Hiep Thi Le

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Hiep Thi Le
Lê Thị Hiệp

(1971-02-18)February 18, 1971
Da Nang, Vietnam
DiedDecember 19, 2017(2017-12-19) (aged 46)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
OccupationActress & Restaurateur
Years active1993–2017

Hiep Thi Le (Vietnamese: Lê Thị Hiệp; February 18, 1971 – December 19, 2017) was a Vietnamese-American actress and restaurateur. She is perhaps best known for her role in the film Heaven & Earth (1993).

Early life[edit]

Le was born in Da Nang, South Vietnam.[1][2] In 1978, her father became a refugee who defected from Vietnam to British Hong Kong. When Le was 9 years old, she fled Vietnam with her mother and sister.

We were told by my mom that we had to go look for Dad, and that he had gone to someplace called 'America', which we interpreted was the city across the river, since it had lights.[3]

Along with approximately 60 other refugees, hid in a secret compartment behind a galley pantry on a fishing boat sailing to Hong Kong to reunite with their father.

Sometime during the night, just as we arrived at a Vietnamese checkpoint, my sister woke up and started screaming for our momma ... Everyone thought we were going to die", she says. That night, a fishing boat captain grabbed her screaming 7-year-old sister and put a knife to her throat. Le witnessed it and it scarred her for life. "Tears rolled down her face, but there was no more crying ... I thought her eyes were going to fall out of their sockets", she says. Her sister survived, and when they both reached port, they stayed in a Hong Kong refugee camp. They eventually reunited with her father in Hong Kong. Le's entire family — her parents and five children — were eventually reunited in Northern California.[4][5]

Eventually, Le moved to Oakland, California as a child, where her mother worked at a French-Vietnamese restaurant.[6] She graduated from Oakland High School.[5] She attended the University of California, Davis with a major in physiology.[5][7]

Le originally had plans to graduate in June 1993 and pursue a career in science.[4] As a college student, she went to an open casting call in Northern California "because all my friends were doing it for fun" and ended up being cast in the leading role of Oliver Stone's third film Heaven & Earth (1993),[1] set amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War.

Acting career[edit]

Heaven & Earth[edit]

Le was one of 16,000 Vietnamese-Americans seen by casting scouts for Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth and was finally chosen for the starring role (of Le Ly Hayslip). "I don't know how I got here ... My cousin heard about these auditions for a movie, and I just went with a friend to see what it was about. They kept calling me back." In the film, she plays a woman who ages from 13 to 38, who is raped and tortured in Vietnam and who becomes an abused housewife, mother, and businesswoman in the United States.[4]

According to Stone, "Our people saw her, put her on video, thought she was electric, and flew her down to Los Angeles. I thought she was charismatic. We worked with her, put her on video with other actors, introduced her to Tommy Lee Jones and Joan Chen and Haing S. Ngor, and then we put her on film. We tested her out for about five months, continuously, and she won the role. I didn't send her to any acting school. I didn't feel that it was necessary; she was a natural."[2]

Although the film required Le to age over 30 years and cast her opposite a number of accomplished American and Asian actors, the untrained actress received excellent reviews citing her sensitivity and actorly grace as Hayslip.[1] In his review of the film, Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan described her as "nonprofessional but very capable."[8]

When Le was asked what she had learned from her experience with the film: "I have grown a lot. I have grown so much in the past two years, but the experiences that I went through throughout my whole life really made me what I am today."[9]

Later career[edit]

Le subsequently appeared in Bugis Street (1995, released in the United States in 1997)[5][10][11] and co-starred in the little-seen Dead Man Can't Dance (1997).[1] Le made an appearance in the 1999 film Bastards.[12]

She appeared in Green Dragon in 2001, opposite Patrick Swayze and Forest Whitaker.[13][14][15]

Career as a restaurateur[edit]

After a long career in the film industry, Le opened up The China Beach Bistro, a Vietnamese restaurant in Venice, Los Angeles in 2002. After 10 years at that location, Hiep closed China Beach and opened Le Cellier, a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant on the Venice and Marina del Rey border in 2012. "Although it's not easy to find out here, French-Vietnamese food dates back to the 18th century ... This unique cuisine combines the fresh herbs of Vietnamese food with the fine heritage of country French cooking", Le said. As of 2016, she owned the restaurant Le Cellier with Mark Van Gessel and Bernard Louberssac.[6]

On February 23, 2014, Le appeared on the Food Network game show Chopped, competing in the eighteenth-season episode "Beer Here!"[16] While she advanced past the appetizer round over private chef Larry Monaco, she was eliminated in the entrée round after serving undercooked beef to judges Scott Conant, Chris Santos, and guest judge Greg Koch, as well as not using enough beer cheese in her dish.


Le died on December 19, 2017 in Los Angeles from stomach cancer at the age of 46.[3][17] Despite having a fairly short resume, she was acknowledged in the In Memoriam segment at the 90th Academy Awards.

Selected filmography[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Hiep Le Obituary - Peek Funeral Home - Westminster CA". obits.dignitymemorial.com.
  2. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (December 26, 1993). "OLIVER STONE CONCLUDES HIS VIETNAM TRILOGY". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  3. ^ a b Genzlinger, Neil (23 December 2017). "Hiep Thi Le, Vietnamese Refugee Who Became Film Star, Dies at 46". New York Times – via NYTimes.com.
  4. ^ a b c Mathews, Jack (January 17, 1993). "One Among Thousands : First-time actress Hiep Thi Le, who beat out 16,000 hopefuls for the lead in 'Heaven and Earth', draws lessons from her fellow refugees". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d Stack, Peter (October 25, 1997). "Looking for a Laugh/"Bugis Street's Le stumbled into acting and really wants to do comedy"". San Francisco Gate. Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Chavez, Paul (29 June 2012). "Venice Restaurateurs' Gastropub Pairs Filet Mignon with Jazz". Patch Media. Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  7. ^ Ehrman, Mark (December 20, 1993). "'Heaven' Packs 'Em In". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 17, 2015.
  8. ^ Turan, Kenneth (December 25, 1993). "MOVIE REVIEW: Stone's 'Earth': Larger Than Life". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 17, 2015.
  9. ^ Whaley, Donald M.; Welsh, James Michael (2013). "The Oliver Stone Encyclopedia". Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780810883529.
  10. ^ Stack, Peter (May 21, 1997). "Gay Film Festival Mixes It All Up/Tickets on sale Friday for expanded series". San Francisco Gate. Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  11. ^ "NEW MOVIES Opening This Week". San Francisco Gate. 20 October 1997. Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  12. ^ Johnson, G. Allen (July 23, 1999). "Asian American film fest: Yes, no". San Francisco Gate. Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  13. ^ Thomas, Kevin (May 1, 2002). "A Look Back at a Time of Beginnings". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  14. ^ Curiel, Jonathan (July 5, 2002). "Longing for freedom/'Green Dragon' shows lives of Vietnamese refugees in U.S." San Francisco Gate. Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  15. ^ Meyer, Carla (March 3, 2002). "New look of Asian American films/Festival opens with edgy 'Better Luck Tomorrow', honors 'Chan Is Missing'". San Francisco Gate. Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  16. ^ B, Kat (23 February 2014). "Real Gossip TV: Chopped "Beer Here" Recap (2/23/14)". realgossiptv.blogspot.com.au.
  17. ^ Hiep Thi Le Dies: Star Of Oliver Stone's 'Heaven And Earth' Was 46, deadline.com; accessed December 20, 2017.

External links[edit]