Years ago, in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, a 5-year-old girl named Ha Phuong became very ill. Her family was creative but not wealthy, so her father had to borrow money to pay her hospital bills.
She recovered, but when her family couldn’t repay the loans, men came to take the family’s belongings.
“[They] took everything from our house, even our black-and-white TV,” remembers Ha Phuong, tearing up at the memory. “I told myself, when I grow up and I have some money, I will help people in situations like that.”
Known affectionately to all as “HP,” today she is an accomplished recording artist, renowned in her home country. She is also the philanthropist she dreamed of becoming, helping children and young artists on both sides of the Pacific through the Ha Phuong Foundation, which is now in its second decade.
Not content to rest on her laurels, however, HP is determined to make a splash in the United States as a filmmaker as well.
She has produced, co-written, and stars in the feature film “Finding Julia,” which has recently completed a qualifying run and was submitted for Academy Award consideration.
She knows the odds of success are long, as they are for everyone in the business, but HP remains undeterred. “I can do it,” she insists. “That’s my creed.”
HP got an early start in entertainment. Following in their father’s footsteps, she and her two sisters began singing together when they were young and became famous in Vietnam. Later, HP was a finalist on an “Idol”-style TV competition, and went on to release 12 solo albums and multiple CDs. She has also recorded two English-language songs, with music videos for both.
Singing remains a passion for her. “Every song you sing has its own story,” she notes, “with an opportunity to put your own soul into it.”
The next step was the move into acting. Many performers just starting out look for a vehicle to showcase their talents. But few sit down to write one themselves, let alone mine their past quite so candidly as HP does in “Finding Julia.”
The title character is a student trying to break into acting in New York City after her mother is killed in an automobile accident.
“Finding Julia” is not, however, strictly autobiographical. Says HP, “70 percent is my own life, while 30 percent is fiction,” the latter having to do with the tensions between Julia and her widowed father — played by Andrew McCarthy — when he embarks on a new relationship, setting off jealous rages in the already unstable girl. Only in the course of the acting class’ final performance is she able to pull together the broken pieces and “find Julia.”
The theme, HP says, is simple: “Giving up is not an option.”
Veteran Richard Chamberlain plays the acting teacher who guides the girl toward her artistic center, and the script explores the difficulties of a non-native English speaker in an expressive profession. Julia, like HP, endures bullying: “I came here, my English was very limited, and I had a thick accent. And in acting class, friends teased me. Everyone thought I couldn’t make it.
“I didn’t know anything!” she admits. “But I tried and tried. I was going to improve.” Her real-life acting coach Susan Batson attests that she did: “HP was very skillful, very intelligent and very creative, all of which she brought to the work without knowing the process. I had tremendous pleasure working with her and I miss my sessions with her.”
Having risen from humble beginnings, HP makes a point of supporting others who are working their way up. When she learned of the work of New York Women in Film & Television, she contacted Terry Lawler, at that time the organization’s executive director. Lawler helped her set up multiple scholarships at New York-based graduate institutions.
Lawler, now a nonprofit media consultant, says of HP, “She’s very aware of how hard it is to break into the business. And there were a lot of talented young people out there who just weren’t getting a chance.”
In that respect, HP may differ from other big-ticket donors. “She’s very easy to get along with — not that other philanthropists are not,” Lawler laughs. “But many of them expect and need a lot more information before they can make a decision. So it’s nice when people just say, ‘You’re doing good work, here’s some money.’”
Through her foundation, HP has endowed a pair of scholarships for BFA candidates at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and made a splash when she arrived to present them personally.
“The students were absolutely thrilled to get the awards from her, and get their pictures taken with her,” says Lawler. “She always looks like the most glamorous person in the room.”
(Pictured: Audrey Lynn Weston, Ha Phuong, Adam LaVorgna, Kieu Chinh)
That’s no accident, as old-style Hollywood glamour is very much a part of who HP is. When the title character of “Finding Julia” throws a costume party, she appears in the classic little black dress and pearls associated with Holly Golightly in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — a deliberate homage to the iconic stars of past and present whom she reveres as “so beautiful, such good actresses. And they give back.”
Ha Phuong on Social Media:
“Finding Julia” Website: https://findingjulia.net/
Ha Phuong and “Finding Julia,” for your awards consideration.