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Hiep Thi Le, Vietnamese refugee who became film star

By Neil Genzlinger New York Times  

Hiep Thi Le, who escaped Vietnam on a fishing boat when she was a young girl and a dozen years later became an unlikely movie star when she was cast as the central figure in “Heaven and Earth,” Oliver Stone’s 1993 film, died Dec. 19 of stomach cancer in Los Angeles. She was 46.

Ms. Le was born in Da Nang, in central Vietnam, on Feb. 18, 1971, while the Vietnam War was still raging. Turmoil after the fall of Saigon in 1975 led tens of thousands of Vietnamese to flee the country toward the end of that decade. They were called the boat people, and Ms. Le was one of them. Her father had already left the country, and her mother arranged for her and a younger sister to steal away aboard a fishing boat.

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“We were just told by my mom that we had to go look for Dad,” she once said, “and that he had gone to someplace called America, which we interpreted was the city across the river, since it had lights.”

She said she and her sister spent time in several refugee camps in Hong Kong and eventually did find her father, by happenstance. Sponsored by a church, they were brought to the United States, where they were eventually reunited with the rest of the family and settled near Oakland.

The family faced financial hardships, going on and off welfare, but Ms. Le was able to help out considerably when, quite by accident, she landed the film role.

Stone had already examined Vietnam and its aftermath in his films “Platoon” (1986) and “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) when he took up the true story of Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman who in two memoirs recounted her often harrowing story of life in central Vietnam and, later, the United States.

Stone held open auditions for the part of Le Ly, drawing thousands of hopefuls. Ms. Le, he told The New York Times in 1993, “just had the light.”

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At the time, she was a student at the University of California at Davis studying physiology and had no acting experience. She had gone to an open casting call in San Jose, she said, merely to accompany friends.

“Everybody was going to this thing,” she told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. “I didn’t even know what it was for. I thought it was for TV.”

Ms. Le impressed critics when the movie came out.

“You can’t not be moved by Hiep Thi Le’s amazing performance,” Jay Carr said in reviewing the film in The Boston Globe.

In The Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “As played with impressive confidence by Hiep Thi Le, a Vietnamese-born California college student making her film debut, Le Ly certainly does not lack energy.”

Ms. Le went on to appear in about a dozen other movies, including “Cruel Intentions” (1999); “Green Dragon” (2001), which was about Vietnam War refugees; and “Return to Pontianak” (2001), which was directed by her husband, the writer and director Djinn. They had two children.

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In addition to her acting, Ms. Le was a restaurateur. She opened two restaurants in California, the China Beach Vietnamese Bistro in the Venice section of Los Angeles and Le Cellier in Marina del Rey.

Her friend Quentin Lee, a producer and director who had known Ms. Le from an earlier project, recalled the time she let him use Le Cellier to shoot part of a movie he was producing, “Big Gay Love” (2013).

“Not only did Hiep let us shoot at her brand new restaurant, she also offered to cater for us,” he said by e-mail. “When we showed up, she had closed the restaurant and cooked up a feast for the cast and crew. There was no way that the indie budget I gave her could have afforded us all that.”

He said she told him simply, “Just enjoy and make a good movie.”

Ms. Le credited Tommy Lee Jones, who played her abusive husband in “Heaven and Earth,” with helping to coach her through her debut, which included a scene involving a rough domestic confrontation.

“For the fight scene, he said, ‘Honey, if you can’t fake a slap, do it for real,’ ” she told The Boston Herald. “I slapped his face a thousand times.”