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Hong Chau’s True Grit

Whether she’s playing a mysterious mogul, a secretive secretary, or a grieving single mother, the actress is steely, whip-smart, and deceptively powerful

Hong Chau in 'Driveways.'

Courtesy of FilmRise

“People often say that my characters carry a quiet strength about them, and I get that in life, too, from people,” says Hong Chau with a laugh. “Like, before I was an actor, they would say, ‘Oh, you’re quiet, but I can tell that you’re tough.’”

That cool tenacity is a hallmark of Hong Chau roles. In the 2017 film Downsizing, her crippled ex-dissident Ngoc Lan has been forced out of her native Vietnam and into the bottom rung of society in America, yet she galvanizes everyone around her and never feels sorry for herself. In last fall’s Watchmen, the HBO adaptation of the dystopian 1980s comic, her mad genius Lady Trieu methodically and serenely plots world domination. In the Amazon series Homecoming, entering its second season later this month, her innocuous-seeming receptionist Audrey Temple pulls the rug of power out from under the sleazy head honcho of a nefarious pharmaceutical company. And in the new movie Driveways, released last week on demand, her single mom Kathy is a bulletproof emotional shield around her young son, even as she wrestles with the death of her own sister. 

Chau’s ferocious intelligence infuses them all. Though she chose to work in Hollywood, where there is no shortage of bullshitters and wildly successful dimwits, she has a finely honed ear for all manner of idiocy, and she knows how to evade it, circumvent it, or just stare it down till it disintegrates.

In the wordless early minutes of Driveways, we meet mother and son as they road-trip to the deceased sister’s home to handle her affairs. Kathy is cautious but no-nonsense, a chronic smoker in scuffed boots who eyes eight-year-old Cody with a mixture of infinite love, deep concern, and puzzlement. From gas stations to roadside diners, her guard is up — way up — and it’s clear she intends to never let it down. When, shortly after their arrival, Cody reveals he’s had a chat with the next-door neighbor, Kathy marches to the property border and confronts the old man: “Is my son bothering you?” she barks. She gets a flat “no” in response, but persists with a warning before walking away: “Well. He’s not supposed to talk to strangers.”

Over the course of the film — an intimate, elegant portrait of this insular family unit trying to navigate a sometimes cold world — Kathy gradually begins to trust the neighbor, Del (Brian Dennehy, in one of his final roles), dismantling her walls and eventually building a new tiny community around herself and her son. It’s a challenging process for Kathy, who’s been hardened by experiences that are never fully detailed, but which Chau wears on her face and in her body. In real life, it’s no simple task for Chau either.

“Just speaking for myself, as you grow up and accumulate experiences, you start to feel like, if you’re a smart person, then you’re really on your own,” Chau says by phone from Los Angeles, where she lives. “And you have to be able to take care of yourself and not set yourself up to be disappointed by other people. You really train yourself to think that way, because that’s an intelligent way to go about things.”

Hong Chau.photo: Mark Hill/HBO

As Lady Trieu in ‘Watchmen’ (Mark Hill/HBO)

While Chau isn’t totally willing to chalk up this fierce self-reliance to biography, a review of some basic facts suggests it’s not crazy to draw a line from her life to her art. Born in Thailand to Vietnamese refugees — the so-called “boat people” who fled by the hundreds of thousands following the end of the Vietnam War — she moved with her family to New Orleans as a child. Her parents’ journey was harrowing (her father was shot as they were escaping and nearly bled to death), and things were hardly easy once they arrived in the States. Chau and her two older brothers spoke only Vietnamese at home. The family lived in government housing and took advantage of subsidized lunch programs. But in the Chau household, hardship was a simple fact of life, hard work was a virtue, and self-pity was not in the vocabulary. 

“My parents didn’t baby me, even though I was their only daughter,” Chau says. “If anything, my mom encouraged me to be really strong and not rely on other people. She was like, ‘You always have to figure it out for yourself, and not allow yourself to be stepped on or bossed around by somebody. You have to be really smart.’ I think that’s why she always wanted me to do really well in school, not because it would allow me to become some fancy-pants person, but just [so] that I wouldn’t be duped or taken advantage of by a man.”

With the help of Pell Grants, Chau attended Boston University intending to become a documentarian. But she was encouraged by friends to pursue acting after appearing in a few student films. Given that her just her second recurring TV role was in David Simon’s Treme, and her first film role was in P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, it would seem as though she found swift success. (Her résumé also includes HBO’s star-packed ice-queen drama Big Little Lies, Netflix’s gorgeously melancholic animated comedy BoJack Horseman, and a stunning standalone episode of Amazon’s dark romantic comedy Forever.) In her telling, however, the road was much bumpier.

“When I was starting out, I would’ve taken anything, I would’ve auditioned for anything,” she says. “And what I found when I was auditioning for really silly, dumb things was that I wouldn’t get them, because I knew that they were stupid. It was like I was physically unable to perform the lines, because I just thought they were so stupid, and you could tell I thought it was bad. But I would think, ‘Oh man, if I couldn’t even book that stupid thing, I’m never gonna make it.’”

Still, even the good parts didn’t immediately beget other good parts. She thought after landing Treme in 2011 that she’d get to do “classier things,” but no casting agents beat down her door. She got her hopes up again a couple years later, after Inherent Vice — a movie that also starred Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Maya Rudloph, and Michael Kenneth Williams, among others — but it proved another false start. 

“I thought, ‘OK! I am in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie! Things are gonna happen for me!’” Chau says, laughing. Instead, a two-year drought followed. She found herself back in auditions for the dumb stuff. But it was exactly one of those god-awful auditions that marked a turning point.

As Audrey Temple in ‘Homecoming’ (Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios)

It was for a sitcom. Chau would be playing “the wife who’s just there and doesn’t have an opinion about anything — just, ‘Oh, honey, you’re so silly!’ That kind of thing.” She went begrudgingly, because it was a rare pilot audition, but she hated the material and performed terribly. “It pained me to say the lines,” she says. Afterward, she fled to her car, practically in tears, silently berating herself for showing up in the first place. That’s when the phone rang. On the other end of the line: one of Broadway’s top casting agencies, asking if she’d have any interest in doing a play. They’d gotten her number directly off of IMDb Pro, since she didn’t have representation at the time.

Chau’s first and so far only theater role, as an unfaithful girlfriend in John, written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker and directed by Tony winner Sam Gold, was a wake-up call. For three-and-a-half hours a day, seven times a week (sometimes eight), she shared a stage with just three other people, including the esteemed actresses Georgia Engel and Lois Smith. It was a proving ground that gave her the confidence she’d been lacking.

“It changed how I saw myself,” Chau says. “Because even after Inherent Vice, I still didn’t know if I was a good actor? I was pretty surprised they even thought of me at all. It was the strangest thing. I thought, ‘There are so many Asian actors who’ve done theater in New York, why are they calling me?’ But, it happened, and that whole experience really just changed my life, because it was just such a large, meaty role, and it was so difficult. If I could do this, I could do anything.”

Five years later, a prestige-packed list of parts under her belt, Chau is waiting and ready, with the rest of Hollywood, for productions to pick up again. Before the pandemic struck, she’d been feeling a little anxious about not having her next role lined up. But these days, she’s happy to hunker down at home with Kobe, her 12-year-old Rottweiler-Aussie shepherd mix, catching up on classic movies. (She recently enjoyed the 1972 screwball comedy What’s Up Doc?, on the recommendation of her Homecoming co-star Joan Cusack, with whom she feels she has “unfinished business.” Note to producers everywhere: “I want to be in a comedy with her. Somebody make that happen, please.”) The global crisis has put her career in even greater perspective.

“It has actually mellowed me out, and I’m feeling very calm and grateful, despite watching the news and feeling enraged,” she says. “I’m fortunate where I don’t have to go out to work. I don’t have any children, other than my dog, to support or home school or anything like that. My parents are safe and well. Work-wise, I won’t really care when we’re gonna start back up; I know we will. I know it won’t be for a while, and that’s going to be tough, but we will get through this.”

She has two projects completed that will give audiences their Hong Chau fix in the meantime. Artemis Fowl, the Disney movie based on the series of fantasy novels by Irish author Eoin Colfter, originally set to premiere this month, is awaiting a new release date. Season Two of Homecoming premieres on Amazon May 22nd. 

Of the latter, she can’t say much, only that her character, Audrey Temple, takes on a much bigger role at the pharmaceutical company once run by Bobby Cannavale’s bumbling bad guy Colin Belfast. It may be a somewhat surprising twist to fans of the series, but it’s one Chau knew about from the beginning. “When I signed up for the first season they said, ‘You’re just going to be this sort of background character in the first season, and then in the end, she’s gonna make this big move. And in the second season, you’re going to be taking control of things.’ So I signed on for that reason. If they were like, ‘OK, you’re going to be playing a receptionist, and Bobby Cannavale’s just going to be dismissive of you the entire time’ — I mean, I love Bobby Cannavale, but — I would not have signed on for that.”