Actor Ivan Mok’s breakout role on the FX show “The Americans” is from a story right out of his family’s own history.
Mok plays Tuan Eckert, a South Vietnamese refugee much like his mother, who nearly 40 years ago left Vietnam among the hundreds of thousands of “boat people” that fled the country after the fall of Saigon only to risk drowning and piracy on the high seas.
Getting in character prompted Mok to ask his mother about this traumatic time in more detail — she’d always been quiet about it, he said — and he came away from their conversations with newfound respect.
“It’s cool to see your mom can be brave like that,” Mok told NBC News.
“He’s so different from who I am. It doesn’t feel like he’s me, but it feels like he’s right there with me.”
Raised in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles, where he still lives today with his parents, the 25-year-old Mok was drawn to acting in high school; he thought it would make him more outgoing. He asked his father, an attendant in the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to take him to an acting class and eventually found his way to The Young Actor’s Studio in North Hollywood.
On Saturdays, his mother would drive more than an hour to classes at the studio and then wait for him in the car, watching Korean dramas on her portable DVD player for six hours, Mok said. She worked as a secretary during the week.
His parents didn’t stand in the way of his ambitions, Mok noted, though he suspected they assumed acting was something he’d outgrow.
Mok went on to study communications at the University of California, Los Angeles but at the same time frequented auditions and began to win parts in commercials. In 2016, he appeared in the CBS’s TV adaptation of “Rush Hour,” for which he spoke Cantonese.
"When I said I wanted to become an actor, they thought, 'It's just going to be a phase,'" Mok said. "You keep doing it, and they realize maybe it's not just a phase."
He learned about the role for “The Americans,” a prestige espionage drama set in the 1980s, from a Facebook page for Asian-American actors. Tuan — a South Vietnamese war orphan who was recruited into spookdom by North Vietnamese intelligence authorities — has proven a challenging and rewarding character because of his complexity, Mok said.
The character exhibits a ruthlessness that surprises even hardened fellow spies played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. He manipulates his peers at an American high school where he is embedded to torment a Russian boy (part of a larger mission) and blithely calls for one character to get “a bullet in his head.”
Writing on an online discussion board, one fan called Tuan a great character but also “a repugnant little shit. I wouldn't mind him getting a bullet in the back of the head by season's end. (The character, NOT the actor.)”
“He wants to see him shot?” Mok said, laughing. “I love that.”
Mok added that he doesn’t see Tuan as brutal so much as passionate: “He’s not a weak character,” Mok said. “He knows what he wants to do.”
Tuan is also highly damaged by war and loss before he arrived in the U.S., Mok noted.
“He was on the streets and starving, then recruited by a communist training program. They sent him to Seattle to live with foster family for five years,” Mok said. “He’s so different from who I am. It doesn’t feel like he’s me, but it feels like he’s right there with me.”
A key quality that won Mok the role was being believable in his harshest moments while projecting humanity underneath, according to “The Americans” casting director Rori Bergman.
“I think you love him even as he says some things that are hard to wrap your head around,” Bergman told NBC News.
In addition to the measure of warmth Mok brought to an unlikable role, he was of Vietnamese ancestry, which Bergman was attempting to find, she noted.
Mok appreciates the effort to cast Asian roles with national ancestry in mind, but also worries that that too many limits on casting could make it even more difficult for Asian-American actors to land parts.
In playing Tuan, Mok used a nearly imperceptible accent to accommodate the character’s experience.
“For Tuan, I felt like he was part of the story where he was a refugee, he said. “If it’s not relevant to the story, I don’t think there should be an accent.”
"When I said I wanted to become an actor, they thought, 'It's just going to be a phase.' You keep doing it, and they realize maybe it's not just a phase."
So far Mok mainly has sought roles written specifically as Asian or Asian American, but is glad to see the casting of Asian-American actor Ross Butler in a part originally assumed to be white (Reggie on the CW’s “Riverdale.” The character was recently recast with Asian-American actor Charles Melton).
There’s a community of Asian American actors whom Mok sees frequently at auditions, he said.
“There’s a camaraderie,” Mok said. The actors are glad for one another when they get roles, the numbers of which have been growing in recent years, Mok noted.
“I’ve been auditioning since college,” he said. “There are more Asian roles. There is an effort to push for diversity.It’s still tough but there are more opportunities nowadays.”