Finding Peace in the End: In Conversation with Blue Bayou’s Linh-Dan Pham
Asian American filmmaker Justin Chon’s latest film – Blue Bayou – opens today in theatres nationwide. In the film, Linh-Dan Pham plays Parker, a Vietnamese refugee who has resettled with her father in the New Orleans area and who is in the end stages of her battle with cancer.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to chat with Linh-Dan about her role as Parker in Blue Bayou. The following is a transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.
JENN: Hi, Linh-Dan – thank you so much for taking the time today. I’m really excited to have the chance to talk with you about Blue Bayou. I found the film really powerful, and I really loved your performance as Parker.
One of the things that really strikes me is how few in-depth and complicated representations of the Vietnamese refugee experience there are in media. Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to this character and what aspects of the refugee experience you were trying to portray in your performance of Parker?
LINH-DAN: First of all, I have to admit that in the beginning I had no clue who Justin Chon was! (laughs)
My reason is because I’m French and I don’t live in America. I’m not American; I’m French Vietnamese. But of course, I’m always interested in knowing Asian American – and Asian, in general – artists.
When Justin first got in touch with me, he was so modest. He said: “I wrote this part and I think you would be perfect for it. These are the links to my two movies Gook and Ms. Purple, and here is the script.”
When I watched both of his films – Gook and Ms. Purple – I just fell in love with his work. And, along with the script for Blue Bayou? It was really a no-brainer. On top of all that, Justin’s female characters are always so beautiful and strong, and they always have a storyline of their own. And so really, I was like – yeah, take me! (laughs)
I also thought it was really amazing for Justin to also choose for this character to be Vietnamese. I think that’s what he wants to do: Justin wants to give visibility and representation to all Asian communities.
I don’t think we’ve seen that many Vietnamese refugees in filmmaking in America or around the world, except when talking specifically about the Fall of Saigon or in a war movie. But, few films show Vietnamese refugees on an everyday basis. For Justin to do that — you know, he’s a feminist himself — I think that’s why I connected to Parker’s character as well. As an actress, it’s a gift – Parker is a gift.
One of the things that I think is really unique about Parker’s character and Justin’s depiction of Parker is – as you mentioned – Vietnamese refugees are typically depicted through the immediate refugee experience. But Parker is living with it, and she draws strength from it rather than being defined solely by its tragedy and trauma. You really portray that strength well.
You know it’s really funny you say that because I think when you’re an actor, you’re unconsciously attracted to parts that are somewhere in you. Of course, there’s some creative side and some part that is fiction, but it is true: I come from a refugee family. I came to France when I was one. This part was always a part of me. I was the only Asian kid in the school. I came from an immigrant background, and I lived in an immigrant suburb of Paris. My parents taught me to speak Vietnamese. I was Vietnamese by roots and origins, and French by citizenship.
It makes you stronger to know who you are and where you come from, and I think that Justin saw that in me. Unconsciously, I give that energy to Parker. Thank you for raising that point up.
I think that really comes through in the performance. It’s really powerful.
Parker is struggling with cancer and she’s also unique in that you’re giving her an end-of-life story. This is the final chapter of Parker’s story. That’s also not something that people often write about in a character. What resonated with you in that aspect of the character – how you’re telling the end of her story – and what did you draw on to be able to do that?
Unfortunately, I’ve had friends who have passed away from cancer. Some have – sorry, I’m getting emotional – some others have survived. This was my tribute to them.
Everyone makes a big deal about me shaving my head for Parker. I did it for real, but for me it was the minimum I could do to give all those people respect, because at the end of the day I get to go home and be healthy. So, yeah, I really connected to that character.
I think it was beautiful the way you portrayed Parker finding strength in what she knows are her final moments.
That’s what I noticed in some of my loved ones who have gone. Of course, some fight it but most of them are very much at peace. For them, it was all about: I don’t have much time, I’m going to make the most of it.
And that’s why Parker pursues this relationship with Antonio. He really doesn’t want to be with her – it’s kind of comical in a way. But for Parker, there are no more boundaries, no more fear. There’s of course a lot of loneliness and accepting of the unknown. Somehow, I guess, I understood that.
The film portrays this relationship between Parker and Antonio, and Parker initiates it. What is it do you think that Parker saw in Antonio?
I think Parker saw Antonio having that conversation with Jessie – his daughter in the film – and it kind of made her heart beat again. It was like she had some life again, and it made her vibrate again. And then she has the chance meeting with Antonio on the street where he offers her a tattoo, and in that moment, they share the story about the fleur-de-lis.
Also, I think it’s because Antonio treated her normally. She wanted to pursue that – a friendship-attraction kind of relationship.
What would you like to see in terms of having more stories of the Vietnamese experience in film?
I think it’s about being sincere, and about having a story to tell that is so personal. I think the more creatives we have — scriptwriters, producers, directors, actors – in the Asian community, the more stories we’ll see coming out.
It’s quite universal in the end because we’re all human beings — it’s just about having more visibility in that.
Can I ask what you’re planning on doing next?
I’ve just come out of filming a big adaptation of the Asterix and Obelix stories.
Oh! So, I grew up in Canada and I speak a little French, and we learned Asterix and Obelix in school as one of the few comics for kids that are written in French!
Amazing! I was worried you might not know of it because it’s very European kind of stuff. This is an original story that we came up with. The film is in French, and it takes place in China. I got to play the Empress of China, and everyone just bows to me. It’s amazing, I love it! (laughs)
Wow, that‘s so fun – I really look forward to seeing you in that! And, thank you so much for taking the time today!
Thank you so much, Jenn. I really enjoyed this!
To read my interview with filmmaker Justin Chon, go here.
Blue Bayou was an official selection of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and opens today (September 17) in theaters throughout the United States.