From 'homeless among the clouds' to working with Robert Downey Jr., Kieu Chinh keeps going

On the red carpet recently for the Los Angeles premiere of HBO's new miniseries "The Sympathizer," she is regal in gold and black silk – glittering among Hollywood stars Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Oh.

You'd never know that five decades ago this month, actress Kieu Chinh was "homeless among the clouds," as she recounts in her memoir, "Kieu Chinh: An Artist in Exile," about how she became an accidental movie star in her native Vietnam and her refugee journey as Saigon fell in 1975.

Yet, with the trauma of a survivor, here she is reliving the Vietnam War in "an espionage thriller and cross-culture satire" based on Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The miniseries, also streaming Sundays on Max, features award-winning filmmaker Park Chan-wook and Downey, who just won a best supporting actor Oscar for "Oppenheimer."

At the Los Angeles premiere of "The Sympathizer" on April 9, 2024, actress Kieu Chinh, wearing a gold-and-black traditional Vietnamese ao dai, stands between co-star Sandra Oh and director Park Chan-wook, who's next to co-executive producer Robert Downey Jr. The miniseries is based on a best-selling novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, standing under the letter "h."

"I am so proud of our entire production for bringing to life a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Vietnamese story adapted and played by a majority Vietnamese cast – especially our new young star Hoa Xuande as The Captain," Kieu Chinh told me of "The Sympathizer."

"As a period piece, you can imagine when we’re shooting some of these visually stunning scenes it was extremely emotional," said Kieu Chinh, 86. "For me, it was like reliving the past."

For Nguyen, the novelist who alluded to Kieu Chinh's refugee story in "The Sympathizer," it's more than appropriate that she appears in the TV adaptation of his best-seller.

“Kieu Chinh is a legend of Vietnamese cinema and popular culture," he emailed me. "Vietnamese audiences adore her, and she has played prominent roles in American cinema as well, from 'The Joy Luck Club' to 'Journey from the Fall.' "

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"A legend of Vietnamese cinema and popular culture." That's exactly what Kieu Chinh was throughout my childhood, even after my family escaped the fall of Saigon and resettled in Phoenix in 1975. For as long as I could remember, images of her beauty and elegance made me think that she rivaled American legend Grace Kelly.

In Saigon during the war, the “Kieu Chinh TV Show” featured Hollywood celebrities of the USO Tour who came to help entertain service members, such as Danny Kaye, Glenn Ford and Tippi Hedren.

It was Tippi Hedren, star of such films as Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" – and mother to actress Melanie Griffith and grandmother to actress Dakota Johnson – who sponsored Kieu Chinh to the United States in the late 1970s.

'Homeless among the clouds': My journey from movie star to faceless fall of Saigon refugee

Then in 1977, Alan Alda wrote and starred in a "M*A*S*H" episode in which Kieu Chinh played Hawkey's love interest, called "In Love and War."

Though "M*A*S*H" took place during the Korean War, the show premiered toward the end of the Vietnam War and was considered a commentary on how U.S. policy affected my birthplace. Watching that episode with my parents, I understood that they were proud of Kieu Chinh and sad at the same time – for her interrupted career as well as for our native land.

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Cinema wasn't done with Kieu Chinh, however. She found herself starring in "The Joy Luck Club," which came out in 1993.

Coincidentally, I landed a role in an Oliver Stone movie that premiered the same year, "Heaven and Earth."

How I met the movie star of my childhood

It was unbelievable enough for me, a journalist, to have 15 minutes of dialogue in a Hollywood film. But at our movie premiere in Los Angeles, I turned around and was suddenly face to face with the movie star of my childhood – Kieu Chinh.

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That night I called my mom in Phoenix to brag about meeting the Vietnamese icon, and if my dad hadn't passed away just a couple of years before, he would have been so jealous.

At the movie premiere of "Heaven & Earth" in December 1993 in Los Angeles, from left, Academy Award-winner Haing Ngor, Thuan Le Elston, Kieu Chinh, Dustin Nguyen and Thai Tai.
At the movie premiere of "Heaven & Earth" in December 1993 in Los Angeles, from left, Academy Award-winner Haing Ngor, Thuan Le Elston, Kieu Chinh, Dustin Nguyen and Thai Tai.

Kieu Chinh and I have stayed in touch over the years. Recently, when I called to congratulate her on "The Sympathizer," the icon born in 1937 was just so thrilled to have found a new generation of young fans who follow her on Facebook and Instagram. Every time she posts something, she's excited they respond with so many likes and comments.

She's also excited about continuing to find work in Hollywood. Her social media posts are full of her leaving yet another airport: "On The Road Again!"

"If it seems like I’ve been working non-stop, it’s because I have," Kieu Chinh wrote me. "Since wrapping HBO & A24’s 'The Sympathizer' in Thailand, I literally went directly from set to set, landing in Philadelphia the next day, to film Apple TV+’s 'Sinking Spring' by producer & director Sir Ridley Scott and creator/director Peter Craig."

I asked what it was like working with Robert Downey Jr., who plays multiple "Ugly American" archetypes in "The Sympathizer." Kieu Chinh replied: "I was in awe of his work all season long. I wouldn't be surprised that the Academy Award winner will win an Emmy for this series."

Thuan Le Elston, a USA TODAY Opinion editor, is the author of "Rendezvous at the Altar: From Vietnam to Virginia."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Did Robert Downey Jr. know he just worked with a Vietnamese legend?