‘My whole career has been about struggle’: The Whale’s Hong Chau on backlash, the Oscars and hitting Brendan Fraser

While filming The Whale, Darren Aronofsky’s divisive new drama about a morbidly obese man, Hong Chau did something many would consider unforgivable: she smacked Brendan Fraser. Playing the caregiver to Fraser’s ailing Charlie – a man so stricken with grief that he’s eating himself to death – Chau wanted to convey someone at the very end of her tether. In a moment of improvisation, she slapped Fraser’s arm. It made Aronofsky wince. He cut the cameras and took Chau aside.

“That was the one time he objected to an instinct I had,” the 43-year-old star of The Menu and Downsizing says today. “He was like, ‘No, I don’t think we want to be hitting him on screen – that’s really a terrible thing to do’. And I was like, ‘I agree. It is a terrible thing to do’.”

For Chau, it didn’t just demonstrate her willingness to go to difficult, unlikeable places on camera, but also summed up the ethos on the set of The Whale. This was touchy material; handle with care. That defeated slap, which comes after Charlie nearly chokes to death on a sandwich, provoked intense debate during production. As did every other creative choice. Aronofsky only kept the slap in the film after consulting a “think tank” of experts, among them the Obesity Action Coalition, an advocacy group. “Sensitivity was always on our minds,” Chau tells me. “But we also didn’t want to sanitise everything. It’s a very careful dance we had to do, but it was definitely being done. I know it’s hard for people outside the production to believe this, but we were so careful.”

Chau adds that caveat because she’s well aware of what people have been saying. Both she and Fraser have rightly received Oscar and Bafta nominations for their work in The Whale, but the film has otherwise faced a barrage of criticism – some warranted, some that feels sensationalist. Based on some of the headlines it’s generated, you’d think it’d be a grisly exploitation movie with fatsuits, a sort of120 Days of Sodom meets Shallow Hal. Author Roxane Gay dubbed it “a cruel spectacle”. “A harmful body horror shocker,” wrote GQ. “Crassly fatphobic” wrote, um, The Independent.

But really, Chau says, it’s OK for it to not be for everyone. “We know on our end how we felt about it. But I think it doesn’t hurt to also listen to people who’ve been frustrated with [Hollywood’s] depiction of obesity. How they feel about it is totally valid. You can be proud of it and be open to criticism.”

By now, Chau is used to being in projects that no one can agree on. As she thinks back over her résumé while pulling and prodding at her waist-length hair over Zoom, she can’t name anything that was, in her words, “a slam dunk”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, in which she played an erotic masseuse with secrets? “People are always like, ‘Ahh, it’s not my favourite PTA – it’s no Boogie Nights’.” Treme, David Simon’s soulful follow-up to The Wire about post-Katrina New Orleans? “Somebody once told me that there was just too much stuff in it about chefs and musicians.” Downsizing, in which Matt Damon shrunk himself to five inches tall and Chau played the disabled Vietnamese political activist turned cleaner with whom he falls in love? “Maybe, with time, it’ll get a more sympathetic reception,” she wonders.

The only line to be drawn between Chau’s credits is how varied they are. Despite having just 11 films to her name, along with a handful of roles on TV, she is very much a graduate of the Philip Seymour Hoffman school of unpredictability – an acting chameleon who changes wigs, accents and gaits from part to part. Think of the stern, eerily monotone maitre d’ in last year’s The Menu. Or the richest woman in the world in Damon Lindelof’s colossal drama series Watchmen. Or the canine waitress Pickles Aplenty in Netflix’s animated sadcom BoJack Horseman, to which she lends her voice. Auteurs adore her. She has films by Wes Anderson, Kelly Reichardt and Yorgos Lanthimos waiting in the wings.

But ask her how she feels about it all – the nominations, too – and she grimaces. “My whole career has been about struggle,” she says. “So I don’t really know who I am now.” Downsizing changed her relationship with awards and accolades. People were convinced she’d receive an Oscar for her performance, even telling her on the set of the film that it was a sure thing. “And, of course, it didn’t happen,” she laughs. Instead, Downsizing became less a breakout movie for Chau than a vat of quicksand through which she was forced to wade. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t ever want to go through this again’. So now, when people ask how it feels to be nominated, it’s strange. I really feel nothing. If I can be completely honest, it’s more like, ‘Oh dear’.”

Throughout our conversation, Chau is funny and bracingly honest; her answers are long and winding. Past interviews have described her as being distant by design, but I sense she’s more at ease than she used to be – potentially because those early experiences with the media put her on the back foot. Her Downsizing character, a brilliant, stubborn cleaner named Ngoc Lan, was accused by a handful of critics of being an Asian stereotype played for laughs. One critic called her thick Vietnamese accent “a hate crime”; another called her an “icky, racist caricature”.

Chau remains fiercely protective of Ngoc Lan. In her, Chau also saw her parents. Their story is staggering. After the Vietnam war, they fled the country in a hail of bullets, with Chau still in her mother’s womb. Finding refuge in the United States, they then taught themselves English, worked for decades as manual labourers and eventually sent their three children to college. Chau thought Ngoc Lan was groundbreaking, and was devastated by the response. “It was the first time we’d ever seen a person with an accent – who was from a very working-class background and who didn’t have a college education – be the female lead of a big studio movie,” she says. “I just wished that whatever people’s little qualms were about the film or my performance, that they could have acknowledged that a little bit more.”

To this day, she thinks the backlash was unfounded. “It was so off base, and I feel like it was coming from people who were not of [Ngoc Lan’s] background – including Asian people. I felt like the people who were really harping on the accent and her place within society… [came] from a more privileged background. Nobody went and asked what the ladies who work at the nail salon [thought about it], or the people who worked in the kitchens of all of these restaurants. Any time you’re getting an opinion about Asian Americans, it’s usually coming from a very wealthy, educated Asian person who has a very different background from what I grew up with. So I’m always going to be on the side of the Asian working class and the poor, and not so much, you know, the Asian person who went to Harvard.”

The press tour became a circus, she remembers. “It felt like [all the questions] were about identity and representation and the accent,” she sighs. “I never felt like people thought I was an actor who was making choices.” She pondered walking away from acting altogether. “I felt like it might be OK to just sort of peace out.”

I admit to being surprised – she’d spent 10 years trying to get her foot in the door, having graduated from a film studies programme at Boston University before being stuck on a merry-go-round of auditions, meetings and cameo roles. Even after Inherent Vice, she couldn’t book a big audition for two years. Why stop once she’d finally made it? “It was weird,” she agrees. “It’s not like I’d done much, but I felt like it was OK… I’d worked with some really great people. I was like, ‘I’m good. I’m gonna go off and have a family now’.”

In early 2020, Chau discovered she was pregnant with a daughter. She spent much of the pandemic sitting in parks with her dog, uneager to go back to work. But the phone kept ringing. Aronofsky called. Then Reichardt and The Menu’s Mark Mylod. Mid-shoot on that movie, she “got an out-of-the-blue email from Wes Anderson” wanting to cast her in his next film. She decided to stick around. “The work is coming in organically,” she says, this self-described underdog giving herself a deserved pat on the back. “I love that it’s happening that way.”

‘The Whale’ is in cinemas

Chameleon: Hong Chau in ‘Downsizing’, ‘The Menu’ and ‘Watchmen’

Hong Chau plays a carer in ‘The Whale’

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