Hong Chau did not plan to have such a busy 2021. The actress gave birth to her first daughter in November 2020 and is set to leave work next year — especially as she doesn’t expect film and TV production to recover quickly from the pandemic. But then she got a call from her agent telling her that Darren Aronofsky wanted to see her audition for his next project. “It was a mixture of many emotions,” Chau said. “I think it’s great that he’s in another movie, but I really don’t think I’ll be in it.”
But after a few gentle nudges from her agent and Aronofsky, Chau sent self-recorded tapes and got the role of Liz in A24’s Whale, in which she plays Brendan Fraser’s Charlie’s best friend and caregiver, a 600-pound man whose grief and depression causes him to binge eat. This is one of two films coming out this fall with Chau in the cast, the second being Searchlight by , a dark comedy set in the world of fine dining, starring Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy. Chau talks to CHEAP about preparing for both projects and how she connects with two wildly different characters.
Have you read or watched Samuel D. Hunter’s play? Whale come to you?
That’s one of the sad things about living in LA: You don’t get to see all the great theater, especially the off-stage performances that don’t travel. The script was very close to the play, and I knew it would require a lot of work. Thankfully, we had a three-week rehearsal period, which energized me in a way I didn’t expect. I saw Brendan really change from the first table read to when we started filming. I can’t really explain what the big change was – there was a glint in his eye – but it’s so rare that you get to witness it and it feels really precious because it’s just the four of us. experience that. I could talk about Brendan Fraser all day. I haven’t seen many of his films, so I didn’t have any attachment to him before – I met him for the real him. He is a person capable of empathy, patience, grace, and great care.
Looks like you guys have to gather as a group as if you were participating in a stage set.
I think that’s part of the reason I wanted to make the movie. I’m really curious what Darren is going to do with it, because it’s so different from all his other movies.
Liz is a complicated character. She is both a close friend and caretaker to Charlie, but she is sometimes short-tempered with him and harsh about his health. How did you balance that tone?
They have such a complicated relationship, and there’s so much history there. Liz doesn’t do well either – she just handles it in a different way. She has to go to work at a hospital, barely able to go on and maintain this great look. The hard part of their relationship is something I find interesting and challenging. I don’t want her to be best friend in a very one-sided way. There was a scene where Charlie almost choked on his sandwich, and Liz was so upset with him that she hit him. Darren was like, “I don’t know if you want to go in that direction,” but I said, “No – it’s for love.”
I grew up being spanked as a child for being aggressive, and it’s not like my parents didn’t love me – it was a temporary reaction. We have to be careful for all the reasons that make you sensitive to this story. But I’m glad Darren kept that in the movie, because we didn’t back down from the reality of the situation. It was clear that Liz loved Charlie so much that she facilitated him by bringing him unhealthy food. It’s so much harder to be a friend who is always there and watching someone who is suffering and not making the right choices.
Speaking of mixed tones, you are also in Menua dark comedy as they arrive, playing the formidable maître d’, Elsa.
I love heirand i knew [director] Mark Mylod was an important part of that program. Part of the reason I also want to work on Menu is Ralph Fiennes. Because his character speaks to all the diners in the restaurant, it feels like we’re watching a one-man performance. After he finished his first monologue, all the actors clapped their hands. And again, it feels like part of a company with some great stage actors like Judith Light, Reed Birney and John Leguizamo.
Elsa couldn’t be more different than Liz in Whaleeven though you have a fight scene!
When I read it, I thought, “I never had to do any action. This is going to be really interesting.” And then, on set, I said, “Oh, Hong, this was a big mistake. Why do you think you want a knife fight in the kitchen with Anya Taylor-Joy?! She is 20 years younger than me and a foot taller. She doesn’t just have one child! They saved that scene for the last day of shooting, and I think so that if something happened to me, they could roll my body in the ditch. (laugh.)
Would you approach Elsa differently because of the film’s sarcastic humor?
unlike Liz in WhaleElsa doesn’t have [any big monologues] — she was there to eavesdrop, directing viewers to different tables in the restaurant. You don’t know much about her. Part of the discussion I had with Mark was trying to give a glimpse of who this person is or has been outside the restaurant. I was in Portland [when I read the script] and was inspired by all the exciting, vibrant people I met around. I sent Mark some inspirational photos of how I wanted Elsa to look, with her hair and makeup, and I got a very polite “no” answer. Mark and the screenwriters, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, thought that the character would be very clean and almost blend into the background. I was like, “Why did you hire me to blend into the background?” Thankfully, Amy Westcott, our costume designer, is married to Mark Mylod. She sided with me because she didn’t want Elsa to look too sloppy, so she came up with a visually strong outfit. It’s almost Victorian. Even though I don’t wear a corset, it makes me express myself in a certain way, get into the character and find an energy that I couldn’t find in the script.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the November 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Click here to sign up.