Anna Thu Nguyenová – The Czech-Vietnamese one-time child actress now thriving in Californian start-ups

Anna Thu Nguyenová, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Today Anna Thu Nguyenová is based in California, where she works with technology start-ups. But the young Czech-Vietnamese woman is familiar to many here in her native country thanks to roles on TV series, including a soap opera in which she appeared in over 100 episodes. Indeed, when we spoke recently she was taking a break from her business career to appear in a new Czech Television series. Some viewers will know her by her former name, Anh Thu Nguyen Thi, and she explained the change.

Anna Thu Nguyenová,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“I had a full Vietnamese name all the way until I was 20 and then I realised that I had to explain to people what part is the first name and what part is the last name, etcetera.

“I realised I’m going to live in the Western world for the rest of my life and they always called me Anna. So I legally changed my name to Anna.

“Then the ‘Thu’, the middle part, is my first Vietnamese name, from my old name, and I felt bad for my mom because that’s what she named me, so I told her I’d just keep it as my middle name.

“But I never use it. I just keep it in the middle just to stand out, because everyone’s Anna.

“And then the Nguyenová part, I don’t think there’s a way to pronounce it, because obviously the -ová is because I was born here and then Nguyen is from Vietnam.

“Even with that name when I go to Vietnam people don’t know how to pronounce it.”

Tell us about your parents. When did they come here? How did their lives develop here?

“They met here, in Czechoslovakia.

“There was a Vietnam war, obviously, with America, and communism won.

“Obviously Czechoslovakia used to be communist and so the two countries worked together to send workers from Vietnam to Czechoslovakia.

“I think they were supposed to gain skills in factories and then go back. It was a sort of workers exchange programme, or something like that.

“So they came here. My mom was 17. I think my dad was a translator. And they met here.

“Then Czechoslovakia became democratic and they never ended up going back, because the conditions were better here.

“Even though in our family nobody’s a big fan of communism, I always joke that I would never have been born had the Vietnamese not won the war.

“Even though in our family nobody’s a big fan of communism, I always joke that I would never have been born had the Vietnamese not won the war.

“So I’m OK with that, I guess [laughs].”

What do your folks do?

“Business, now. I think for the most part in the Vietnamese community people just go into business.

“Unless they do the traditional thing and have their shops or whatever there’s the other part of the community that usually just do business.

“Because they wouldn’t be able to integrate and work in corporations here.”

What was your experience of growing up as a Vietnamese child in the Czech Republic?

“I don’t think I ever realised that I was that different.

“Obviously I knew about racism and people asked me questions like, Do you eat rice every day? Things like that.

“I kind of took it for granted. I didn’t know any better.

“But I think only after, when I moved to America, did I realise how different I was from other people.

“Because people treated me so differently in America.

“The automatically assumed I was American, even though I’m not, at all.

“They never even asked me about my race, they never even asked me about my habits.

“That was when I realised, Oh, people very much made a distinction between them and me because I was a different race, even though I was born there.”

So was it liberating for you to move to the States?

Illustrative photo: Vendula Kosíková / Czech Radio
“It opened up my mind.

“I wouldn’t judge it one way or the other, because I don’t know if I would have behaved the same if I were Czech.

“Because, you know, there wasn’t any huge migration like that before. Everyone is Caucasian here.

“It’s kind of understandable that they would ask those questions as well, whereas Americans are used to diversity and they’re more progressive in that sense.

“So I don’t know. But I definitely became wiser thanks to that experience.”

I know it’s hard to generalise, but how do you think Czechs in general treat the Vietnamese?

“They wouldn’t tell me in my face if they hated the Vietnamese [laughs], but from what I understand, they do admire their work ethic.

“And there is a different minority that they’re not the biggest fans of…”

Which is the Roma?

“Yeah, I just didn’t want to say it.

“I think for the most part it’s positive. Yeah.”

I have the perception that for example in the US Asian kids are more high-achieving than a lot of white American kids. Is there a sense in which it’s similar for Vietnamese kids in the Czech Republic? That they have higher pressures from home and are expected to do better and have good careers?

“One-hundred percent. Asian values in general.

“Obviously I can’t speak for the whole continent but, yeah. Indians, Chinese, Southeast Asians – these cultures.

“It’s very much ingrained in us. Wherever you go, wherever you see Asians, in whatever country, you’ll see those values.”

“They wouldn’t tell me in my face if they hated the Vietnamese, but from what I understand, Czechs do admire their work ethic.”

Did you ever meet any resentment over that?

“I saw that resentment in myself as a kid, because I’m very rebellious in my nature, in my personality.

“I didn’t see that with my peers so much. They were more like, OK, I do want to study hard and I do want to be good at math, and things like that.

“For the most part, we’re more, I don’t want to say submissive, but accepting.”

One thing people talk about here is the fact that some Czechs will speak quite disrespectfully to Vietnamese shopkeepers. The speak informally to them in a way that they wouldn’t to a white Czech person.

“I probably wouldn’t say it’s just Czechs.

“I think the one thing I’ve learned from living in different countries is that people who are a little bit more disrespectful are everywhere. Racists are everywhere.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say, Oh, it’s the Czech people.

“Also one factor is that Vietnamese people have different kind of manners and culture.

“You know, it doesn’t offend us when you come and say, Ahoj.

“We’re more likely going to smile and be so happy that you’re going to make a purchase that we’re going to overlook that.

“Whereas for Czech people or Westerners, Manners 101, like shaking hands and things like that, are a lot more important.

“So you’re less likely to see a Vietnamese person coming up to you and shaking your hand and doing all of those things that you would expect from a white person.”

On your website you describe yourself as “the first Asian actress on Czech TV.” Tell us more.

“I started acting when I was nine. It was very random – my parents said, Go to the audition.

“And me being the anti-Asian, in the sense that I was very rebellious, I was the only Asian kid there at that audition who was able to read the lines without being shy.

“All the other kids were too shy to even read aloud in front of the director and the other people.

Photo: Czech Television
“That’s how I got the role.”

What was the role?

“I got a lead role in a TV series called Josef a Ly.

“It was about a Vietnamese girl falling in love with a Czech boy. It’s about their love story kind of unravelling until in the last she leaves for Vietnam and it’s heart-breaking, etcetera.

“It was really nice.”

And you were also in Ulice [The Street], which is a long-running soap opera?

“It’s a never-ending show, yeah.”

Tell us about your role, how often you were in it, that kind of thing.

“They couldn’t even cast my dad for the Josef a Ly role because the people in the community didn’t want to talk to Czech people and didn’t want to be on TV.

“So they ended up calling my dad and my dad actually became my dad on TV as well [laughs].

“Then he started getting roles as well. I don’t know if you know Básníci [The Poets]?”

It’s a series of movies.

“Yes. He was in one. He got a bunch of other roles as well, but in that one in particular he became friends with Pavel Kríž, who is the main character.

“And Pavel Kríž happened to be in Ulice. Back then Ulice was in its first year, I think.

“So I met Pavel Kríž through my dad and he said, I’m working on this thing that’s really cool – it’s a soap opera like they make in America and it’s supposed to be never-ending.

“He basically ended up recommending me to the director.

“So I went there and I did 120 or 150 episodes, something like that.

“I was there for two years, while I was in high school, and them my Asian mom said I should stop doing it and focus on school work so that I could get into university.

“So that’s why it ended.”

How did it impact your life, being on this huge soap?

“I did not like being recognised.”

Which must have happened every day? It’s a really big show.

“Yes, it was all the time. And especially as a Vietnamese, obviously, I stood out.

“I don’t live here anymore, but to this day people still recognise me.

“The Vietnamese have different kind of manners and culture. It doesn’t offend us when you say, Ahoj.”

“Actually my co-star in this current show that I’m shooting, Jirka [Jiří] Mádl, recognised me from my TV show from when I was 10.

“He said, I’m such a huge fan, can I take a photo with you?

“And I said, It should be the other way around, but OK [laughs].”

Also I see that you kept up acting in the States. You studied improv at the Groundlings, the famous LA comedy group.

“I feel so blessed that I got the chance to do that.

“After all of that [acting in the CR] I was just curious – that’s all it was.

“I looked up a bunch of schools. I love SNL, Saturday Night Live, and I watch it almost over week.

“The Groundlings is really famous for its alumni, like Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow and Melissa McCarthy.

“And then Lee Strasberg is known for Angelina Jolie, Al Pacino...”

That’s a different acting school?

“Yes, the Lee Strasberg Theatre.

“I wanted to study the acting part to see how people do it in Hollywood.

“And then I wanted to study improv, because there’s no such thing in Prague. A completely different world.”

Do you feel like your acting has improved through those experiences?

“One hundred percent.

“I actually realise now that I didn’t know any acting.

“I refuse to see myself from back when I was on TV. I don’t want to see it.

“I thought I knew acting because I was already on TV and I went there and I was like, I don’t know anything.

“It was so different and so refreshing to learn new things.”

You moved to the US to go to university. What did you study?

“I studied business – business administration at the University of Southern California.”

And now – again I see from your bio – you’re into start-ups and tech. What kind of projects have you worked on?

“I’ve been in start-ups ever since I graduated – actually while I was in school as well.

“They couldn’t even cast my dad for the Josef a Ly role because the people in the community didn’t want to be on TV. So they ended up calling my dad and my dad actually became my dad on TV as well.”

“I’ve scaled two companies. I’ve run Comic-Con, if you’ve heard of that event?”

That was in Vietnam?

“In Vietnam, yes.

“It was me in naivety in my 20s thinking, I’m Vietnamese, I can speak the language and I see the need; I’m a businesswoman – I love entrepreneurship and start-ups.

“The cofounder was American. We saw the need, we saw the demand, we saw that we could do it, that I could go there and cold call a bunch of people and make it happen.

“We did make it happen. It was a tonne of work. We raised a lot of money from sponsors.

“We worked with Warner Brothers and Fox and all these big names in Vietnam and attracted about 10,000 people.

“It was really fun. But I think I overlooked the fact that one, it’s difficult and two, it’s a communist environment, so you can’t just run a business like you would in the Western world.”

Today what’s your main activity?

“The last start-up that I was working with was in digital advertising.

“I’m still very much involved in production, whether it’s in front of or behind the camera, creating data-driven ads for Facebook.

“But I also consult with fast-growing start-ups in Silicon Valley and in LA, which is where basically all of the big start-ups are, on growth operations and scale.

“It’s at that point where you’re between one to 10 people and you’re looking for market strategies and you’re looking to scale domestically and internationally.”

Where does the future lie for you? Where would you like to be living or working in 10 or 15 years?

“I don’t know where I want to be in 10 to 15 years, but definitely doing big things, being in a competitive environment.

“I think I still have a lot of work in the start-up world, where I’m working with so many start-ups and helping them scale their companies.

“I want to keep on doing that in big markets, so the US and the UK, but most likely continue my work in the US, for now.”

Would you find it hard, do you think, to readjust to living here after living in the US?

“You know, I think there will be a point in my life where my priorities will change, where I will feel like travelling around and doing crazy things that are ‘seeking dopamine’ kind of things are no longer fulfilling.

“There will be a point where I’ll probably be like, OK, maybe I just want a low-key life and maybe have a child – I have no idea.

“So if that point ever comes to me then I might.

“But at this point in my life I have to say that I’m not too motivated to be here, because there’s so much out there that I can explore.”