When Chau met Alexander Payne to discuss his film “Downsizing,” she left feeling uncertain she’d landed the part. “We talked, but not even about the movie necessarily,” Chau says. “He wanted to know who I was, about my family, where I went to school. I left thinking, ‘Man, I am so underwhelming.’”
But not only did she win the role, she also won over audiences and critics who have lauded the actress for her part as a tough, intelligent Vietnamese activist shrunk to five inches in Payne’s new movie, opening Dec. 22. She holds her own in scenes with Oscar winners Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz, pretty impressive considering this is only her second film, following a memorable scene as a sex worker in “Inherent Vice.”
Chau, who was born in Thailand to Vietnamese parents before the family moved to New Orleans, attended Boston University for film studies, but thought she would work behind the camera. After performing in fellow students’ short films (“we all had to act for one another because actors weren’t interested”) she received enough encouragement to pursue an acting career.
After a stint on HBO’s “Treme,” ABC’s “A to Z” and a role in the Annie Baker play “John,” she was in the process of testing for “a big tentpole movie” when she caught wind of “Downsizing.” Knowing nothing about the film but a fan of Payne’s, she began pestering her managers to find her a copy. “I read it and was like, ‘holy shit,’” she says. “Not only was it an amazing story, but also there was this huge role for an Asian female! I didn’t care about anything else, this was the thing I wanted.” When she auditioned for the casting director in November 2015, he warned her she probably wouldn’t hear anything until after the New Year, as Payne was prepping in Toronto. “Two days later, I heard he saw my tape and wanted to meet me.”
Chau was also seen this year in the miniseries “Big Little Lies” and has just wrapped a project with director Miguel Arteta. And she’d love to work with Payne again. “He’s said, ‘You need to play an intrepid woman. It’d be nice to see you in a sort of Frances McDormand-“Fargo” character.’ I’d be up for that.”
Influences: Her dog, Mike White, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne
Representation: Manager: Silver Lining; Lawyer: Stone, Genow, Smelkinson, Binder & Christopher