Hong Chau wanted to take a break from acting, then “The Whale” came along.
The Oscar-nominated star of “The Whale” has been through this whole awards show thing before — this time, he tells IndieWire, is different. He is too.
Hong Chau knows award season. In 2017, he entered the awards season (Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and SAG noms, even the tony Virtuoso Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival) with his appearance in Alexander Payne’s film “Downsizing”, which took him to the top of the list. for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Not happened.
“People said, ‘You’re going to nominate me. You will mark. I think I heard that six months ago,” he 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 it. They are obviously not candidates. The calls and messages I got from people (afterwards) were like a death in the family. This experience completely sobered me up to the awards and the confusion surrounding them. I just didn’t want to go through that again.”
This time, it’s a heartbreaking turn in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” opposite Brendan Fraser, which garnered attention: BAFTA, SAG and Gotham noms — and yes, an eventual Best Supporting Actress Oscar nom. Chau made a concentrated effort not to draw her in. Asked what he was doing when the Oscar nominations were announced, he laughed.
“My 15-year-old dog now wakes us up like a newborn because he can’t turn himself over,” said Chau (the dog is a Rottweiler/Australian shepherd mix and is doing great). “He only cries when he has to be turned. He lived a long life and now it’s hard for him, so you have to adjust his body accordingly. She was crying and it was just before 5am so I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was just drinking coffee in bed and looking at the markings. So yes, I saw them.”
This nomination almost never happened. Not because of the quirks of award season, but because Chau almost didn’t take the role. Hell, he barely 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. “He was eight weeks old and the epidemic continues. They were trapped in our little apartment in LA and I almost didn’t want to read the script. I didn’t want to get attached to him because I thought I was just going to focus on being a mom. It made me feel good. I’ve waited a very long time (to have children) and I really wanted to spend that time with him and enjoy it and not really think about work or my career.”
Chau said she had enough money to take a break to be with her husband and baby and wasn’t worried about being forgotten by the industry. It’s 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 movie,” Chau said. “I said, ‘I’ve got this baby, what could be better?’ I told my agent I wasn’t going to throw my hat in the ring for that, and then a week went by and my husband was really nice and said, “Are you sure? Are you sure you want to leave this? And we’ll figure it out if you end up getting the part.”
Chau relented. He loved her. Liz was not the “best friend” role that Chau had feared. He was complex, his own person, a fully realized character who stood out even against Oscar-nominated Fraser’s central drama as Charlie, a morbidly obese man nearing the end of his life. Liz isn’t just Charlie’s best friend, his nurse, or his beloved dead friend’s sister; he too has his own heartaches, his own rebellions, his own history.
“Even putting together an audition tape was so difficult because they wanted three scenes, and of course all the scenes are huge, huge scenes,” Chau said. “I was like, oh my God, you have to learn these lines! And actually figuring out who the character is. I didn’t even feel like sending in an audition tape because I didn’t want to send something really embarrassing to Darren Aronofsky. I could only do one scene, that’s all my crying baby allowed. And I just thought, ‘Well, he should know in one scene if I’m the girl for him or not.’
Okay, he needed it one more scenes that Chau then provided, then FaceTimed him to offer him the role. Casting Chau, who is of Vietnamese descent, required a small tweak to Hunter’s script, an additional line about being adopted into a religious family in the middle of Idaho.
“I always feel like my characters are Asian because they are me and I am play the character, he said. “Liz was not specifically written as Asian and in all the stage productions the character was played by a white actress. Even during the audition process, the names I heard applying for the role were not Asian. The line about his adoption was added by Sam after I recorded it. You can argue that it’s not necessary, but I think it helps the audience to imagine the other characters that are referred to in the film, in the story.”
This also helped Chau visualize Liz more clearly. A single line about her adoption opened the door for the actress to explore.
“I was able to think about what it must have been like for her growing up in this very religious and conservative family,” the actress said. “Not only that, but in the small town in Idaho, what it must have been like for him.” That’s why it was important for me to know this information because I don’t like it when the character happens to have a non-Asian sounding name. I want to know Why. I always say, ‘Well, what’s your business? Was he adopted? Was he married and divorced? What about the name?”
Chau thought so deeply about Liz’s life that she even let them on her skin. “I thought Liz probably had a rebellious childhood and was acting, and one of the things I had fun with was that she might have been a bit of a raver girl,” she said. “I asked Darren if I could get some tattoos in case he saw them when I rolled up my sleeves or something, and he gave it to me.”
If you look hard enough, you’ll see them. They are behind his ears and on both arms. Makeup department head Judy Chin even came up with a “really cool tattoo” that doesn’t get much screen time: it’s Charlie next to Liz’s brother Alan, depicted as a fish. “One was a smaller fish and the other was a bigger fish and it was 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 immerse her in the world “The Whale” wanted to create. It was so amazing that Chau didn’t even leave when his scenes were over.
“We sit there and watch it all and see what the other actors are doing with their characters,” he said. “We felt like a theater company. Darren wanted it and I loved it. I rarely see such a transformation from the initial table to the actual shoot. Usually by the time you arrive on set, you’re pretty much set on how you’re going to do it, so that was a real treat for me. I think that’s the coolest thing about acting: I get to witness this work from someone else.”
So the break isn’t quite over. While filming “The Whale,” Chau asked Kelly Reichardt for “Showing Up” (“another crazy-wonderful director I never dreamed I’d get to work with”). While filming ‘Showing Up’, he got the call for Mark Mylod’s ‘The Menu’ (he’s a big ‘Succession’ fan so it was easy). From there, he went straight to Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” which was filmed in Spain.
Chau has been here before, but not quite like this. What it feels like? “It was good! But yeah,” Chau said with a laugh. “I’m tired.”
The A24 release “The Whale” is currently in select theaters and available on various digital platforms.
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