The In­cred­i­ble Shrink­ing Woman

HOW VIET­NAMESE UN­KNOWN HONG CHAU MADE DOWN­SIZ­ING’S BIG­GEST IM­PACT

Empire (Australasia) - - 2018 Oscars - WORDS CHRIS HE­WITT

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).

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