Hong Chau stole the show as a fierce one-legged Vietnamese activist in Alexander Payne’s 2017 star-packed social satire Downsizing. Now, in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, she’s doing it again: this time she plays Liz, a no-nonsense caregiver who helps reclusive 600-pound English professor Charlie (Brendan Fraser) manage his failing health while he struggles to reconnect with his estranged and thoroughly unlikable teenage daughter (Sadie Sink). As the story unfolds, the unexpected reasons for Liz’s dedication to Charlie are gradually revealed, and Chau’s scene-stealing performance — subtle and heartbreaking — balances the pain of Liz’s loss with a poignant frustration at her own impotence.
DEADLINE: A film like The Whale is such a rarity these days as chamber pieces with a small cast don’t make it to the big screen anymore.
HONG CHAU: You’re absolutely right. It’s really rare to see a movie with such a small, intimate cast. I think nowadays, maybe it’s for financial reasons, movies seem to be really sprawling, packing as many famous people as you can into one movie. So, to have something like The Whale which kept the parameters of the original play, I’m just so glad that they didn’t open it up to a bigger world and bring in 20 different extra characters.
Also coming out of the Covid lockdown, the industry was just getting back up on its feet. To get something like The Whale that is so ambitious in terms of the story, with all of these characters who were so rich, it just felt like a miracle really. As my first job after the industry got back up, this was just incredible.
DEADLINE: Because everyone had to take time off during lockdown, did you have to relearn how to approach acting again?
CHAU: I think a lot of actors will say this, they feel like with every new job, they feel like they don’t know how to act. And that was definitely true for me. In my personal life, I also had my first child during that time. I found out I was pregnant right as lockdown happened. And so, I was pregnant, had my baby, and I was totally happy for it, because I felt like I wasn’t missing out on anything. And it was actually a really beautiful time for me, even though there was all of this craziness going on in the world.
I wasn’t really looking to get back to work immediately, even when the industry got back up. I had waited a long time to be a parent, and I just really wanted to do just that. But then I got the script for The Whale.
DEADLINE: Were you familiar with Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning play of the same name?
CHAU: Unfortunately, one of the things about living in LA is that you don’t keep up with what’s going on in theater in New York. And so, I did not know who Sam Hunter was or was familiar with the play, it just never came onto my radar. I read it and I just knew that it would require so much, and I didn’t think I was at the right place in my life to tackle something like that. I knew how much work it would take, and I just didn’t feel like I could do it.
Also, the character in the play wasn’t written to be specifically Asian. In the stage play, the character was played by a white actress. And even in the screenplay in the adaptation, she wasn’t Asian. So, I just felt like, “Well it’s definitely not going to be me. There’s just so many other more famous people that they could cast, really wonderful actors, who are more famous than me. So surely, maybe this is just an exercise where they’re just doing their due diligence and seeing everybody.”
I felt like I never really had a real chance at it. And I told my agent, I was like, “Look, of course I love the script, and I love Darren Aronofsky and think that he’s amazing, but I just don’t think that this is going to happen. So, I’m not even going to try to throw my hat in the ring for this. I’m happy for whoever gets it, because I think it’s a great role, but I don’t think that this is for me right now.” He was respectful about that, and just let it sit for about a week, came back and he was like, “Are you sure? It’s Darren Aronofsky, and he’s really interested in seeing you for it.” And I thought, “Well if he’s specifically saying me, then this feels a little bit different.” Then I panicked a bit because the character has these long monologues that I felt needed a lot of preparation, and I didn’t think I could do a good job, because I had this little baby on me.
DEADLINE: That must have been a very interesting audition.
CHAU: We were in quarantine in this little two-bedroom apartment in LA, and it was just a hard time. Just trying to record an audition tape for Darren was so difficult to do, but we did it. I ended up FaceTiming with Darren pretty much a couple hours after he saw my audition tape, so, that was amazing that it happened so quickly.
DEADLINE: Was there a rehearsal period for everyone to get to know each other and feel comfortable with the script?
CHAU: We had a three-week rehearsal period, which is such a luxury. A lot of film directors don’t like to rehearse, because they feel like they might lose that sense of spontaneity that you get without rehearsal. And with film, you’re always trying to capture that lightning in a bottle.
But since this was based off of a play, it was really necessary for us to get that rehearsal period in. And from the very first table read, I just felt like all of the actors were so committed, and so generous, and so interested in, not only their own character’s journey, but the other characters in the story. I love it when actors will say like, “Oh, I really love that line of yours that your character says here.” And I definitely had that with Brendan, Sadie, Ty [Simpkins] and Samantha Morton, who Zoomed in from the UK as much as possible.
DEADLINE: Liz is full of contradictions as a character, what is your takeaway of her?
CHAU: Liz is the best friend, but she’s definitely not the typical best friend that you get. She’s got a lot of different qualities about her where she’s obviously a caretaker, but she’s also incredibly caustic, and a little bit mean at times. Even though those are different qualities, I feel that it’s so accurate to people in real life who have very stressful jobs, where they are taking care of other people, and have so much responsibility and weight on their shoulders. They have to let it out somehow. It was about finding those moments of levity inside of a very heavy, serious atmosphere. And I really enjoy playing that type of character who has so many layers of complexity and dimension.
I did struggle when Liz was less kind to Charlie. I mean, have you met Brendan? He’s immediately lovable. I don’t know how you can talk to Brendan and not immediately want to hug him.
DEADLINE: Because all the characters come and go in Charlie’s apartment, there’s a real need to establish who you are the second we see them. What tools did you use to enter the room that way?
CHAU: I did come up with my own backstory for the character. Since she wasn’t written as Asian, they added the line about her being adopted once I was cast. So, I had to figure out what it took for Liz to not only be adopted, but to live with this very oppressive family. I imagined that she had some really wild rebellious days when she was younger, which is why I asked for tattoos for my character. You never see them on camera, but it was really just for me. Every day, Judy Chin, our makeup artist, would put these tattoos on both of my arms and on the back of my neck. And it just felt so special because it was really just for me, and it helped me tremendously in terms of how I was feeling about the character. Just tapping into that darkness, her sense of despair and loneliness that she was also feeling. Even though Liz is taking care of Charlie, I don’t think she’s doing well either. She works a lot and keeps busy which is how she copes with things going on in her life. So, she doesn’t really take care of herself through her appearance. And that’s what you see in the movie.
DEADLINE: Did being in that headspace allow for your performance to have any spontaneous moments or did you have to stick to the script closely?
CHAU: There was one scene in particular, where Charlie nearly choked to death, and I just remember being so angry with him that I hit him. Afterwards, Darren was like, “I don’t think that that’s where we want to go.” And we talked about it, and I explained where I was coming from, and how I felt that it would be true to this relationship. And after he had talked to his team, and the medical consultants regarding the sensitivities surrounding this group of people, we discovered that it comes up pretty frequently with caregivers who are exceptionally close to their patients. So, I’m glad that it’s still in there in the movie.
DEADLINE: The film also showcases her wicked sense of humor that shows up unexpectedtly.
CHAU: Liz is always trying to say something funny and take the piss out of Charlie. I think throughout their relationship, there’s a sense of glossing over certain things and trying to put a better wrapping paper on it even when the situation is very bleak.
DEADLINE: Speaking of humor, you take a complete 180-degree turn in your other film in which you play Elsa, a terrifying maître d’. It’s brilliant to see you be able to play such completely different roles this season.
CHAU: There wasn’t a lot there on the page in terms of Elsa in The Menu, but I got to have a creative back and forth with [director] Mark Mylod and we came up with the tone of Elsa on the screen. It was a gamble, but I’m just happy how it turned out.
To be honest, I’ve just been really dumbfounded by the amazing directors and material that I’ve gotten to work on. I really was not expecting to work after I had a baby. And then in 2021, from a lady who just wanted to stay at home and do nothing, I did four movies that year.
In January, I left to go do The Whale in New York, and then while I was shooting in New York, I got the offer to do Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up in Portland. When I was in Portland shooting, I got the offer to do The Menu in Savannah. And then when I was in Savannah, I had to leave to go to Spain to do Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, and then come back to The Menu. None of it was by design. They just magically showed up, so it was a really nutty year for me.