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?”