Awards season is the time of year when the world recognizes the best in cinema, when a slew of established actors, directors, writers and so forth receive much-deserved accolades; it’s also a time for a dawning appreciation of new names and faces. In 2011, Jessica Chastain leapt into the public eye with performances in Take Shelter, The Help and The Tree of Life; two years later, Lupita Nyong’o won a Best Supporting Oscar for Twelve Years a Slave; and in 2015, Alicia Vikander broke through with Ex Machina and The Danish Girl (the latter of which landed her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). None of these actresses came from nowhere—their breakthroughs were the result of hard work—but nonetheless, the critical recognition generated from awards season played a big role in adding commercial clout to their critical success. Who’s up next? Well, let us introduce you to Hong Chau, whose work in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has led to Golden Globe, SAG and Critics Choice nominations.
Hong Chau was born in Thailand in 1979 to Vietnamese parents who were refugees during the war. When she was young, they immigrated to the United States where a Vietnamese-American family sponsored them in New Orleans. (They were not related, nor did the family even know them.) Chau and her family spent their first few years in the United States with this sponsor family. In interviews, Chau has expressed a love for New Orleans, grateful to have grown up in a city with so much culture.
Much like Nyong’o, Vikander and company, Hong Chau was no neophyte to acting—she has been working at this dream for quite a long time. Most recently, she played a recurring guest role on HBO’s Golden Globe and Emmy winning Big Little Lies and also had a small role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice back in 2014. Before then, she appeared in several episodes of the HBO drama Treme and a few episodes in other television shows.
But it’s Payne’s latest that has provided the actress a chance to catch the eyes of critics and regular filmgoers alike. In Downsizing, Chau plays Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tran, whose punishment by her government is to be made “small” because of her environmental and political protests. After a series of unfortunate events that keeps Tran occupied for the first 40 minutes of the film and renders her physically disabled, she finally meets Matt Damon’s character one morning when she comes to clean the house of his neighbor (Christoph Waltz).
In a Variety Actors on Actors interview between Chau and Diane Kruger, Chau reveals that Payne told her during her audition that she was the only person he’d seen that understood his writing and found the rhythm of the character and script. This wasn’t by accident—Chau has admitted to be being a huge fan of Payne, and as such was quite familiar with the specific rhythms of dialogue and character behavior. In the interview, Chau reflects on the journey that led to her breakthrough performance—she had to beg her manager to get her the audition once she found that there was a prominent role for an Asian actress in his new film.
In the film, Ngoc Lan Tran, breaks stereotypes about physically disabled people and quickly becomes the clear moral center to a film that otherwise is in danger of becoming just another film about middle-aged white men in crisis. (Okay, it might be this anyway, but Chau’s performance helps it be something more, as well.)
Chau’s work in Downsizing has her in the running for Oscar consideration. Should she be nominated she would become the first Vietnamese actor ever to receive an Oscar nomination. This would be a welcome addition to what is a strikingly low number of Oscar-nominated Asian actors. While a smattering of Asian actors have been nominated in the last decade or so—Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) and Dev Patel (Lion ) come to mind—Ben Kingsley (Gandhi), Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields) and Miyoshi Umeki (Sayonara) are the only Asian actors ever to win an Oscar for acting.
Will Hong Chau add another chapter to this woefully underrepresented group? It’s difficult to say—the Best Supporting Actress category is among the most competitive, thanks in part to the Academy’s tendency to seed it with noms for performances that should have been placed in the Best Actress ranks. Still, you can’t win unless you’re nominated, and Academy recognition often comes with familiarity. A nomination would be a good—and much deserved—place to start.