She’s Oscar-Nominated, but Hong Chau Hopes to Stay an Underdog

Though Hong Chau received her first Oscar nomination last month, for playing Brendan Fraser’s caretaker in the Darren Aronofsky drama “The Whale,” it took awhile for the accolade to sink in. In 2017, after a breakout role in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” she’d been hotly tipped for a nomination that never came, the sort of anticlimax that can make you want to detach from the hubbub of awards season altogether.

This time around, there was a better outcome, though she is still sorting out exactly how she feels about it. “My honest reaction to the nomination was just relief,” she said.

The 43-year-old Chau didn’t dream of becoming an Oscar-nominated actress: Born in a refugee camp to Vietnamese parents, she grew up in New Orleans and majored in creative writing and film studies at Boston University. After she signed up for an improv class to cure her shyness, her teacher encouraged her to pursue performing, and Chau moved to Los Angeles to seek parts. But success initially proved elusive, and skeptical casting directors told her that booking anything more than a day-player role was beyond her grasp.

“After a few years of trying, you think, ‘Is it really worth it to try to dedicate my life to this?’” Chau said. “But what kept me going was the delusional hope that I’d get to work on a cool, weird movie, because those were the movies that I liked. I just kept hoping that something would happen and, thankfully, it did.”

After following her big-screen debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” with “Downsizing,” Chau’s career caught fire: She’s been a scene-stealer ever since, in projects like HBO’s “Watchmen” and the recent culinary comedy “The Menu,” in which she plays a coolly hostile maître d’. Chau will next be seen in a raft of auteur-driven films that include Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up,” Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” and “And” from Yorgos Lanthimos, but in the meantime, audiences are still discovering her work in “The Whale,” in which her character, Liz, tends to Fraser’s 600-pound recluse with a whole lot of tough love.

Chau is “a force of nature: titanium backbone, suffers no fools, has a bear trap of a memory,” Fraser told me. “Everything is an embarrassment of riches for whoever’s editing her work because of how varied and interesting she is. And she can say more in between lines of dialogue, in the pauses and the silences, than I can with dialogue.”

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Chau in “The Whale.” She initially turned down the chance to audition.Credit…A24, via Associated Press

Now that the dust has settled from your Oscar nomination, how are you feeling?

The things that have touched me the most have been messages from people who have known me since before I wanted to be an actor. My friend from high school called from work and she was like, “Oh my God, I’m shaking right now. I’m hiding in the closet to talk to you because I can’t control my body right now.” I was like, “Why?” But she was starting to tear up on the phone, and it made me get emotional because she was like, “I remember all of those years ago when I went to your improv shows.” I hadn’t thought about that in so long, and stuff like that is meaningful to me. The rest of it, I don’t know. My whole career identity has been about being an underdog and trying to scrap my way into getting parts.

Do you mean you were perceived as an underdog, or you felt like an underdog?

I felt like an underdog, always really excited and grateful to be a part of things. Now it’s just a weird thing where I feel like, “Do I have to step up? Am I going to be considered a veteran now?” I still feel so new and I’m still learning, so I hope this doesn’t mean that people think I know what I’m doing. I really admire people who are pros, but at the same time, I hope I never become a pro, if that makes sense.

You shot “The Whale” in early 2021, not long after you had given birth to your first child. Was it an easy yes?

Interviews With the Oscar Nominees

  • Kerry Condon: An ardent animal lover, the supporting actress Oscar nominee for “The Banshees of Inisherin” said that she channeled grief from her dog’s death into her performance.
  • Michelle Yeoh: The “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star, nominated for best actress, said she was “bursting with joy” but “a little sad” that previous Asian actresses hadn’t been recognized.
  • Angela Bassett: The actress nearly missed the announcement because of troubles with her TV. She tuned in just in time to find out that she was nominated for her supporting role in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
  • Austin Butler: In discussing his best actor nomination, the “Elvis” star said that he wished Lisa Marie Presley, who died on Jan. 12, had been able to celebrate the moment with him.

I was fully anticipating not working for the first year while I was a mother, so I was surprised when my agent sent me the script for “The Whale.” I almost didn’t want to read it, because I didn’t want to get attached, and then when I read the script, I felt even more strongly that this wasn’t the right time in my life to tackle something like that because it would take so much work. Also, everything that I’d done had been a specifically Asian character, and because this character wasn’t, I thought the casting net for it must be so wide. I just didn’t want to throw my hat in the ring.

About a week passed and my agent came back to me and was like, “They really want to see you. Is this something you want to let go?” During that time, I had thought about it, like, “Oh my gosh, it is a really amazing story and script. I don’t know, can I do it?” They asked for three scenes on tape for the audition. I told my agent, “Here’s one scene. That’s all I had time to do. I think he should know after one scene whether I’m the right girl for him or not.”

That’s a flex, Hong!

“I don’t have time to do anything else! My baby is crying in the background” [she told the agent]. But Darren called me right after he saw it, somehow my baby cooperated, and we were able to put another scene on tape very quickly.

Once you accepted the role, how did you feel?

Honestly, I felt like I wanted to barf. I was thinking, “Wow, I’m so tired. How can I possibly be on set and say all these lines? Oh my God, this is more dialogue than I’ve had in all of the things I’ve done combined.” Thankfully, my husband really stepped up and took care of our baby while I was at work and allowed me to do it. And he was the one who also really pushed me to throw my hat in the ring and said that he would be there to support me.

Brendan Fraser said Chau “can say more in between lines of dialogue, in the pauses and the silences, than I can with dialogue.”Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

Before shooting, the actors had three weeks of rehearsal. Is that the sort of thing that you spark to as a performer?

I found rehearsals really restrictive, and I don’t think Darren will mind me describing it as that. He obviously knew what he wanted to do, so a lot of rehearsal from the get-go was spent on blocking, and it was so specific so early on. That’s what I had objection to because in my mind, rehearsal means that you just feel everything out without already knowing where you need to be.

By the second or third day, I kind of tuned him out a little bit and was able to just focus on Brendan and trying to find those different moments with him. One of the functions of Liz in the script was to show the audience who Charlie was prior to us meeting him in this dire state, and finding those moments of joy and of levity needed to be worked out in rehearsal, because once we got on set, there wasn’t going to be time because of the limitations of the suit that Brendan was wearing. It was incredibly hot to wear silicone, so there wasn’t as much time to futz around.

What do you think Liz is like outside the space we see her in during the movie?

Well, when I was cast, my agents had thrown out some names of other people who were in consideration for the role. None of them were Asian, and the role wasn’t written specifically as Asian. So once I was cast, the writer Sam Hunter added the line about her being adopted. I think it was a useful bit of information in terms of picturing what it was like for her growing up in Idaho in this very conservative, religious family. That informed a lot of the choices that I made.

I asked Darren if I could have tattoos and he said yes, even though you never see them on camera in the movie, because I was like, “Oh, I think she was a raver girl.” I could imagine Liz going to some warehouse parties and rebelling against her super-religious adoptive parents. But that was all just for me, and it felt luxurious, like, “Oh, this only happens on a Darren Aronofsky movie.” No other production would allow me to spend the time or the money on these tattoos.

Maybe not, but on projects like “The Menu” or “Watchmen,” I’ve heard you had a lot of input into how those characters would look.

Even though they’re limited in screen time, I want them to feel interesting. That’s part of the fun for me. I think a lot of people would maybe look at it in a more pitiful way, like, “Oh, why doesn’t she get to play lead characters? Why just supporting?” But I love supporting characters and I love doing that work to make them feel really full — it’s a little bit of a puzzle where you have to look for clues in the text. It’s not about jockeying for more screen time or more lines or anything like that. I’m usually more entertained or invested in whatever is going on with a supporting character than the lead character.

In “The Menu,” Chau plays a stern maître d’ opposite Ralph Fiennes’s imperious chef.Credit…20th Century Fox

In past interviews, you’ve said that you don’t necessarily think of yourself as an actor. After a year like the one you’ve had, has that changed?

When I say I don’t feel like an actor, it’s because typically whenever you read a profile of an actor, this is all that they’ve ever wanted to do. I don’t know if I could say the same thing, because I didn’t intend on being an actor. I didn’t go to school for it, and I only took improv classes as a way to break out of my shell because I was so introverted. I thought I wanted to be either a writer or an editor, something that was a little bit more solitary, and it’s just odd that I find myself in front of the camera.

What do you get out of acting now that’s different than when you first began?

I don’t know if I ever wanted anything out of it! I just wanted to be on set, to hang out with people, and to see the finished product. I could be on set all day if I didn’t have a family to take care of. I just love watching everybody work, not even just the actors — I love watching the grips move the lights, and the set decorators tweaking the little drapes. I also feel like my most relaxed and most confident self on set, too. I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m on a red carpet.

Red carpets are terrifying! It’s a gantlet of flash bulbs and people shouting your name.

It’s not even shouting my name — it’s more like whoever I’m talking to is looking past me to see if there’s somebody more famous coming up so they can quickly wrap up whatever they’re doing with me. That’s been my experience.

You said that before “The Whale,” many of your parts were written specifically for an Asian actress. Is that still the case?

“Showing Up,” no. Wes’s movie, no. “The Menu,” definitely not, because she was written as Scandinavian. But I never go into it with an agenda of like, “OK, I’m going to turn the stereotype on its head.” I’m always trying to service the script, and however people want to take it, I have no control over that. Even with Elsa in “The Menu,” I thought she was a very dominating character, but during an interview, somebody was asking a question about Asian stereotypes, and she was also Asian. She was like, “Your character reminded me of a maid.” I was like, “I’m sorry, what are you talking about?”

It’s a shame, honestly, to always be viewing the world and looking for that. You can always bend things in that way if you want to, but it’s not something that I can really spend too much energy trying to anticipate. But I’m also a little hesitant to get on a soapbox about things. My goal is not to be president of the Asian American student body — I just want to do good work and just leave it at that.

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