In reports today, 46-year-old actress Hiep Thi Le has died from stomach cancer in the United States.

But who is this Vietnamese-American actress?

While a lot of older people remember Hiep as the one Vietnamese-American girl chosen to lead Oliver Stone’s movie about the Vietnam war, a lot of people don’t know that the conflict from that war hits very close to her own roots.

Childhood refugee

Hiep and her family were boat people, quite similar to the refugees braving open water just to get to safe havens in Europe and other parts of Asia.

Sources online said that she was born in November 1971. Her father was a refugee and had successfully fled to Hong Kong in 1978. She was eight years old when she and her other family members boarded a galley to take them to Hong Kong.

During the trip, Hiep said that she and her sister almost died during their journey. Her 7-year-old sister started screaming during the night on the journey to Hong Kong, and they found the captain holding a knife to her sister’s neck.

Thankfully, they were able to reach Hong Kong and stayed in the refugee camp until they were reunited with their father there. It would only be years later, though, that they would all be united in Southern California, her parents and their five children.

School years and getting picked for Heaven and Hell

While studying psychology at University of California at Davis, Hiep joined an audition for Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Hell, which would be her ticket to stardom. She was picked among thousands to play the lead role, which was that of a Vietnamese woman living in the aftermath of the Vietnam war.

The drama was written and directed by Oliver Stone, who went on a nationwide search for his cast. In an interview in 1993 in the LA Times, he said, “We searched in six or seven American cities, and in Hong Kong and Bangkok. More than 16,000 Vietnamese came in to read for 30 different roles.”

“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 Ngor, and then we put her on film,” he said further.

“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.”

Succeeding films and business

After that film, she also joined other projects such as Cruel Intentions and Green Dragon. she also established the China Beach Bistro in Venice, Calif. She then moved and became chef and owner of Le Cellier, a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant in California. In 2014, she competed on Food Network show “Chopped.”

Hiep died because of complications from stomach cancer last Tuesday. She is survived by her husband, two children, parents and six siblings. They all live in Los Angeles, California.