'You're my Kim': How I landed a Hollywood movie and a scene with Tommy Lee Jones

Oliver Stone's holding an open casting call for his third Vietnam War movie, this time from the perspective of the Vietnamese people.

I was a young reporter at the Los Angeles Times' Orange County bureau in the early 1990s, and part of my job was to monitor the Vietnamese-language press in Little Saigon, a major cultural and commercial community of refugees spread out over several cities. And one day, Oliver's announcement was on the front page of Nguoi Viet daily newspaper.

The article said the Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter of "Platoon," "Wall Street" and "Born on the Fourth of July" had already held open auditions in Asia and Europe and in other American cities, but the final casting call would be in Little Saigon. I knew I'd cover it for The Times, but the biggest question on my mind was: Did Oliver Stone already have a screenplay for this first ever Hollywood movie from the Vietnamese perspective? Because I wanted to help him write it.

Spoiler alert: I didn't help Oliver write "Heaven & Earth." But along with many other Vietnamese non-actors, I was cast for the movie. I had 15 minutes' worth of speaking scenes throughout the film, sharing lines with Debbie Reynolds and Tommy Lee Jones – and Joan Chen and Haing Ngor, who played my parents. I was Kim, a sister to the main character in this major motion picture that not only educated me about my past but also gained me a movie family for my future.

"Heaven & Earth" cast and crew party in Phuket, Thailand, on Oct. 17, 1992. Thuan Le Elston is kneeling on the right next to "21 Jump Street" actor Dustin Nguyen, who played one of her brothers. Standing in a violet dress is "Twin Peaks" actor Joan Chen, who played her mother. To the right is the late Academy Award-winning actor Haing Ngor, who played her father.

30th anniversary of 'Heaven & Earth'

It was three decades ago that we were all in Thailand making Oliver's most poetic film, one with the heart of a Buddhist feminist. (Communist Vietnam was still closed back then and objected to many things in the script.) And Sunday, we reunited in Los Angeles for a rescreening of "Heaven & Earth," which premiered on Christmas Day in 1993.

Oliver based his movie on "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" and "Child of War, Woman of Peace" – the memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip. Le Ly was a child of Central Vietnam who, because her village was caught between communist North Vietnam and the Washington-backed South Vietnam, became a teenage Viet Cong guerilla, a reformed entrepreneur and then an immigrant to America.

Her journey is not for the faint of heart: She suffered rape by fellow VC guerillas, torture in a South Vietnamese military prison and then the suicide of her U.S. military veteran husband in Southern California.

Invitation and publicity folder to the world premiere of Oliver Stone's "Heaven & Earth" in 1993. Under the cast listing is Thuan Le as Kim.
Invitation and publicity folder to the world premiere of Oliver Stone's "Heaven & Earth" in 1993. Under the cast listing is Thuan Le as Kim.

Now a grandmother living in San Diego, Le Ly remains one of the strongest and most determined women I know. With no formal education, she has published two memoirs that were made into a Hollywood movie and founded the nonprofit Global Village Foundation. In fact, right before our movie reunion in L.A., she was back in Central Vietnam bringing aid and supplies to flood victims.

So no, Oliver didn't need me to help write anything; he had Le Ly. But in Little Saigon in December 1991, I covered the open casting call and brought along my best friend, a budding model and actor.

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Mass therapy session on Vietnam War

The event drew thousands to a huge hall, where they started lining up outside at 7 a.m. Inside, mini film crews had set up cameras to screen test the Vietnamese Americans. No script was handed out. Instead, the war refugees were asked to improvise from their own experiences: You're a mother who has to send your son to war. You're a father trying to protect your daughter. Your family is divided over Ho Chi Minh.

It turned out to be a massive therapy session for 12 hours. It's as if these Vietnamese Americans, so used to trying to bury the past to have a future, were all at once given permission to relive their nightmares, pains and secrets. Everyone just wanted to tell their stories. And cry. Everyone cried. The crews doing the screen tests sobbed behind cameras and had to take breaks between auditions.

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So many people were waiting in line, the casting directors asked my childhood friend Tran Tran and I to help audition our fellow refugees. I played a daughter, a mother, a sister to anyone who needed me. I didn't have any nightmares to relive: I was only 8 when my family escaped the fall of Saigon in 1975; the pains and secrets belonged to my parents. But those survivors auditioning for the movie were so real, their memories so alive, it was easy to help improvise their scenes. 

At the end of that emotionally exhausting day, Tran got her screen test for the main role, Le Ly. I played the bitter older sister who threw her out of my house.

One thing we learned later was that Warner Bros. didn't want to make a film with subtitles, which three decades ago was still a big no for American audiences. The actors Oliver chose had to be able to be understood in English. Tran and I, both born in Vietnam but grew up in Phoenix, were confident of our American sides.

Surprise: The casting directors called me back but not my friend, who, yes, remains my friend (and in fact came with me to the movie reunion last weekend, as you'll see swiping through the photo gallery below).

Oscar winner for screenwriting

At one of my audition callbacks, I was finally given Oliver's screenplay – and was blown away by what a lyrical writer he is and understood why he won an Oscar for writing "Midnight Express."

Oliver Stone, who has won Oscars for screenwriting "Midnight Express" and directing "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," signed his "Heaven &Earth" screenplay for Thuan Le Elston.
Oliver Stone, who has won Oscars for screenwriting "Midnight Express" and directing "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," signed his "Heaven &Earth" screenplay for Thuan Le Elston.

Reading "Heaven & Earth" made me cry. At a time when Asians in general, let alone Vietnamese Americans, almost never saw our true selves represented on the Hollywood screen, Oliver was amplifying the story of a small village girl who should have remained invisible to history. But Le Ly refused to stay invisible, and Oliver recognized that kindred spirit.

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In the summer of 1992, the call finally came: My last audition was my first meeting with Oliver at his office, where he had me read lines with him for Kim, one of Le Ly's older sisters who grew from rice farmer to bar girl to San Diego housewife.

Whatever I did worked. Oliver smiled and told me I got the part: "You're my Kim."

Some members of the "Heaven & Earth" cast on set in Thailand, left. Right, director Oliver Stone, author Le Ly Hayslip and Thuan Le Elston in between takes in the fall of 1992.
Some members of the "Heaven & Earth" cast on set in Thailand, left. Right, director Oliver Stone, author Le Ly Hayslip and Thuan Le Elston in between takes in the fall of 1992.

We hugged, shook hands, maybe – I was so excited I really don't remember what happened after hearing those words.

By early October, I was on a jet to Thailand, where I worked on the movie until Christmas break.

Reliving terror of war, bonding as movie family

As I later wrote for The Times in an essay headlined "Scenes From Another Lifetime":

On leave from The Times, I spent 2 1/2 months in Thailand, where not only did I and the other non-actors in the movie learn acting on the job, but I also saw close up the realities of a conflict I never knew personally. In character, we stood knee deep in the mud of rice paddies and cowered while American helicopters barking bullets interrupted our work; ran to a neighbor’s house to witness his killing by the Viet Cong; and argued with each other about how to deal with the violence. ...

All of this played havoc on my psyche. Day and night, I moved between the past and the present, war and peace, old enemies and new friends. No longer could I separate myself from the people and events I had known only intellectually.

As strangers who met only because we're supposed to portray a family on screen, you can't go through long, harrowing days on set without bonding. And we filmed in rural southwestern Thailand  – Phang Nga, a 90-minute drive outside the touristy Phuket Island. Every night, the cast shared trauma and entertained each other over family meals. On the rare days we had off together, we played tourists.

A vivid memory for me is an afternoon by the hotel pool: Our movie father Haing Ngor, who had won a best supporting actor Oscar for "The Killing Fields" in 1985, also had written a memoir about his escape from the communist Khmer Rouge, who forced the gynecologist and obstetrician underground, where he worked as a doctor at the risk of his own life. As he and other cast members chatted and relaxed, I read "Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey" and asked, "How are you still alive?"

We learned from one another yet also got bored together. Our movie mother Joan Chen, star of "The Last Emperor" and "Twin Peaks" and now a director herself, admitted once to being scared of ghosts. As easygoing as Joan was, I'm not sure she ever forgave my prank of making spirit noises outside her door with my movie brother Dustin Nguyen, who had starred in "21 Jump Street" and who now acts in and directs episodes of "Warrior."

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Reunion of 'Heaven & Earth' family

Last weekend was about the fifth time the "Heaven & Earth" family reunited after three decades. Tragically, our reunions have drawn fewer of us over time because of distance and death:

  • Haing survived Cambodia's Khmer Rouge only to die in a senseless shooting outside his Los Angeles home in 1996.

  • Costume designer Ha Nguyen, nominated for an Oscar for "The Mask," died of cancer in 2012.

  • Hiep Le, our leading actress who starred as Le Ly, passed away in 2017 from complications of stomach cancer.

Hiep Le: From refugee to starring in an Oliver Stone film

Thuan Le Elston, right, visits her movie sister Hiep Le, who starred in "Heaven & Earth," in the fall of 2017 in Los Angeles. Hiep Le passed away that December of cancer at the age of 46.
Thuan Le Elston, right, visits her movie sister Hiep Le, who starred in "Heaven & Earth," in the fall of 2017 in Los Angeles. Hiep Le passed away that December of cancer at the age of 46.

Watching "Heaven & Earth" again on the big screen Sunday in Los Angeles with both my Hollywood family and my real family, I remembered how generous my movie idols were in their interactions with us non-actors: Tommy Lee Jones, playing my movie sister's husband, made sure I was comfortable in our one-on-one scene. Debbie Reynolds shared her insecurities over her Hollywood career.

But watching scenes with my movie father Haing Ngor and my movie baby sister Hiep Le, I had to close my eyes. It hurt too much. I missed them so much. No amount of wishing could bring them back. 

What comforted me and stuck with me still is how our movie family feels like a real family after all these years. We've suffered together. We've survived together. We've partied together.

And just like in the beginning, Le Ly and Oliver have been there at each reunion. They're both our heaven and earth.

Thuan Le Elston, a member of USA TODAY's Editorial Board, is the author of "Rendezvous at the Altar: From Vietnam to Virginia." Follow her on Twitter: @thuanelston

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How an Oliver Stone Vietnam War movie became much more to me