05/01/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
When actor Don Duong landed the role of Hai, a Ho Chi Minh City cyclo driver who falls for a young prostitute in the film Three Seasons, he took the part to heart. The actor, 42, bought one of the three-wheeled pedi-cabs for himself and for months pedaled around to acquire the requisite tan and sinewy leg muscles. He also shed 15 lbs.—and, on his last day, earned just $1.40 in fares.
Seasons (costarring Harvey Keitel), the first U.S. film shot entirely in Vietnam since the war's end, went on to win the 1999 Sundance Film Festival's grand jury prize. As for Don Duong, he won critical acclaim and a role in the upcoming American film Green Dragon, with Patrick Swayze and Forest Whitaker. "He's kind of like Roberto Benigni," says Seasons director Tony Bui, 27, who is also Don Duong's nephew. "He has that boyish enthusiasm for film."
Born in Dalat in Vietnam's Central High lands, the fifth of six children of a teacher and his wife, Don Duong says his family fled during the war, "following the stream of refugees" to Saigon, After graduating from college in 1982, he asked his film-director brother-in-law, on a whim, for a bit part in a movie. "I discovered acting was a passion," says Don Duong, who has since starred in some 30 Vietnamese films and is one of his country's reigning sex symbols.
Don Duong now lives with his mother, his wife, Vu Xuan Sanh, 37, and the couple's two sons, ages 10 and 15, in a three-room Ho Chi Minh City house with a garden. Though Don Duong earns $1,000 (triple the annual per capita income in Vietnam) per film, he and Sanh run a restaurant they hope will pay for their boys' college educations in America. Fame has other uses as well. "When we're out to dinner," says Sanh, "they'll usually send over a complimentary bowl of fruit."