The list of directors and creators Hong Chau has worked with would make any ambitious actor drool — Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice), David Simon (Treme), Alexander Payne (Downsizing), Kelly Reichert (the upcoming Showing Up), Wes Anderson (next year’s Asteroid City), plus roles on Big Little Lies and Watchmen, which is still omitting a few.
Hot off The Menu (which was great, and in which she was one of the best parts), Chau is back this month in The Whale, from Darren Aronofsky. The directors Chau has worked with are almost exclusively of the kind you’d hear mentioned in other actors’ press tour interviews, the kind that come up when those actors say “I’d really love to work with (insert director here).”
Which is insane considering Chau was little known before her role in Downsizing, which got her nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG Award (in my own review I wrote “Hong Chau steals the whole movie,”), only a few years ago in 2017. It’s hard to think of any actor with a comparable run of high-profile, critically acclaimed projects. Actors don’t even have that much control over their projects. Besides not having editorial input, only the most famous and be-clouted ones even have the luxury of being choosy. And even now Hong Chau isn’t exactly famous. Yet she was showing up in the hottest projects before insiders knew her name. “Even after I did Treme, I was still auditioning for student films,” Chau tells me.
How to account for such an unknown consistently showing up in the most-coveted movies and shows? The only explanation is that some of our most acclaimed creators have seen the same spark, that same something special in Chau, that me and other critics and awards voters have.
Maybe being outside of the usual fame-generating machine has given her an edge. A creative writing-turned-film studies major, Chau’s first job out of college was at PBS. She says she only took up acting as a way to break out of her own introvertedness, initially in improv classes that she forced herself to attend even though the very idea of it was so nerve-wracking that it would make her nauseous. Yet Chau, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who grew up in New Orleans (her real-life story being part of what got her cast in the New Orleans-set Treme), stuck with it, and it paid off.
You remember Hong Chau because she’s a little different, and in a real way, being an outsider has been her strength. This is an industry that largely functions as a homogenizing machine, in which it’s increasingly difficult to name acclaimed actors who weren’t already famous as children or the children of famous parents. But then maybe the short explanation is also the most correct: just watch her. Hong Chau gets cast in huge projects because she’s really good. I got the chance to talk to her this week.
So you’ve already been able to work with Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Simon, Alexander Payne… Is getting to work with all these people, was that something that you sought out or was it more of a happy accident?
It took a really long time for me to get my acting career off the ground. It was about 10 years before I got Downsizing, and I think that was the first time I became more widely known to people. I think I secretly dreamed of working with great directors doing sort of unusual, I guess you would call it, arthouse movies. I was never particularly interested in sort of mainstream, more popular fare or saw myself being in them so I just had different expectations. I think if I had looked a certain way or maybe if I were more of a model or something, I would’ve had different expectations or desires.
I was just doing the traditional, “Let’s just be an extra on a set and then see what I learn there,” and then get an agent and they send you out on these random auditions. That was my trouble, I never got to audition. I think I auditioned once every three months or something like that, and it would be for a small part on a Nickelodeon show or something and I would never book it.
I knew that wasn’t for me. What I was actually right for eventually came. It took a while to come, but all of my jobs that I’ve gotten have been because the director saw me in something. When I got Homecoming, it was because Sam Esmail and the writers saw me in Downsizing and I got Watchmen because Damon Lindelof saw me in an episode of Forever. And I got the Wes Anderson movie because he saw me and remembered me from a play that I did I think five or six years ago now. So it feels really good, like it’s happening organically.
Were you ever turning down those more traditional, mainstream things? Or was it just a matter of not getting those calls?
No, I mean, I wasn’t even auditioning for stuff that you would think I would be auditioning for, not even for the specifically-Asian roles. I just couldn’t get an audition, I don’t know why. I remember even after I did Treme I was still going and auditioning for student films. I found myself on whatever websites it was. Literally, I was doing anything and everything I could.
What was Aronofsky’s process as a director compared to some of these other people that you’ve worked with?
I think with Darren, I don’t know if he’s necessarily this way on every project that he works with, but he likes to really plan things out. We had a three-week rehearsal period before filming where we were in a separate space from the set that was being built and they had taped out the exact dimensions of our set so that we were moving in a way that was accurate to the actual filming. And part of that was because we knew we wouldn’t be able to have Brendan all day in his prosthetic suit, so we would have to figure out a lot of things prior and make those discoveries outside of the set.
Were you ever limited in terms of how many takes you guys could do just because he was stuffing his face with a bunch of food during some of those scenes? Did you feel like you couldn’t mess something up because then he’d have to eat five more pieces of chicken?
It wasn’t necessarily those types of scenes, I think it was just in general because it was so taxing to be in that suit. It was exhausting. I mean, he was the first person in, last person out. It took him four hours to get all of his prosthetics and makeup done in the morning and an hour to take it off. I dealt with that a little bit on Downsizing. My character had a prosthetic leg, and just the amount of people buzzing around you while you’re trying to focus on what you need to do when they call action… I was just so amazed by Brendan. He’s such a class act and I don’t think anybody could have handled it the way he did. He was so gracious with the other artists working around him, but he didn’t close himself off, he was still present with everybody. I find that so incredible.
You talked about starting your career later. How did you first get into acting?
It was just a slow, sort of random, hit-and-miss process. I never really wanted to be an actor. I always thought I was going to be on the other side of the camera, maybe as an editor. I never saw myself necessarily even on set. I was very introverted and had trouble just communicating and talking to people, and I started taking improv classes to help with that. So it was in an improv class that my teacher was very encouraging, for whatever reason. I don’t know what she saw in me because those were very painful experiences. Dragging myself to improv class, I honestly would feel like barfing before every class, but I forced myself to do it.
It was through the encouragement of other people who just saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself that led to me going on auditions. I didn’t want to, I was terrified. I was really bad. I never booked any of them, but I just still sort of forced myself to go. But there was something that I guess I was taking away from it. It was just interesting to observe other people and just the whole routine and the ritual of getting prepared for an audition, going in and greeting these strangers in a random office somewhere. There was something really interesting about that that I just kind of got, not addicted to, but I just really enjoyed it.
Was there a moment that you realized that you were going to be able to make acting a career and that you wouldn’t have to get a day job or whatever? Was there a point when it seemed like, “Okay, this is a real thing now?”
Not until after Downsizing. Even though I had done Treme and Inherent Vice, I struggled to get auditions and I was still in the youth department of this agency that I was with because nobody in the adult department wanted to take me. I mean, it was still really frustrating. I just felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. You would think, “Oh, she’s been on a David Simon show on HBO and she’s worked with this amazing director that most Hollywood actors would kill to work with,” and nothing.
It wasn’t until Downsizing came along that I had an opportunity to, I guess, showcase myself. And the people who did see it saw that there was an actor there who was making choices, and they weren’t confusing me for the character. Which was a relief because there were people I would come out of screenings and they were afraid to talk to me because they didn’t think that I spoke English very well and they also thought that I might be an amputee in real life and they were just awkward and didn’t know how to talk to me.
Did you ever get pressure to change your name early in your career?
Honestly, no. I mean, it’s funny because someone asked me this recently and that has never occurred to me to change my name. Not even when I was younger in school. I think in elementary school my best friend tried to change my name for me because people were having a difficult time pronouncing it and were making fun of my name, but I felt like, I don’t know, felt a little oblivious to it all. Not oblivious, but just, it didn’t penetrate. I just did not care. I love my name. I’ve always loved my name. And I guess I’m also lucky that I never had somebody come into my life who thought that they knew better than me and tried to do that.
What did she try to change it to, your friend in school?
Oh. Helen. Because it also started with an H. I’m like, “Mm.”
If the acting thing hadn’t worked out, what would the fallback have been like? What would the alternative path look like?
I don’t know. Maybe something entrepreneurial. My parents were small business owners. They just kind of tried everything and failed at a bunch of things until they found something that stuck. So I don’t know, I think I might have tried to open up a shop or something like that.
What was the thing that stuck for them?
When they first came over, they worked in kitchens. My dad was a busboy and washed dishes, and my mom worked in the kitchen chopping vegetables at a Chinese restaurant. And I think that’s what gave them the idea to try to start their own Chinese restaurant because Vietnamese food wasn’t popular yet then. So they tried to open up a Chinese restaurant. That was really difficult and failed. Their whole experience with the two restaurants that they tried to start and failed informed my awareness of how difficult it is to run a restaurant, which played into The Menu and my character there. But my parents — once they had a food truck before food trucks were popular. It wasn’t even a truck, it was just a van that they had a propane tank in to keep the burgers warm. But that was really fun. I remember making hamburger patties and things like that with my parents because they would drive around during lunchtime for the construction workers. I think they were working at a country club at the time in Louisiana. So yeah, that was a really interesting time. And eventually, they saved up enough money to open up a convenience store and that was the thing that stuck, the convenience store. Sort of like a bodega in New Orleans.
This seems like it’s one of those roles that they sort of have to de-glam you for. Is it harder to watch yourself in movies where they’re dressing you down a little bit?
No, I love it when I don’t have to put on foundation and spanks! I welcome that. I loved The Whale for that reason. I loved showing up. Elsa in The Menu was a little bit different, I felt like I was wearing a corset in that movie. And then I did actually wear a corset in Wes Anderson’s movie. You do what is necessary for the character, but I really don’t have any vanity in terms of appearing a certain way. I remember even on a movie like Driveways, where I was supposed to be this sort of weary mom who didn’t have a lot of time or money on her hands, still then I was fighting a little bit with the makeup artist. Like “No, I don’t want any foundation.” It’s fine if you see spots or wrinkles or whatever on my face, I think it’s appropriate. I don’t want mascara. I don’t want all of that stuff.”
It’s a conversation that you have each time with the makeup team, and I think it’s just that they’re worried because somebody else that they had worked with prior wanted to look a certain way and so they’re afraid that you might want to look a certain way too. But for me, I’m just like, “I don’t care.”
‘The Whale’ hits select theaters December 9th, then opens nationwide December 21st. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.