On the Move With Hong Chau

In conversation with the actress whose name is on everybody’s lips.

A photo of Hong Chau wearing a floral dress
Photo by Getty; image treatment by Ashley Peña.

One of the most formidable talents to shine in recent years, Hong Chau brings her beautifully observed and calibrated performances to two major films this year: The Whale, as a nurse who worries over her homebody friend (played by Brendan Fraser), and The Menu, in which she runs the front-of-house at a ludicrously high-end restaurant. But there’s also Showing Up, opposite Michelle Williams, opening next spring (after premiering at the most recent edition of Cannes); and next summer, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, with the Netflix series The Night Agent also in the wings.

So you might say Hong Chau is everywhere—which is a good thing for movies. But on the day I reached her, she was in her hometown of New Orleans, filming Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest (enigmatically titled And), and hosting her visiting family. Chau generously took my call and fielded questions about her characters while walking around town—seamlessly hopping a streetcar and turning to bless someone who’d sneezed. “You are getting a free tour of the city!” she remarked with glee at one point.

Warm and forthcoming (and with the quick humor she also brings to her characters), Chau talked about developing roles on and off the page, the cavalcade of original filmmakers she’s worked with, and which classic Hollywood star she loves above all.

The Whale and Showing Up have a beautiful common thread: they’re portraits of friendships.

And how complicated they are! I love that through-line between the two films. I shot them back to back, actually. Both scripts were amazing. With The Whale, Liz is the best friend to Brendan Fraser’s character, but she’s not your typical best friend. She’s mean, but she’s funny about it. She’s caring, but she’s also caustic. I loved getting to play with those contradictory qualities and calibrating it.

She’s also a bit frustrated with her friend, but keeps on going.

Sam Hunter, the writer of The Whale, made some very smart and sensitive observations about how we are in real life. If you have a real, deep relationship with somebody, it’s not easy to say no to them—and if it is easy to cut them out of your life because they’re not living it the way you think they should, that’s probably not a deep relationship to begin with. I never had a problem with those enabling moments in their relationship. I’ve witnessed many relationships where I would see people doing things for somebody they care about which were questionable and maybe not healthy for them.

Darren Aronofsky movies always have this high-stakes intensity (Black Swan, Mother!). What was it like shooting The Whale?

We all knew that in an analytical way from reading the script, but the process of working on it was very thoughtful. We took it at a very organic pace, because we had a three-week rehearsal period. We started off with just a plain table read, with Brendan, Sadie [Sink], Ty [Simpkins], and Samantha Morton, who Zoomed or Skyped in from the U.K. We slowly worked on it and built that relationship and trust between each other.

Brendan Fraser, Samuel D. Hunter, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, and Darren Aronofsky on September 4 at the Venice International Film Festival screening of The Whale.

Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

We rehearsed The Whale like it was a play. Darren said we should strive to be a theater troupe and just stay and hang out and watch everybody else’s scenes as they were rehearsing them. And I was glad for it, because there’s enough dialogue in the play for, like, five movies.

What gets you into a character’s head?

It depends. There’s a lot already on the page for you, and you don’t have to come up with that stuff yourself. In the case of someone like Elsa in The Menu, you have to completely build that person. But with Liz in The Whale and then Jo in Showing Up, there was a lot there, and it was really just about... showing up! [laughs]

You play a mixed-media artist in Showing Up. Did you shadow anyone to get into the role?

I spent some time with Michelle Segre, whose artwork I mimic in the movie. Kelly Reichardt [the director] sent me some books on artists that she was inspired by, and she thought I should be familiar with the art school Black Mountain College, because it’s in the same sort of psychic energy as the school that we were filming (which is no longer operating, unfortunately).

Did you work with some materials to get into her process of creation?

Oh, yeah! I was grateful to Michelle, who was so generous to share all of her techniques with me. And there were small bits I didn’t understand the significance of when I read the script—like that whole thing about why Jo would be so annoyed she wasn’t getting a catalog [for her show]. So it was the nuances of the life of an artist trying to build a career or a name for themselves. It’s not dissimilar to acting.

I read that acting wasn’t your first choice when you were first starting out.

I did not think I would be an actor. One of my internships I did was for a documentary filmmaker. I thought maybe I could do something in terms of editing, or something solitary, and not exhibitionist, basically! [Laughs].

In The Menu, you play Elsa, who’s totally invested in her work at an upscale restaurant. How did this character develop?

There wasn’t a ton about Elsa on the page. I talked with [the director] Mark Mylod a lot about that, how we could flesh her out and make her make sense to me, without adding any dialogue. Where Mark and I differed was that he was still thinking about her in terms of her function in the script—which I’m always respectful of and try to satisfy. But he didn’t want her to stand out immediately, because he didn’t want to give away too much in terms of how things would unfold. I was thinking, well, the trailer usually does that, it spoils everything for us anyway, so we might as well hop to it! [Chuckles].

I said I didn’t want her to look like she had gone to NYU for hospitality and management. I wanted her not to come from a traditional culinary background, and we needed to hint at that through her appearance.

And then after your performance, a chef wanted to hire you!

Yes! Chef Dominique Crenn served as a consultant on the film, and I was pretty sheepish about talking to her. She sidled up next to me one day, and said, I love, love, love what you’re doing, and I want you to come and work for me. And I thought that was such a great stamp of approval.

Are there particular actors you’ve admired over the years?

In terms of actors that I love: Bette Davis, come on! That’s a career I don’t think anybody could emulate, especially nowadays. It’s hard for people to build a career like that, where they have the opportunity to get work and do real, memorable characters. [Sighs]. Everything is thought of in terms of IP—it’s more content. Ugh, the “c” word is just really gross to me!

So it must be satisfying working on And with Yorgos Lanthimos, who is definitely different (The Favourite, The Lobster).

It’s been really fun, even though some of the scenarios we find ourselves in are pretty devastating. We all have just surrendered to the script. It’s very hard to describe [chuckles] as his films tend to be. And that is a lovely and welcome thing. He screened a rough cut of the movie he just shot in Bulgaria, called Poor Things. I’ve never had that experience.

It sounds like you’re seeking out filmmakers with highly original voices.

That's just happened organically. I was really lucky after Downsizing to not have to audition for things anymore. I was offered things based on what the director had just seen me do. Even for the Wes Anderson thing, it was because he saw me in a play in New York that I did called John [by Annie Baker]. It was really nice to get an email from him out of the blue. And Yorgos sent me an email and said that he just saw Showing Up. So for me, it’s about keeping my head down and doing the work.