A physiology major at the University of California, Davis, Thi Le had road-tripped to San Jose during her 1991 Christmas break to attend one of Heaven's many open casting calls. "I had no idea who [Stone] was," she says. When she actually met the celebrity director, "I felt like, 'This man hates my guts. This man knows I can't act.'" What she still doesn't know is exactly when she won the part. "They never told me I had the role," she claims. "Theyjust kept bringing me back in." Producers A. Kitman Ho and Clayton Townsend accompanied her to a Neville Brothers concert in Las Vegas. She visited Tommy Lee Jones (who plays U.S. Marine Steve Butler, an amalgam of four men in Hayslip's life) in Texas, and Stone in California. Finally, eight months later, Stone asked her what she planned to do about the role.
"I said, 'It depends if I get the job,'" she recalls. "He said, 'What do you mean, "It all depends"? You've got the job.'"
"Hiep-notic," Stone affectionately dubs her while driving from Phuket to the set in Phang Nga. "From the moment we met her, we knew this was the one. She's truly some kind of spiritual person."
After shooting a funeral scene in Phang Nga's relentless heat, Joan Chen beelines to the makeup hut, the only air-conditioned space for miles around. A vicious cold and the prospect of more latex being slathered on her already heavily made-up, dust-encrusted face has not put her in the best of moods. "It was a muddy scene," she comments weakly. Chen, who herself sought to option Hayslip's story until Stone beat her out, spends most of the film trapped in wrinkled middle age. "It's the biggest stretch I have ever had," she says, "both in acting and skin. This movie was very, very difficult, just what your skin goes through between the makeup and the weather . . . mostly the makeup."
Heaven's 450 crew members, 100 actors, and nearly 1,200 extras have adapted quickly to Phuket's nightlife. After dinner at one of the open air restaurants that line the beach, the cast and crew habitually head back to the Crown Nai Yang and its pounding disco. As a Thai band cheerfully pumps out renditions of last year's Top 40, the actors crowd around bamboo tables for bad Mekong Thai whiskey. Tonight, Tai Thai, who plays Hayslip's son, Jimmy, jumps on stage for a round of karaoke. The disco's palm-thatched walls reverberate with the determined enthusiasm blood relatives show when they're forced to holiday together.
The next morning, Tommy Lee Jones reclines on the pavilion terrace of the luxurious Amanpuri hotel. Heaven and Earth, he insists, has more to do with people than with assuaging American guilt or mythologizing Vietnamese farmers. "I don't think you can go to an Oliver Stone movie and come away believing any stereotype has been advanced," says the actor, whose last job for Stone, as JFK's eerily poised Clay Shaw, won him an Oscar nomination.
Still, it's hard to resist the thought that some desire for atonement brought former Vietnam infantryman Stone to Heaven and its previously untold story. But the director's zeal seems more investigative than metaphysical. "Beyond any feelings of guilt, there is an enormous peasant knowledge a love of the land, a love of ancestors," Stone says. "We need to know what happened to the peasants of Vietnam."
(Additional reporting by Brad Jefferies and Gregg Kilday)