How to Get Cast on a Show Like ‘The Sympathizer’

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Photo Source: Hopper Stone/HBO

HBO continues to dominate the prestige TV market with a new miniseries from award-winning Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. Based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning 2015 novel of the same name, “The Sympathizer” is a dark comedy–drama set during and after the Vietnam War. The show stars breakout Australian Vietnamese actor Hoa Xuande, as well as Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr. and Emmy winner Sandra Oh. 

This guide covers everything you need to know about how to get cast on high-caliber series like “The Sympathizer,” from how one of HBO’s top CDs approaches the audition process to advice on how to shine in the room.


What is “The Sympathizer” about?

Created by Park and Don McKellar, “The Sympathizer” follows the Captain (Xuande), an unnamed North Vietnamese mole embedded in the South Vietnamese army. After the war, he emigrates to the United States, where the Viet Cong tasks him with spying on the South Vietnamese refugees living in his Los Angeles community. 

Downey Jr. plays four men who have a profound impact on the Captain’s life, including a CIA agent, a filmmaker, a grad school professor, and a congressman. Emmy winner Sandra Oh co-stars as the Captain’s love interest, Sofia Mori, and Fred Nguyen Khan and Duy Nguyen play his childhood best friends Man and Bon.

Who’s in the ensemble of “The Sympathizer”?

  • Hoa Xuande as the Captain
  • Robert Downey Jr. as Claude, Niko, Professor Hammer, and Ned Godwin
  • Toan Le as the General
  • Sandra Oh as Sofia Mori
  • Fred Nguyen Khan as Bon
  • Duy Nguyen as Man
  • Alan Trong as Sonny
  • Toan Le as the General
  • Quinn Hoàng as the Commandant
  • Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen as Madame
  • Tom Dang as Skinny RTO
  • Tien Pham as the Petulant Captain
  • Jessica Truong as the Captain’s Mother
  • Vy Le as Lana
  • Kieu Chinh as the Crapulent Major’s Mother
  • Kayli Tran as the Communist Spy
  • VyVy Nguyen as the Crapulent Major’s Wife
  • Scott Ly as Hefty Gunner Dao
  • Maxwell Whittington-Coop as the Idol

The Sympathizer

Who’s the casting director for “The Sympathizer”?

Emmy-winning CD Jennifer Venditti (“Uncut Gems”) put together the ensemble. In addition to “The Sympathizer,” she’s also cast HBO’s “Euphoria” and “The Idol,” as well as Max’s “The Curse.”

The CD often finds actors for her projects by approaching people on the street—a process that largely relies on instinct. “When we’re street scouting, we’re looking for someone who has a cinematic quality. You want to look at them, and after you talk to them, there’s something they give off that this character would have,” she told us.

“You see them being able to bring that to fruition in a scene. We’re not looking for someone to be something other than who they are. We’re looking to bring out what we see in them,” she continued. “The first thing that attracts me to them is the visual. We might find a lot of amazing, character-looking people, but they can’t bring the performance. We have to see how they talk, if they’re comfortable with themselves, and how they tell stories. You still never know until you get them in the room.”

Robert Downey Jr.

How does the casting process work for “The Sympathizer”?

Venditti says that impressing CDs starts with the energy you bring into the room. “When you’re meeting a casting director, you don’t know what they’re going to be working on next,” she said. “So this idea of being so focused on being what you think they think they want sometimes negates the possibility that’s beyond the role you came in for. I really encourage people to truly dig down into what they have to offer that is uniquely them.”

She believes this is particularly important for inexperienced actors to remember. “I just talk with them, so it’s not like they have to perform,” she told us. “When we do that kind of casting, we’re not looking for someone to come in and shape-shift and be a different person. You’re casting that way because you’re looking for someone who can bring their personal experience to the role. You’re looking to enhance who they already are.

“Sometimes we do improv, because improv is just [about] being present and reacting to the situation. That kind of loosens them up a bit. If they’re comfortable with all that, then we give them lines. Sometimes I connect them with an acting coach. I don’t like to do that a lot, because you don’t want to teach out the parts of them that are so raw and beautiful. You don’t want someone to get so into technique that they can’t be who they are. It’s a fine line.”

Sandra Oh

Where can you find casting calls and auditions for projects like “The Sympathizer”?

The miniseries turned to Backstage to cast everything from lead characters to recurring roles to extras. If you’re interested in joining the ensemble of a similar project, check out this roundup of gigs that are casting now. We also recommend bookmarking our regularly updated list of HBO casting calls; you can also check out our guide on how to audition for the network.

The Sympathizer

What are the best audition tips for landing a role on “The Sympathizer”?

Embrace who you are. Venditti stresses that actors rarely find success by trying to be something they’re not. “Be the most dynamic, honest, truthful version of yourself. For me, when someone comes into the room and I can see that they just completely embody who they are—they’re not apologetic and they’re not trying to be who they think I want them to be—that’s the most attractive. 

“There’s nothing worse than someone who’s desperate to be what they think I want them to be. Even if they’re not who I want…for that part, if they are 100% authentic in who they are, they might be right for another part. When they’re pretending to be something they aren’t, I can’t put them out for anything.”

Look for similarities between you and your character. For Hoa, who has co-starred on series like Netflix’s live-action “Cowboy Bebop,” Paramount+’s “Last King of the Cross,” and SBS’s “Hungry Ghosts,” acting is all about finding yourself in the role. 

“I always try to see what similarities there are [between myself and] a character, and then I see what the differences are,” he told the Curb. “And then I try to put myself in the character’s shoes and bring the similarities closer to me. And the differences are something that I’ve discovered along the way. And in that way, that’s how you bring truth and authenticity to a character.”

Decide what you want from your career. Having spent decades working onscreen, Oh encourages actors to know why they want to pursue the craft professionally. “Know your intention in this business and industry,” she told us. “People would ask me the question, ‘What advice would you give young actors?’ And for a long time, I had the same answer—until my best friend said, ‘You know, that’s kind of harsh. Maybe you should change that.’ 

“It was: ‘If you don’t have to do this, don’t, because it’s hard. It’s very, very difficult. But if you do have to do it, that’s the kind of ideal drive you need to really be an artist.’ And now, it’s a little softer: ‘If you know why you’re doing it, or if you’re just a little more in touch with your intention, it can be a real guiding force.’ ”