A trio of standout roles reveals Hong Chau’s boundless range

Dec 22, 2022, 9:05 PM | Updated: Dec 23, 2022, 11:11 am
Actor Hong Chau poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Chau has starring roles in bo...

Actor Hong Chau poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Chau has starring roles in both "The Whale" and "The Menu." (Photo by Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)

(Photo by Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)

              Actor Hong Chau poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Chau has starring roles in both "The Whale" and "The Menu." (Photo by Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)
              Actor Hong Chau poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Chau has starring roles in both "The Whale" and "The Menu." (Photo by Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)
              Actor Hong Chau poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Chau has starring roles in both "The Whale" and "The Menu." (Photo by Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)
              Actor Hong Chau poses for a portrait in Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Chau has starring roles in both "The Whale" and "The Menu." (Photo by Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — The seemingly limitless range of Hong Chau is on display in three films this year, in roles so different that they hardly seem the work of one actor.

In Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” she plays best friend and nurse to Brendan Fraser’s obese shut-in professor, his most regular visitor and assertive caregiver. She desperately, unsentimentally prods him to get healthier, to care about himself.

In Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up,” Chau plays the idle landlord and artist colleague of Michelle Williams’ ceramics sculptor. She’s the mellower, more successful envy of Williams’ character, and yet kind of a regular companion.

In Mark Mylod’s haute cuisine black comedy “The Menu,” Chau plays the militant hostess at an exclusive restaurant who delivers some of the film’s most deliciously scathing lines. In the ear of one customer she whispers, “You’ll eat less than you desire and more than you deserve.”

Her performances — each a dazzling highlight in harmony within an ensemble — vary so much in appearance and manner that you can’t help wonder: Who, exactly, is Hong Chau? Is she, herself, like any of these characters? Or none of them?

Even for Chau, it’s not an easy question to answer.

“Maybe my character in ‘Showing Up’ because she’s also an artist,” says Chau. “The feeling of: I’m not in competition with anybody even though the way that other people view it makes you feel this sense that there’s a race, or that you’re not where you’re supposed to be. I think with acting or with Hollywood, there’s always this feeling of being uneasy with where you are in life.”

Since starting out on the David Simon HBO series “Treme” and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” 43-year-old Chau has cut a unique, sometimes mysterious path through show business, choosing parts deliberately and seamlessly shape-shifting each time. “For a long time, she was such an enigma to me,” Mylod says.

But five years after her breakthrough performance in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” the cluster of films is bringing Chau into view better than ever before, even while she remains maddeningly hard to pin down.

“Even before I became more successful, I never really wanted to be amongst a group of actors or keep up with people and have that in my mind at all times,” Chau said in a recent interview from New Orleans where she was shooting Yorgos Lanthimos’ “And.” “It was always about myself and what I wanted out of it, and how I could do things that felt right for me.”

Chau’s performance in “The Whale,” which expanded in theaters nationwide Friday, has in particular been singled out for awards consideration. But part of the thrill of this season for Chau is how multidimensional it is, something that will continue into next year, too. Chau co-stars in Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” due out in June, adding to her enviable run with many of the top American filmmakers. “Showing Up,” which premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, will be released sometime in the spring.

For Chau, who was born to Vietnamese parents in a refugee camp in Thailand and grew up in New Orleans, it’s a fate she never bargained on.

“Even to this day, I have trouble saying that I’m an actor because I struggle with talking about what my process is,” Chau says. “There are actor-actors out there who give these really in-depth, tremendous interviews about their process. They talk about it in such a way that makes me feel, ‘Maybe I’m not an actor.’ I just don’t think that way at all.”

Chau didn’t grow up acting; Hollywood was an unimaginable distance from her working-class upbringing in New Orleans East. Attending Boston University on a Pell Grant, she turned to film studies even though, up until then, her only real film education was watching the arthouse movies her brother rented.

“I definitely have an appreciation for exhibition. How could you not, growing up in a city with feathers and beads and all sorts of nonsense going on?” Chau says, laughing. “But in terms of actually seeing movies, no. I grew up without a lot of money so my parents never took me to the movies. We never ate out. There was so much that I slowly came to discover once I left home, once I went off to college. When I was doing press for ‘The Menu,’ people would ask about restaurant experiences and I’d think, ‘Oh my God, I was and I’m still such an awkward person at restaurants because that’s not something I was used to growing up.'”

Chau’s first job out of college was an administrative assistant at PBS. A life behind the camera seemed more likely to her, a mentality that’s translated to her acting.

“Whenever I look at a script, it’s more from the mindset of what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish,” she says. “That’s really the only thing in my head. I don’t do it for me. I’m not trying to have an out-of-body experience when I do these roles. I guess I’m just a fan of the whole process.”

That was also Aronofsky’s impression working with Chau, who landed the part after a self-taped audition she made a little reluctantly in the middle of the pandemic shortly after the birth of her first child. Aronofsky found that in each take while shooting “The Whale,” Chau would do something different, supplying him with an array of choices in editing.

“Brendan joked to me the other day how at the end of a bunch of takes, I’d be like, ‘Let’s just do one more, Hong. Just surprise us, have some fun.’ Because she would always do something authentic and real but a different take on it,” says Aronofsky. “I do think if she wants to direct, she can direct. She thinks like a director.”

Chau describes her process uncertainly but better than she says she does. “I guess I just start dreaming up a character,” she says. “I start to see flashes of something in my head as I’m reading a script in terms of their appearance, the cadence of their speech.”

Sometimes, she says, that’s easy when the writing is good “and there’s a music to it.” “Downsizing,” in which she played a Vietnamese dissident with a prosthetic leg, was like that. “The Menu” required more heavy lifting since her character was more thinly sketched. Mylod had written the role with a large Scandinavian woman in mind but decided to open up casting possibilities, seeking an “X factor” for his satire. “And she killed it,” says Mylod.

“It was initially very jarring for Mark,” says Chau, smiling. “I didn’t go as far as wanted to. I wanted to shave my eyebrows, and the compromise was that I’d just bleach my eyebrows. And he was like, ‘Hong, you’re a restaurant manager. Why would you look like that?’ Because she does!”

On “The Whale,” much has been made of Fraser’s physical transformation, requiring daily hours of makeup and a large fat suit. Chau’s metamorphosis was more subtle.

“I asked for certain things. I asked for tattoos for Liz. You don’t really see them in the movie at all,” Chau says. “But every morning I would sit and get tattoos on both arms and the back of my neck. I don’t think another production would do that. And (Aronofsky) never asked me why. He just let me have it.”

More than anything, Chau seems to relish those interactions, piecing a character together bit by bit, from the ground up. “I feel,” she says, “like I’m really collaborating, you know?”


AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr contributed to this report.


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony at t...
Associated Press

US moving ahead on plan to down Chinese balloon over ocean

The Biden administration is moving forward with a plan to shoot down a large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance on the U.S. military, by bringing it down once it is above the Atlantic Ocean where the remnants could potentially be recovered, according to two U.S. officials.
14 hours ago
In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Northwest, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer reac...
Associated Press

Man rescued by Coast Guard wanted in ‘Goonies’ fish incident

A man who was saved by a Coast Guard rescue swimmer at the mouth of the Columbia River as a massive wave rolled the yacht he was piloting Friday was wanted for a bizarre incident in which police said he left a dead fish at the Astoria, Oregon, home featured in the classic 1985 film, "The Goonies."
14 hours ago
FILE - An Amazon company logo on the company's building in Schoenefeld near Berlin, Germany, March ...
Associated Press

Amazon violated labor law with delivery app

A Spanish court has ruled that Amazon broke labor laws by forcing more than 2,000 delivery drivers to use an app that the company controlled for scheduling work and payments and requiring them to use their own cars and cellphones on the job.
14 hours ago
Members of the ground crew secure the site after a United airlines flight made an emergency landing...
Associated Press

Engine problems force Vegas-bound flight to land in Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A United Airlines flight headed from Chicago to Las Vegas made an unplanned stop in Nebraska on Saturday after the pilot reported engine problems. Mark Grant, a communications operator at the Lincoln Airport, said 326 passengers and crew members were aboard the Boeing 777 when it took off from O’Hare International […]
2 days ago
CORRECTS TO KINGSTOWN, NOT KINGSTON - In this photo provided by Brian Branch, a large balloon drift...
Associated Press

Eyes on the sky as Chinese balloon shot down over Atlantic

Eyes were locked on the Carolina skies Saturday as the suspected Chinese spy balloon that traversed the U.S. over the past week drifted over the Atlantic Ocean and was shot down by a fighter jet. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a crowd lining the beach boardwalk cheered as the balloon was struck by a missile […]
2 days ago
A woman clears debris from a landscape of charred remains in Santa Ana, Chile, Saturday, Feb. 4, 20...
Associated Press

Chile wildfires spread amid heat wave as death toll rises

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chile extended an emergency declaration to yet another region on Saturday as firefighters struggled to control dozens of raging wildfires that have claimed at least 22 lives amid a scorching heat wave that has broken records. The government declared a state of catastrophe in the La Araucanía region, which is south […]
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
A trio of standout roles reveals Hong Chau’s boundless range