By Christopher Schobert (MA ’04, BA ’02)
It’s rare that an oncologist-actor (yes, you read that right) gets to audition for a part tailor-made for an oncologist-actor. So it was a bit of a shock for Roy Vongtama (MD ’00), who is a board-certified radiation oncologist and working actor, when a 2007 casting call for such a role ended with him not getting the part.
“The casting director said, ‘I’m not buying it. When a doctor tells a patient she has cancer, the doctor should get emotional,’” recalls Vongtama, a Buffalo native who has since landed roles on screens both big (“The Bucket List”) and small (“Scandal,” “The Shield,” “NCIS: Los Angeles”). “I replied, ‘Well, I am a cancer doctor, and if I did that, it would be pretty scary for the patient.’”
The rejection was a minor hiccup in an unorthodox yet successful career that began shortly after Vongtama’s graduation from medical school. While completing a medical internship in Philadelphia, he began taking acting classes on a whim at a well-known regional theater, and found he enjoyed it. Then, during a meeting with UCLA’s radiation oncology department to explore residency options, he discovered a kindred spirit. “The chairman at UCLA asked me why I wanted to move out West, and it just came out of my mouth: ‘I want to be an actor,’” Vongtama says. “He replied, ‘I also wanted to be an actor.’ So it was settled. I went to UCLA and did both—cancer training during the day, acting training at night.”
Vongtama’s first paid acting gig, playing the best friend of the main character in a movie called “The Wrath,” came while he was at UCLA. Since then, he has portrayed doctors, morgue attendants and detectives, among other characters. One of his biggest roles was playing an MD in Rob Reiner’s 2007 comedy, “The Bucket List,” in which he appeared in separate scenes with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. More recently, he starred as a detective in Lifetime’s “Death Clique” (2014) and shot an episode of “Sex Sent Me to the ER,” which airs on The Learning Channel. He’s also behind the camera as a producer and director for his film company, Resonant Entertainment.
As for medicine, it’s in Vongtama’s blood. His mother is an anesthesiologist, while his father and brother are fellow radiation oncologists. But it was the patients, he says, who really drew him to oncology. “[They’re] individuals who are motivated to change. There’s a spirit about them, a freedom of mind. It’s hard not to appreciate those lessons.”
Vongtama learned similar lessons while growing up in a Buddhist household, and he now follows the late Hindu yoga master Paramahansa Yogananda. He says he taps these spiritual layers to help drive his dual careers. “Yoga encompasses the basic tenets of all religions, which essentially have the same underlying truths in them: that humans make the difference.”
Vongtama continues to make a difference as a doctor, an actor and, most recently, by promoting his ideas about holistic health care for cancer prevention. He gives frequent talks on the subject and hopes to publish his ideas in book form next year. “The more I learn about cancer,” he says, “and get out the message that there is a way to heal before a word like ‘cancer’ is used, the more I feel like my time here has been worthwhile.”
It has certainly not been wasted.