- Van Veronica Ngo has had an impressive year so far with memorable roles in “Da 5 Bloods” and “The Old Guard.”
- Insider spoke to the Vietnamese actress about her big break in Hollywood.
- But she is far from a newbie to stardom. In Vietnam she has been a model, a pop singer, and has starred in multiple box office hits.
- Ngo talks about how she got her roles in the two Netflix movies as well as playing Paige Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
If you don’t know the name Van Veronica Ngo yet, you will soon.
Earlier this year the Vietnamese actress played the legendary radio personality Hanoi Hannah in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” and just recently starred opposite Charlize Theron in “The Old Guard.”
Though in both performances Ngo, 41, doesn’t have a lot of screen time, her roles have captivated audiences. Fans of “The Old Guard” are already hoping for a sequel knowing it would mean seeing more of Ngo’s Quynh character.
It’s certainly a concept that Ngo is very excited to explore. After 500 years of being trapped in an iron maiden, we find out at the end of the movie that Quynh has escaped. And she’s likely out for revenge.
But Ngo admits it’s still unknown to her what the future holds for Quynh or the possibility of a sequel.
“Everyone’s so curious about her,” Ngo said about the Quynh character to Insider over the phone from Vietnam. “When she meets Booker, there’s so much pain and anger in her. There’s a lot more we want to know about her, but you have to ask Netflix what will happen next.”
While “The Old Guard” and “Da 5 Bloods” may have introduced some Western audiences to Ngo (who also played bombardier Paige Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), in Vietnam, she’s one of its biggest stars.
From pop singer to movie star
Ngo’s story begins in 1990 in Norway. At 10 years old, she left her refugee family in Vietnam and traveled with her aunt to Norway for a better life.
“I didn’t know anybody there,” Ngo said of the drastic move. “I grew up in Norway, learned English there. I’m very grateful because that experience made me who I am today. It made me more independent.”
Ngo returned to Vietnam in 1999 and after finishing second-runner-up in a beauty pageant, she began a modeling career. In the early 2000s, she moved to music and became a pop singer known as NTV (the initials of her given name, Ngô Thanh Vân).
She released six albums between 2002 and 2008, gaining fans for her mix of pop, rock, and hip-hop.
Ngo’s first taste of international fame came when she transitioned to acting in 2004 and starred in the Singapore TV series “Rogue,” which aired on MTV Asia. Back in Vietnam, her profile got even bigger with the release of the martial arts movie “The Rebel” in 2007, which at one point was the highest-grossing film of all time in Vietnam.
In 2010 she even went on the Vietnamese version of “Dancing with the Stars” and won the competition.
But there was more on the horizon. Hollywood was calling. Specifically, one of its biggest franchises.
Getting a taste of Hollywood stardom with ‘The Last Jedi’
Ngo starred in Netflix titles “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” (2016) and “Bright” (2017), but her big break in the West came at the end of 2017 when we saw her as Paige Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Though she didn’t have much screen time, her performance as the sister of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) was memorable as we watch her give up her life to blow up a First Order Dreadnought at the beginning of the movie.
But during filming, Ngo said she didn’t know any of this. She was just overcome by the secrecy of the franchise.
“I remember being nervous and scared going into the project because they are so strict,” Ngo said. “It’s understandable, because it’s so big, but I couldn’t see anything, read the script, take any pictures. Thankfully I had just one line.”
She had no clue of the significance of the scene she was in until finally seeing the movie at the London world premiere.
“I saw the explosion on the screen and I was like, ‘Holy s—, I did that!'” Ngo said. “When I shot it I had no idea how big the ship was or the ship I was bombing, I just acted the way [director] Rian [Johnson] told me. The way it turned out, it was a great feeling.”
Ngo returned to Vietnam and continued to be a huge star. She starred in the action movie, “Furie,” which would become the highest-grossing movie ever in Vietnam.
It led to another call from Hollywood again. This time it was Spike Lee.
Becoming Spike Lee’s Hanoi Hannah
“A casting agency here in Vietnam called me and said they wanted me to meet Spike Lee, I didn’t quite know who he was,” said Ngo, who met the Oscar-winner in a Saigon coffee shop as he was scouting for “Da 5 Bloods.” “After I met him I learned how big a deal he is.”
The meeting went well because she was offered to play the Hanoi Hannah role in the movie. A radio personality during the Vietnam War, Hannah became legendary for her English-language broadcasts directed specifically to US troops to shame and intimidate them.
Lee used her in the same way he used Samuel L. Jackson’s DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy in “Do the Right Thing,” a character that appears on occasion in the movie and speaks directly into the camera.
Ngo said she spent months working on the Hanoi Hannah accent so her delivery would be perfect. It led to a one-day shoot of her part in the movie.
“The day before the shoot I spoke to Spike just about the tone he wanted and how he wanted me to sound,” she said. “I tried different voices and he told me which one was right. How to deliver the line. I’m from Southern Vietnam and Hannoi Hanna was from the north so those are different accents. And Hanna also had a British accent. I just really wanted to get into it and get the tone right.”
Ngo’s performance would heighten the authenticity of Lee’s movie about American Vietnam veterans who return to the country to find gold and bring back the remains of their fallen squad leader.
It wasn’t before long that her phone rang again. This time it was the director of a Charlize Theron action movie that was about to start production.
Representing Vietnam in ‘The Old Guard’
Looking back on her first conversation with Gina Prince-Bythewood, Ngo said she could sense that “The Old Guard” director was feeling her out.
“We talked about filmmaking and I think she wanted to see how my English speaking was,” Ngo said.
A week later she was told that Charlize Theron wanted to talk to her.
“I was nervous, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “It was supposed to be a 15-minute phone call and we ended up talking for 45 minutes.”
What made that even more remarkable was that Theron gave her that much time though she was already shooting “The Old Guard.”
A few days later, Ngo got a text from Theron that she had just watched Ngo in “Furie” and wanted her to come on and play the role of fellow immortal warrior, Noriko, in “The Old Guard.”
Most actors would be ecstatic by the opportunity and do whatever Theron and Prince-Bythewood said. But having already been in music, TV, and movies for years, Ngo was not a newbie and wanted to use the opportunity to represent her heritage.
“I read the script and I told Charlize about wanting to really relate to the character by acknowledging me as a Vietnamese actress,” Ngo said. “China cinema is so dominant over all the Asian countries. For Western audiences, we all have black hair and brown eyes and we’re all Chinese and I don’t like that. I’m proud of my country, my nation, my people. We have a long history in cinema so it should be embraced. Every character I play in Hollywood I would love to show that pride of my nation.”
Ngo said Theron was taken by that and suggested that the Noriko character be changed to a Vietnamese name. Though Ngo gave a list of names to consider, she said it was Prince-Bythewood who came up with Quynh.
“I don’t know where she found it, but I loved it,” Ngo said.
As Ngo patiently awaits her next big Hollywood project, right now she said she’s enjoying the fruits of her labor. Like most of the world, “The Old Guard” is currently the top Netflix title in Vietnam, and sometimes she has to remind herself that she’s in a movie where she’s acting opposite Charlize Theron.
Ngo has certainly come a long way from being a 10-year-old alone in Norway.
“I just feel blessed and super happy how it’s turned out,” she said.