We had a chance to chat with David Huynh, currently starring in The Sinner as CJ, a troubled young man involved with the equally troubled Percy Muldoon (Alice Kremelberg).
He offered candid insight into working on the show and bringing the gritty details of the twisty psychological drama to life.
Don’t worry; we kept the spoiler parts of the conversation close to the vest. Let’s just say that you are going to love The Sinner Season 4 Episode 6! Enjoy.
So I was looking at your IMDb page, and you’ve been on so many awesome shows in guest roles. What guest role is your most memorable?
It’s dating, and this is going pretty far back, but I did a guest thing on ER, and this was a long time ago. It was the last season of ER, and it was the second last episode.
Yeah. And at the time, it was what, John Stamos, and it was Linda Cardellini, I don’t know that, that job always stuck with me. I always thought it was so cool to be on such an iconic American TV show. I grew up in Canada, so to me, I thought it was… I’ve always thought back, and it was one of my favorite gigs I’ve ever done.
I have to say you were on a show that is one of my very favorites that got crushed in that writer strike in 2006, Invasion. Oh my gosh, how fun was it to film Invasion?
Oh yeah. Wow. Yeah, that was such a fun, fun show to do. It was one of the earlier projects that I got on, and I guess it was really fun because I had moved to Los Angeles probably just a few years before I got that job. And I was actually kind of roommates with Alexis Dziena at the time. And then I guess a year or two years later, she was a regular on the show, and then I got hired as a recurring, and we always just laughed, like what?
But man, the world is such a strange place. And it was such a cool little show, and it was, I think, one of the Cassidy brothers; he was the showrunner. And it was such a cool concept of these hybrid humans who were, I guess, part aliens, and there was this mystery going around in Florida Town, and I had some really wonderful scenes with Evan Peters, the Evan Peters we know today.
But back then, it was just a very young teenage Evan Peters. And back then, he was already incredibly talented and focused on the work, and I learned a lot just by working with him, the small amount that I did.
Well, I’m going to have to watch it again now and look for you because I actually own that set because I loved that show. I’m still bitter over it, still bitter.
Yeah. It did have a cool following. A lot of friends of mine from the UK would talk about it, how it… It was a big deal over there, and they really loved it, it was very culty.
Yeah. I think it would’ve done really well, especially now. If Katrina, I think it was Katrina too, wasn’t it?
Yeah, that’s right. I haven’t thought about that show in a long time. That’s pretty cool.
I’m happy to take you down that walk down memory lane. So how much did you know about The Sinner before you got the part?
I didn’t know so much about it. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I knew a lot about what was going on in season one with Jessica Biel and with Bill Pullman. It was a very interesting idea. I was like, “Oh, Bill Pullman’s doing television,” because I grew up with Bill Pullman, the movie star.
Yeah, he’s such an iconic American actor, and I guess, stars in some of my favorite films. So I was like, “Okay, this is very interesting,” because you don’t really see too often that a man of his sonography ends up doing television all of a sudden.
So I always wanted to check it out, and I never did until I was in talks with casting about this role, and then I went back and binged the entire series, and I was going, “Why didn’t I watch this when I first heard about it?”
And my friends would always tell me about it too. They’re always like, “Have you heard of the show called The Sinner? It’s amazing. It’s about trauma, and Bill Pullman plays a messed up detective; you got to watch it.” And I never actually did until I did for research.
So whenever you were watching it, did you try to figure out who did it, or were you more interested in the psychological aspect?
Definitely the psychological aspect. I love True Detective and a lot of different other detective shows, but I’m not so much into plotty stuff.
Yeah. But what really hooked me was the psychological aspect of this detective and his penchant for this interesting sexual stuff that he was going through, and the conflict of Cora really drew me in.
And I think it was just so well executed and devised that it really pulled me in. And so I wasn’t really watching the show in terms of trying to figure things out; I was just drawn into the performances and the writing in itself.
And now look at you; you’re one of those traumatized characters.
So CJ is still holding something back, from what I can tell. What is your take on him and his relationship with Percy?
It’s so funny because I don’t want to give anything away because I think the last couple of episodes, I think going from 6, 7, 8, and the next one coming up five, gets super twisty. And a lot of things will be revealed, as they say, but watch this. I always felt like there were two CJs, there’s CJ before Percy, and then there’s CJ after Percy.
And so the CJ before Percy is just a very wide-eyed young man who has dreams, and there’s not much going on in his life in that way. There’s not a lot of crazy conflict yet. And then there is an event that does happen, and once that event occurs, that’s the change that we see. And so when Percy shows up in his life, he already is going through something, and she pretty much escalates that internal conflict of what he’s going through.
And the backstory of them, it’s not on the script, but it was discussed and… They’ve always known each other, and they grew up in this little town, and so they’ve always known each other, they would’ve grown up going to the same school. And he’s not necessarily would’ve loved her from the beginning since they were kids, but he certainly was always infatuated by her.
I always felt that Percy was a person who CJ would always be like, “You know what? Her life is the life that I kind of want for my own self.” The way he looked at her was, her life was already laid out. She had pretty much her future laid out, everything was there for her, and for CJ, he was like, “Yeah, that’s what I would love to have my own self,” instead of having everything and struggling to figure it out on his own.
And so when she comes to him, it’s like this opportunity for him to do something with her, he’s just very confused, and he takes a leap, and it’s miscommunication, but also she reciprocates too.
Whenever he’s looking at all those pictures on his computer, those were all pre friendship with Percy, right?
Yeah. So there’s the element that’s being set up as if he’s doing things with it in terms of stalking and whatnot.
Well, I just look at it as a crush.
Yeah, it is a crush. It definitely is. But then it takes a step further because of the relationship they’ve had, so I think those images shown on the screen are pretty goofy and funny; I love it.
He’s following her around, and Brandon, he’s literally, they’re engaged at that time. [laughs] He’s taking photographs of his crush that’s hanging out with her fiance and going, “Yeah, this my girl.”
[laughs] Yeah, that’s no good.
Yeah. You know what’s interesting, though, so obviously, he ends up masturbating.
Okay, now, how bizarre was that for you?
It was bizarre because you don’t do this kind of stuff in front of people, even though it was a closed set, I’m there with Adam Bernstein, my director, and André Pienaar, our DP photographed that episode, and so we have all our grips there, and I was like, “Hey, you know what? We’ve all done this; let’s just get into it.”
I thought that I couldn’t even imagine how you have to pull something like that off. And every time I see that in entertainment, I have that same feeling, like, “Oh, my, this is just too much, I shouldn’t be looking at this.”
As a performer, as an actor, I was a little bit, I wouldn’t say reserved about it, I certainly was like, “Okay, I wonder how this is going to go,” but I knew that it wasn’t going to be crazy, crazy. I knew I wasn’t going to be naked, and they wouldn’t see any private parts, just contractually, I knew that, but I also wanted to do it truthfully.
And so, I wanted to live up to the character’s circumstance of what he was doing at that time. And so I was able just to say, “Screw myself, fuck with my insecurities as an actor, I’m just going to do it.” And I actually really dig the fact that they wrote that in because I don’t think there is an Asian American character that’s ever seen on TV that masturbates.
[laughs] Well, if you’re the first, then congratulations, David. What a score!
Don’t hold me to it, but I don’t think there is, I don’t know. [laughs] I think it’s important.
Well, and you said you’re not naked or whatever. That’s not the scary part to me; the scary part is everything else that comes with it — the emotion you have to put into it and stuff; that’s something.
It is uncomfortable to watch. And I think that’s good because it should be. He’s not there doing it really out of pleasure; it’s quite the opposite; he’s medicating himself, he’s trying to get over something. And so it’s coming from a place of desperation. It’s coming from a place of loss and hurt. And so yeah, it is uncomfortable to watch because of that, because of the emotion that’s attached to it.
I don’t think it’s the actual physical aspect of what he’s doing because physically, what you’re watching isn’t too terrible. But I think we understand how he’s feeling, but we’re not entirely getting it because we don’t know the full picture yet, and so it really is disturbing in that way, and I actually think it’s really cool.
What was your favorite part about CJ? What do you like about him?
There’s so much. I think what I really like is the fact that he’s so emotional and he’s going through something that a lot, I did too in my own way, there’s a lot of strife in families, and so I feel like the way that he’s dealing with it is very truthful in a way.
Many Asian-American families, specifically Chinese-American families, don’t talk a lot, so I’m not sure where I’m going with this.
I think I get it.
Yeah. He’s an emotional guy, and I think that’s what I really enjoyed playing with him, is the emotion of the circumstances and whatnot. He’s not trying to cover up too much.
And is it hard watching yourself push Percy down whenever you watch on screen? Is it hard to watch yourself do something that’s not really purposeful but happens? Because you wouldn’t really want to do that in your real life, and it would be hard because it’s you. Talk about that.
Yeah. I don’t have too much of a problem with watching stuff like that sometimes. I think if it was more gruesome and more purposeful if he really did strike her, I think that definitely would be very difficult for me to watch. I know out of the circumstance of the argument, and what happens, it’s an accident.
And so we blocked it in the way where it could look like he pushed her, but what really happens is she pulls away, and she hits her head, and she falls. And so it’s not too disturbing for me to watch something like that, and it’s part of the character journey, and so I’m going to separate myself from it and go, “This is a character, not me.”
What? You can do that? You’re not just playing CJ right now? Who knew? [laughs]
That’s right. [laughs]
So what was it like on set for you? What did you learn from the cast, and what was it like working with everyone?
So, Frances Fisher, I had met probably back in 2017, maybe 2018, after a screening of a movie I did called M.F.A. And so her daughter, Francesca, was the star of it, and I played her love interest. And when I had met Frances, we hit it off right away after the screening; we went out for drinks.
And so when we both found out that we were going to be working together, we already had a shorthand in that sense. And I only have one scene with Frances Fisher coming up in on a later episode, but I felt like since… I don’t know. It was already like an immediate sense of “these characters have known each other” because I had met her in real life.
And so working with Frances… And not only that, but we would have these really long engaging talks about who our characters were, and I really loved the way that she worked. I feel like she… She comes from a theater background, and so do I, and I feel like because of the way that we’re trained in theater, we have a lot more time to discuss things.
And we would’ve been able to dive into these characters for a couple of months before we actually went on the stage and to perform to people. And so, we both gravitated to that type of work where we just wanted to discuss as much we possibly could. And so, working with her in that way reinforced my idea of talking, and I think that’s just really important. And working with Cindy Cheung, she became my mentor on set a little bit.
Yeah. I’m sure you’re familiar with her work, and she just has a great filmography, and she’s just such a veteran actress, and she was so open. And anything that I felt that I just wasn’t comfortable with in terms of creating and crafting, I could always go to her, and she was always able to give me such great sound advice.
And of course, Adam, I think working with Adam, was definitely my favorite director to work with. The way that he speaks with an actor and the way that he comes in prepared to direct the scene is everything that I needed for myself.
I put all my trust in him, and especially for those scenes, those really vulnerable scenes that you have to trust the eyes of your director, and I knew that Adam was the guy to trust. He just has so much experience, and he’s just very precise in his dialogue with you, and nothing is ever confusing. So that’s my experience.
This has been a really juicy role for you.
You get to run the gamut of emotions, but how is it going to change the way you look for parts going forward?
God, really great question. I’m not too sure. And this was also the longest time that I spent shooting anything on location, and I really loved that. I’m not too sure. I think what it did provide me was the sense of immediately connecting to the material.
And I immediately connected to CJ, even in my audition piece. So I think that gives me a sense of trusting my choices and knowing when it hits and when it doesn’t hit and just knowing that if it does hit, that it’s something that I’m going to really want to do.
Are you going to focus on movies or TV, do you think?
I don’t know. I just leave all that stuff up in the air for the gods to show me. I love it all. Acting is acting, and work is work, and really, if I had a choice, I’d just stay in the theater because that’s where my heart is.
You just can’t make money doing it.
Exactly. [laughs] But there’s something really satisfying in working in something that is long-form, like in television where you really get to dive in and create something over a period of time, much like a film as well. And so I would love just to keep going, doing more recurring characters or regulars, and see where that takes me.
Yeah. It seems like you have a good feel for it, and I’d like to see you in something else where we get to dig deep into a character.
Yeah. There are not too many opportunities, but hopefully, the doors will open up, and more interesting characters will come my way in that way.
This interview was edited for content and clarity.
The Sinner airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on USA Network.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.