SEATTLE — In 1974, Damien Nguyen and his family fled Vietnam. Thirty years later, the thoroughly Americanized actor found himself back in the country of his birth, portraying a young man, like himself, with a divided heritage.
And his life, he says, has never been the same.
"When you're an actor, anything that comes your way, you jump at it, whether it's just a small part with one line or something of this magnitude," says Nguyen of his leading role in "The Beautiful Country," which opened in limited release last week, "but you never really think that something like this will come along."
The film, set in 1990, traces the odyssey of a young Amerasian man, Binh, forced to flee Vietnam after a tragic accident. Already a social outcast because of his mixed race, Binh chooses to make a treacherous sea crossing to America, hoping to find his father, a former US serviceman. The role threw film neophyte Nguyen into fast company with an all-star cast that includes Nick Nolte, Tim Roth, and Bai Ling.
Nguyen was only 3 when his family undertook a similar crossing. His father, a South Vietnamese Army captain, feared for his family's survival and managed to secure a boat. The family - Nguyen, his parents, six siblings, and his grandmother - spent three days on the South China Sea before reaching the Philippines, where they were detained in a refugee camp for a month, eventually reaching southern California. Nguyen has little memory of the family's ordeal.
"I was so young it was more like we were going on vacation," he says. Among the earliest Vietnamese refugees, they were sponsored by four families in Orange County and were separated for six months until his father learned a trade. Once they were reunited, they set up house in a small apartment.
Nguyen's passion for acting came late; basketball and surfing were his first loves. "I was caught up in trying to fit in," he says.
A business major in college, he was dabbling with the idea of law school when a registrar told him that the ceramic elective he wanted was full and suggested that he take the beginning theater class instead.
"At first, I thought this would be a great hobby; then, after a few classes, I started realizing that I really wanted to do this," he says.
Afraid of disappointing his parents, he kept his growing passion a secret. Only a week before he dropped out of college, he told his parents he was moving to Los Angeles to become an actor. His father refused to speak to him for two weeks. Over the years, his parents have become more supportive.
"All of a sudden this [role] came up and they just did back flips," he says.
Nguyen's parents had revisited Vietnam several times and had been urging him to go back for years, but he had resisted. "I don't really speak the language too well, and I've distanced myself from the culture and heritage a bit," he says. "I thought maybe some day, maybe when I have a family."
Going to Vietnam for the filming was like entering the "Twilight Zone," he says. He had thought he would be able to reach inside and find the part of him that connected to his birthplace.
"But it was nothing like that," he says. "I felt like a foreigner going to a foreign land."
It was while swimming in the hotel's rooftop pool that he connected with his homeland, and with Binh, who in the story travels from a small village farm to Hanoi, from Malaysia to New York, and eventually to Texas. Looking up, Nguyen could see the gleaming rise of hotel rooms. Below was the street with people working.
"And there I am, in the middle," he says. "Had my parents not made the choices they did, I could have been any one of those people, that welder there, or the guy selling postcards on the street, or the guy moving brick around on his little scooter."
Tight schedules and a low budget made the film a challenge for him physically, mentally, and emotionally, even with support from director Hans Petter Moland and his fellow actors. Nguyen appeared in almost every scene. During the final days of shooting, Nguyen's aunt, uncle, and cousin made the 12-hour train trip from Saigon to see him.
"We had four hours together, then they had to get back on the train and go home," he says. He had been hesitant to encourage the arduous trip, but now calls their visit the most "amazing adventure" of his journey.
"Once they got here, they gave me such an eye-opening look into so many things about my parents, how they grew up, how my dad used to cut loose a bit," Nguyen says. "I'm like, 'My dad? My dad?' "
While Nguyen's low-key performance has garnered kudos, it's unclear if it will translate into more diverse roles in the future. Few opportunities exist for ethnic actors, he says. "It's branching out more, but usually it's gangsters, store clerks, roles of that nature."
Whatever happens, the actor says, returning to Vietnam has given him something precious - a missing part of his identity. After he and his relatives had said their goodbyes and started to walk away, he looked back. He and his aunt locked eyes.
"Tears started to run down her face, and I had this memory of being a little boy," he says. "And I walked away thinking, I really am here for a reason."