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Dustin Nguyen: The Master Chameleon


There exists a well-known and insidiously widespread bias in American cinema, which has driven many an aspiring Asian thespian screaming in frustration from his preferred career path.  This bias – perhaps one of the last remaining prejudices in Hollywood -- resists casting Asian actors as strong, multi-faceted characters for substantial roles in major films.  But Dustin Nguyen hasn’t let this stand in his way; instead, he’s taken matters into his own hands and branched out to international films in order to find roles befitting his considerable talent.  While Nguyen enjoyed more success early on than many actors of Asian descent dare to hope for, he too eventually encountered Hollywood’s Asian glass ceiling and was in danger of a career-threatening stall, until personal tragedy spurred him to get creative with his options.

Born and raised in South Vietnam until the age of twelve, Nguyen fled for America with his family during Black April, the North Vietnamese communist takeover in 1975.  It was perhaps here that he first learned how fickle fate can be, and how fortunes can turn on a dime.  Once a major movie star in Vietnam, Dustin’s father was forced to join the throngs of refugees flooding out of the country by boat, taking menial jobs on the way to an uncertain future for his family in the U.S.  Dustin’s mother had also been a dancer and actress in Vietnam, so he comes by his talent very naturally.  Adapting to a new country and culture at an already difficult age was made easier by participating in martial arts, several of which he continues to practice to this day, including Jeet Kune Do, Tae Kwon Do, and Muay Thai.

After studying acting in college Nguyen began his career in television, with occasional minor film roles.  His best known part was on 21 Jump Street, and he had another substantial run alongside Pamela Anderson Lee in V.I.P.  Near the end of the latter series, he married model and aspiring actress Angela Rockwood in a secret elopement on Valentine’s Day 2001.  They planned a formal ceremony with their families for November of that same year, but Angela was on a drive with her intended bridesmaids in September, when the women were involved in a severe car accident which killed actress Thuy Trang and rendered Angela quadriplegic.  Nguyen took a virtual hiatus from acting in order to care for his wife while she gradually rehabilitated from the crash. After a few months, she regained partial use of her hands and arms and is now able to use a manually operated wheelchair.  Dustin has said in interviews that the main long-term effect of this tragedy was to reinforce of the tenuousness of life, which motivated him to take a more active approach in securing the type of work that satisfied him creatively and professionally. 

To this end, he began considering films made outside of the U.S. and eventually landed a prime role opposite Cate Blanchett in the 2005 Australian movie Little Fish, which was critically acclaimed and garnered several awards.  Shortly afterward, his acquaintances Johnny and Charlie Nguyen, a pair of filmmaking Vietnamese-American brothers, contacted him to review the script for a film project they were starting in Vietnam.  It was a period action/drama called The Rebel (Dong Mau Anh Hung), and would give him his first opportunity to play the part of a villain.  Such was Dustin’s re-entry to his homeland after a thirty-plus year absence, and he has since made several films there.  Saigon Eclipse (Sai Gon Nhat Thuc) was a filial loyalty drama based on the epic Vietnamese poem The Story of KieuThe Legend Is Alive (Huyen Thoai Bat Tu) profiles a mentally disabled boy raised in a martial arts school, who as a young adult becomes ensnared in fighting a human trafficking and prostitution ring.  Switching things up, Nguyen’s next Vietnamese film was Fool For Love (De Mai Tinh), which was a lighthearted romantic comedy about a lowly bathroom attendant at a fancy hotel who falls for a beautiful aspiring singer.  Dustin also contributed to the production and screenwriting of this movie.  Next came perhaps his most challenging role to date in The Floating Lives (Canh Dong Bat Tan), in which he played an angry and abusive man raising his two children alone on a boat in the Mekong River delta.  A prostitute fleeing persecution jumps aboard their boat, adding both love and tension to the troubled family dynamics.  Most recently, Nguyen starred in Between Two Worlds (Giua Hai The Gioi), a supernatural thriller about a young couple who move into a haunted house.

All of this isn’t to say that Nguyen has entirely abandoned American films.  On the contrary, just this year he was cast in the U.S.-made horror film The Gauntlet.  He’s also slated to star in the indie dramedy flick Popular Dysfunctions, due out next year.  Justin Lin’s Bruce Lee-themed comedy Finishing The Game was another relatively recent American movie that featured Dustin in a supporting role.

Aside from his acting career, Nguyen has found creative expression in designing a line of custom silver jewelry and accessories under the brand Imperial Rose Collections.  It features bold, somewhat gothic designs, including dragons, skulls, crowns, and of course roses, among other themes. He and his wife are also active in the Christopher Reeve Spinal Cord Injury and Paralysis Foundation.  In addition to providing an active celebrity presence in the foundation, they put an Asian face to this type of disability, which is sometimes less than accepted in Asian communities.  The Nguyens want to help disabled minorities in particular learn about the resources available to help make their lives easier and more fulfilling.  They even recently helped to get the foundation’s website translated into Vietnamese.

It seems Dustin Nguyen will never stop evolving and adapting to the changing circumstances of his life’s journey.  He has constantly reinvented himself to take best advantage of available opportunities, while still remaining true to his goals and values.  Whether acclimating to a new country or rediscovering his homeland, eloping with the love of his life or loyally caring for her injuries, honing basic skills in television series or taking bold risks in independent films, Dustin Nguyen seems to be able to do it all.  He could be seen as the master of all chameleons, able to adjust to whatever the current situation requires, but for the fact that he stands out from the crowd so decisively, and yet without fanfare.  In a celebrity culture rife with divorce and failed careers, Nguyen has chosen to rise above his peers and set a shining example for aspiring Asian actors.  With his recent ventures into producing and screen writing, plus enticingly varied acting roles in international films, there appears to be much for Dustin’s fans to look forward to.


2011 Vietnamese International Film Festival - Best Actor Award

2009 Vietnam Golden Kite Awards – Best Actor, The Legend Is Alive

2009 Vietnam's Golden Lotus  - Best actor, The Legend Is Alive

2009 China’s Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival – Favorite International Actor

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