Kim Nguyen has come a long way from her birthplace in Da Nang, Vietnam, to find herself with a successful directing career in Los Angeles. Along the way, she discovered her love of teaching, writing, and the responsibility of being a role model.
Do you remember your first week in LA?
No. Because I have a two-year-old, I feel like I've been lobotomized since 2014. I don't. But I'm sure it was chaotic.
What brought you out here?
My husband's work. We had just gotten married and he got a job out here. And it was actually interesting because it was the first time I also realized what marriage was: making decisions for your family that you feel good about, as well as just for yourself.
I've never had a desire to move out to LA and it was surprising when that opportunity came into our life. But I was totally open to it. And we both agreed we'd give it a year; if it sucked, we'd move back. But it hasn't sucked, so we've been here and we love it.
Even though you work as a director, you never thought of LA?
No. Because even though the production company I work with is based in LA, there's so much travel involved with work. And when I was in New York, I was always traveling, as well. So I would say that, for myself, where I live often feels more like just a “base camp.”
Let's take it back a bit—How old were you when you came to the States?
I was young. My family immigrated from Vietnam in a roundabout way over to Chicago.
So culturally speaking, it was complete chaos, which I think seems to be a theme in my life that I feel comfortable with. We came from a climate and an environment that was so radically different from the one in the States. My mother and my brother and I are here. But everyone else in my family is back in Vietnam.
Do you have any desire to live in Vietnam again?
No. Where I'm from, Da Nang, it’s very rural. And I think for us to go back there after "making it" here, so to speak, would probably be an insult to my family back at home, since they’re from a very impoverished area. Because we're here, we have more opportunities and we help to financially support our family back at home. I'm sure they miss us, but they need to go to school and they need iPads, too.
Has that influenced your life growing up here, having that close connection to your family whose lifestyle is so different?
I’d say tremendously so, just because I've pretty much always just done what I've wanted to do. I've always felt like I'd be okay. I think a lot of that has to do with coming from a place of nothing and just being able to grow my own way.
I think I wouldn't have been as scrappy or as motivated to pursue the things that I enjoy if I didn't come from a place where there were so few opportunities. My mom literally went to what would be the equivalent of second grade in the States. I'm the first woman in my family to graduate from grade school, let alone junior high, high school and college.
For me to have the role that I had in my career would have been absolutely unfathomable in Vietnam at the time. It's like night and day.
What did your mom do when she came out here?
When we first came here, we were dependent on Catholic charities helping out refugee families. My family's Catholic so…. I, by the way, want to go on record saying that I would identify myself more as a spiritual person versus a religious person. But anyway, when we arrived we actually lived with, for lack of a better word, foster families. We lived there in poverty for quite a while.
Then my mom was a cleaning lady. She didn't speak any English and she had two kids, and she was pregnant. She was pregnant all the way on the trip over here. My biological father had died in Vietnam.
So she was a cleaning lady. And then she met my stepfather. Through her lens, I definitely had a super-pragmatic childhood—it was literally a question of making sure we had enough food on the table every week. And she always provided that. I had a fantastic childhood in many ways, thanks to the perseverance of my mother.
It was a question of survival. That's probably another element of how I’ve chosen to live my life. I'm not living to survive, but I know what it's like to be on that path. Therefore, I feel much more comfortable doing what I want, because I feel like I have a really good appreciation of what freedom is.
Where did you end up going to college?
I went to college at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I studied psychology and education and advertising. I really wanted to be a teacher. And when I had a break from college, I did various things exploring that. I was a teacher's aide at a school for kids with disabilities. And I was a teacher's aide at a daycare. I have always loved kids. For a long time, I thought that would be something that I would pursue.
Eventually, when I was out of school, I didn't feel like I had the life experience yet to fully commit to that career. Teaching is a very giving role, and I wasn’t ready to commit to that at 22. I felt like there were still things I wanted to do before I could share that. I also felt like there were things I wanted to explore for myself.
So what did you do?
Oh, I did a bunch of fun, different, random things and then I went to The Creative Circus in Atlanta, which is one of those advertising portfolio schools. I liked writing but I didn't have a “book” or a portfolio, per se. Being a copywriter felt fun and conceptual, but also a way to make a living. It seemed exciting to me. I like the team aspect of it, and that just seemed neat.
I should also mention I've always liked writing a lot. When I was in college, I worked at The Onion. So writing has always been something that I love doing and that I'm pretty comfortable with, too.
So you put teaching on hold and pursued writing?
Yeah. Although, by the time I started to actually write, it felt really, really good to me. So I think that at a certain point, I was just like, “I'm ready to do this.”
In my head, I still think that maybe someday I'll become a film professor or something. The dynamic of sharing things with younger people is awesome to me. I think it's amazing. I feel like my biggest goal in life was to be a mom because I love children.
I guess when I'm an old, eccentric Asian lady, I can just become an eccentric Asian film professor somewhere.
That's so funny. You always refer to yourself as some Asian lady. Why is that?
Because that's how I’ve always seen myself. I always think that's really funny. I've grown up in so many environments where there just aren't a lot of Asian people. Especially where I went to high school. So for me growing up, I always identified myself as “the Asian girl” at school or “the other Asian girl” at school.
Even now as a director, I feel like there are probably not a ton of female Asian directors. So once again, I identified myself as “the Asian lady.”
I feel like you've turned it into a positive thing.
Definitely. I think it's awesome to have a multicultural background. I love being able to speak multiple languages. It's the world that we live in, so I'm grateful to be able to have some diversity to experience life with.
How did you make the transition from writing to directing?
When I was a freelance copywriter in New York City, I took a freelancing gig at MTV. That was a really interesting creative production model, because not only were you writing things, but you were also producing and directing things.
I mean, not everybody went in there and did that. But those opportunities were there if you got to a certain point. I really enjoyed being part of the whole process. That was surprising to me. I never wanted to be a director. It truly was the kind of thing where, once I experienced it on set and started to be more involved, I really fell in love with it. I'm still surprised that I'm a director. On the day I die, I'll probably still be surprised that I was a director.
In your mind you're a writer?
Yeah. Just a “creative” person, I think. And honestly, if I weren't directing, I would probably just do something else. I don't self-identify as, “This is who I am, this is what I do all the time.” It's just another interesting way to be creative.
Did you end up staying at MTV and directing there?
Yeah. That's how I started out. I was there for a few years, and I just worked my way up to directing and writing a lot of things. I really loved it. And the people that I worked with were amazing. I'm still really good friends with them. I still work with them a lot, actually. They gave me some really fun, cool opportunities, and I just rolled with that. They liked the stuff that I did, so they kept giving me projects. Then eventually I signed with a production company. And I thought, “Okay, you know what? I'd like to see what else is outside of this experience.”
Do you focus primarily on comedy work?
Yeah, that's really interesting, too, because people always want to know, “What kind of director are you?” And I would say, again, having that experience at MTV was so awesome because I was doing so many different kinds of directing.
My first handful of projects right out of the gate was a short film with Wyclef Jean, and another was a music video with Usher. It was so different and I really liked that. I really liked not doing just one thing.
When I left MTV, I had been doing a lot of things. Some were comedic. Some were music pieces, like branded music videos or content. And then some were more like documentaries. I continued to pursue those different paths within directing after I left. And I love that. That makes me really happy.
Did you have several projects going on at the same time?
Yeah. And I feel comfortable with it. I mean, I always think it's better if you don't do too much, just because of sheer timing. And especially now that I have a kid, too, my time is more segregated. But yeah, there are always multiple things going on and I enjoy that.
Again, it's creative chaos and being able to navigate through it is always a cool challenge to me. I'm always up for that.
Did you have a moment where you were just like, “Holy shit, this is what I do and I'm doing really well at it”?
I think it's always really exciting for me. That moment when everything is working the way that you want it to work. The way that things visually come together on set and everybody feels it. It's such a great moment and you strive to have many of those moments during your shooting time.
I don't necessarily think about whether I'm doing well or not. It's more just like, "Yes, it's all working great." That is an awesome feeling. I am always excited when I step on the set.
Being a director sounds like a lot of responsibility.
It is. It's actually a tremendous amount of responsibility. I'm pretty lighthearted on set and through the process, but I don't take the responsibility lightheartedly at all. I take that very, very seriously, especially because I think there are a lot of young girls who are very interested in directing. And it can be challenging to navigate the waters of finding your way into directing. I do feel a sense of responsibility to be the best director that I can be, not only for myself, obviously, and for the work and for the people that I'm shooting for, but also because I know there are a lot of other people watching and wanting to do it. They’re looking to find people that can do it in a way that they can relate to, and can provide some type of template for them.
I always get at least one person, usually many more, who come up to me on the side and say, "I just wanted to let you know how awesome it is that you're a female director and the way you run your set." That means something to me.
Have you been challenged because you’re a woman?
I would say no. It's interesting because I've done quite a few interviews where I feel like the interview starts to be leading in that area. And my response is typically, “No.”
But, I also feel that my particular experience is going to be different because I am a director. Essentially, everyone on set has either been hired by me or hired by people that are hiring for me.
It commands respect.
Yeah. I would say as a director, you're basically answering all the questions and you're the face in charge of everything.
Do you want to continue directing?
Yeah. I feel it could lead to other things, too. But I love directing. It's something that I would happily do for the rest of my life. And I'll keep it doing as long as I'm having fun. But if it's not fun, I don't want to do it.
What’s the best piece of advice you would give?
That's a nice question. I would just say, do what you want and trust your instincts. I think these are two things that have guided me very well personally and professionally. Also, don't care so much about what people think. It's really your vision for your life or career. Ultimately, you are your own audience—so if you're happy, it's all cool.
What does LA mean to you?
Oh, I like that question. LA means “right now.”
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©