Hong Chau hadn't auditioned for something since 2017's Downsizing when she put herself on tape for The Whale. After breaking out in Alexander Payne's sci-fi satire, Chau found herself in the "fortunate" position of fielding offers from the likes of Andrew Ahn, Damon Lindelof, and Kenneth Branagh. Besides, she'd just recently given birth and was planning to take some time off. But here was Darren Aronofsky, asking if she would send in an audition for The Whale.
The drama, adapted from the stage play by Samuel D. Hunter, is the story of a 600-pound recluse, Charlie (played by Brendan Fraser). Stuck inside his apartment, Charlie's only interactions are with his best friend and caretaker, a young evangelical missionary, and his estranged teenage daughter. Chau was up for the part of Liz, the nurse friend. She auditioned with Liz's monologue to the missionary, in which she sits him down on Charlie's front porch to reproach the outsider's interference in their lives and share her sorrowful connection to Charlie.
"It was a lot, not just in terms of memorizing the sheer amount of words and lines, but there was a lot to unpack there. There was so much work to do as an actor figuring out the history and the relationship," Chau tells A.frame. "It was difficult, even just practically with having an infant crying in the background."
The actress recorded her monologue, and then recorded it again, and again, and again.
"I'm one of those people who can do a thousand takes," Chau says. "I didn't want to send in something that would be embarrassing, because I admire and respect Darren Aronofsky so much as a director. I would not dare to send him something that I thought was not worthy of his time."
Aronofsky cast her, and the performance has earned Chau her first Oscar nomination. As it turns out, her meticulousness in her audition would serve her well through The Whale's weeks of intense rehearsals and into the breakneck shoot. "I always laugh on the inside when I hear that Brendan thought Darren did too many takes," Chau says with a wicked grin. "I'm like, 'Oh, buddy, you have no idea.'"
A.frame: When you read the script for The Whale, was there a moment or a scene where you realized, 'I want to do this. I need to do this.'
There was a specific line, one that comes toward the end where Liz says, 'I don't think anyone can save anyone.' It felt really honest and unsentimental, especially in that moment between those two characters. In that type of situation, there's typically a tendency to soften the edges on truths, and it was so wonderful that Samuel Hunter did not do that and gave her that line. The one that gets talked about a little bit more is Charlie's line, when he says, 'People are incapable of not caring, and people are amazing,' and I guess that's a slightly more positive line to take away from the movie. But I think Liz's line has a little bit more of a gravitational pull for me. It just seems more grounded into my reality.
A large part of your process, as an actor, is that you tend to have a lot of input in finding the look and the backstory of the character. It obviously starts on the page, but what was your process like of finding your way into Liz?
I do have a track record of playing interesting supporting characters, and it's important for me to spend that time during pre-production talking to the director, and the hair, makeup, and costume departments about all of the different ways that we can make the character impactful in the time that they have on-screen. I never am asking them to write me more lines. In fact, I usually ask to cut lines. I feel like, if it's not necessary, then it's just dragging the character down. I really believe in doing the most with as little as possible.
But I want to tell a full story. I want you to still feel her presence, even when she's not in the room or in the forefront of the frame. It's about letting go of any ego, and about being a part of the movie, and fulfilling the needs of the script and the story. That's really when a supporting character can shine. I'm not really a sports person, but for some reason I always think of these things in terms of sports analogies. Everybody loves the star who scores the most points, but it's absolutely necessary to have those utility players on the team who can pass the ball and create screens and all of that. So, that's how I view my job.
You're the one making the assist, to continue the sports reference.
And I take pride in that!
Your and Brendan's characters have built up years of friendship and life experience before the first frame of the movie. Is that bond something you create with Brendan during rehearsals, or is it simply a case of good chemistry?
It's both. I think it is an actor's job to make the audience feel like the character has lived a full life prior to the moment they arrive on-screen. With the rehearsal, we were able to find those moments of levity and that history. Because one of Liz's functions in the script is to show the audience what Charlie was like before they see him in the very dire state that he's in. And it was really easy, because it's Brendan Fraser. He's an absolute angel. I don't know how anybody can meet him and not leave even a short interaction with him not wanting to hug him and just give him a good squeeze. He is a large man — much larger than me. I'm 5' 1", he's 6' 4" — and for some reason, I feel myself naturally wanting to take care of him. He's vulnerable. He's completely accessible. And people always talk about his eyes, and it's true.
Brendan Fraser has amazing, expressive, soulful eyes. And whenever people ask me how I felt about seeing him in his prosthetic suit for the first time, I honestly did not have a reaction to the suit. Adrien Morot's work is beautiful, but what transfixed me was the change in the light in Brendan's eyes. Something happened internally with him, and it was magic for me to witness as his scene partner.
You have some of the most demanding scenes of the movie together. As actors, on those days, what did you need from him and what did you feel he needed from you to get through and get the performances that you needed?
I knew that we had a limited amount of time to shoot, and the limitations of being in a prosthetic suit. I had a little bit of experience with having a prosthetic in Downsizing, so I completely empathized with Brendan, and mine was nowhere near as demanding as his was. But I knew that whenever Darren would call action, it had to be really focused and intentional use of that time. I have been trying to be more relaxed when I'm working, but in this particular situation, it was a little bit higher stakes. You were going in with an agenda, but that's where the rehearsal time was so useful and helpful. Because that was where we got to fuss around and play and see how different readings would give different meanings to the dialogue. I'm so, so grateful that we had that time.
What does being more relaxed in your work look like to you?
I feel like I've let go of the idea of a perfect take or having a specific target that you have to fit, which is the attitude or the mindset that I had earlier on. And this is not so long ago. It was even with Downsizing. When we were doing the press for that, Alexander talked a lot about that monologue in the kitchen where my character talks about going to Norway. The impressive thing was that I did that in one take. But I had to wind myself up so much prior to that. That way of working for me just feels unsustainable. I can't do that on every single movie for every single role, and it's exhausting. I can't do that where I'm white-knuckling everything and spinning my wheels before every take. So, I take that pressure off of myself now. I think it was around the time of doing Watchmen, because that character was so bizarre to me. I said, 'I'm just going to go in there and eff around and try to be the worst actor I can be, and whatever happens, that's going to be what they get. And there's no perfect take.' And I find that that's a really good way for me to work.
In that case, when it came time to do your monologue on the porch in The Whale, what were you feeling going into that day?
Because that scene was not with Brendan, I was really relaxed that day. There was no thinking, 'Oh, this is my big monologue.' I treated it the same as every other scene that I was in, because I feel like all of the moments are important. The scene doesn't suddenly take on more importance because there's more lines. There are scenes where there's no dialogue that are difficult, because there's so much that you have to work out that you're trying to communicate. That also takes a lot of work. Maybe the audience doesn't appreciate it the same way, but the work that you do as an actor is the same, if not more.
This is your first Oscar nomination — congratulations. What does it mean to you to be nominated and to be nominated for this movie?
When the nominations first came out, I didn't have the reaction that I think you would expect. I almost had no reaction. But as time has gone on and I've been able to meet the other women who are also recognized in my category, it's been so professionally fulfilling getting to meet them in person, and feel their energy, and see who they are as people. That makes me feel like I'm a part of a community. A lot of times when you're starting out as an actor, you're just focused on not getting fired. And so, at least for me, I didn't think of myself as part of a community. Most of my career has been just trying to get in the room, trying to get my foot in the door, and feeling like I hadn't been invited yet. What's fulfilling for me is feeling like the room is getting to be more familiar and feeling less like an outsider.
How do you personally measure the success of something like The Whale? Is it in the experience itself, or how you gauge your own performance?
I think I'm a little bit different, because I never intended on being an actor. And so, I guess what I want out of it is different from other people who have gone to school and studied theater, and this is what they've wanted to do from a very young age. I approach it more as a fan of movies and being a fan of directors. I've been very fortunate to work with amazing directors who all produce really wonderful and individual pieces of art that are distinctly theirs, and I love getting to know the human being responsible for these very idiosyncratic films. So, the joy for me is just getting to be on set and sharing the same air as them. I'm not looking to have an out-of-body experience or to work on some unresolved personal issue, which some actors, that is what this is for them. For me, I'm really there to service the script and service the filmmaker's vision, and I'm happy when they're happy.
Certainly, that doesn't mean that I come in there and just do whatever is asked of me. I have my own opinions, and that's part of why people look to hire me, is because I am going to push back about certain things in the script or certain ideas they may have about the way a character looks. I'm always going to ask, 'Well, why?' and have something of my own that I share with them. It's really that back and forth and that discussion that I find so satisfying, and that has been something that I've been more able and more comfortable to do with experience. I don't think I would've been able to do that earlier on, which is maybe why it wasn't so satisfying. You can't really do that when you're just doing a one line co-star role on a sitcom. There's no discussion to be had there. That's why I feel incredibly grateful to get to work with the people that I do, because I truly feel like, when we throw the word 'collaborator' around, it's because we're collaborating.
You majored in creative writing and film studies before getting into acting, correct?
Not creative writing. I wanted to major in creative writing, but my dad was like, 'What the heck is that?'
As dads are wont to do.
That's why I majored in film. Even though I didn't really know much about it, I thought that it was still storytelling, but it would provide me with a trade where I could find an actual job after graduating.
Do you have interest in writing or directing yourself someday?
I'm thinking about it more. When I was working on The Whale, I don't know why but Darren all of a sudden said to me, 'You're going to direct, right?' I hadn't even said anything smart alecky. I was a little taken aback why he said that because I was like, 'Oh, no. Did I say something where I sounded like a smart ass to him?' But he was just genuinely encouraging me that I should think about directing. And I kind of blew him off. I said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' And he let it lie, but then a few seconds later, he turned back around and he said, 'I'll help you.' That was a really overwhelming moment. And I said, 'Okay, I'm going to hold you to it.' So, we'll see. That would be interesting.
By John Boone
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 95th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category for an interview.