Hong Chau has had a busy two years.
After spending nearly all of 2021 shooting four very different movies with four equally different directors, Chau has spent the last few months promoting three of those projects at festival stops around the world: Showing Up, from filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, followed by Darren Aronofsky's The Whale at the Venice International Film Festival, then Mark Mylod's The Menu at TIFF. Her fourth project, the Wes Anderson movie Asteroid City, is slated to hit theaters next summer.
"I feel so tremendously lucky. We all work on things and it's always a leap of faith, because you don't know how it's going to be received," Chau tells A.frame. "I shot these movies in 2021, and that was a really busy year for me for a lot of reasons. I had just had a baby" — she gave birth to a daughter in November 2020 — "so I wasn't expecting to work. But then I did almost immediately. I made four movies back to back."
In looking back on the recent trajectory of her career, Chau outlines the literal journey she's taken from Newburgh, New York, where she filmed The Whale, to Madrid, Spain, where she shot Asteroid City. "It was a lot of traveling," she laughs. Any jet lag notwithstanding, the actress is pleased to be in a position where she's not only cemented herself with audiences, but with filmmakers as well.
"None of it was by design. The scripts really just came out of the blue," she explains. "I got an email out of nowhere from Wes Anderson because he had seen me in a play years ago, and I’ve only ever done one play! It's amazing to get messages like that, where someone says, 'Hey, I saw you in something years ago, and finally, here's something that I feel would be a great fit for you. Would you come and work on this with me?'"
Her success has not, by any means, manifested overnight. The daughter of Vietnamese emigrants, Chau was born in Thailand and raised in New Orleans, before making her way to Boston to study film. When the acting bug bit, she spent the better part of the 2000s and early 2010s building her resumé with one-off appearances on various TV series. "It took me a while to actually get started," she reflects. "The first 10 years of my career, when I was struggling to even get an audition, were definitely hard."
"I feel so grateful, though, looking back on that time period now," Chau adds. "I just loved films, so during that time, I was working and watching a lot of movies. They made me feel inspired and kept the dream alive."
Her film debut came in 2014 with a supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, effectively putting her on the path that's led to where she is now. "That was an amazing first experience," she says, "and then Downsizing was my second film." (The latter, a social satire from Alexander Payne, cemented Chau's breakthrough.) "Those are big leaps to make, to go from not really making anything to working with these incredible directors on their great, complicated, and interesting films."
Not even the transition from television day player to auteur filmmaking could have prepared Chau for the array of projects that came her way last year. The first was The Whale, Darren Aronofsky's adaptation of the stage play by Samuel D. Hunter. The drama stars Brendan Fraser as Charlie, a severely obese recluse reckoning with grief and regret. Chau co-stars as his best friend and begrudging caregiver, Liz.
"I always have to read the script many times, but my process is always different when it comes to actually playing the characters," Chau says of her process. "In The Whale, I have these big, long monologues. In The Menu, my character doesn't have a lot of dialogue, so my process for that film became more focused on creating a physical presence as opposed to a verbal presence, which is fun because it asks me as an actor to find different ways to perform.”
Chau was working on The Whale when she was offered Showing Up, and then while she was filming that movie in the Pacific Northwest, she was sent the script for The Menu. "I read it totally blind," Chau says of the satirical thriller from writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy and Succession director Mark Mylod. "As I was reading it, though, I was constantly shocked by each thing that happened. It was definitely a rollercoaster ride."
Chau was cast as Elsa, the maitre d' of the film's exclusive restaurant and trusted second-in-command to Julian Slowik, the enigmatic chef played by Ralph Fiennes. ("I was just excited to sign on and get to see Ralph play such a fun character," she says of her co-star.) The role demanded that Chau be proficient in the kitchen, and as Chau does whenever she dedicates herself to her craft, she went above and beyond.
"We had a real chef, Dominique Crenn, serve as a consultant, and the biggest compliment I got on set was when she told me, 'I really like the way you're doing your character. I want you to come and work for me,'" Chau recalls. "That was very, very high praise."
The Menu also provided Chau with a chance to dip her toe into stunt work as — at the risk of spoiling some of the movie's fun — she's part of a knock-down, drag-out fight sequence between her and Anya Taylor-Joy's characters. "I love action movies, but it definitely ended up being a situation where my eyes were a bit bigger than my stomach," Chau admits. "I had just had a baby. And once we actually got down to it, Anya is quite a bit younger and taller than I am, and she had done a lot of dance and fight choreography training prior to The Menu, so I felt like I was boxing a bit out of my weight class."
Still, she grins, "It was really fun in the end. We shot that scene on the very last day and wrapped at three o'clock in the morning. I had a lot of adrenaline pumping through my body, so it took me a while to fall asleep once I got back home."
After a year of bouncing from one project to the next, playing characters that couldn't be more different from each other in films that could not be more different from each other, Chau says the experience has kept her "engaged, motivated, and always ready to problem solve. Because I really approach each character and each project as a problem that I need to solve.”
"I'm working with Yorgos Lanthimos now, because he saw Showing Up,” Chau notes. The film is And, which will see Chau star alongside Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, and Willem Dafoe. "I love that I'm getting work because of my previous work," she reiterates. "I feel like I'm getting work for the right reasons. It's not because I have a million followers on social media, and it's not because I look like a model.
With The Menu and The Whale in theaters, and Asteroid City and Showing Up set to release next year, Chau is commemorating a new era of her career she's thrilled to have reached, at last.
"I just feel really lucky," she says, "that I'm getting to work with incredible people on incredible material."
By Alex Welch