'Downsizing' breakout Hong Chau on channeling her family history for the role and the 'knee-jerk reaction' to her accent

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
Actress Hong Chau arrives for a special screening of Downsizing at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles. (AFP Photo/Robyn Beck)

Hong Chau says that, unlike the abrasive activist she plays in Downsizing, she cares very much what people think about her. So the actress, best known for HBO’s Treme, must be soaking up the wide praise for her fierce and dynamic performance as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident with a missing leg who shows Matt Damon’s Unincredible Shrinking Man the dark side of Leisure Land in Alexander Payne’s new sci-fi comedy. Chau has already earned nominations from the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Critics’ Choice Awards, with a potential Oscar nod on the horizon.

The actress, born in a Thailand refugee camp to Vietnamese parents and raised in New Orleans, is also keenly aware that there has been a small but vocal number of people who have criticized the heavy accent she employs in the film as overtly stereotypical.

In a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Chau talked about how her family’s experience coming to the U.S. from Asia informed her character and why it was only logical that Ngoc Lan speaks the way she does in the film.

Yahoo Entertainment: Ngoc Lan Tran is this fearless character. Do you feel like you’re similar to her at all?
Hong Chau: No, I don’t feel similar to her at all. We’re complete opposites in terms of temperament. She’s a very direct and outspoken person. I’m the complete opposite. I walk on eggshells, and I care too much about what people think, and I’m afraid to ask for things. So there’s a lot to borrow and learn from Ngoc Lan for sure.

She has this huge heart, yet she doesn’t take s*** from anybody. She’s like this hostile humanitarian. It’s such a great dichotomy. But that must’ve been tough to tackle.
It is a challenging role, but that’s what actors are looking for … something they can really sink their teeth into. I really relish the opportunity to dig in there and figure out the different layers. I like to approach my characters from the inside out versus the outside in. There’s a lot going on in the surface, I guess, but I don’t want anyone to walk away noticing mostly the accent or her disability. I hope that if I did my job right, people are going to walk away with a picture of a complete human being, one who’s very complex and has a lot of different layers.

Did you look for any inspirations in crafting Ngoc Lan beyond what was on the page?
The creative process is a little bit serious with a character like this who has so many dimensions and is so multifaceted. I was able to pull from a lot of different sources for inspiration. You know my character is obviously an Asian woman, she’s Vietnamese, she is an environmental activist and was imprisoned, and now she’s 5 inches tall and ends up in Leisure Land and has to learn English and Spanish, and it’s a lot. So I was able to bring some of my own personal family background into it. My parents are Vietnamese refugees; they left Vietnam after the war. They were part of the boat people, and they ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand after being on the water for three days, and I was born at that refugee camp in Thailand. We had a foster family who was another Vietnamese family that we were not related to who had come over a few years earlier to the United States, and they sponsored us, organized through the Catholic Church. So we were not related to these people and we’re not Catholic, but with their kindness and generosity we were able to come over to the United States and start a new life. I took all of that and put it into my character.

Hong Chau in Downsizing. (Paramount)

There has been some debate specifically over your accent in the film. Did you guys anticipate that it might potentially be divisive or controversial?
I think sometimes people can have a knee-jerk reaction and just completely shut down and not take in anything else the moment they hear the accent. I think that’s very wrong. When I look at my parents, I don’t see a stereotype, I just see a person. So I’m not really sure why people feel so scandalized by hearing a person with an accent in a movie in the foreground and not in the background. I guess that’s what it is. There’s no use to these characters not having any significance in a story and not really having to hear them that much in a movie, so now they’re actually having to confront that and it’s a little bit jarring for them and maybe uncomfortable.

Asian-Americans, we’re not a monolithic group. There might be some Asians who are second-generation, third-generation, who may not speak the language that their parents or their grandparents spoke. So they’re going to have a different perspective than I do. Some of us are biracial. They’re also going to have a very different experience from me. You know, I grew out of the habit of thinking or worrying about being seen as the typical Asian. I don’t even know what that means anymore. I’m not really concerned with it. I don’t want to make my whole life be about not being a certain thing or being perceived as something. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed by my parents and where I came from, and I’m really proud to be a part of this movie and have this role.

Did you approach the role with that accent from the very beginning?
Well, I mean the character has not been in the United States that long, so it’s only logical that she would speak that way. That’s not a contrived choice, that wasn’t a choice that was made as some sort of frivolous thing to just be used as a comedic device. It adds matter to the person, to the character, and I approach the disability that way as well. That’s not there just to be provocative, or to be cute. It has to fit the character.

Chau and Matt Damon in Downsizing. (Paramount)

The film slyly tackles many topical social issues. What themes in the film resonated the deepest with you?
I really appreciated Alexander Payne’s life touch. He brings up these topics and he’s not spoon-feeding anyone what they should think, not criticizing anyone. Yes, the way the people who choose to downsize and go to Leisure Land, the way they use the technology, is sort of like a get-rich-quick scheme. For a very little amount of money you can live in this big, fat mansion. But Alexander isn’t even criticizing these people necessarily, because who among us has not bought a lottery ticket? Who hasn’t tried to live the easy life, the good life? That’s natural, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, everybody is seduced by an easy life. So what resonated with me was just their intelligent and insightful observations on human nature and how that often gets us into a pretty big pickle.

The film also goes to some really unexpected places, especially in the third act. What was your reaction to seeing the ambition and the scope that Alexander and co-writer Jim Taylor took with the story?
I admire their ambition, and I think they did an amazing job. I think they knocked it out of the park, honestly. If I could just take myself out of it and look at the film as just an audience member, not somebody who was a part of making it, we’re always talking about how there are no original stories and everything is recycled or a reboot of something or a sequel to something. This was an entirely fresh story that has a lot of intelligence to it and also humor to it. It’s hard to mix together those elements and still have something that feels alive and enjoyable and fresh. I don’t know how they did it. It’s so hard what they did, and they made it look so easy.

Downsizing is now playing.

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