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One Among Thousands : First-time actress Hiep Thi Le, who beat out 16,000 hopefuls for the lead in 'Heaven and Earth,' draws lessons from her fellow refugees

January 17, 1993|JACK MATHEWS

Hiep Thi Le says that even though she was only 9 years old, she can still see the look on her sister's face that night in 1979 when a fishing boat captain grabbed her screaming 7-year-old sister and put a knife to her throat.

"Tears rolled down her face, but there was no more crying," says the now 23-year-old Le. "I thought her eyes were going to fall out of their sockets."

Le and her sister were hidden in a secret compartment behind a galley pantry on a fishing boat carrying them and about 60 other refugees--boat people--toward China and Hong Kong. Their father had made the trip the year before, and the girls thought their mother was sleeping with them. She wasn't--she had stayed behind with her three other children.

"Sometime during the night, just as we arrived at a Vietnamese checkpoint, my sister woke up and started screaming for our momma," Le says. "Everyone thought we were going to die."

But they all made it, and soon the girls were cavorting with other children in a Hong Kong refugee camp that to them seemed like paradise.

"Rich people when they get to Hong Kong, they think they found hell," Le says. "I found heaven. I ate white rice; I smelled the fragrance of an apple. I got new clothes. I didn't have to work."

Le's entire family--her parents and five children--were eventually reunited in Northern California, where they still live. Le, a physiology senior at UC Davis, plans to graduate in June and pursue a career in science.

"I don't know how I got here," she says, sitting in a star's trailer with her name on it in a remote movie location in southern Thailand. "My cousin heard about these auditions for a movie, and I just went with a friend to see what it was about. They kept calling me back."

Le was one of 16,000 Vietnamese-Americans seen by casting scouts for Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth," and she was the one of the thousands who got the starring role of Le Ly Hayslip. In the film, she plays a woman who ages from 13 to 38, who is raped and tortured in Vietnam and who becomes an abused housewife, mother and businesswoman in the United States.

A tough acting assignment for anyone.

"I don't know how hard it is," Le says. "I have no basis to go on. They tell me Oliver (Stone) gets what he wants, so if he doesn't say anything, I guess it's OK."

As physically demanding as the role is, Le says she feels as if she's at camp.

"Everything I wanted to do as a kid but Mama wouldn't allow me to do, I'm doing," she says. "And getting paid for it. I ride a water buffalo, climb a tree, fly a kite, play in the mud and rain."

But it's not all fun and games. Le, like the other Vietnamese-Americans in the production, has been moved by the nightmare stories told by the Vietnamese extras, many of them refuges living in Thailand.

"When I see Vietnamese people on TV I felt sorry for them, but it's not somebody I know. I got to know these people (on the movie), and when you see a friend cry, it hurts. When I hear their stories and their expressions--you don't know how many of these people just break down and cry on a scene."

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She's having some tough moments herself, she says, and although her salary will be gone after paying off college loans and family bills (her parents are on welfare, she says), an acting career doesn't appeal to her, partly because she doesn't think being in a movie excuses whatever you're asked to do in it.

"For the prison scene, Oliver asked me to unbutton two buttons on my blouse," she says. "I go, 'No way.' I hear he tries to make it as real as possible, but I'm still a person. I have a life, and I'm not going to loosen my morals just to satisfy an audience. I don't give a damn about an audience when it comes to my own beliefs."

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