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Showing Up star Hong Chau couldn’t imagine shooting another film directly after the emotional roller-coaster of The Whale, but she’s grateful that Kelly Reichardt persisted, anyway.
In Reichardt’s newest film that revolves around the Portland art scene, the Oscar-nominated Chau plays Jo, an accomplished, extroverted artist whose celebrated installations have made her the pride and joy of Oregon College of Art and Craft. Michelle Williams’ Lizzy, who helps her mother (Maryann Plunkett) run the school, is a former classmate of Jo’s and now lives in her shadow as both an artist and as her tenant. Lizzy, being more a low-key sculptor, is the polar opposite of Jo in that she’s quite introverted, but she’s actually the character who Chau could identify with most.
“That’s what’s so funny. I’m totally more of a Lizzy than I am a Jo,” Chau tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She doesn’t really hold back anything and isn’t overly concerned about hurting people’s feelings or upsetting them. And that’s so completely foreign to me in my own real life.”
Chau recently appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, where she opened up about the hurtful response to her Vietnamese activist character, Ngoc Lan Tran, in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (2017). During the film’s release, quite a few critics believed that Chau portrayed a caricature who perpetuated Asian stereotypes at a time when the industry was finally starting to move away from such depictions onscreen. But now, as Chau explained to Maron, she feels like her own background and agency was never really factored into the equation, and what was perhaps most upsetting was the lack of support she received from her own community.
Since she put herself out there in her March episode of WTF, Chau received a much-appreciated call of support from someone she holds in very high regard.
“Sandra Oh reached out to me and wanted to talk because she listened to that interview,” Chau shares. “She just wanted to talk, kind of as a big sister, and she was bummed for me because she wasn’t aware that that happened. She was just really disappointed in the response that people had to the character. So it was just really nice that she reached out in that way.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Chau also discusses the welcoming environment that longtime collaborators Reichardt and Williams created on the set of Showing Up.
So did you have to go out for this, or did Kelly reach out based on your body of work?
No, Kelly had no idea who I was. (Laughs.)
I’m pretty sure she had no idea who I was. I think Gayle Keller, our casting director, bugged her to watch Driveways, a little indie that I did a couple years ago. It was directed by Andrew Ahn, and I think Kelly finally got around to watching it. So that’s how I was invited.
At what point in the script did you find a way into Jo?
It was pretty immediate. I loved the character from the get-go. Some characters and some scripts just feel like you have to muscle it a little bit more. There’s some heavy lifting that needs to be done, but this script was so easy and the character came so easy to me. And I’m so grateful. I received the call about Showing Up while I was in New York, working on The Whale, and we had just started on The Whale. So I couldn’t wrap my mind around doing another film right afterwards, and I think I tried to say no and backpedal from it. And thankfully, Kelly Reichardt kept the conversation going. So I came out to Portland and we just had a lot of fun.
Between the introverted Lizzy (Michelle Williams) and the more extroverted Jo, did you relate more to Lizzy?
Absolutely. That’s what’s so funny. I’m totally more of a Lizzy than I am a Jo. (Laughs.) And the way that Kelly Reichardt explained the character to me was that Jo has a different pleasure center than Lizzy. It’s just more readily accessible to her, which is very obvious when you watch the movie. She’s very light on her feet and just expresses herself. She doesn’t really hold back anything and isn’t overly concerned about hurting people’s feelings or upsetting them. And that’s so completely foreign to me in my own real life. So it was really fun to get to play Jo.
Jo and Lizzy went to art school together, and now, Lizzy quite literally lives in Jo’s shadow, both professionally and residentially, if you will. So how purposeful is Jo’s negative effect on Lizzy? It’s not meant to be as extreme as psychological warfare, right?
I personally didn’t approach it that way. I didn’t think that it was intentional or that it had an agenda behind it. I feel like I know a lot of Jos. I feel like I encounter them all the time where it’s not that they’re purposely trying to upset you, it’s just that they’re not thinking about you. (Laughs.) They’re thinking about other things, and it’s usually about themselves. So it’s just something where you can’t take it personally if you’re on the other end of it. When a person like Jo does choose to shower you with attention or respond to you, I’m sure it feels like the sun is shining on you, and when she doesn’t, you’re literally left in the cold. So I didn’t think that it was psychological warfare. Maybe Lizzy felt that way, but I think a lot of it is self-created, if I can pass my own judgment on that.
Lizzy seems to want solitude and recognition at the same time. Can a working actor ever achieve that contradictory balance?
It’s tough. What Jo does well is that she is a true artist, but she’s also willing and aware that there’s a game that needs to be played in order to have more awareness from other people about your art. And some people may look at it and say that it’s about selling yourself or selling out, and then other people look at it as just being smart or savvy. So I think it just depends on the person, and not everybody’s definition of success looks the same. It’s a hard question to answer because I think you can be a successful actor just doing community theater. If you feel fulfilled by it and it’s making you happy, then you don’t necessarily need to be Tom Cruise in order to feel like you’re a successful actor. So there are all sorts of degrees of success.
Whether it was the tire swing installation or tying foam together, you had some unique bits of business in this one. Did you receive a tire swing lesson of some sort? That would certainly be a change of pace from the typical types of training that actors do, be it voice or weapons.
I did not get a lesson with the actual tire, but I did get some rope to practice tying knots over and over again. It’s pretty tricky, especially having to do it correctly on camera after they call action. There’s a little bit of pressure when everybody is watching you do it. When I was cast, Gayle Keller, our casting director, drove over to the house that I was renting in the Hudson Valley and dropped off a box of art supplies and books that Kelly wanted me to have. And in the box, there was a lot of brightly colored yarn that Kelly wanted me to practice weaving because Michelle Segre’s [the real-life sculptor behind Jo’s art] artwork employs a lot of that brightly colored yarn.
Initially, in the script, Kelly wanted to have this close-up shot of Jo’s hands weaving, but once I spent some time with Michelle Segre in her workshop, we realized that Michelle Segre’s work is so physical that you really wanted to see it in full. She utilizes her body to create her art. She bends steel pipes or metal pipes with just her feet, using her body and the counterweight of it in order to bend the pipes. She climbs up and down a ladder with a drill, and she’s sweating by the end of it. And so that’s what Kelly ended up putting in the film. Jo wrestles with this foam and this chicken wire, and I was trying to re-create this carrot that Michelle Segre had done with foam and chicken wire and orange wax on the outside. I got to see her do it from scratch, and then I tried to do that in the film. It took quite a while, and I was also sweating afterwards. Kelly then said something really funny. She was like, “Well, I just filmed my first sex scene.” (Laughs.)
Michelle and Kelly had worked together three times already, and I presume they’re quite simpatico. Since movie or TV sets can sometimes be challenging for the new person who’s joining longtime collaborators, did they go out of their way to make everybody feel included in their creative bubble?
I assumed the same thing as you, but there was no bubble that needed to be entered. I did not feel like they were doing anything different from how they normally interact on other films. It didn’t feel insular at all, and I didn’t feel like I was waiting to be let in at any point. That thing that you’re describing of being tuned in to just each other and tuning everybody else out, it’s just not who Kelly Reichardt is. She’s somebody who is very interested in and curious about all people. There’s no hierarchy or circles on her sets. It all feels very familial. Everybody is a friend or a friend of a friend or a family member. Our two characters, Lizzy and Jo, are named after [co-writer] Jon Raymond’s daughters, and one of our producers, Neil [Kopp], his daughter is one of the little girls in the gallery at the end of the movie. Even the overalls I was wearing belonged to a friend of Kelly’s, so everything just felt connected to somebody or something else. It didn’t feel like an environment where there could be any divisions or walls.
That early scene in The Whale where Liz (Chau) and Charlie (Brendan Fraser) are watching TV just rocked me once we figured out what he wanted from her. “Liz, please.” To stay on the topic of contradictions, were you ever able to reconcile the fact that she was both his enabler and his caretaker?
Yeah, for the audience watching, I think it does feel very contradictory and odd, but when I really think about it, every profound relationship or friendship that I have or have witnessed has some sort of strange codependency involved. Sometimes, there are elements or instances where somebody can judge it and say, “That’s not healthy,” but it’s true to life. So that didn’t hang me up too much when I read it in the script, honestly.
The parts that I struggled with in terms of their dynamic were the moments when Liz was really frustrated with him and behaved in a way that was out of weakness. I’m thinking specifically of the scene where Charlie almost chokes to death, and then she’s just so angry and frustrated that she ends up hitting him. That’s something that frequently occurs with people who are in long-term caregiver relationships or situations. That’s maybe something that’s not talked about often, but it is very true to life and accurate. Another difficult one was when she realizes that he’s been keeping a secret from her, and she has to reevaluate who she is to him. So those were the things that took a little bit more thought and were a little trickier to play.
So I have to tell you that I really felt for you during your eye-opening conversation with Marc Maron on WTF. What has the response been like now that you’ve put yourself out there in regard to how you were treated during Downsizing’s release? Has anybody reached out to acknowledge your feelings and/or apologize?
Actually, one person did reach out, a very great one person. Sandra Oh reached out to me and wanted to talk because she listened to that interview. Whenever I do interviews, I never think that anybody actually reads or listens to them. So part of me was mortified that she had listened to my interview, but it was so nice that she reached out. She just wanted to talk, kind of as a big sister, and she was bummed for me because she wasn’t aware that that happened. So that was her first time hearing it, and she was just really disappointed in the response that people had to the character. So it was just really nice that she reached out in that way, and then it was also so nice to get to bump into her at the Oscars. One of the nice things about having worked for a little longer is how I feel at events now, and it’s a little bit different from how I felt during Downsizing. I literally did not know anybody at the time, and it was just a very uncomfortable experience. Every time I would go to a cocktail party or something, I would just kind of stand there, holding a glass, but at least this time around, I knew a couple of more faces in the crowd, with Sandra being one of them. So that was a nice thing to get out of doing a podcast interview.
Did Matt Damon orchestrate the current Downsizing reunion between the two of you?
Yes, I am working on The Instigators right now. We were just in Boston. We just started filming, and it’s so nice to get to work with him again. It’s obviously a completely different story with completely different characters and power dynamics and everything. So it’ll be fun, and I’m looking forward to this movie being out there in the world.
Showing Up is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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