It's a wonder that Yen speaks English at all, let alone as the female lead in what Hollywood calls a major motion picture. Until recently, her only ambition was to be the best ballerina in Ho Chi Minh City. But her boyfriend, Ngo Quang Hai, is an actor. And one day she accompanied him to an audition for The Quiet American. Yen's simmering stillness caught a casting director's eye—isn't this how Cinderella stories go?—and she was introduced to director Phil Noyce.
Noyce was in the midst of what co-producer William Horberg calls "an old-fashioned Hollywood talent search" for the role—by which he means that just about every young woman in the worldwide Vietnamese diaspora was considered. But Noyce wanted a type of hometown girl who could personify traditional Vietnamese womanhood. That wasn't easy in a globalized culture. "Every other girl we tested," says Noyce, "seemed polluted by the body language that you inherit from TV commercials, magazines, movies." Yen's body language was innocent, pure. It was language that caused problems. "When I asked her if she would like a Coca-Cola," Noyce recalls, "she answered, 'I'm 18 years old.'"
Yen hired an English tutor, memorized the entire script in phonetic English, took four screen tests and got the part. (Boyfriend Hai also won a role in the film, as the rebel leader General The.) She was aided by a top acting coach: two-time Oscar-winner Michael Caine. "As they were putting in the clapperboard," Caine says, "we would still be whispering to each other what we were going to do and how we were going to move ... The girl at the end of the movie was like a consummate film actress."
Today Yen is teaching ballet and is engaged to Hai. She is keen to act again. But if this Vietnamese Cinderella never does another film, she can always remember the day she traded her ballet slipper for a glass one.