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Hiep Le, leading actress in Warner Bros. movie ‘Heaven and Earth,’ leaves a legacy for diversity in Hollywood.

Hiep Le, leading actress in Warner Bros. movie ‘Heaven and Earth,’ leaves a legacy for diversity in Hollywood.

To be the lead actress in a Warner Bros. feature film is no small feat. For Hiep Thi Le, who came to America in 1979 as a refugee from a fishing village in Vietnam at the age of 8 with her younger sister on a small boat, the journey to be cast was a fairy tale come true.

Hiep starred in Oliver Stone’s epic film Heaven and Earth, based on author and humanitarian Le Ly Hayslip’s memoir about her journey from war torn Vietnam to America. This past week, Hiep tragically passed away from complications of stomach cancer. She was 46. But her story and place in history is remarkable — and timely considering the heated conversation in this country about refugees, immigrants and diversity in Hollywood.

I met Hiep at San Jose State University 25 years ago at an open call for Heaven and Earth. It was 1992 when we started, pre-Internet, so as casting directors, Risa Bramon Garcia, Billy Hopkins and I needed a grassroots approach. We had a team of helpers from Le Ly herself to other Vietnamese-speaking assistants. We sent out press releases, went on local TV stations, and held open calls throughout California, Texas, Virginia, New York and Hong Kong. Thousands came to audition, and we found great improvisers and non-professional talent who were open to jump into characters and share their own personal stories.

It was crystal clear from Hiep’s first improvisation of crossing the South China Sea, protecting her sister, that she had that “star quality” needed to play the leading role. Of course, it turned into a long process with many auditions and hurdles…