Actor and radiation oncologist Roy Vongtama. Photo by Westside People
By David Rosenfeld
Roy Vongtama, MD is no down-and-out actor. He holds degrees in biology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Buffalo. A board certified radiation oncologist, he currently substitutes part-time at two Westside practices when the lead physicians are away.
“You probably don’t want a part-time surgeon doing your operation,” he joked. “But my field is more intellectual in that we’re using CT and MRI guidance to plan treatments.”
Almost 10 years after first juggling both careers, his acting is taking off and he continues to be a highly respected oncologist on the Westside. He’s a published author on research papers and he’s spoken at conferences about emerging techniques in one of the most advanced fields in medicine.
Long-time friend Brian Kim, MD, who attended residency with Vongtama at UCLA, said he’s truly earned the respect of his peers.
“This is something you can’t do without knowledge and expertise in your field,” Kim said. “Anytime you hear that he’s acting, some people might tend not to take him seriously for his doctoral assessments, but actually he’s a very accomplished physician and he’s proven people wrong about that.”
In recent years, Vongtama has been landing more acting roles, appearing in the Bucket List, CSI, Scandal and The Shield, among others. In 2010 he was nominated for Best Actor at the American International Film Festival. Not surprisingly he often plays a doctor such as his recurring role this year as Dr. Landrum on Days of Our Lives. And while he draws on his medical career on screen, Vongtama said acting has made him a better doctor.
“To be a really good doctor you have to have an open mind and empathize,” he said. “I learned a lot about how to empathize with people through acting because you can’t really connect with somebody unless you can listen and that’s what acting is all about.”
Out of medical school, he likely could have landed a spot at any residency program in the country. He had the kind of grades and reputation that institutions like MD Anderson in Houston target for recruitment. After several interviews he chose radiation oncology, a cancer subspecialty, at UCLA not only for its program but because he wanted to be an actor.
“The chairman of the department told me, ‘If you come here we will protect your time and you can take your vacations when you need to for auditions and jobs as long as you get your residency done,’” Vongtama said.
Pursuing a creative talent, especially acting, while keeping a day job is obviously nothing new, but to manage something as complex and demanding as radiation oncology represents a feat not for the unsophisticated.
“He’s done something a lot of people wouldn’t have the courage to do,” said friend and fellow actor and writer Taylor Grant. “He worked really hard to become a doctor, but he had inside of him a passion for the arts and filmmaking and acting. I don’t think he got a lot of support for that decision early on.”
Vongtama uses his experiences as a physician in his creative pursuits as well. The production company he founded called Resonant Entertainment takes on relevant themes in short films based on true stories. They also produced a full-length feature called Reach coming out soon through Hanover House about a young man given a 50-50 chance of surviving cancer. Vongtama said he got the idea from the patients he’s met as an oncologist.
“The happiest people I see a lot are the cancer patients,” he said. “Because they know now what it’s going to be. It tends to give you more of an urgency to being happy. I see that a lot and I wanted to do a film about that.”
Vongtama, who grew up in a Thai-Buddhist family, meditates twice a day and attends the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades. Most of his extended family lives in Bangkok where he travels almost once a year.
“I know my purpose for service is beyond my own ego-driven goals,” he said. “In acting, the result of my best work is not guaranteed. In medicine if I do my best work and take the test or see a patient we’re going to get a result we’re looking for. Because I have both I tend to have more gratitude because I know how rare it is to be able to do something that I love to do.”