The Incredible Shrinking Woman
HOW VIETNAMESE UNKNOWN HONG CHAU MADE DOWNSIZING’S BIGGEST IMPACT
Mention actor Hong Chau to her Downsizing director Alexander Payne, and his face lights up in an involuntary smile. “Isn’t she great?” he says, before adding, with absolute certainty: “Birth of a star.”
Time will tell on that, of course, but Chau isn’t off to a bad start. She had already made memorable contributions to David Simon’s
HBO series Treme and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, as well as popping up in this summer’s Big Little Lies, but it’s Downsizing that should supersize her stature. Her performance, as indefatigable one-legged Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran — who forms an unlikely friendship with Matt Damon’s everyman Paul Safranek after they both decide to be shrunk down to a mere five inches and live in a vast community of small people — is far and away the film’s greatest triumph. For all its other incidental pleasures — Matt Damon dancing; Christoph Waltz being none more Christoph Waltzy; the novelty of watching major effects sequences in an Alexander Payne movie — it’s Chau’s performance that resides in your mind long after viewing. Ngoc Lan, as she’s known in the movie, is a fascinating character: funny, thoughtful, impulsive, wilful, sensitive. A force of nature, she arrives fairly late in the movie and almost single-handedly wrestles the focus away from Damon with an aplomb that should see her feature in the Academy’s thoughts. Which would be reward for Chau’s tenacity in bagging the role.
“I read in the trades that Alexander Payne was gearing up to do his next movie, a sci-fi satire,” she explains. “I asked my manager if I could get a hold of the script out of curiosity because I’m a huge fan. I pestered them. When I got it, I read it that night and felt so tingly after reading it.”
For there in the script, completely unbeknownst to Chau, the Thailand-born, America-raised daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, was a character for which she was a perfect fit. “I’d never seen a character like that in recent cinema,” she says. “I don’t know why. We’re having this conversation about diversity in Hollywood and I don’t want to make any strong statement about that, but I hope that people can look at this movie and be inspired; that you can push this kind of character to the centre as opposed to the background, and have it be entertaining and touching and complex.”
Script secured, tingles tamed, Chau auditioned for the role and soon found herself on set, ready for her first day on only her second movie. It was 1 April 2016. “I took a little snapshot of the call sheet and sent it to some of my friends and said, ‘This is not a joke —
I am actually number two on the callsheet, under Matt Damon, on an Alexander Payne movie,” she laughs.
That day was dialogue-free. What followed wasn’t. Ngoc Lan has two of the movie’s biggest speeches — a delightfully profane musing on the nature of the F-word, and the emotional turning point for her character, a moving monologue about hope. Both are delivered in the character’s very mannered, staccato way of speaking, which Chau calls “a little bit of a hybrid, where it is the writing of an American male of a Vietnamese female character. It’s something you recognise as something both foreign and very familiar.” And both were nailed by Chau, in particular the monologue, which required her to hit a multitude of heavy emotional notes in front of her esteemed co-stars, Damon (an Oscarwinner) and Waltz (a double Oscar-winner).
“That was the first scene after lunch, and I hate shooting after lunch,” she recalls. “You’ve just had a bellyful of food and you’re kinda comatose. Alexander told me not to worry about doing the big monologue, that he’d cut the scene into two parts and do different set-ups. I said, ‘You don’t have to cheat it for me. I did a threeand-a-half-hour play, I can do this!’ And that was the first take that’s in the movie. The reaction from the other guys across the table was the reaction in real life.”
You can see what Payne sees in her, and why a star might indeed be born. What happens next, you sense, is as much up to Hollywood as it is Chau. Imagine if Tinseltown follows Payne’s lead and regularly writes compelling, challenging roles for people of colour and minorities. If that happens, there’s no limit to how big Chau can get.
Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) makes a connection with Paul (Matt Damon).