Power stays on, and respect continues to be the only currency here. “Here” is a reference to the city of Chicago in Power Book IV: Force, the third spin-off of the Starz’s hit series from Courtney A. Kemp, who also co-produced it with 50 Cent. The 10-episode show, a sequel to Power Book II: Ghost as it follows Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), premiered on Feb. 6 and set the biggest viewership record for the premium cable network ever.
In a key sequence in the pilot, Claudia Flynn (Lili Simmons), the ambitious and aspiring daughter of the major kingpin Walter (Tommy Flanagan), catches the eye of Mai Liet (Paulina Nguyen) in the club. The latter then proves she is more than just a perfect dance partner, in more ways than one, in ways that will entice viewers to see the rest of Power Book IV: Force.
Nguyen recently graciously sat down with AwardsWatch contributor Nguyên Lê to share more (while avoiding spoilers!) about her mysterious and potentially dangerous character, working with one of her idols, and boosting the Vietnamese presence in popular media.
New episodes of Power Book IV: Force will go live every Sunday, all the way until the finale on April 17 or Easter.
Nguyên Lê: Of course, Power is about power. But, if your perspective is applied, it is also about evolution. I’m aware that this role is a step up for you as an actor?
Paulina Nguyen: Oh, gosh… in multiple ways. You know, it is my first recurring role on a network television show. Sometimes people don’t understand what that actually means, they’re like, “Oh, she’s on the show!” And that’s it. But, in any career, there are levels to this. You have the one-liners, one-day guest stars, the recurring guest stars, then you have the series regulars. I’ve done a couple of films, and I’ve always wanted to do TV, they have always been my goal. I was always under the impression of, “Oh, well, I need to hit these step-by-step levels to get to that series regular, to get to that lead role.”
I didn’t have any costars prior to this. I have been the lead and supporting characters in feature films, but in TV, I didn’t have any co-stars or guest stars. So to even go from no costars, to immediately hitting my first recurring role on a huge, highly anticipated show where the fan base is crazy—and everyone’s waiting for Tommy Egan’s story!—has been a dream come true. Also, being, I think, the first Vietnamese character in this world was also incredible.
Just being able to fly out to another place for the first time. I got to live in Chicago for three months. I’ve never experienced any of this—it was my first time flying first class, and there were a lot of first times. It felt like a dream, you know, throughout the whole process! But the major thing was that I get to work on a huge TV show, and I get to play my own ethnic background, which I didn’t get to do before.
Nguyen: And I think there’s still a huge colorism issue happening in Hollywood, and I typically never go out for Vietnamese roles—ever. I am a little bit darker in skin tone, so a lot of these casting directors… I would never get called in for Vietnamese roles. The reason I think I got this was because they weren’t specifically looking for Vietnamese.
Lê: Going back to the many firsts you experienced. I’m sure they were joyful, but were you intimidated? If so, how did you try to manage the sensations?
Nguyen: I was having so much anxiety, for real. It was like, “Wow, I’m on this set. And I’m with all these actors who have been working on other shows…” To be honest, I struggle with imposter syndrome, where I feel I’m not worthy of my success. I think that comes from being first-generation Asian American growing up here. And you’re from Vietnam, you know how parents can be. They don’t see acting as a real career.
Lê: I do. Some adults I met didn’t even think writing brings in “real money,” whatever that meant.
Nguyen: Exactly, exactly. So I dealt with a lot of pressure and anxiety thinking I didn’t belong there, I wasn’t worthy of my success. As filming went on, I was able to, kind of, get over that. Thankfully, all the other actors were very supportive, very down-to-earth. They were giving me a lot of love, validating my talent, making me feel really comfortable, and reminding me that I belonged there! But it was definitely hard in the beginning, but once I got my groove, I was like, “Yeah, like, I am Mai. This is it, you know?”
Lê: And Mai’s introduction was in a place where people would groove. And you did mention that the production’s higher-ups remolded the role so that it would fit you. Did you have any input now they are revising that character around you?
Nguyen: Oh, great question. Originally, when I got the audition, they were seeing everyone. They were trying to be inclusive, and I think I had heard a rumor from some of the crew that they were originally looking for East Indian [actor], and the character’s name was completely different.
But they saw everyone, they saw Black, they saw Latina and anyone that identified as LGBTQ+, because the character is queer. And when I booked the role, I went to the table read, they hadn’t changed the character’s name yet. When I got my call sheet, they changed my character to Vietnamese, gave her a Vietnamese name. And that was all the show runner’s doing, Robert Munic. I remembered reaching out to him and being like, “Oh, my God, like, thank you so much for doing that, I really am so grateful.” It felt amazing.
And that’s not the first time that’s happened for me. I’ve worked on other projects, where initially the character was originally male, and then they changed it to female and they gave it to me. To me, that’s huge, that shows that they care, that they want to do it right. And representation really does matter.
Lê: In what way do you think Mai represents that sentiment?
Nguyen: You know, growing up, I didn’t see a lot of Vietnamese characters. I’m sure you feel the same way. It was mainly Chinese, right?
Lê: Or if they were Vietnamese, it would feel off. Off the top of my head, Trang Pak and Sun Jin Dinh in Mean Girls?
Nguyen: Yeah. Not true to Vietnamese culture.
Lê: Otherwise we’re anonymous. Like someone #3, someone #4…
Nguyen: Like a one-liner, or like a best friend. So it was really amazing that they wrote this role, and they’re giving her so many layers. I know, the intro is very mysterious. It left the audience wondering, “Who is she?! And why does she get this intro and she’s not saying anything?” You’re just kind of “What’s happening?” which I really appreciate, it was so cool how they did that. Because like you said, most Vietnamese characters are like Trang in Mean Girls, they say a couple of lines, and then you don’t really know their background or anything.
This is not the last time you’re gonna see Mai. I think the audience knows that. She’s gonna come back, I don’t know how, what she has to do in this world, but I think it’s definitely a big step forward, especially for the Asian American community.
Lê: To the extent you’re able, what or whom do you see Mai as? Right now I’m debating between whether she is a siren or a serpent… but she might be something else altogether?
Nguyen: I guess you won’t really know until you watch more of the episodes, for sure! I will say that Claudia needs something to feel like she can prove herself to her father. And so Mai just comes along and it’s her solution? Or we think… Is she the solution or is she the problem? We don’t quite know yet.
But we do know that Mai has a new designer drug that she’s introducing into this world, and Claudia sees that as an opportunity to show her father and her family that she’s not just a woman with small hands. I guess we’re just gonna have to watch and find out if Mai is someone that can be trusted in this world. We don’t know, in the world of Power, literally anything can happen. That’s the craziest thing.
Lê: Yes. If there’s something we can all agree about Power, is that it can be pretty ruthless to its characters… because the characters are ruthless themselves.
Nguyen: Yes! You can’t play with fire and not expect to get burned in the Power universe, I will say that. Mai is definitely, I think, taking a risk, going into business with the Flynns. I mean, they’re a crazy family in Chicago.
Lê: We’ll see how she fares, as that designer drug is a lighter. How was it working with producer 50 Cent?
Nguyen: I really love hip-hop music. I grew up listening to hip-hop music, my aunts and my uncles. You know, they used to play Biggie, 2Pac, 50 Cent in the car driving us to go get ice cream. That was just normal, you know? Never in a million years did I ever think that I would be sitting in the same room, let alone eating dinner with 50 Cent and some of the cast members! Back when I was 10 years old, listening to his album Get Rich or Die Tryin’… that album, literally, is an album that you don’t need to skip any song. You can listen to every single song from the first all the way to the last one, they’re all hits. All of them. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was a legendary album.
When I got the part, I was like, “Oh my God, this is crazy.” I had worked with DMX on a feature before, and obviously he’s a legend, and now I get to work on another project that’s produced by 50 Cent. Insane, how the universe just works, right? I definitely was starstruck when I met him. I definitely was very nervous, but he is a giant teddy bear. He’s the nicest man. And the thing with 50 is, if he if you see something in you, he will open the doors and give you those opportunities. Meeting him and working on his project, I already know I don’t really know what’s gonna happen—that’s the most exciting part of this whole journey. But working with him was… Oh, my God, just meeting with him, shaking his hand.
I saw him recently. I saw him on Saturday, because they were doing a screening at a bar, and I didn’t know he was gonna be there. Then I saw him, and he remembered me. And I was like, “Oh, my God!” That’s what I mean, I’m still in this place, “I’m not sure if you know who I am…” And then all my friends were like, “Paulina, you’re literally on Power. Do you have any idea what’s happening in your life?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t!”
Lê: It feels like a dream that you don’t want to end.
Nguyen: Never. You know, I’ve always tried to not get too excited because I’d like to keep my expectations low.
Lê: Does your proximity to hip-hop inform your characterization of Mai?
Nguyen: Surprisingly, no, not at all. I used to be a hip-hop dancer, you know, for seven years. I don’t dance anymore, but I still am very appreciative of the culture. I love the music, you know, I grew up around it. I used to compete in, like, do you call them “battles”…?
But then I stepped back and I decided to just completely focus on acting. And it just happened to be that I got to work on Power. But Mai, her background, grew up in the streets of Chicago. She’s a self-made woman, she basically started from the bottom and built her way up to where she is now. We don’t really know where that is yet, but we will.
I can kind of connect on that in some way, too. I definitely am self-made, I really have worked hard and hustled. I’ve worked a lot of really crazy side jobs, as every actor has. I used to pick up laundry for people, I used to grocery shop for people, I used to work at really weird events where I would stand outside and hand out chocolate milk Nesquik. That was one of my side jobs! It was very fulfilling, and I was able to relate to Mai in a lot of ways. She’s been through a lot to get to where she is, and now she’s trying to make her way in, possibly, the drug business with Claudia Flynn. Or at least she’s trying to, we don’t know what’s gonna happen. She’s definitely trying. I think Mai came from the streets, but now she’s really trying to do it right. She’s like, “We’re not playing small anymore.” She’s trying to shoot for the big leagues now.
Lê: But in her aiming for the stratosphere, what do you think of her journey as an LGBTQ+ person? What do you think of the show’s design for her in this sense?
Nguyen: I think the show does an incredible job. From what they gave me in the scripts, let’s just say she has a really high presence. Her presence is definitely strong. She’s a businesswoman. She wants to get things done, and she wants to do it right. I think there’s something to be said, you know, especially within the LGBTQ+ community, a lot of the times when you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin in a lot of ways. You don’t feel like you can express yourself fully, or really be true to who you are.
I think Mai does not give a s–t about what anyone thinks about her. She has gotten to a place where she’s like, “This is who I am, this is what I’m going to do. And I don’t care what anyone thinks.” And I think that’s really amazing, that they’re portraying her in that way. That’s very powerful.
Lê: It fits with the series’ universe!
Nguyen: Yes, yes. Because we’re all just we’re all trying to make moves, right? We’re all trying to get [somewhere] and if we have to manipulate… There’s a lot of manipulation and like power-playing in Power, right? That’s why it’s called Power Book IV: Force. But I’m really appreciative of how they wrote her because she’s not a timid character. She takes up space, and she’s like, “This is what I have, and this is what I have to offer.”
Nguyen: And it’s very apparent, too. When she’s introduced, she literally catches Claudia’s eye. You know, Claudia’s like, “Who is this? I need to know who this person is.” Who shows up to the club by themselves?! That takes a lot of bravery, especially as a woman, to show up to a club where you don’t know anyone.
Lê: Anything else you’d like to share?
Nguyen: I just really want to use my voice and inspire other young women, specifically other young women of color, specifically in the Asian American community, that we do have a voice. We are allowed to take up space. I just feel like growing up, as a Vietnamese little girl, there is this energy that you’re not allowed to speak up, take space. That’s not true, at all. I really had to break out of my shell and learn how to do that, and I think in being able to play this character, it taught me how to be brave. And show people that you can be Vietnamese, and you can be queer on screen. It’s beautiful, because there are people out there who want to see characters like these.
At the end of the day, we all want to feel like we belong, connect to each other in some way. It makes me feel good to be able to represent and show people that—and I don’t want to sound cheesy—you are loved. That you matter.
Le: Thank you for your time, Paulina. Chúc mừng năm mới!
Nguyen: Chúc mừng năm mới!