As an actress, Hong Chau’s resume is lean but mighty. What it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality; series like Watchmen and Homecoming, movies by Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the latest from Darren Aronofsky. Next year she’ll appear opposite Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichert’s Showing Up and Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, set in Spain.
But it took nearly a decade to jump-start her career: her turn playing a Vietnamese dissident in Downsizing, opposite Matt Damon, in 2017 garnered her award nominations and put her on the map. But Chau was concerned about what would come after. “Because people like to see you do the same thing that you just did,” she says. Chau, who is Vietnamese-American, immigrated with her family to New Orleans as a young girl from a refugee camp in Thailand.
Chau, 43, has had a banner year, filled with varied and unconventional roles. The through line, though, might be a combination of limber authenticity and wry flair. Both are evident whether she’s playing a sardonic and devoted maître d’ in The Menu, a rich-skewering send-up of the restaurant-world, or a brusquely empathetic nurse to a 600-pound man in The Whale. The intimate drama, based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, and directed by Darren Aronofsky, affords Chau ample screen time and has the stirrings of awards buzz.
But it’s a role she almost didn’t take. After giving birth to her first child in November of 2020, Chau was looking forward to staying home and enjoying motherhood when her agent handed her the script a few months later. The fact that on stage, her character had been played by a white actress furthered her skepticism. “I thought, well, the casting net must be so wide,” Chau says. “There’s no way I’m going to get this role, so I didn’t want to emotionally invest in it.” Thankfully she did. During a busy press season, Chau spoke to Vogue about motherhood, navigating Hollywood, and what she’d like to do next.
Having a child was part of the reason you weren’t planning to audition or take on another role last year. Can you talk a little bit about balancing your career and motherhood? It sounded almost like you were taking yourself out of the game for good.
Hong Chau: I think I waited so long to become a parent because I just couldn’t afford to be one. After I did Homecoming and Watchman I had saved up some money and thought, I can go have a baby now. I felt like I had done enough, even though I had only done a couple movies and TV shows, and I thought the industry would welcome me back if I took some time off because I had a little bit under my belt. I was just in a really good place: I felt really satisfied and happy with what I had and didn’t really want more. I could go live my life and not have acting, or an acting career, be the end-all be-all for me.
I also had a really great pregnancy—the lockdown was great for me, and I was just really happy and excited to be a mother, so whenever I got these wonderful opportunities, a part of me was sick to my stomach. I just didn’t know how I would be able to go off and do such a demanding role and still be the mother that I wanted to be.
I don’t know if it’s because we’re more evolved now or [if it was] that particular group of people, but every production I worked on seemed very welcoming of me, even though I was a new mother and had some extra demands in terms of where I needed to be outside of work. The first time I met Darren [Aronofsky] was at home over FaceTime. I was feeding my daughter and he was totally cool with it, very unfazed. That was very indicative of how the rest of the shoot would be.
What drew you to The Whale?
There was just so much there to digest. As a parent who came into parenthood a little later in life, I was personally very moved by Charlie’s [Brendan Fraser’s character] story. I definitely empathised with his clock ticking. It was the story of this man who really wanted to be a good parent and found himself in a situation where he couldn’t be—he’s estranged from his daughter and tries to make amends in the last week of his life.
Your character, Liz, is deeply empathetic towards Charlie, but also an enabler in some capacity. How did you approach their dynamic?
I think it was true to life. I definitely berated family members for not going to the doctor. They’ll complain about something, and it’s like, Well, have you tried going to the dentist? All of that felt very true to me and I’ve witnessed it countless times in relationships where people do things that could be interpreted as enabling, but it’s really difficult, when you have a long history with somebody, to just say no or to walk away because they’re not behaving in the way that you think they should. The fact that Liz sticks around and does the things that she does, it’s indicative of how much she cares for Charlie—and it’s hard for her. It’s really hard to stick around and watch someone you care about suffer.
Once you did get the part, how do you go about preparing for the role?
For something like Liz and The Whale, there’s so much text there to mine and to get information from since it’s a play; you don’t really have to do as much in terms of creating a backstory for a character. I did ask for things just for myself, like I asked Darren if I could have tattoos for the character, and he was okay with that. Every morning our makeup artist would put tattoos on both of my arms and behind my neck. You don’t see them that much on camera, but I loved that the production would spend the time and money on something like that, and it was really just for me.
For Showing Up, I play an artist. I guess because it’s so similar to actors, that journey of just being a nobody until suddenly you’re somebody, I completely understood that dynamic that my character, Jo, had with Lizzie, Michelle [Williams]’s character. It was so fun to be in Kelly Reichert’s first comedy.
With Elsa in The Menu, there wasn’t a lot on the page there. I had to do a lot of heavy lifting to create something for myself, so I was invested when I was on set during a lot of moments of silence and non-dialogue. Mark Mylod, the director, was really good in terms of letting me veer very far off from what he was thinking initially.
You came up with the outfit and the look, right?
Yes, with the costume director Amy Wescott. Mark and the writers didn’t want to give too much away through the character. They thought Elsa should be unremarkable and very plain-dressed. I felt like there was an opportunity to do something impactful and memorable. I was filming in Portland for Showing Up and drew a lot of inspiration from the people I saw around me—the restaurant in The Menu was set in the Pacific Northwest generally.
I also told Mark I didn’t want [Elsa] to feel like she went to NYU and graduated with a degree in management and hospitality. She contributed to that restaurant, and I didn’t want that traditional background or for her to seem like a mindless follower. I likened her more to a campaign manager for a political candidate. She definitely had a strong hand in getting him [Chef Slownik, Ralph Fiennes’s character and Elsa’s boss] to where he was.
You mentioned Showing Up is a comedy. You have brilliant comedic timing in The Menu and even in a straightforward drama like The Whale. Are you conscious of your humour?
I don’t think I’m a funny person. I love comedy, but situational comedy. I’m not into jokes, per se, and if I ever have a joke that I definitely need to land, that puts a little too much pressure on it. I think it’s about finding what’s amusing or absurd in a situation—the comedy just comes out. I can’t deal with things that are too earnest, I just don’t know how to do it! If there’s a bit of humour in there, then it gives me a point of view, so I know where I can go with it, and have something to anchor myself to.
What was the most difficult scene to film, if not in The Whale, then in one of your other projects?
With The Whale, they’re all big scenes. You can’t just pick out one. It’s true for Sadie [Sink]’s character, for Ty [Simpkins], and Samantha [Morton], even though she only has one scene, because it’s one long scene. I think that’s where the film stands apart from what we’re used to—it was adapted from a stage play and retains a lot of that theatricality in terms of the text and language, and it might be uncomfortable for audiences to sit with that.
Some people say they don’t enjoy theatre because it’s too talky, but I think that’s what’s really special about this film—it really challenges you to sit with a limited number of characters; a very limited location. The action is really through the dialogue and text, and that’s really unusual for a film these days.
What happens to these characters after you’ve wrapped? Do they stay with you?
They do. I find myself thinking sometimes about my character from Downsizing, just random thoughts, not anything specific. Suddenly a memory will come up, or you’ll connect some psychic dots through time. I don’t quite know how to explain it.
With The Whale, I get really weepy at strange times. You wouldn’t think it— or rather I wouldn’t think it— because junkets and press are a bit of a marathon, but I find myself getting emotional talking about the film. I did my first Q&A a couple weeks ago, and it was the first time I’d seen Brendan since the Venice Film Festival. I don’t know why, but I started crying on stage, and it was so embarrassing!
Liz wasn’t written as an Asian character. What about Elsa or Jo?
Elsa was described as a severe Scandinavian woman—maybe I kept the severe part [laughs]. And Jo, she wasn’t specifically Asian in the script, but there was something funny about her being Lizzie’s landlord and the idea that that’s how she supplemented her income. It felt very Asian to me in a way. That’s exactly what my mom would approve of: If I became a landlord and had this passive income while I did my unconventional job. It provides some sort of security.
How has it been, navigating Hollywood as an Asian American actress in general?
That’s a big topic for me to take a bite out of. I recently saw Ke Huy Quan having breakfast and said hello, which I don’t normally do. I feel like what he went through is so different from my experience. But the commonality is that he had to step away because the roles just weren’t there for him, and for me, it just took a long time to get started and get into the room in the first place. When I was starting out, I would audition once every three months, which is really different from other actors, who were doing it a few times a week. He talks about stereotypical roles that were offered to him or were available to him, but I feel like I didn’t even see those roles—because I wasn’t even auditioning.
I’ve also always gravitated more towards art-house fare, and I always understood those were rare in general. I never felt let down in terms of more mainstream projects because I felt like I didn’t have that look. My thinking was, I’m not trying to be America’s sweetheart, so the frustration wasn’t there in that regard. If I were a model or a babe, it would be one thing, but I know who I am, and I’m very comfortable with it.
So it was more like: How am I ever going to get to work with that director who does those really strange movies that I love? How am I going to go down this other route? And I knew it was a little more limited in terms of what was out there. Does that make sense?
I think so. And it’s evident that that’s the kind of career path you carved out.
I often get asked about stereotypes, trying to stay away from them or avoiding them, but I really don’t do any of that sort of calculation, where I go, This is what the general population thinks of an Asian female, so let me do this. I never think in that way. It’s sort of an artificial way to approach a character which has nothing to do with the story, and it would be a disservice.
Does having majored in film affect your acting, or colour your choices? It’s not as common as you’d think, to find actors who have studied film.
I think most days I don’t think of myself as an actor. I struggle with answering questions about the process, and I feel like I don’t come up with an actor-y enough response to them. I feel like whoever’s talking to me is so unsatisfied with what I tell them. When I’m working on a project, I’m really so much more interested in the process as a whole and probably more what the director’s doing, rather than my role. And when I’m reading the script I’m never thinking about the experience that I want to have as an actor—like, I don’t want to have an out-of-body experience of playing a character.
The movie I just finished was with Willem Dafoe, and it’s been a real pleasure to talk with him in between scenes. He’s really unattached and playful and just likes the experience of making it happen, just sort of fucking around. I want to be more like him.
Do you think you’ll ever step behind the camera?
I would have said no, up until very recently. I don’t know why, but Darren has put it in my head that I should, so I’ve been thinking about it more. I’ve been lucky to work with a wide range of wonderful directors and to see how their different temperaments and innate personalities affect their films. There’s something sort of comforting about getting to learn that directors are very vulnerable humans—just like actors.
Is there a director you’d like to work with next, or one that you particularly admire?
Oh my God, the list is so long! Most of them are international. I really love a lot of films that take place outside of the U.S.
I love Jia Zhangke, a Chinese director. Pedro Almodóvar and Maren Ade. I got to see some of her earlier films before Toni Erdmann. Talk about funny—she’s somebody whose sense of humour I’m definitely in tune with, and it would be great to work with her someday.
I just watched Petite Maman and that was so beautiful and only 70-something minutes. I had a really amazing experience in Venice where I randomly found myself on a boat with Céline Sciamma [the director] and we were both talking about how great Turning Red is. It’s a lot of people. But even if I got to work with the same people I’ve worked with again, that would be so amazing, too.
This article was originally published on Vogue US.