Even with a growing number of movie roles, including one in Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth," actor Dustin Nguyen finds he is still best known for his four-season stint in the late '80s on the teen-throb hit "21 Jump Street" as Det. Harry Ioki, an undercover police officer who infiltrated high schools with co-star Johnny Depp.
"Even now, people still recognize me from 'Jump Street,' " Nguyen says good-naturedly during an early-morning interview at a Beverly Boulevard coffeehouse. "People still write in because they're watching it now (in different countries)."
But the 31-year-old Vietnamese actor is finally jumping off from his "Jump Street" fame, into both feature roles--including the buffoonish villain Glam in the current "3 Ninjas Kick Back"-and TV, in his new role as Chief Helmsman William Shan on NBC's "seaQuest DSV."
Just now, Nguyen is taking a deserved break, relaxing in his mid-Wilshire area apartment and thinking about looking for an apartment near Orlando, Fla., where "seaQuest" will start production this fall. Dressed casually in jeans, a blue shirt and a black coat, he talks about how he's spending his time off.
"I go to a lot of bookstores," says Nguyen, adding that he's also studying martial arts and catching up with his friends. "I like to read a lot of Eastern poetry. . . . To go to a Hollywood party is kind of weird. I don't know what that's all about. I go to the movies a lot, or I stay home and watch my laser discs."
Nguyen's calm manner and low-key lifestyle might seem odd for a young actor who first won attention playing a hot-shot cop on a hot-shot series and who has become so in demand, but his background is also far from typical.
Born in Vietnam, Nguyen fled with his family when Saigon fell in 1975. After stopping in Guam and being transferred to a refugee camp in Arkansas, the family moved to St. Louis.
The language barrier he faced made him painfully shy in school, but Nguyen gained some self-confidence studying tae kwon do, earning a second-degree black belt at 17.
Even at Southern California's Orange Coast College, Nguyen says he remained "very shy, to the point of it being a handicap." At the suggestion of a friend, he took his first acting class, hoping it would improve his public speaking skills.
"It wasn't immediate, 'Wow--this is my calling,' but it was good for me on a personal level," says Nguyen, who was already interested in film at that time. "I saw a lot of similarities (to martial arts) in terms of self-discovery and self-knowledge."
Nguyen quickly found an agent, and he won his first part in 1984 as a young Cambodian freedom fighter on a two-hour special episode of "Magnum, P.I." He played Suki on "General Hospital" for almost a year and did some television guest-star work before starting "Jump Street" in 1986.
Since then, he has been in several films, including "Heaven and Earth," in which he played the main character's brother, and he started work on "3 Ninjas" last May.
In the film, the agile martial arts expert plays an inept, clumsy villain and spends most of the movie being beaten up by three school-age ninjas-in-training as he attempts to steal a ceremonial dagger from their grandfather.
"I was on the receiving end, which is why I wanted to do it," Nguyen says. "I was more than happy to take the fall--I love slapstick comedy."
He also likes science fiction, which he says adds to the attraction of his new role on "seaQuest." The part was written for him by executive producers David Burke and Patrick Hasburgh and is one of several changes planned to make the low-rated show, which is also executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, more action-oriented.
"He has great physical grace," Burke said. "He's very strong with the martial arts. He can present a physically dangerous quality and he's a quiet person."
As Helmsman Shan, Nguyen will take orders from the ship's captain and convey them to the helmsmen who actually steer. "I basically walk around and make sure they're not crashing the ship," Nguyen says.
As for his priorities, he says, "I made it a very strong priority to develop myself as an actor first. Now I have to prove myself as a martial artist, which is kind of ironic--but I'd rather have it that way than to have to prove myself as an actor."