Oscar 2018: Vietnamese Hon Chau for Best Supporting Actress in Downsizing

The major female part in Alexander Payne’s highly acclaimed “Downsising,” is not Kristen Wiig, but Vietnamese-born actress Hon Chau, who dominates the last reel as the relentlessly tough but good-hearted woman who literally changes the life of the hero, played by Matt Damon.

Oscar history: You can count on one hand the number of Asian performers who have been nominated for an Acting Oscar, let alone winning it.

In exclusive interview with the HFPA, right after the world premiere at Venice Film Fest, director Payne and actress Chau discussed the film and the casting process.

Casting Hon Chau

Alexander Payne: I finished the movie six days ago and this is the first time we are doing interviews and this is the first time anyone has seen it, so I am able to say for the first time what a pleasure it is to have an actor for the perfect role at the perfect time in the perfect movie at the perfect age at a time where it all came together.

I may sound pretentious, but it’s like Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon” or Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret.  You just can’t imagine anyone else other than that person at that time playing that role, where all the forces come together.  That is how I feel about her in this.  It’s such a bizarre role as written, and then this woman comes along and completely understands what the writers had in mind, both the humor and the pathos and the drama, the rhythm of the part, especially the comic rhythm, and made it her own.  She came from an audition.

Auditioning

Hon Chau:  I originally auditioned with John Jackson who is a casting director, and who has done all of Payne’s movies.  And I went in and I read for him and he put me on tape and this was right before Thankgsiving, in late November 2015, and Alexander was in Toronto prepping the movie, and John Jackson told me that Alexander is very busy so you probably won’t hear anything for another two months.  And I heard a few days later that Alexander was flying down from Toronto to Los Angeles and he wanted to meet me, and we just talked for about an hour or so.

AP:  I suspected she was the actor for the part based on the tape.  I wanted her to audition again, but I wanted to help her and meet her and say when you audition again, do this, this and this and an audition shouldn’t be blind, an audition, it’s nice if there is some direction. I wanted her to be the person.  We met for an hour, she auditioned, and then it was pretty obvious.

Timely Film?

AP:  I don’t know, as far as society goes, I would have to think about it and write something thoughtfully.  And then as far as the film goes, I don’t want to say too much about the film, I just finished it, I want it to speak for itself, and maybe in a couple of weeks, I will feel free enough to say more.  But becoming small is a fine metaphor for many things, and I wouldn’t want to limit it by pronouncing what I think it is.

Shooting and Locations:

AP:  We shot a week in Omaha, a week in Los Angeles, a week in Norway, four months in Toronto. The idea of Norway simply came from Jim Taylor my co-writer, from his and my thinking, that such a progressive idea as shrinking organic material in order to save our existence on the planet, that would come from Scandinavia. Why not Norway?  Because Norway is this beautiful weird place.  And then suddenly there we are shooting in Norway.  Visually too, I just thought it was a nice progression to smart very small in Omaha, and I think it gives the movie some visual scope and the movie has a sort of quasi-epic feeling by starting small and becoming large visually.

Literary Inspiration

AP:  I appreciate that Jonathan Swift was a satirist and I like the he also used the idea of becoming small, but Jim and I weren’t really thinking about it that much, we wanted to do our own thing.  I like “A Modest Proposal” where he talks about eating our children.

Female Role

HC:  I think that this role is unusual for even a male character in terms of having so much to do and she’s heartbreaking, she’s funny, she’s heroic, but she’s also a person who needs a lot of help.  And, you just don’t find that.  And because I am Asian, there are a lot of roles for females in Hollywood movies and particularly larger budget Hollywood movies, that are complexly written and do ask so much of an actor.  And it was just such a joy to not only read that initially and just be taken away and I felt so buzzy after the first time I read the script because the story goes in such an unexpected direction and then also to see this character you wouldn’t normally not see at the forefront of a story who is usually a background character, to be given this amount of screen time and this amount of attention and complexity and love and humor and you just don’t ever see that and it was monumental.  And yes, I am working on an Alexander Payne film and that has its own sort of daunting-ness to it, but also this amazing opportunity to play this character and to do justice to it, I felt immediate ownership over it the first time I read the character and I didn’t want anybody else to do it.

Oddly, I feel never like I am the only person who can do a role but for some reason, I felt like I have to do this.  It has to be me, and somebody else is going to mess it up, but if somebody has to mess it up, I want it to be me.  And I am so thankful that Alexander saw something in me.

AP:  After a few days of working together, I realized I was working on a Hong Chau movie.

Vietnamese Descent

HC:  My parents are refugees and they left Vietnam after the war and went over to the United States, so Vietnamese was my first language and where I grew up in Louisiana, New Orleans Louisiana, is predominately, a lot of fishing in Louisiana and the climate is very similar to here in Venice right now.  We are surrounded by water and it’s a very pleasurable city.

Udo Kier

AP:  Casting Udo Kier?  Absolutely.  The actor who got to say, “you can never know life under you fuck death in the gall bladder”?  He who knew Fassbender, why wouldn’t you want to have him in your film?  Just his whole vibe.  And editing him was great, because I found the way to edit Udo Kier is when he finishes saying a line of dialogue, you have to stay on him, because it’s what he does after he says the dialogue.  How he looks, that is the sweet spot of what he does.

Normal Size Television

AP: But I thought, because we had this television, this normal sized television in the atrium of an apartment building for small people and they have it turned always to Mexican TV, so what are we going to put there?  Well we will have one telenovela, we will have one stupid game show, and then we thought about something classy, so we had a Cantinflas film.

Writing the Script:

AP: It didn’t take ten years. It was a combination of how long the screenplay took to write, maybe four, five years, and then finding the financing, which was very difficult.  The film came together and fell apart two or three times before finally it came together and stayed together.  I wanted this to be my first film after “Sideways.” but trying to write the screenplay and not getting the financing, okay, I will make “The Descendants.” We came together, worked on the screenplay again, okay, I am going to make “Nebraska.” And then after “Nebraska” finally, we tried again, and it fell apart again.  But this time we have got to do it goddamnitt.  It’s actually thanks to Brad Grey, who died earlier this year at Paramount, he’s the one person in Hollywood who said, I know it doesn’t it make sense on paper, but we are making it anyway.

Demanding Director?

HC:  I am a little competitive with my acting where I like a challenge and I like to see how many balls I can juggle.  And so I like it when he throws in another note or he asks me to do a little bit of this or to tweak something or change it in the middle of it, because it’s exciting and you are not stuck.  And my goal is to always give him a lot of options for him to edit and work around and have that flexibility because the joy of what I get to do as an actor, that is just, it shouldn’t be a limitation to what he needs to do with the film overall.  And so I want it to be satisfying for myself, but I also want to give him, the director, what he needs.  And I don’t really like to ask too many questions about a theme or the script in terms of the story or even the character or how I should approach it or what I should be thinking, I knew that Alexander and Jim Taylor had been working on the script for a really long time and if somebody spends four or five years writing a script then their answers are all there and I shouldn’t really pester him too much with it.

AP:  She is very intelligent and understands the filmmaking process and understands that an actor is there to contribute just as much as every technician is.  And to give the director and the editor what they need in the editing room. And she understands acting.  And I can’t wait to work with her again, in something completely different.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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