Hong Chau knows the awards season grind. In 2017, her turn in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” catapulted her into the awards season fray (Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, and SAG noms, even the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s tony Virtuoso Award), rocketing her to the top of the list for a presumed Best Supporting Actress Oscar nom. It didn’t happen.
“People were saying, ‘You’re going to get nominated. You’re going to get nominated.’ I think I heard that for six months,” she said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It was my first big role. It was my first time doing press. I just didn’t know how to process any of it. Obviously, I did not get nominated. The calls and messages I was getting from people [afterward], it was as if there had been a death in the family. That experience completely sobered me up to awards and all of the hoopla around it. I just did not want to go through that again.”
This time, it was a heartbreaking turn in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” alongside Brendan Fraser that garnered attention: BAFTA, SAG, and Gotham noms — and yes, finally, an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Chau made a concentrated effort to not get sucked in. Asked what she was doing when this round of Oscar nominations were announced, she laughed.
“My 15-year-old dog wakes us up now, as much as a newborn baby, because he can’t flip himself over,” Chau said (the dog is a Rottweiler and Australian shepherd mix, he’s doing great). “He just cries whenever he needs to be turned. He’s lived a long life and it’s hard for him now, so you have to adjust his body for him. He was crying, and it was a little bit before 5:00AM, so I couldn’t go back to sleep. I just had coffee in bed and watched the nominations. So, yes, I did see them.”
This nomination almost didn’t happen. Not because of the weirdness of awards season, but because Chau almost didn’t take the role. Hell, she almost didn’t even read the script.
“When I first got the script, to paint the picture for you, I had just given birth to my first child,” Chau said. “She was eight weeks old and the pandemic was going on. We were trapped in our little apartment in LA and I almost didn’t want to read the script. I didn’t want to become attached to it because, in my mind, I was just going to focus on being a mother. I felt good about that. I had waited a really long time [to have children] and I really wanted to spend that time with her and enjoy it and not really think about work or my career.”
Chau said she had enough money to take a bit of a hiatus to be with her husband and baby, and wasn’t worried that the industry would forget about her. It was time for a break. Right?
“I wasn’t really interested in going back to work, even though it was a script for a Darren Aronofsky film,” Chau said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got this little baby, what’s better than that?’ I told my agent that I wasn’t going to throw my hat in the ring for it, and then a week passed, and my husband was very nice and was like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you want to let this one go? And we’ll figure it out if you do end up getting the part.’”
Chau relented. She loved it. Liz wasn’t the “best friend” role Chau feared. She was complex, her own person, a fully realized character that still stood out even against the central drama of fellow Oscar nominee Fraser as Charlie, a morbidly obese man coming to the end of his life. Liz isn’t just Charlie’s best pal or his nurse or the sister of his beloved dead boyfriend; she’s also got her own heartbreaks, her own rebellions, her own story.
“Even putting together an audition tape was so difficult because they wanted three scenes, and of course all of the scenes are these giant, huge scenes,” Chau said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, you’ve got to learn all these lines!’ And actually figure out who the character is. I didn’t even feel like up to submitting an audition tape, because I didn’t want to send Darren Aronofsky something really embarrassing. I was able to only do one of the scenes, that’s all my crying baby would allow. And I just thought, ‘Well, he should know by one scene if I’m the girl for him or not.’”
OK, he needed one more scene, which Chau then provided, and then he FaceTimed her to offer her the part. Casting Chau, who is of Vietnamese descent, required one small tweak to Hunter’s script, an added line about her being adopted into a religious family in the middle of Idaho.
“I always feel like my characters are Asian because it’s me and I’m playing the character,” she said. “Liz was not written to be specifically Asian and in all of the stage productions, the character was played by a white actress. Even during the audition process, the names that I heard that were in the running for the role were not Asian. The line about her being adopted was added by Sam after I was cast. You could argue that you don’t even need to have it in there, but I do think that it helps the audience picture the other characters who are referenced in the movie, in the story.”
It also helped Chau picture Liz more clearly. That one line about her being adopted opened up a wealth of possibilities for the actress to explore.
“I was able to think about what that must have been like for her growing up in this family that is very religious and conservative,” the actress said. “Not only that, but also in the small town in Idaho, what that must have been like for her. So it was important for me to know that information, because I don’t like it when the character just randomly has a non-Asian-sounding name. I want to know why. I’m always like, ‘Well, what’s her deal? Was she adopted? Was she married and divorced? What’s up with the name?’”
Chau’s ruminations on Liz’s life were so deep, she even let them onto her skin. “I thought that Liz probably had a bit of a rebellious childhood and acted out, and one of the things I had fun thinking about was that she might have been a little raver girl,” she said. “I asked Darren if I could have some tattoos on the off chance that you might see them when I was rolling up my sleeves or something like that, and he obliged me.”
If you look hard enough, you’ll see them. They’re behind her ear and on both of her arms. Makeup department head Judy Chin even conceived a “really cool tattoo” that doesn’t get much screen time: it’s Charlie alongside Liz’s brother Alan, rendered as fish. “One of them was a smaller fish and one was a bigger fish, and it was just so beautiful,” Chau said. “But it was just for me. It was just for me and Judy.”
Chau headed to Newburgh, New York to rehearse with Aronofsky, Fraser, and co-stars Sadie Sink and Ty Simpkins. The actress called the process “necessary,” and helped steep her in the world “The Whale” wanted to create. It was so wonderful that Chau didn’t even leave when her scenes were through.
“We would sit there and watch the entire thing, and see what the other actors were doing with their characters,” she said. “We felt like a theater troupe. That’s what Darren wanted, and I loved it. I rarely get to see such a transformation from the initial table read to the actual filming. Usually by the time you arrive on set you’re already pretty much locked into how you’re going to do it, so that was a real treat for me. I think that’s the coolest thing about being an actor: getting to witness that work from someone else.”
So, the break didn’t quite pan out. While she was shooting “The Whale,” Chau got the call for Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up” (“another crazy-amazing director who I would never dream I’d get to work with”). While shooting “Showing Up,” she got the call for Mark Mylod’s “The Menu” (she’s a big “Succession” fan, so it was an easy yes). From there she went straight to Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” which shot in Spain.
Chau has been here before, but not quite like this. How’s it feel? “It’s been good! But, yeah,” Chau said with a laugh. “I’m tired.”
An A24 release, “The Whale” is currently in select theaters and is available on various digital platforms.
When Hong Chau Wanted to Take a Break from Acting, Darren Aronofsky Had Other Plans