A Vietnamese refugee compelled to leave home at the age of eight, Hiep Thi Le first garnered national attention when she was selected from among thousands of Vietnamese-Americans to play Le Ly Hayslip in Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth. Le, who had no acting experience prior to the film, was praised for her portrayal of Hayslip by critics across the country and went on to appear in several more films.  She graciously spoke with Fest Associate and writer Nathan Judd about her experience, the film, and her life, which has been "perhaps more active than most."

You began the audition process for the lead role in Heaven & Earth as one of thousands. At what point did you think to yourself, “Hey –I may actually get this part”?

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I did not know there were others. I did not know I was auditioning. I did know anything about the film biz. I knew I was going through some fun process and that I was lucky to be a part of the process. It was 2 weeks into principal that Oliver told me WB saw the rushes and agreed with him and gave me the role.

The film –your first— made its debut in 1993. Is there a particularly rewarding –or challenging—moment, occurring during the film’s production, that comes to mind when you think about it after these many years?

Anything with dialogue was a challenge. Psychologically, the rape scene required someone with stronger mind power than I was.

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Le Ly Hayslip has said that your portrayal of her “was meant to be.” With no formal training or acting experience, how were you able to deliver such a compelling performance?

The book, Le Ly's frank answers to questions I had, and a top notch talent director's guidance. This combination allowed me to be submerged into the role of Le Ly Butler.

Oliver Stone stated earlier this year that Heaven & Earth is still one of his favorite films. What is it about the film –about Hayslip’s story— that resonates so strongly with viewers?

Heaven & Earth is a film about love, the human spirit, and our faith in life.

What are you up to these days? 

Life is filled with excitement. Mine had perhaps been more active than most -- from being an illiterate child boat refugee without parents, to growing up in the Oakland ghetto, to getting a scholarship into UC Davis only to plucked from school by Hollywood, then back to finish school off before starting a family and becoming a restauranteur. Currently, am living a quiet life : taking in the day to day blessings that accompany Mr. Sun and Lady Moon.

Are there new projects?

Mr. Duck is a children's book I wrote, soon to be made available to the public. It's about how a timid girl's love for her pet duck inspired her to get out of her shell, in order to save it.

And Daughter of the Sea is a memoir about my child boat refugee experience, represented by the Phillip Spitzer Agency in New York. 

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Saturday at the Fest features compelling stories of refugees all day, including Welcome To Vermont and Another Kind of Girl Collective from 4:30 to 6:30 pm.  Le Ly Hayslip will introduce Heaven & Earth at 6:30pm.