Hong Chau, a rising star who grew up in New Orleans East, was nominated last week for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, honoring her part in a movie that in some ways mirrors her life story.
Chau’s performance as a diminutive, resolute Vietnamese immigrant in the big-screen sci-fi dramedy “Downsizing” earned the nomination last week for best supporting actress in a motion picture. She previously played recurring roles in TV’s “Big Little Lies,” “A to Z” and the New Orleans-set “Treme.”
Chau’s second feature film, “Downsizing,” opens nationwide Friday. The cast also features Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern.
Alexander Payne, “Downsizing’s” Oscar-winning director and co-writer, believed Chau was the only actress who could play Ngoc Lan Tran.
“This is a very personal role for me,” the actress has said. “My parents are Vietnamese refugees. They left Vietnam after the war and ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand. That’s actually where I born, in that refugee camp.”
Chau has pursued her acting in Los Angeles for the past nine years. Her family immigrated to New Orleans, she said, “because we had a sponsor family there. I’ve had a very interesting and tumultuous family history. But here I am, and I seem pretty all-American to everyone I encounter. They have no idea that this is my background and this is where I came from.”
The actress attended Benjamin Franklin High School and the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts in Natchitoches. She earned her degree in film studies from Boston University and later studied acting in New York.
Chau initially dabbled in acting to overcome her shyness, she recently told Variety. “I must have found some strange sort of joy or fascination with it, because I stuck with it,” she said.
In 2014, Chau made her feature debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling, Oscar-nominated tale of Los Angeles in the 1970s, “Inherent Vice.” Playing a front-desk employee at a strip mall brothel, she shared scenes with Joaquin Phoenix.
Her role in “Downsizing” is groundbreaking for Asian actors in American movies, Chau said. “She’s complex and interesting and multidimensional. I’m glad that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor wrote this wonderful role for an Asian woman.”
Damon and Wiig play a couple from Omaha who elect to shrink themselves to 5 inches tall. Downsizing marketers promote the irreversible medical procedure as a way for people of modest means to live luxuriously by going small. The Vietnamese government, on the contrary, uses downsizing to punish Chau’s character, a political dissident.
“We have this great ability to take anything good and make it bad, to use it against people,” Chau said in the movie's production notes. “Punishment. That is what happened to her (Ngoc).”
In the United States, Ngoc works in the downsized luxury development Leisureland as a cleaning woman for Serbian playboy Dusan Mirkovic (Waltz). In her spare time, she helps the downsized poor in an adjacent immigrant community.
“When I first read Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne’s script for ‘Downsizing,’ ” Chau said in a statement following her Golden Globes nomination, “I was blown away by their creativity, ambition and insight into the flaws and beauty of our human kind. They created a heroine unlike any other I’ve seen in cinema. I fell in love with this character on the page. She now occupies a small studio apartment inside my heart. Thank you to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for recognizing this role. It means so much to me.”
Chau sees Ngoc as “part dictator, part Mother Teresa and part Charlie Chaplin," she said. "She’s funny. Bossy. Demanding. And she’s driven to help the sick people who don’t have anyone to take care of them.”
Significant film roles for Asians actors are rare, the actress added. Her own career has many examples of small, one-off roles in TV series such as “CSI” and “How I Met Your Mother.” She’s played a lab tech, a Korean spy, a masseuse and a cook.
“Usually, when there are characters who have a strong accent or come from a disadvantaged background, they’re not the leads,” Chau said. “When you see characters like maids or taxi drivers or the ladies at the nail salon, they’re usually background. You don’t go home with them and find out where they live, their family history, what they believe, what their interests are, if they have opinions about anything, if they have any desires.”
Chau’s co-star, Damon, plays Paul Safranek, a downsized character who gets the chance for a new life with Ngoc. The actor is among the many praising Chau’s performance.
“When Alexander (Payne) sent me Hong’s screen-test, I knew we hit the jackpot,” he said. “Hong has impeccable comic timing and is completely bilingual. Everybody in this movie is great, but Ngoc might be the key to everything.”