Hong Chau will be in cinemas this month in Downsizing, starring opposite Matt Damon, a role for which she received a Golden Globe nomination
Hong Chau’s parents fled war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s before arriving in a Thai refugee camp, where Chau was born, and eventually settling in New Orleans in the US. After appearing in the critically acclaimed HBO series Treme and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, Chau will be in cinemas again this month in Downsizing, where she plays one of the inhabitants of a miniature world created to combat overpopulation.
Have you had an opportunity, through work or otherwise, to return to Vietnam?
I did go back once with my family… There was something a bit sad about it, because a lot of the streets had changed and things were so different from when they left. When we were sitting in the car, they’d ask the driver: “What happened to that place? It used to be over there.” So much had happened in the past 30 or so years.
What was the experience like for you?
When I got there I immediately sensed how American I was. They could just tell that I was from America without having me open my mouth. It’s the way I carry myself. It’s all sorts of things. I really appreciate the people who have not quite bought into the Western value system of materialism and popular culture that is sort of spread by the West. When I was in Saigon, the things that my uncle wanted to show me were the new shopping malls that they had built and I just thought: “I want to see things that… I can’t get in the United States. I want to see Vietnamese culture.”
Tell us about your role in Downsizing…
I realise this is a big Paramount [studio] movie starring Matt Damon and has special effects, but it still feels like a small movie to me, because it’s telling a story and bringing up topics that other big Hollywood studio movies are not. I just want to continue to work on things that I care about.
Some have criticised the accent your character has in the film as being a caricature. How do you respond to that?
The Vietnamese refugee community that I grew up with in New Orleans is certainly an inspiration for my character in Downsizing but, at the end of the day, the character is mine… Americans have different relationships with different accents. With the Vietnamese accent, it’s usually because we tend to have service-oriented occupations. That brings up the race and class issue and inequality and discrimination. That’s a lot to unpack, so it’s not just about an accent being problematic. My character, and other minority characters in this story, are not there to prop up the white, male character and show him in this great, positive light. If anything, we’re showing that he’s part of the problem because he’s not paying attention. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
This article was published in the January edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.