family nonetheless.

IJ: Vietnamese and Chinese are quite different, both culturally and linguistically. Was it difficult finding the subtleties of Ye Xian’s Mandarin accent? It was very convincing!
AN: Thank you! I worked with a speech coach on my dialect.

IJ. What kind of research (if any) did you do for the role? Did you venture into any “massage” parlors on Canal Street for a look see?
AN: No, I never explored any massage parlors downtown. I worked with my acting coach CayMichael Patten who believed in me like crazy and I have her to thank for encouraging me!

IJ: For a good part of the film the only real relationship Ye Xian has is with a fish. How attached did you end up becoming with it? Did you give it a name?
AN: We had a fish wrangler on set who came with a baby pool of several sized Koi. But no, I didn’t get a chance to get too attached with different fish stepping in throughout the shoot.

An Nguyen Year of the Fish

IJ: Did knowing the film would be rotoscoped affect your performance in any way?
AN: I didn’t find out till after I had accepted the role that it’d be rotoscoped and I think that made David very nervous because he thought I might not do it. He assured me that our performances were going to be organic and one of Ken and I’s very first rehearsals was such a breakthrough that I knew it was going to be very beautiful story, not cartoonish in any way.

IJ: As an up-and-coming Asian-American actress, how was the experience working with such esteemed Asian actors as Randall Kim, Tsai Chin, and particularly Ken Leung? Did they impart any advice about traversing the industry?
AN: It was an honor to work with Randall, Ken, and Tsai who were all so generous with me. We all have such different styles and methods that it was exciting to come to work because I had someone new to play with each week. Ken went on to star in Shanghai Kiss after Fish and I remember him imparting the fact that he was nervous to me. Here is a very talented actor who has worked with HUGE directors on HUGE movies and he’s nervous- It was very endearing and it just made him so human. He offered me a lot of support with it being my first film and again long after Fish wrapped when I was struggling. He is such a wonderful, kind human being and very, very real.

IJ: Anything in the pipeline we can expect to see you in?
AN: I am in talks to star in an adaptation of the best-selling novel in Vietnam called The Sorrow of War. It’s a love story set during the Vietnam War that spans ten years. Its sweeping, romantic and sad like Atonement except we live and have to bear the scars of the past while trying to salvage a future. It will be exciting and beautiful to work in Vietnam and in Vietnamese.

Gigantic Releasing releases Year of the Fish in theaters this Friday, August 29th.

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