Matt Damon is the bankable star dominating trailers for Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s deep dive into a world where humans can be shrunk down to five inches. But while Damon’s character, Omaha everyman Paul Safranek, introduces us to this brave little new world, the movie’s wild second half belongs to his new friend Ngoc Lan Tran. An involuntarily downsized Vietnamese dissident with a missing leg, a strong accent, and a will of iron, Ngoc Lan is embodied brilliantly by breakout star Hong Chau. Though herself the child of Vietnamese refugees, Chau grew up in New Orleans, and has had smaller roles recently in Big Little Lies and Inherent Vice. A few days before Downsizing’s New York premiere, she spoke to us about the influence of E.T., the downsides of playing against stereotype, and how sick she is of answering questions about that accent.
How did you get into acting?
My first job out of college was at PBS as an administrative assistant. I thought I would be on the production side of things. I fell into acting because I was really shy, and so at night after work I took public speaking and improv classes, and I started going to auditions sort of as a dare. That was my version of Fear Factor.
How did you find out about Downsizing?
I first read in the trades that Alexander Payne was gearing up to work on his next film and that it was a sci-fi satire, and he’s one of the few directors where I’ve seen all of his movies. I asked my manager if I could get a hold of the script. I had no idea that there was going to be a role for an Asian woman. When you hear sci-fi satire, you think, “Oh, if there were a role for me it would be a lab tech or something.” But I was not thinking that it would be this juicy, complex, and hilarious character.
So you auditioned and got the part?
No, Alexander saw my tape and he wanted to meet me. It was just a coffee date — we didn’t have coffee, we had lentil soup. He asked me about how I grew up. He wanted to know who I was. I left thinking that I may have talked myself out of the job because I came across as too all-American, and I know authenticity is a big deal for him. So they put out an international casting search, looking at people who were non-actors as well, and that was a little bit heart-racing for me. I knew there was a possibility that he might find a woman with only one leg who is Vietnamese.
I don’t know, I mean they exist! And so I’m just glad that Alexander Payne’s writing is so demanding that not anybody can just come in there and do it.
Your parents fled Vietnam on a boat, and you were born in a Thai refugee camp. Did your history help you connect to the script?
Downsizing tells a story that was similar to my parents but it’s not a direct copy, and that’s sort of the struggle with telling difficult stories. How do you tell it in a way that feels fresh, where people don’t feel like they already know what they’re going to see? That’s what was so nice about Downsizing. This is not the typical refugee story. It’s got an unusual premise, being that they’re five-inches tall, but everything else feels pretty grounded and familiar.
Did you draw on your parents for the part of Ngoc Lan?
It was obviously a version of my family and the community that I grew up with in New Orleans. But I also drew inspiration from Flannery O’Connor, a writer who suffered from lupus and yet still did great work, and by all accounts was a spitfire. Also the Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres. And then there’s one line in the script: “Paul takes a last look at this strange creature.” She is a strange creature, and I was thinking a little bit about E.T. — how this strange creature is able to get under your skin and into your heart in, like, a very unexpected way. Who doesn’t love E.T.?
Some critics have said Ngoc Lan’s accent borders on mockery. What do you think?
I’ve had so many interviews with people about the accent, the accent, the accent. It’s a necessary conversation but not a very fun conversation. Because when I look at my parents, I don’t see a stereotype. When people ask me, “Why do you think Alexander Payne wrote this Asian female character,” or “Why did you choose to have that accent?” Those seem like very innocent questions, but the overall effect of having to answer that is a bit dehumanizing to me, because I have to sit there and explain to another human being why somebody who looks like me and sounds like my parents deserves to exist onscreen.
Well, people are just sensitive to whether it might be a stereotype.
If it’s well-written and well-performed, it can’t be a stereotype. It’s just a person, a complex human being. I think people with accents have, in other films, been underserved, and I understand if people come into this film with a lot of baggage. But I don’t think that there needs to be any concern in that area, because the story and character [were] written and performed with a lot of love. I knew that I had to protect this character, and I knew that even though Alexander and [co-writer] Jim Taylor have had a pretty good track record of writing very thoughtful and complex female characters, at the end of the day they are still two straight white men.
It sounds like you’re sick of talking about representation in movies.
I’m not really interested in turning a stereotype on its head. I’m just interested in complicated characters. So when you start talking about things in a very premeditated, agenda-driven way, it starts to become an exercise and not about artistry. I’m just hoping for good stories and good characters.
Good stories that still have room for you.
Most filmmakers have not figured out a way to incorporate either females or people of color or people from a lower economic background in a way that’s woven into a story. I hope that other filmmakers or producers or financiers, people in charge, can take inspiration from Jim and Alexander. I feel like people do want to tell these stories, they’re just a little apprehensive or unsure of how to go about it — how to be responsible but also interesting and entertaining.
You’ve been acting for over ten years. Do you feel like this is your big break?
The term “break” suggests that my career is suddenly going to launch into the stratosphere commercially, and that’s not necessarily what I’m looking for. Two weeks after I wrapped on Downsizing I did this tiny movie, a small part in an experimental film that Miguel Arteta made. And the next thing I’m going to be working on is a really small film with a first-time feature director [American Woman, playing a radical who helps Patty Hearst]. So those are the things I gravitate toward. I only hope that it means that I’m getting seen by people who share similar sensibilities.
Having been interested in production when you started out, would you like to get behind the camera?
I’d eventually like to write and produce something. I have two ideas for things that I wouldn’t necessarily be in. But I’ve worked with Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander and Jean-Marc Vallée. I have too much admiration for directors to say, “Yeah, sure, I can throw my hat in the ring.”