French-Vietnamese actress Linh-Dan Pham opens up on family, acting and Vietnam…
Best known for her breakthrough role as Camille, Catherine Deneuve’s adopted daughter in the Academy Award winning Indochine, Linh-Dan Pham has gone on to star in dozens of movies and television shows, earning her a nomination and a win for Most Promising Actress at the Cesar Award, the highest film honor in France.
Oi talked to Linh-Dan about life as an international film star, her Vietnamese roots and what it will take to put Vietnamese cinema on the map.
Looking back on the young actress who played Camille in Indochine, if you could go back in time, what would you say to her?
Actually, I wish I could go back to the young actress who played Camille: the innocence, the fearlessness! It’s like the more I know, the more I doubt. It’s like I’m a freshman every time I prepare for a role.
After Indochine, you quit acting for 10 years, bowing to your mother’s wishes to pursue a more stable career. Do
you think that was related to your Vietnamese upbringing?
Maybe it was my Vietnamese upbringing… but this could also happen in any traditional family. Acting is still a very unstable profession and parents want stability and safety for their children. But to be honest, in my case I did not really discover a passion for acting after I shot Indochine. I had a great time shooting it but I didn’t really miss it when it was over. Yes, I missed the attention you get on a shoot being in the lead part, but I didn’t really miss the “craft.” I didn’t realize that was what I wanted to do. I realize now that I can only express my creativity through acting.
You left Vietnam when you were only one. People in those circumstances often feel torn between two worlds – not quite having the typical “look” of their new home while not sounding “native” enough for their home country. Have you ever felt that way?
This is an interesting dilemma that you mention… but it is one that I never felt. That’s maybe because of how I was raised. There was never a doubt in my parents’ minds that we were Vietnamese people living in France. So for example, I spoke Vietnamese and had to abide by “Asian” rules (respecting elders, not going out, heading home by 10pm when all my French friends were going for a night out, etc…) but I went to school with and had Caucasian, North African, Jewish friends. And we were all French! To me, I am Vietnamese with a French passport. I always thought that that was a strength rather than a weakness. I speak Vietnamese, French and English fluently, I’ve traveled far since I was young. I feel comfortable everywhere most of the time.
To date, what’s been your proudest achievement as an actress?
There have been many great moments of which I’m proud, but thinking about my career to date what really gives me satisfaction is that I’ve found my place in French cinema without resorting to typecast parts of the Asian chick. I get approached by directors and casting agents because of my body of work, and because they see me as an actress, not as an Asian actress, so I’ve been able to explore different genres and not be limited to certain types of films, resulting in an eclectic filmography. That doesn’t mean I won’t take roles that are specific to an Asian character, like in The Beat that My Heart Skipped, when I feel excited by the acting challenge that it presents.
The character I’m most fond of is Cam in Adrift (Choi Voi) [an award-winning 2009 Vietnamese film which dealt with modern themes like homosexuality and loneliness]. I’m not Cam, but I felt very much at home in Cam’s skin. Cam is a young woman who is writer, single, living with her mother, and there is such a richness and complexity to her persona, which is charged with all the contradictions of her position. On the surface she seems calm, in control, and sometimes a little callous towards her younger friend, Duyen (played by Do Thi Hai Yen). But underneath you can glimpse all of these conflicting elements driving her actions.
She’s clearly modern, yet her artistic life seems set amid that very traditional environment of a writer’s studio. She’s single, but with hints of complex romances. There is the traditional mother-daughter relationship with the mother’s calmly unquestioning and patient expectation of the ultimate goal of a wedding. And then of course there is the ambiguity of her relationship with Duyen, who seems so pure and simple against Cam’s complexity.
It was wonderful to try to capture and play all of that, to try to carry these motivations inside and allow them to emerge. Anyway, for me it was a wonderful experience, especially as the first fully Vietnamese production I have done. I never expected it to be a box office success, but I was captivated by the script and by [director] Bui Thac Chuyen’s vision from the very beginning.
I was thrilled with the final product and so proud that it got an award at the Venice Film festival.
Outside of a small handful of films, Vietnamese cinema has made a very small impact on the world scene. What needs to change to put Vietnamese cinema on the map?
Most movies made in Vietnam are commercial films, which need to make it at the box office in Vietnam, since there is not a wide international audience that can support ticket sales. At the same time there is limited finance for films and the production companies need to survive without taking too many risks, so there is a lot of formulaic plotting, copying of successful concepts from abroad (“Let’s make Sex and the City for Vietnam…”), and a focus on numbers.
But what I’d love to see is films with more soul; sincerity is key. There are a lot of crazily talented people in film in Vietnam who can and will create works that will captivate and convince international audiences, and producers should have the courage to exploit this talent. I can’t criticize, as I understand that the challenges facing a young film industry are significant, and I’ve discussed it many times with friends who are producers, writers or directors in Vietnam, who also yearn for this evolution.
Vietnamese performers (actors, singers, etc.) in general are not paid well. And it is even a more unstable lifestyle here than in the West, perhaps. What advice do you have for aspiring Vietnamese actors?
I would say: “If you are in this business to get rich and famous, then get out right now” because you never know what tomorrow is made of. Especially that a lot of it has to do with chance: being there at the right place at the right moment. But I also believe in destiny and hard work. I’ve been lucky so far but I’ve also worked pretty hard to get to where I am today. Celebrity is a strange commodity these days, but has become even more divorced from talent through the impact of reality shows, and from hard work through star search shows like Pop Idol. I don’t begrudge any of the success or riches that some may enjoy that way, but I have a feeling that many younger people increasingly see celebrity and artistic performance as equivalent. They aren’t.
Despite being known for your dramatic roles, what is it about comedy that you enjoy over other genres?
Comedy allows you to play roles which are somehow less connected to real life, at least that are further from me as a person. So it becomes more like a composition of a totally new persona. I played a retired super model who’s kind of a spoiled, druggy, party girl in a comedy called All That Glitters (Tout ce qui Brille), and I was really just playing with making up a personality, which was great fun but with whom I felt no connection.
But that’s also why comedy is hard – it’s so easy to slip into caricature and cliché, which becomes boring and two-dimensional for the audience, or to indicate the jokes, which ruins the impact of the humor. I love watching comedians who also have a deep sense of the dramatic and of character in their comedy. Will Ferrell is incredible, even at his silliest you completely believe in this outrageous personality he has created. Same goes for Kristen Wiig. And Sandra Bullock is a rare example of an actor who is strong in both drama and comedy.
Tell us about an experience you’ve had in Vietnam that sums up what you love about this country.
I’ll talk again about Choi Voi. We were making this film on no money, and I knew it was not going to be like making a movie in Europe or the US: no private rooms or trailers for the actors; limited filming equipment; young inexperienced crew; but everyone was so eager to make it happen, to learn, to move forward. Such a dynamism, so much passion, and such clever solutions to get things done on a shoestring. Seeing this and being part of it gave me such a buzz and told me that the resourcefulness and creativity that I see in other walks of life in Vietnam are also there in the nascent film industry.
Do you ever look back and think what your life would’ve been like had you stayed in Vietnam?
No, not really. Life’s been good so far!