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January 2021

This Is Hai

Hello, it’s me

I was wondering if after all these months you’d like to read this…

Hello from the other siiiiiiiide 

As I sat down to write my first post in months, Adele’s opening lyrics from “Hello” came into my head and I realized the above paraphrased version perfectly captured what I was feeling. This site has always been where I share fun news, but 2020 made it hard for me to write or focus on much besides maintaining sanity and not getting Covid-19.

But now we’re on the other side and I wanted to poke my head back out and say hi! And I have a fun reason to do so.

Shielded and masked on set

Toward the end of last year, I had the great pleasure of being a Vietnamese consultant and dialogue coach on several episodes of This Is Us, which featured a storyline involving a mysterious Vietnamese man named Hai and his relationship with Randall’s birth mom, Laurel.

When I first read episode 506, “Birth Mother,” cowritten by Kay Oyegun and Eboni Freeman (Oyegun also directed it), I thought it was the most beautiful TV episode I’d ever read that centered a Vietnamese character. And I couldn’t have been more thrilled when Vien Hong and Kane Lieu were chosen to play Hai at different ages.

Courtesy of Vien Hong

When “Birth Mother” aired January 12, viewers fell head over heels for the kind and generous man who, for over 40 years, never stopped loving Laurel. Fans on social media demanded to know and see more of the two actors who played Hai. I’m happy to oblige with an interview Vien and Kane graciously agreed to do for PCN.

Vien holds a degree in drama from NYU Tisch School of the Arts (something he shares with This Is Us stars Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson), and appeared on series like ER, 7th Heaven, and JAG. After taking a hiatus from acting, he aged himself drastically—by dehydrating himself and skipping sleep—to audition for the sixtysomething version of Hai. This Is Us marks his first time in front of the camera in 15 years.

IMDb

Young Hai is played by Kane, an actor and filmmaker who first made his mark at the 2017 My Rode Reel competition, where a film he produced took the People’s Choice Award. Prior to This Is Us, Kane’s credits included NCIS: Los Angeles, Orville, and Rosewood.

 

Pop Culture Nerd: What were your first thoughts after reading this episode?

Vien Hong: Wow, I’m out of tissues. That’s some great storytelling! So visual.

PCN: It made me very emotional. Kane?

Kane Lieu: I knew it was something special. I was extremely excited that they were bringing an Asian individual to this story. I felt it was a bold choice that worked out perfectly.

PCN: Hai broke boundaries. I can’t remember when a Vietnamese man, much less a Vietnamese grandpa, has ever been shown as a romantic lead on network TV. What did it mean for you to book this role?

Vien’s first day on set, with Brandilyn Cheah. Photo: PCN

VH: That this would showcase me—an Asian actor—in a light Hollywood isn’t accustomed to. That if I keep the moments truthful, people would relate to him or know someone like him.

KL: It definitely meant a lot to me. Someone asked me: “How did you prepare for this role?” Honestly, when I first read the audition material, I immediately connected with it. I mean, my mother and father are both immigrants and they came to America just like Hai. Didn’t know a single word. So I related to Hai very much.

PCN: Besides the personal impact, did you consider Hai’s larger impact on Vietnamese viewers?

VH: I had a feeling viewers would take notice that this is something fresh, that this character is not a carbon copy of all the stereotypes and clichés from other projects.

Kane on set, courtesy of the actor

KL: I knew a lot of Vietnamese people would be watching, so with you, Elyse, the accent was very important to me. I wanted to be as authentic as possible.

PCN: And you nailed it! What were your favorite experiences on set?

KL: My absolute favorite moment was right after we filmed the crawfish scene. The director, Kay Oyegun, came up to me and gave me some very kind, encouraging words. She said, “Kane, you’re a leading man and America is going to see that.” That hit me to the core. Someone who wasn’t Asian wanted to see an Asian leading man. That was an extremely important moment to me. I will never forget that.

PCN: She’s right. How about you, Vien?

Vien with Angela Gibbs, who plays older Laurel. Photo: PCN

VH: I loved the transformation with makeup and hair and costume. As each layer of Old Age clove was applied and each strand of hair grayed out, I felt myself transforming into a grandfather.

PCN: What were the challenges, if any, and how did you overcome them?

VH: My biggest challenge was getting back into acting after not being in front of the camera for at least 15 years. It took a bit of time to get used to, lots of conversations with a dear actor friend whom I respect. She helped put things in perspective, and got me to not beat myself up too much as I tried to get back on the bike.

KL: A lot of the challenges were Covid-related. I had to make sure after I got home from set that I kept any interactions to a minimum, if any at all. Every time I took a Covid test, I would just pray I didn’t catch it going to the grocery store or something.

PCN: Same. I was so nervous opening the lab results every time! What did you discover about yourself in the process of playing Hai?

Kane with Sterling K. Brown, who plays Randall. Courtesy of Kane.

KL: I discovered I am very much enough. There were times when I had made certain choices and the director would provide only simple notes for me, and I realized most of the time, she wanted nothing more than just me.

VH: For me it was patience and listening.  My 14- and 11-year-old asked for me to be Hai from here on instead of Dad.

PCN: Ha! This Is Us fans are clamoring for more Hai, too, even a spin-off with him and Laurel.

VH: Oh, that would be tremendous!

PCN: How are you absorbing all of the public reactions? What has surprised you most?

VH: I had no idea Hai was going to be this well-received. Surreal is the only word that comes to mind. It’s extremely flattering to hear what fans of the show are saying. It’s quite a humbling experience, indeed.

KL: It is kind of nuts. I seriously did not expect this feedback. I’ve read a lot of the comments and messages, and it’s really so sweet what people are saying, like just how my small gestures made such an impact on them. I also had lots of messages from Asian individuals telling me how they really felt seen because of Hai. That meant a lot.

*****

Have you seen Hai on This Is Us? Episodes 503 through 506, in which he appears, are available on Hulu. If you’ve seen the extraordinary “Birth Mother,” leave some love for Vien and Kane in the comments!

Follow Vien at Vien Hong, Actor on Facebook and @vientheactor on Instagram, and Kane @kanelieu on Instagram and Twitter.

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