When Hong Chaus’s agent told her that Darren Aronofsky was considering casting her for The Whale, her response was simple, “I’m so tired, I don’t have time for this.” She had just become a mother at 41 and , as she recently said in an interview, “I actually didn’t want to go back to work”. The Whale team wanted an audition tape, a time-consuming process. “It just felt like a monumental task that I wasn’t ready for at the time,” she says.
But her agent kept pushing, so Chau made the audition tape. Now she’s among the crowd stirring up Oscar excitement for the film about reclusive, morbidly obese English teacher Charlie (Brendan Fraser) who is desperate to make amends with his daughter (Sadie Sink). Chau plays his best friend and tutor, Liz, who loves him hard and tries to keep him from destroying himself (though she can’t stop his unhealthy relationship with food). It’s a matter-of-fact performance by an actress coming into her own.
In addition to The Whale, Chau will be appearing in two other films this fall, as a Portland artist in Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up and as the caretaker of a satirical Haute Island restaurant in The Menu. And she’ll soon be starring in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City.
As it turns out, the very circumstances that led her to say “no” to “The Whale” made her happy she said yes.
“The combination of history and becoming a mother at 41 made me see the pain and beauty in Charlie,” she says. “There’s this ticking clock that he has to try to make whole the one thing he’s going to leave behind that’s really important. And that moved me.”
Reached via email, Aronofsky expressed his gratitude that she signed on to be in the film. “Every shot with Hong is a gift, a discovery, a journey into the unknown,” he writes. “She is a master of improvisation of meaning and emotion.”
Chau says the admiration is mutual. “Darren loves actors,” she says. “I don’t know if all directors love actors. He understands what we are doing. He understands that actors have very delicate instruments and that we are not robots that just spit out lines take after take.”
Chau was born to Vietnamese parents in a refugee camp in Thailand and grew up with them mostly in eastern New Orleans, an area with mostly Vietnamese immigrants and black residents. It’s a remarkable story of resilience and possibility, but it doesn’t mean to claim it. She insists it’s not hers.
“My parents made this trip,” she says. “You were brave. They took that risk. they suffered. They came here and built a new life for themselves without anything. I was just someone they were responsible for. I wasn’t responsible for their stories. I’m very proud of her, and part of me feels a little uncomfortable that I’m somehow benefiting from her story. They should be the ones getting those compliments and that kind of admiration.”
In 2017, Chau garnered attention with her role as a disabled Vietnamese refugee opposite Matt Damon in Alexander Payne’s eco-satire Downsizing. Her character, Ngoc Lan, is a refugee and dissident who, like such a character would, speaks with an accent. Some critics took offense, complaining that the character was a caricature. Chau shrugged; Although she grew up in the US, she certainly knows what a Vietnamese accent sounds like. “Sometimes people have a little more trouble with stories that are integrated,” she says. “It’s a lot easier and less complicated when the film has an all-Asian cast.”
But she’s very conscious of her ethnicity, especially when she feels a production is casting a wide net just to fill a quota.
“I’m always wary of being the versatile option,” she says. “Sometimes you feel like your audition tape is just going to be there to make them feel like they’ve done their due diligence and considered different actors and a white person ends up being cast. I just don’t want to waste anyone’s time on it.”
Chau got into acting to combat her shyness. She was initially a creative writing student at Boston University. “I had trouble just speaking to people, and public speaking wasn’t something I ever wanted to do, but I pushed myself to do it,” she says. Public speaking classes led to improv classes, and she transitioned from creative writing to film.
“It was about working on myself and trying to get out of my shell,” she says. “I just realized for myself that I have to do this or I would be really holding back and not doing things that I wanted to do. I’m really glad I kind of decided to take the plunge.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-12-07/hong-chau-makes-the-leap-into-the-whale Why Hong Chau recognized the ticking clock in ‘The Whale’