In the episode titled “Palacios, TX,” Tran stars as Sharko, a down-on-his-luck fisherman suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who discovers a mermaid washed up on-shore, played by Adria Arjona. He brings her home, defending her from other greedy fishermen. The two engage in a dreamy romance, a touching if temporary salve to his persisting loneliness that, ultimately, ends in tragedy.
The emotional richness of Sharko’s story is one the veteran stage, film and TV actor says he rarely gets to play on-screen. “When I was reading the script, I’m like, ‘Man, I finally get to play a fleshed-out character with an arc,” Tran tells Variety. “He’s Asian American, he’s the lead and in a romantic role. He gets the girl.”
Sharko’s backstory — as the son of Vietnamese immigrants — also deeply resonated with the “Altered Carbon” actor. At age 6, Tran, along with his family, fled their home country of Vietnam in the early 1980s, only a few years after the Fall of Saigon and the country’s communist takeover in 1975.
They first landed at a refugee camp in Thailand before being sponsored by a church group to immigrate to the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Eventually, the family settled in the Boston area, where Tran says he had his earliest encounters with racism.
“Now I’m hearing ‘g—’ and ‘c—-’ and ‘Go back to your country’ for the first time,” Tran recalls. Tran went on to attend American University, where he dabbled with the idea of becoming a public defender, working with disadvantaged communities like the one he came from, before taking an acting class as an elective. He fell in love with the craft.
“It’s just something about expressing myself through these characters. I felt connected to those worlds, especially heavy drama and character-driven stories,” he says.
Justifying a career in the arts to his mother proved much more challenging: “I remember when I started getting work at East West Players [the Los Angeles-based Asian American theatre group] and doing shows. She’s like, ‘How much you get paid?’ I’m like, ‘Five dollars a performance.’ She’s like, ‘How are you going to live?’”
Two decades into his career, Tran has been featured in numerous TV shows and movies, and starred in stage productions of “Oedipus the King” and “Equus With George Takei.” In 2012, Tran premiered his critically acclaimed one-man play “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam,” a meditation on his refugee experience, relocating from Vietnam to the U.S.
And following the box office success of “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018, Tran says he finally sees Hollywood making a concerted effort to engage in more nuanced casting — the role of Sharko, for example, called specifically for a Vietnamese American actor.
He also finds that the ups and down of his own career mirror that of Sharko.
“It took so many years for him to find some sort of success, it almost parallels my career. I’ve always felt like, through the years, it’s always one step forward, two steps back,” he says, adding in the past, he has often wondered when he would be able to flex his acting muscles with meatier roles, like his “Monsterland” one. “I believe that the Asian communities are saying that there’s a lot of great actors out there. It’s just that we are not given opportunities, like I’ve been given with Sharko. I feel if we do get those opportunities, we can show the world that we can have a seat at the table.”
“Monsterland” is currently streaming on Hulu.