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  • Ella Wu

Linh-Dan Pham on 'Blue Bayou' (2021)

It was an honor and privilege to get to know Linh-Dan Pham earlier last month. She is an esteemed and decorated French-Vietnamese actress, her career spanning from the Oscar-winning film "Indochine" (1992) to "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" (2005)—which earned her the César Award for Most Promising Actress—to her most recent release, "Blue Bayou" (2021) directed by Justin Chon. 

"Blue Bayou" (2021) follows the heart-wrenching story of Antonio, a Louisiana-raised Korean-American adoptee. His world is promptly torn apart when he finds himself facing deportation due to a legal loophole. In the midst of the chaos, he finds a grounding friendship in an enigmatic woman named Parker.

Image: Courtesy of Focus Features

“Parker is a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in America with her dad,” explains Linh-Dan Pham. “In the process of fleeing Vietnam, she lost her mom and her brother. She’s at a point, in the movie, where she’s got cancer and she doesn’t have much time to live. Meeting Antonio…somehow she has this feeling that she needs to transmit her roots and sense of family to him. So she pursues that relationship.”

And pursue it she does. Parker is relentless in her presence. She shows up at just the right time in just the right place with profound words of well-earned wisdom resting on the tip of her tongue. Linh-Dan Pham’s performance is exquisitely layered, and her relationship with Antonio brings a much needed breath of fresh air from the convoluted bureaucratic struggle of his looming deportation. 

“I think when she meets Antonio, something kind of vibrates in her, you know?” Linh-Dan says on Antonio and Parker’s dynamic. “I think she had given up, and somehow he’s given her a last breath of life, some would say. I think that’s why she pursues the relationship. And the fact that he talks to her like a normal person. I think she feels like she’s living a little bit again, and she wants a piece of that.”

Unlike Antonio, Parker has a very close relationship with her heritage. She fully embodies what it means to be a hyphenate, blending her Vietnamese and American sides seamlessly. When asked about her own French-Vietnamese background, Linh-Dan Pham said, “I was lucky enough to have parents who were always very keen on me keeping my Vietnamese roots. So as a result, we spoke Vietnamese at home, we gathered—actually what she does, what Parker does in the movie, we do. We meet up every weekend when I’m in town, we have long lunches, and someone somehow will always end up singing. If there’s a guitar, we bring out the guitar; and if there’s a karaoke machine, we’ll end up on the karaoke machine. All of this—what we have as a family, and extended family—is about transmitting your culture and who you are, and your identity. So I think, like Parker, I’m very much at peace with who I am, which is a woman with Vietnamese origins and French nationality. I think it’s a strength to know different languages and different cultures. It makes you who you are.”

Now, after the movie’s release, Linh-Dan Pham reflects on what it felt like playing the role. “Because of Parker’s illness, she’s kind of accepted the unknown,” she says. “It’s really about not knowing, and I’m someone who likes to anticipate and know things. I just had to give in. It was really difficult for me. I felt super lost, you know? I was this French actress coming to Louisiana. I’d never been to New Orleans. I was dropped into that team and crew of all Americans and I was trying to find my marks, and so Justin [Chon] said to me one day, ‘Linh-Dan, just enjoy the uncertainty.’ I think that was the key to Parker, actually. And so sometimes when I’m worrying too much, I just think ‘Okay, think about Parker.’ That’s what I learned from her.”

“I researched,” she continues, recalling her preparation for the role. “I read a lot of books. But also, unfortunately, I’ve had the experience of losing loved ones to cancer. For me, it was kind of a tribute to them. Everyone said, ‘Oh, but you shaved your head; what about your hair?’ But that was really the minimum I could do to honor them, the people that I loved that aren’t here and who have gone through that. That helped a lot. It changes you, the way people look at you, the way you look at people, the way you feel. Most of all, I was very worried about my American accent. I worked on that accent with a coach. It was very important for me that Parker had no ‘Asian’ accent.”

With her extensive background in primarily French film, this is the first time some American viewers have heard of Linh-Dan Pham. The same can be said when the terms are reversed, when it comes to her exposure to American-based filmmakers. “First of all, I’m ashamed to say I had no clue who Justin Chon was,” Linh-Dan admits with a laugh. “He sent me this email saying, ‘I wrote this script, and I think you’d be perfect for Parker. Have a look at my two movies "Gook" and "Ms. Purple," and here’s the script.’ I was like, ‘Okay, why not.’ I watched the movies and I was like, ‘Oh my god, who is this guy? How do I not know of him?’ I didn’t have to read the script. I knew I wanted to work with him. When I did read the script, I was so moved, and I cried so much, and of course I wanted to be part of it. It was really a no-brainer. He has everything that I look for in an artist or a project. The talent, the heart. He wants to give visibility and representation to the Asian community and be inclusive. He wants to portray America. I thought that was a great endeavor and I just wanted to be part of it.”

“He’s got so much energy,” she says about working with Justin Chon. “He’s amazing and talented in the sense that he wrote the script, he directs, and all of my scenes were with him. I got experience with the three facets of his talent and personality. He’s someone who’s very much in the moment. He gives so much; it was such a pleasure to be there.”

"Blue Bayou" (2021) has made its way through the festival circuit to mixed reviews, and it continues to be that way in theaters. No matter what, though, Linh-Dan Pham has high hopes that the film will “shed light on what is happening in America—and around the world—for adoptees who are facing deportation, and support securing help for them.” 

“But also,” she continues, “I think it’s really about family. No matter where you are and who you’re with, you choose your family. I think that’s very important, to be surrounded by people you love and choose.”


"Blue Bayou" (2021) is an official selection of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and is currently playing in theaters across the U.S.

Cover image: Courtesy of Focus Features


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