21 Jump Street’ star Dustin Nguyen is back in action

December 5, 2007

21 Jump Street’ star Dustin Nguyen is back in action

The actor from Orange County, who blazed a trail in the 1980s, has roles in three new movies.

The Orange County Register

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HE’S BACK: Actor Dustin Nguyen, who first gained attention in the TV show “21 Jump Street,” has become a busy actor in independent films, with three new releases.

Flash back to 1987. “21 Jump Street” was one of the hottest new shows on television, showcasing the talents of young heartthrobs Johnny Depp and Dustin Nguyen.

For Depp, already a rising star, it would be a launching pad for enormous big-screen success.

For Nguyen, who played Officer Harry Truman Ioki, it was rare opportunity in the national spotlight during a time when there were hardly any Asian Americans on television or in the movies.

Flash forward to 2003. Johnny Depp has become a household name, playing lead roles in quirky cult favorites and humungous Hollywood blockbusters. His swashbuckling turn as the irreverent Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” catapults him to the rarefied air of billion-dollar superstardom.

Meanwhile, in 2003, Nguyen was struggling to get bit parts on low-rated TV shows. Bigger, meatier roles on film and television passed him by. He even dropped out of acting for a while. He was also dealing with a personal tragedy – the paralysis of his wife after a major car accident.

“From 2001 to 2004, I pretty much got out of the business,” said Nguyen, 45, during a recent visit to Orange County. Nguyen lived in Costa Mesa for a few years and attended Orange Coast College. His parents still live here.

“I literally stopped acting. In a lot of ways, I did disappear. … I was very disillusioned with the kind of roles that were out there available to people like me.”

Flash forward to fall 2007. Dustin Nguyen is back. He’s got significant roles in three current independent films, including one that hits Southern California theaters this weekend.

“Finishing the Game,” a comedy directed by Orange County’s Justin Lin (“Better Luck Tomorrow”), is about the fictional search for the next Bruce Lee.

In the mockumentary, Nguyen plays Troy Poon, a veteran Asian American actor who has seen his share of good and bad roles and refuses to accept a part as a stereotypical, Bruce Lee-wanna-be kung fu hustler. In many ways, the earnest Poon mirrors Nguyen’s own career. Over the years, he’s turned down his share of Oriental villain and Chinese takeout delivery boy parts.

“It’s the reality of the business that a lot of people don’t want to talk about,” said Nguyen, who was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1962 and moved to the U.S. when he was 11. “The availability of good work, and good, positive employment opportunities wasn’t out there. What was difficult for me, having done something like ’21 Jump Street,’ it was very difficult for me to do things that were beneath that standard that was set by that show. There just weren’t a lot of opportunities.”

But the doors have opened for him lately. In addition to “Finishing the Game,” Nguyen can be seen playing the powerful nemesis Sy in “The Rebel,” a Vietnamese-language martial arts drama directed by Buena Park’s Charlie Nguyen (no relation). He also portrays the lead Kim in “Saigon Eclipse,” a romantic drama directed by Othello Khanh.

In 2005, he starred alongside Cate Blanchett in “Little Fish,” a big hit in Australia. He just finished shooting “The Gauntlet,” a horror film scheduled for release next year.

Nguyen’s return to the silver screen could be construed as a comeback for the veteran actor, whose father was a longtime actor in Vietnam.

“I’m not sure what comeback means, but if it means that I’m in people’s consciousness, I guess that’s what it is for me,” he said. “I think I’m at a juncture in my career – I’m older now, the roles I’ve done have been in a different category now.”

A TRAILBLAZER

When Nguyen first appeared on “21 Jump Street,” he was 24 and a rarity – an Asian American on network TV, playing an undercover cop who, like Depp, could pass as a high school or college student. Through 1990, he played a Japanese American police officer who was later revealed to be Vietnamese American.

Since then, broadcast television has made some progress, but it’s still rare to see Asian Americans play significant characters in prime time.

“I remember growing up – you had Sulu from ‘Star Trek’ and Ioki from ’21 Jump Street,’ ” director Lin said. “He gets the business. I also feel like he’s got a lot of dignity. Someone with that kind of class – that’s very rare.”

Glen Mimura, professor of film and media studies at UC Irvine, said Nguyen’s character on “21 Jump Street” was multifaceted and could not be reduced to mere ethnicity.

“It was unique at that time,” Mimura said. “It was a role that simply presented an Asian American male as a nonstereotypical Asian, and a role that wasn’t emasculated. His career, by and large, has been one of roles that more or less defied stereotypes.”

Roger Fan, who stars as Breeze Loo, another Bruce Lee wanna-be in “Finishing the Game,” says Nguyen has served as a role model for younger Asian Americans trying to make it in a fickle business.

“He’s had a really amazing career,” Fan said. “He’s done something that no Asian American actor has been able to do. He’s played and been paired with normal, cool characters in mainstream productions. He may not necessarily have hit the brightest shining star ever, but his star shines pretty darn bright and it’s been shining for a long time.”

Nguyen acknowledges that his roles on “21 Jump Street” and later in the comedy series “V.I.P.” were rare and significant. But back in the late ’80s, he wasn’t really thinking about representing a race.

“The honest truth is, initially I never thought of the significance of it. I was just so happy to land that job. … There’s a certain sense of responsibility that was sort of thrust on me. I’m not a political animal. But as time goes by, I realize how rare it is to have an Asian American male on prime time television.”

PERSONAL TRAGEDY AND GROWTH

In 2001, Nguyen’s fiancé, model Angela Rockwood, got into a serious car accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down.

Nguyen became her primary caregiver, and the two married soon after.

“Everything just completely changed because of that one incident,” the actor said. For a couple years, he put his career on hold as he took care of her.

Rockwood regained some movement in her upper body, but still cannot move her legs. In recent years, the two have become ambassadors for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which is dedicated toward finding a cure for spinal cord injury and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis.

“When you’re surrounded by people who are challenged in some way, whether it’s physical or mental, I think you learn a lot, in terms of what my role is, where I fit in this society and in this world,” Nguyen said. “You learn that there are other things more important than what movie you’re in, how people perceive you and your public image.”

The couple are part of the Reeve foundation’s minority outreach program, sharing information with Asian Americans affected by paralysis.

“The Asian community as a whole sort of views paralysis, or major illness, as something to be ashamed of, embarrassed by. They tend to keep it within their family and suffer silently.”

Nguyen said he aims to raise awareness of the foundation’s resource center, which provides information about rehabilitation, active living, rights and grants. The information is free and available in Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean.

“It’s not easy. I would never say that it is. But if you can be an instrument of hope and inspiration, it’s a lot more fulfilling. Don’t get me wrong. I love making movies and I love what I do. But (paralysis) gives you some perspective.”

A NATIVE SON RETURNS

Dustin returned to Vietnam for the first time in decades to shoot and later promote his film, “The Rebel.”

The Vietnamese press, which largely had ignored him for 20 years, applauded his gray-haired, villainous performance and treated him like a superstar.

“I was very surprised and I’ll tell you why,” he said. “Most Vietnamese in Vietnam have sort of negative connotations with overseas Vietnamese coming back, and I was one of them. Most Vietnamese Americans that come back, and I wasn’t the first one, they tend to be a bit on the arrogant side. So the amount of scrutiny initially was very high. We were all very nervous about how we were going to be perceived.”

Nguyen and his fellow castmates and filmmakers made a conscious effort to review their Vietnamese, conduct interviews in that language and avoid English. It was tough for Dustin, who described his vocabulary as being at a 10- or 11-year-old level.

He said the journalists realized he was trying hard to communicate in his mother tongue and cut him some slack. Plus, they genuinely liked the movie.

“When we got lucky and the film became a big hit there and people connected with it, it was a big relief for me. It was a big surprise.”

Nguyen says he’s enjoying this period in his career. He’s got his own production company in Vietnam. He’s also traveling from city to city, promoting “Finishing the Game,” and interacting with hundreds of Asian American fans who recall and celebrate his breakthrough role as Officer Harry Ioki.

“Creatively, this is the most fulfilled I have ever felt in my career,” he said. “I think I made some conscious decisions about taking charge of my own creative destiny. I’m a little less concerned about being in the mainstream radar. Ironically, in the last two years, I have been in non-Hollywood films, and those are the best roles I’ve ever had in my career.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-6026 or rchang@ocregister.com

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