Dustin Nguyen was the first Asian American actor I saw on prime time without an accent. I watched him every week without fail on “21 Jump Street” and he was so cool. And hot. His character, Harry Truman Ioki, was an undercover detective, rode a motorcycle, had long mullet hair, multiple piercings, and wore leather motorcycle jackets. Oof.
Even as a child, I knew he was important. Nguyen played cool and badass when Asian American men on the screen were always weak, nerdy and sexually neutered. Not only that, his character was a detective instead of some stereotypical accountant or computer programmer. Nguyen embodied all the possibilities I didn’t know were allowed to us as Asian Americans and it was exhilarating.
Except Hollywood wasn’t ready for him.
In the Beginning
Born in 1962 to an actress/dancer and an actor/comedian/writer/producer in Saigon, South Vietnam, Nguyen and his family left Vietnam in April 1975 and relocated to a refugee camp in Guam. They moved to another camp in Arkansas before settling in a small suburb near St. Louis, Mo., where Nguyen and his younger brother were the only Vietnamese students.
When Nguyen was 18, his family moved to Orange County, Calif. He graduated from high school and attended Orange Coast College as a communications major, but dropped out in his second year to pursue acting. Despite his father, Xuan Phat, being in the entertainment industry for 30 years in Vietnam, he was firmly opposed to Nguyen becoming an actor. He really wanted Nguyen to get a degree.
Instead, Nguyen pursued acting. He told me he had a lot of luck in the beginning when he booked a contract with daytime soap opera “General Hospital.” There, he began to study acting seriously. Nguyen said, “It was like film school because I got to follow 22 different directors around and ask questions.”
His big break came when he auditioned for “Magnum, P.I.” and landed the leading guest star role in a two-hour special. Nguyen said he was “scared the whole time” but still managed to enjoy filming in Hawaii. This eventually led Nguyen to booking his groundbreaking role as Ioki on “21 Jump Street” for four seasons.
And then, he disappeared.
After “21 Jump Street”
Of course, that’s not true at all. He booked film and television roles after he left “21 Jump Street,” but to many of his young fans, we had no way of knowing. In fact, I even watched him in the 1993 drama “Heaven and Earth” — but I can’t remember if I recognized him. Nowadays, our favorite actors keep us updated on social media about their upcoming projects. Even if they’re out of the public eye, we are still aware of them. Back then, we did not have that luxury.
I still recall my delight at seeing Nguyen on “V.I.P.,” the campy action-comedy show starring Pamela Anderson. When I mentioned to Nguyen that I loved that show, he laughed. I stand by it, though. Once again, Nguyen played against stereotype, and my newly college-graduated self was so happy to see him on my television again once a week.
Even in 1999, Asian American actors were unicorns.
And then once more, he disappeared. Which, again, was not true. Though the internet existed by then, I assumed Hollywood couldn’t figure out what to do with an Asian American body on film and television. But Nguyen continued landing significant roles in Hollywood.
Two movies stand out during this time: “Little Fish,” the Australian movie where Nguyen starred opposite Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett as her love interest, and the indie mockumentary film, “Finishing the Game,” directed by Justin Lin, originally of “Better Luck Tomorrow” fame.
A Step Back to Move Forward
In a sequence of events that is familiar to many Asian Americans — a sequence that, historically, has seemed to be the only path to success — Nguyen moved back to Vietnam 10-12 years ago so he could “tell the stories [he] couldn’t in Hollywood.”
“The roles are tremendously 3-dimensional in Vietnam,” he explained. “I was dying to play a really cool villain and direct.”
Not only did Nguyen act as the Big Bad in a movie (“The Rebel”), he also wrote and directed his own films (“Once Upon a Time in Vietnam,” “Jackpot” and “I’ll Wait”), with “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam” being Vietnam’s first action fantasy film. The movie explored what society thinks a man and hero should be and incorporated several Buddhist ideas — so much so that the Vietnamese media thought it was a Buddhist movie.
“One of the things that really stayed with me in Buddhism is the idea that until we can manage that anger — that fire inside us — our ‘house’ will burn,” Nguyen explained. “We need to get our own house in order, then the world will be in order. Our biggest battle really is inside of us.”
He also racked up awards for his work. In 2009, Nguyen won several awards for the movie “The Legend Is Alive,” including a Golden Lotus Award (Vietnam’s Oscar) for best actor. More recently, in 2015, Nguyen won the Leonardo da Vinci Golden Horse Award for best supporting actor in “Gentle.”
Is Hollywood Finally Ready for Dustin Nguyen?
In the decade or so since Nguyen left Hollywood for Vietnam to tell the stories he couldn’t tell in America, the industry has seen a boom in Asian American representation both in front of and behind the camera.
Though Nguyen constantly credited the Asian American actors before him like Clyde Kusatsu, who worked with and advised him on the set of “Magnum, P.I.,” it’s not lost on me (and hopefully him) that he is one of the reasons current Asian American actors are now receiving the visibility they deserve. And because of this new age of Asian American representation in film and television that Nguyen helped pioneer, the scene is set for his return.
Nguyen has since guested on an episode of “This Is Us” and is now starring in Cinemax’s new action-drama series “Warrior” (executive produced by Justin Lin). He joked he was “coming into a time for an older, more mature category.”
Make no mistake. At 56, Nguyen is still fit and in fighting form. He’s practiced several martial arts — including Muay Thai, Tae Kwon Do, Eskrima and Jeet Kune Do — since he was a kid, and it shows.
Due to his popularity with fans, Nguyen will be returning as Zing in season 2 of “Warrior” as a cast member instead of a recurring character. He’s acquired the Vietnamese remake rights for the Korean movie “My Wife is a Gangster” and also has directing opportunities now in the U.S.
When I asked what advice he would give people following in his footsteps, he replied, “Is this what you really want to do? To throw away everything to pursue? Then train seriously and keep doing it. Get joy out of it.” Nguyen has survived in Hollywood for 34 years because he is tenacious and took his own advice. “As long as I’m having fun, I keep doing it.”
Check out Dustin Nguyen as Zing in “Warrior” on Cinemax (out now). You can also find Nguyen in shows like “21 Jump Street” and “V.I.P.” and films such as “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam,” “Little Fish,” “The Rebel” and “22 Jump Street.” You can follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nguyendustintri and Instagram @dustintringuyen.
Virginia Duan is a writer incapable of writing in brief. She swears. A lot. She finds it impossible to refrain from commenting online for the sole purpose of making people admit they are idiots. Fatal flaw is fatal. She discusses the deeply uncomfortable and humiliating with biting humor and glimpses of grace; loves the injudicious use of ALLCAPS; is #teamoxfordcomma; and always stans BTS. Virginia was a “Listen to Your Mother SF 2016” cast member and you can find her work on various sites like Romper, Mom.com, and Diverging Magazine. She’s the Entertainment Section Editor and a Staff Writer at Mochi magazine and the Living Justice Section Editor at Diverging Magazine. She chronicles her mishaps at https://mandarinmama.com.