How to Stand Out in a Worldwide Casting Call, According to ‘The Sympathizer’ CD Jennifer Venditti

Article Image
Photo Source: Beth Dubber/HBO

HBO’s adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning 2015 novel, The Sympathizer,” is a testament to the power of diverse casting. Co-created by Don McKellar and renowned filmmaker Park Chan-wook, “The Sympathizer” is set during and after the Vietnam War and features a cast of up-and-coming Vietnamese talent and established stars. In his breakthrough performance, Australian Vietnamese actor Hoa Xuande shines as a communist spy called the Captain, and Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr. takes on four distinct roles over the course of the miniseries. 

Bringing this ensemble together was no small feat; we had the privilege of sitting down with casting director Jennifer Venditti (“Euphoria”), the mastermind behind it all. Here, she shares insights into how she discovered Xuande and others in the ensemble through a worldwide open casting call and provides tips on performing alongside an Academy Award winner like Downey.


How to get noticed in a worldwide casting call

The process for putting together the “Sympathizer” ensemble was extensive, to say the least. The series put out an open casting call (including on Backstage) across the United States, Canada, the U.K., Europe, Australia, and Vietnam. Out of the thousands of submissions the team received, Xuande stood out. Here are Venditti’s tips for making your own mark in a similar project.  

Understand the character.

Xuande’s self-tape was one of the first the CD received. “We always just kept coming back to him,” she recalls. “It was so important that this character [wasn’t] a cliche of what a spy would look like; but he had to have this commanding presence that you wanted to watch. There also had to be some kind of mystery, so [you needed to] see his violent vulnerability a little bit, but not completely give it away. He had all of this.” 

Hard work pays off.

Even though Xuande stood out right away, it took nine months before he was cast. “You want to feel like you’ve looked under every stone,” says Venditti. “Park is such a powerful, clear director in the sense of what he wants from his actors, but the people have to do the work. And I think this casting process was such a great reflection of that and how [Xuande] was up for it…. Every step of the way, he showed up and was never intimidated and never felt like it was too much.”

Find your own way into the material.

“I remember [Xuande] wrote a beautiful letter to director Park [saying that] he was really connected with the story,” Venditti explains. “I think this casting was so moving and powerful for me because a lot of these actors that were answering the open call had family members that had been refugees or had gone through this experience, and they had never spoken to them about it.”

How to act alongside a star like Robert Downey Jr.

Venditti says that when she was looking for actors to perform opposite the Oscar winner, she needed someone who could “hold their own.”

“That’s always [something you have to] consider. But the incredible thing regarding Robert is what a giving actor he is and how every single person says how safe he made them feel—how supported they felt, and how comfortable,” she continues. “I think that’s what makes a movie star like him. So we knew we weren’t putting this person up against someone that would be difficult. If anything, [he] would be nurturing.”

Venditti has a few tips for actors who find themselves reading opposite a big-name star. “When people are learning lines, they get over-rehearsed a lot. It begins to sound like line-reading because they’re so focused on learning,” she says. “I always [recommend] using improv to get people out of their heads, redirect them, and then bring them back to the line. I think it's a great tool for actors just to play with. Even if a director is not going to let you improvise, I do think it’s important for actors to exercise that muscle, because it’s a good way to get warmed up and get comfortable.”

Robert Downey Jr.

Where casting directors find new talent

“I have to say, we found someone from Backstage,” says Venditti. Vy Le, who plays the General’s daughter, Lana, came across the role on our casting page. “She was going to a performing arts school—like, a boarding school in Massachusetts—and her friend saw [the notice] on Backstage, and she applied to that,” the CD says. 

Along with open casting calls, Venditti also likes to search for actors through more unconventional means. “We went on VietFace TV—it’s a Vietnamese [network],” Venditti recalls. “We also published something in the Vietnamese newspaper that was in Orange County. And we went through CAPE, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, which was super supportive.

“With every project, we think, Where would this person be? What would they be doing? It’s kind of like we’re part detectives. So we’re reaching out to communities or we’re going to events that attract a certain type of person that we think that character would reflect,” she adds. 

Venditti’s best audition advice

“Authentically be yourself. We all have a quality about us that makes us unique. It’s our own signature,” the CD says. “[I want to] see that, versus someone desperate to try to make me see them a certain way and try to be something they’re not. I like it when someone’s authentically celebrating their own signature, whatever that is. And it might not be right for the role that I’m looking for, but I will remember them.” 

For more advice on landing a role in an HBO project, check out our guide to auditioning for the network.