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INTERVIEW: Hong Chau Talks the Power and Pain of ‘The Whale’

Hong Chau sitting on a porch in the Whale

The Whale continues to be a complicated movie to talk about but it’s clear that the parts of the film that really work come from its performances. Like Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie’s (Brendan Fraser) best—and really only—friend, who is trying to help him with his health while also, controversially, aiding him in his own self-destruction.

Chau has been having a big year, starring opposite Ralph Fiennes in The Menu and then (literally) letting her hair down to play Liz, a character who is so lost in her own pain that she’s willing to help Charlie in his own undoing just to try and make him happy. I saw The Whale at the New York premiere and it was a lot to take in and unpack but one thing was clear to me from the start: This movie has a powerhouse of actors telling Charlie’s story.

I got to speak with Hong Chau for the movie and we had a lovely conversation about Liz and her own pain that she masquerades as care without addressing her own anguish. When I asked Chau about what made her want to play Liz, she talked a lot about how the role wasn’t originally written for an Asian actor to take on and how the past performances of the play have had white women play the role.

“I read the script for the first time in January of 2021. I didn’t know that it was based off of a play. I wasn’t familiar with it, and it was just sent to me by my agent in the regular way,” she said. “I had just had a baby and was not really itching to get back to work. I just wanted to be a mom and enjoy my little nugget. So when I read the script, I thought, ‘wow, this is really ambitious. And the role of Liz is a great part. I’m happy for whoever ends up playing her because, you know, it is a really interesting character.’ For whatever reason, I just didn’t see myself being able to do the work that was required for the role. And then I just didn’t think it would ever go my way. It wasn’t written specifically for an Asian person. All of the actresses who have played that role in the different stage productions have all been white. And I just thought, ‘Well, there’s so many talented and much more famous people than me that they could cast in this part.'”

“So I just let it go,” she continued. “I didn’t have any sort of attachment to it at all. And my agent respected that, but a week went by and he circled back around and I had also had a week to kind of think about it, ‘Well, wow, how would I feel if I really did let this part go?’ You know? And thankfully I came to my senses and schlepped my baby, my family out to New York in February. There was three feet of snow on the ground, New York, February.”

We laughed for a beat because coming to New York at that time of year is filled with gross snowy slush on the ground and isn’t really when you’d want to be here. But she went on to talk about the film being the first project she went back to after lockdown.

“I look back on it now and it was just so magical that that was my first film project coming out of that lockdown, that COVID lockdown, it was a beautiful group of people to get to have that sort of intense experience with,” Chau said. “I really truly mean it when I say that the cast of The Whale was the sweetest, kindest cast I’ve ever worked with. And it starts with Brendan Fraser. He is just a really special, special person, so incredibly kind, and it just radiates from him, and it’s infectious, and you feel like you wanna be a better person when you’re around him. And then we got to work on this incredible script.”

The script in question comes from writer Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the stage play, and the movie does often feel like you’re watching a stage production. Chau talked a bit about that script and the feeling of bringing that play to life on screen. “It’s a very unusual script for a film because it feels still very much like theater,” she said. “And that’s a challenge to digest that or to make it palatable for a film audience. Because when you’re sitting in a theater and watching a play, it is so different from watching a film. And so how do we do that? And I was so curious how Darren Aronofsky was going to pull that off. And the way we did it was we had a three-week rehearsal prior to filming. As the set was being built on another stage, we were at another space and they had put tape on the ground that were the exact dimensions of the set that we were going to shoot on so that we would know exactly where we were spatially and recreate it once we got to set, because we had a very small budget, and we also had the physical limitations of Brendan’s prosthetics suit.”

Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau’s relationship

Brendan Fraser sitting in the Whale

A key part of the movie is Liz’s relationship with Charlie. The two are bonded together from the loss of Liz’s brother who was Charlie’s partner but it takes the entire movie to completely understand Liz and her motivations. It all works because of Chau’s performance and the relationship that she built with Fraser. I asked about that dynamic and how the two worked together to give us the (no spoilers!) big punch to the gut by the end of the film.

“I think it was just thinking about everything that she had gone through and trying to imagine for myself what life was like for her in Idaho as probably the only Asian person when she was growing up,” she said. “So the character wasn’t written specifically Asian and they changed it once I was cast and added that line about being adopted. And so I didn’t wanna ignore that. I didn’t wanna just gloss over that. I really thought about it. And I imagined outside of just the tragedy of losing her brother, Alan, she must have had such a difficult life even before that. And that shapes a person. So I think for me it was finding the darkness because it was very easy to find that friendship and that love with Brendan thus Charlie, but how do I add in something about Liz and how do we get to know more about her, even if she’s not necessarily saying it? How do we express that and give the audience some sort of hints into who she is and what her struggles are.”

Chau went on to talk about Liz’s relationship to Charlie as a nurse but also as a friend. “I think that relationship is really tricky. She’s a nurse, so obviously she knows what she’s doing raises some eyebrows, but they haven’t been through what she has been through and they don’t know. So, I think because there’s such a history there, there’s push and pull, there’s honesty, there’s a lot of the lighter moments, the funny moments come out of just them being very honest with each other, you know? It was, for me, just about finding those moments and thinking about her history when we were first starting and doing our costume fittings and makeup tests, I asked Darren if I could have tattoos because I felt like Liz probably had some wild child days. And I had some very intentional tattoos for myself, and even though they weren’t really seen, because, you know, we’re in Idaho sort of during the tail end of winter, early spring, so we’re all wearing long sleeves and you don’t see the tattoos. But every morning, Judy Chin, our makeup artist would put tattoos on up both of my arms and on the back of my neck. And it was just so helpful for me to get into that character, to have the costume that I did. Danny Glicker was really great to work with. I think I told him I wanted my character to feel like she ate cold mozzarella sticks for breakfast. And it was just about all of those elements coming together and giving you the full picture of a person, even if it’s not coming out through like a monologue or something.”

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The Whale is in theaters now.

(image: A24)

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Resident Spider-Man expert, official Leslie Knope, actually Yelena Belova. Wanda Maximoff has never done anything wrong in her life. New York writer with a passion for all things nerdy. Yes, she has a Pedro Pascal podcast.