How do you portray a role that divided the nation’s opinions and remain respectful to his memory?
Nguyen remains the last Australian to be executed overseas, after his arrest for drug trafficking in Singapore. The 2005 story attracted national headlines, the involvement of Prime Minister John Howard, candlelight vigils, and an ABC documentary Just Punishment.
Now SBS dramatises the story as its first local drama in 3 years, in Better Man, a two part miniseries by writer/ director Khoa Do and produced by FremantleMedia.
26 year old Remy Hii, whose father is Chinese-Malaysian and whose mother is English, gives the performance of his young career as Nguyen. He immersed himself in research material to prepare for the role, and had interviews with key players, including Nguyen’s lawyer, Julian McMahon, played by actor David Wenham.
“Julian was very generous with his time. He had a lot to do with Van and the two of them were very close friends. I was given a treasure trove of information by the producers with boxes of newspaper clippings. Pretty much anything that made it into print. No stone was unturned,” Hii recalls.
“There were also some very intimate details as well. I had interviews with some of his close friends, people like Rachel and Kelly, who were portrayed on screen. They were also very generous with their memories.
“So I was given a lot of material to work with.”
The first half of Better Man puts context on Nguyen’s life in Melbourne within his family unit. His mother Kim (Do’s own mother Hien Nguyen) brought twins Van and Khoa (Jordan Rodrigues) to Australia as refugee babies and raised them as a single parent after Van’s father walked out. In Vietnamese tradition, Van took on a paternal role, including taking fatal steps to raise money after spiralling into family debt.
Hii notes a bright future was impacted by circumstance and bad decisions.
“He was living in Commission Housing with no money, picking up 3 jobs in school just to help pay the rent, the school fees and clothes. Seeing how he would get involved in the school SRC and write articles for the school newspaper -this was someone who not only has a great sense of duty to his family but had a real potential and future,” he says
“To know it would all come to such a tragic halt really hit home to me.
“There’s no denying that what Van did was wrong and knew what he did was wrong and he was very remorseful and came to terms with the punishment that would be dealt out.
“I remember when I heard about the case, it was easy to think ‘You idiot what were you thinking? You’re taking drugs into a country that has the Death Penalty for it –how could you be so stupid?’ As Van’s brother says in the script.
“But to actually turn it around, and this was really important to me, to view it from the complete opposite perspective and say ‘Well yes, here is someone who would risk that. He went overseas knowing that his life could potentially be in danger. How high those stakes must have been for him to go and do that.’ To me it said, if anything, what a sense of duty he felt to his family.”
Also appearing in Better Man are Bryan Brown and Claudia Karvan, with scenes depicting Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore filmed in Vietnam.
“Shooting in Vietnam was like the wild, wild east. You were never sure what location you were going to get kicked out of next or how the local police were going to react to a film crew –despite the fact we’d gone out to get the permits.
“In one scene we were asked to leave by an armed guard while we were shooting. So it was a case of ‘Ok I think we got that!’”
The filming of the drama’s final scenes in Melbourne, was traumatic for cast and crew and gives the second part a powerful and heartfelt impact. Preparing for the scenes required emotional tenacity for Hii, who studied acting at NIDA and is currently appearing in Neighbours.
“I was living alone in a one bedroom apartment and I ended up moving all of the furniture out of my living room and I marked up a 2×2 metre plot with masking tape to match the dimensions of the prison cell, and did a lot of my rehearsing in there,” he says.
“But the raw emotions that were happening during that (final) week… we’d all grown so close as a cast and the story was so very real that the tears you see, none of it was faked. It wasn’t hard to get to those moments. Afterwards when the cameras stopped rolling and you had to deal with the emotions you’d been dredging up, to go home at the end of the day, it was a very hard thing to deal with.”
Yesterday a statement from the Nguyen family to media indicated they were deeply affected by the opening of wounds as a result of the SBS drama.
SBS reaffirmed its belief the story is an important chapter in the context of international debate about capital punishment.
“The producers of Better Man have sought to act sensitively towards the Nguyen family throughout the production process,” it said in a statement.
The drama will include a disclaimer that some scenes had been created for dramatic effect and that the family had not directly participated in it.
“The changes made were very slight,” Hii concedes. “I don’t think there were any major deviations from the real story. Names were changed for legal reasons. Moments such as the signing of the confession will always be there for dramatic tension.
“But when I was given the research I learned that 90% of the script was true to life, it was quite astounding. Things like his brother Khoa hadn’t visited him in 3 years and then went over in the final week.”
Central to the story is Van’s conversion to Catholicism inside Changi Prison, when the young Van Nguyen found a spirit that would prove to become a source of strength for his family and friends.
“Van knew the effect his death would have on everyone,” Hii says.
“With his loyal nature and care for everyone around him he realised it was important that everyone would be OK after he was gone.
“What mattered most was not where he was going to go, although he was terrified of that, but that the people mattered to him would be able to carry on. So he absolutely needed to find that strength for them within himself.”
Better Man airs 8:30pm Thursday July 25 and August 1 on SBS ONE.