“I still can’t believe that for my second movie I got to work with Alexander Payne.” So says Hong Chau, named by Variety as one of this year’s 10 actors to watch. In fact, she has already received Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for her supporting role in Payne’s Downsizing. In the elaborate sci-fi dramedy, opening Friday (December 22), she plays Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist who lost part of a leg to frostbite while escaping her home country.
Herself born to Vietnamese parents in a Thai refugee camp 38 years ago, Chau grew up in New Orleans—something that came in handy for her breakthrough role in Treme, as the assimilated Louisiana daughter of fisherfolk from Vietnam.
“They didn’t know about my background when I read for the role,” she remembers, while on the phone from Los Angeles. “I had already moved to Los Angeles by then, and simply sent in a tape. I only started with a two-page scene, with no clues as to where the character would go. And then I was so glad that David Simon and the other writer-producers expanded the part; I feel they really recognized that the Vietnamese refugee community was also part of the fabric of New Orleans.”
From that nifty start, she landed her first movie gig, as a no-nonsense sex worker in 2014’s extended ’70s riff Inherent Vice, by Paul Thomas Anderson (whose new Phantom Thread also opens this week). Later, Chau was auditioning for a part in another big project when she got wind of Downsizing. Known for sharp-elbowed comedies like Election and The Descendants, Payne was keeping the new one tightly under wraps, but she managed to get her hands on its finished screenplay.
“I read the script with no idea that there would be a role for an Asian woman. I’m a huge fan of his and have seen all of his previous films. He was definitely on my secret dream list of directors, and I’m amazed,” she adds, with a genuine laugh, “that I’ve worked with two of my dream-team directors already.”
Temperamentally, those headstrong auteurs couldn’t be more different. And yet both favour highly stylized, somewhat self-contained realities that run roughly parallel to ours.
“I would describe Alexander as a very elegant filmmaker, and I would say Paul is the little bit more, um, feral. What they have in common is there is a lot of world-building, and they both really love actors. Paul has said before that the greatest special effect in the world is a good actor. I know Alexander agrees with that. Even though there’s a lot of special effects in our movie, he didn’t want that to overshadow the actors in any way.”
When she encountered Ngoc in the script, it felt like an instant fit. But Chau was afraid her bubbly personality and California-by-way-of-Nawlins accent might get in the way.
“I knew they wanted to hire a Vietnamese woman for the role,” she says. “I certainly didn’t think I was their first choice. My audition was really more of an interview, and I didn’t think it was a slam-dunk. We simply talked for a while; Alexander wanted to know who I was and I just rambled about my background.
I left thinking I might’ve talked myself out of a job because I seemed so all-American, and Alexander always prefers the real McCoy. They did an international casting call, and I’m sure if they had found a woman in Vietnam with only one leg, they would have hired her, because he has a history of working with nonactors. Of course, not everybody can just walk onto a set and say his words.”
That brings us to a small slice of controversy about the movie, in which humans make a last-ditch attempt to deal with diminishing resources by literally reducing themselves and their outer trappings. Matt Damon is a nerdly physiotherapist who shrinks down to half a foot, and discovers that the similarly smallified Ngoc (who only has a foot) belongs to an underclass that wasn’t left behind in the big world. As a refugee struggling to survive new surroundings, her character speaks pidgin English with a heavy accent. Some viewers and advocacy groups haven’t liked that.
“That’s really on them,” Chau states, firmly. “If they are bothered by that, maybe they should examine what it is that bothers them. Ngoc is a three-dimensional person, and that’s what I look for in a part. I know lots of people who talk this way, and they have as much dignity and intelligence as anyone else. We are surrounded by people with accents because America is a nation of immigrants. Beyond that, the people who made your iPhone and the shirt on your back are probably Asians, and we’re really not that disconnected from each other; we have very intimate relationships with the world, whether or not we realize it.”
Payne wrote this project with Jim Taylor, his collaborator on virtually all his previous projects, without knowing that anti-immigrant hate groups would hijack their country’s government.
“Maybe Alexander and Jim had a little magic eight ball or a Ouija board telling them what was going to happen,” Chau says, back in laugh mode. “But I do know that they never set out to make a timely movie; they made a movie you could watch in 10 or 15 years and enjoy for more than any topical reasons. If we’re still here, I mean!”