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'Downsizing' star Hong Chau: 'This character is not 2D. She was a dream'

Hong Chau plays Ngoc Lan Tran and Christoph Waltz plays Dusan Mirkovic in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.
Hong Chau plays Ngoc Lan Tran and Christoph Waltz plays Dusan Mirkovic in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.
George Kraychyk

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Hong Chau stars opposite Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz in Alexander Payne’s upcoming film "Downsizing," but it's really Chau who steals the show. 

Downsizing is set in a fictional not-so-distant future. A new technology has been developed that allows people to shrink down to about five inches tall, in an effort to combat overpopulation and consumption.

Hong Chau plays a Vietnamese activist who is “downsized” against her will by the Vietnamese government, and who later befriends Damon’s character. Chau has also played roles in David Simon’s series Treme, about her hometown of New Orleans, and she had a small part in Big Little Lies.

Chau is the child of Vietnamese immigrants who fled Vietnam by boat to Thailand in 1979. Frame host John Horn’s conversation with Chau starts with her recounting her parents’ harrowing escape story.

Interview Highlights:

On her family's escape from war-torn Vietnam:

My parents story is actually pretty crazy, it sounds sort of like a movie. My dad was shot, because you're not supposed to leave the country. They left at night and he was shot by one of the guards so he was laying on a boat bleeding for three days until they got to a refugee camp in Thailand. They got robbed by pirates twice before they got to the refugee camp. I was actually born there at the refugee camp in Thailand, and we randomly had a sponsor family in New Orleans, who was also another Vietnamese family that we weren't related to. It was organized through the Catholic church in New Orleans. We weren't related, that was the beautiful thing about it. And we weren't even Catholic.

So was it in high school where you started deciding you wanted to act?

No I never wanted to be an actor. I didn't even acknowledge that I was an actor until like two years ago. Even after I had done Treme, an HBO show, even after I had done Inherent Vice, a Paul Thomas Anderson film, When people would ask me what I did I would say I'm a dog walker. 

Was that actually true?

Technically, it's true because I do hang out with my dog alot and we go on walks, but I would never really want to talk about acting. Part of me even when I was trying to get acting jobs I was still kind of thinking, oh I should do something else with my life. 

So what was your first paid acting job do you remember what it was?

It was very strange it was supposed to be like a hybrid reality show, whatever that means, but we were supposed to pretend to be real people. It was about me and another woman and we go on this cross country road trip together 

This is "Finding My America," isn't it?

Yeah, we actually did drive from New York to San Francisco on that show. 

The how so after that did Treme come along?

Treme was my first big deal job, I was already a fan of David Simon and Eric Overmyer and Nina Kostroff. I love the Wire I know why most people love the Wire, but I love the Wire because, my parents when I was growing up in high school, what they did is they had a bodega, like a convenience store, but it was directly across the street from the projects in New Orleans. My dad was shot during a robbery when I was younger... Getting back to The Wire, why were even talking about this, the reason why I love The Wire so much is that I love where they showed the home life and how people actually live and what their interior lives and emotional lives were as opposed to the gun violence that happens. But I was more drawn to the kids and just how families are when they grow up in that environment. 

So if your life experience sets you up for whats going to happen in Treme, does the same thing happen when Alexander comes along with Downsizing and has this story of what it means to be a refugee, an immigrant or somebody who is invisible even though you're right in front of us?

When I was reading it I just loved it as just a great story that was just unusual and the characters were really rich. I mean, yes, those are all of the reasons I wanted to play the character and all of the reasons why I'm proud of it and that I'm excited for other audiences to see somebody from this background being given a really well-drawn portrayal. A very complex one ...I've seen a lot of movies, and I really have never seen a character like this ever. 

What conversations did you have with your director about how the character should be portrayed?

People have asked me a lot about what discussions did you have with Alexander, particularly about the accent. For me, I don't have a problem with accents. I know a lot of Asian actors have put out a blanket statement and have said, well I don't want to do any stereotypical roles or I don't want to do an accent. My parents speak with an accent, a lot of people that I know speak with an accent. I have friends who speak with an accent. Accents in a vacuum aren't a problem, it's how you portray those characters and how well they're served in a script. My character in "Downsizing" is very complicated, very complex and very well-written and lovingly portrayed. The thing that we're trying to say is that we want better roles for people of color and for women, that I am totally on board with.

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