Her character in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing might be small — standing a mere five inches tall, to be exact — but Hong Chau’s first Golden Globe nomination is a big leap forward for the actress’ trajectory in Hollywood… even if the way she heard about the nod kept her head (literally) firmly grounded in the realities of daily life.
“I was in the middle of shampooing when I found out,” Chau, who touched down in Los Angeles at around six o’clock this morning ahead of another round of Downsizing screenings, tells EW. “I walked out of the shower and there were a bunch of text messages and voicemails on my phone… I’m still processing it!”
The notice comes for her show-stealing performance in Payne’s latest feature as Ngoc Lan Tran, a compassionate activist working as a maid in a world where scientists have found a way to shrink humans down to bite size in the hopes of planetary preservation. There, she forms an intimate bond with a married man, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who navigates his new surroundings alone after his wife (Kristen Wiig) backs out of the miniaturizing process at the last minute.
While Paul’s predicament is less than ideal, Chau’s in good company, here, when it comes to awards season heavy-hitters. Payne is a two-time Oscar winner, while costar Damon has an Academy Award of his own. It’s fitting, then, that the latter was one of the first people to offer Chau an in-person congratulations, as the 2017 Golden Globe nominations mark the 20-year anniversary of his inaugural notice from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
“I saw Matt [this morning.] He’s happy for me. We were laughing because his first nomination was for Good Will Hunting 20 years ago,” she says, catching herself as she begins to giggle, clearly enthused by the accomplishment. She lights up even more, however, when the conversation turns toward her parents. Chau says her family — who immigrated to the United States after leaving Vietnam in the late 1970s — hasn’t seen Downsizing in full, but finally showing it to them is a process she can’t wait to explore.
“They know everything about the story because, like most parents, they don’t like to be surprised, so I walked them through the entire plot of the story in every single detail,” Chau explains. “This is one of those rare occasions where I’m actually able to talk to them about a job and they’re excited about it because it’s a Vietnamese character that’s so closely related to their journey, so I’m excited to share this experience with them.”
Being a part of Downsizing‘s success also meant confronting the opinions of the masses — some of whom didn’t interpret Ngoc’s journey the same way Chau did.
“That’s a tricky thing, representation. What is positive representation?” she ponders. “I wasn’t sure how people would react to [the character]. Some people had a knee-jerk reaction to hearing [her] accent, and I hope that through the story [they can] get beyond that and see the character as this three-dimensional person, more than just her accent or her imperfect English or occupation [as a maid]… that’s not your job as an actor, to factor all of that in. I wasn’t really thinking about the themes of the movie, I just saw this character as a person and approached it from that [perspective], from an emotional standpoint.”
Still, Chau’s nomination does extend the reaches of an infrequently traveled path, one initially paved by Asian actresses that preceded her at the Golden Globes. Since 1970, the HFPA has nominated only two supporting actresses of East Asian descent: The Hawaiians‘ Tina Chen and Babel star Rinko Kikuchi.
“This is the type of character who’s always in the background,” Chau observes, noting the impact her recognition might have on the industry at large. “I hope filmmakers will go back and take a look at people whom they thought they couldn’t mine drama or entertainment from. There are a lot of characters that have been underdeveloped because people aren’t interested or are afraid of attempting to tell their stories. Take another look at them: that’s what I hope for.”
Downsizing is in theaters on Dec. 22.