With ‘The Whale’ and ‘The Menu, Hong Chau Is on a Scene-Stealing Hot Streak

Hong Chau learned a valuable lesson working on her first film, “Inherent Vice.”

Playing a massage parlor employee in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 comedy, Chau showed up to set ready for her big on-camera moment only to find her shoot pushed back day after day as the production juggled the schedules of a cast that included everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Reese Witherspoon and Josh Brolin.

“I somehow found myself starting on the first day and ending pretty much on the last one,” says Chau. But it provided her with an incredible education in movie acting. “I saw our finest actors come in and do what they do, and I really liked the people who would do something different with every take,” she remembers. 

Chau has been employing that approach in her subsequent work – giving her directors a wide range of line readings and reactions each time they call “action.” And it’s resulted in a string of performances of remarkable versatility, star turns that, if there’s any justice, could land Chau in the thick of the Oscars race (she just landed a Screen Actors Guild nomination). 

In 2022, Chau kicked things off playing a self-absorbed artist in Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up,” which premiered at Cannes. She then followed that up with an anguished turn as a nurse desperately trying to save, or at least stabilize, her morbidly obese friend (played by Brendan Fraser) in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.” And Chau capped that off with a flashy supporting role as Elsa, a sinister Maître d’ with one of the greatest coiffures in movie history in Mark Mylod’s “The Menu.” It was Chau who pushed Mylod to let her character have her memorably savage bangs and a bun. 

“In the script, the only description of my character was that she’s a severe Scandinavian woman, which obviously isn’t me,” says Chau. So, she decided that in order to play her, she wanted to give Elsa a haircut that makes viewers take notice. “I needed something that jumps out at you,” says Chau. 

Chau’s hot streak doesn’t seem likely to cool off any time soon. Up next are projects with Yorgos Lanthimos and Wes Anderson — she’s tight-lipped, hesitant to reveal any details about the secretive films. 

“I planned it all impeccably,” Chau jokes. The succession of showy turns came at a point where Chau said she had embraced a more laid-back approach to career planning. “I don’t feel like I’m really pushing for anything,” she says. “I’m not on the phone hounding my agent.” 

But Chau says the change in fortune stems from the industry’s reaction to her work as a political dissident in 2017’s “Downsizing,” an Alexander Payne comedy that earned her a Golden Globe nomination. 

“Before that movie came out, I was just struggling to even get in the room to get an audition,” she says. “Now, most of these movies are being offered to me because their directors saw me in something else.” 

In fact, when her agent first approached her about “The Whale,” Chau said she wasn’t interested. She’d just had her first child and wasn’t sure she was up for such a dark story. But good sense prevailed, and she found herself in upstate New York, going toe-to-toe with Fraser. As Liz, the nurse who has personal reasons for trying to keep Fraser’s character alive, Chau is a tangle of contradictions – compassionate, but brittle; empathetic, yet angry; both a caretaker and an enabler who plies her friend with fast food even as she tells him to take better care of himself. 

“Liz isn’t straightforward,” says Chau. “And that’s what I like to play. I love characters who aren’t easy to peg down.”

To get herself in the right headspace, Chau drew on her recent experiences of going to the hospital and interacting with nurses she met while she was pregnant. She remembered how some of them had elaborate piercings and tattoos and decided that Liz would rock a similar look. So each day, she’d have one of the makeup artists on “The Whale” draw tattoos on the back of her neck and on both arms.

“You don’t really see them on screen,” says Chau. “It was just for me, but taking the time with those small details really helps.”

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