“I love stories about white guys as much as the next person, it’s not about not wanting to see those stories. I just want more diversity in just what’s available as a person who loves to go to the movies,” says Hong Chau, the Golden Globe-nominated star of Alexander Payne’s new movie, Downsizing. In the film, Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) plays with the social themes of climate change and overpopulation, in a story where a Norwegian scientist’s solution is to irreversibly shrink ourselves down to five inches tall and move into miniature towns, to live out our downsized lives in a way where waste is reduced and the value of money is increased. Alongside Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz, Chau plays a one-legged Vietnamese cleaner and former political activist living in a ghetto outside the bubble of the picture-perfect tiny town, because it doesn’t matter if you’re six feet tall or five inches, humans will find a way to mistreat the poor and the foreign.
“There’s this trepidation on the part of a lot of writers and filmmakers because they are, for the most part, white men,” says Chau. “They hesitate, they think: is it my place? Am I the right person to tell this story? What if I get it wrong? And then on the financial side, people are wondering if stories that revolve around people of colour sell. Are they international? Do people want to see them? I always feel like it’s not just people of colour who want to see stories about people of colour, it’s also white people, and that gets left out of the conversation a lot. It’s not just us. Other people want to see it, too.”
I think ultimately most people are decent people at heart and it takes direct contact with people to change that mindset. I guess that’s where movies and TV shows can come in and help
Like (almost) everyone else at the Golden Globes, Best Supporting Actress nominee Hong Chau wore black in solidarity with Time’s Up, the legal fund to support victims of sexual harassment or assault. I’d ask her about it, but we met when she was here for the London Film Festival premiere of Downsizing – seven days after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the news on Harvey Weinstein. The sound recording of Weinstein talking to the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez wouldn’t be released until a few hours after our interview, and the beginning of the fall of the Hollywood old guard was still to come. It was a strange morning to sit in a hotel room interviewing a Hollywood actress about the release of her second-ever film (her first was Inherent Vice), her career just taking off in a place where the ground beneath everyone’s feet is shifting. Her co-star, Matt Damon, hadn’t yet weighed in on the Weinstein effect. #MeToo hadn’t happened. The discussion was not yet entirely sexual assault and the power dynamics of a white male Hollywood; it was, if you looked in the right places, largely about the racial divide in a white male Hollywood.
Chau says that when she read Payne’s script, she had no idea there would be an Asian woman in the cast. As a longtime fan of his work, she was just curious to see what he was up to. “That was a mind-blowing evening when I read it.” She says that she loves strange, quiet films like this one – “Anything that’s offbeat, something we haven’t seen before” – but that the majority of roles for people of colour tend to be the big budget, superhero kind. “In those movies there’s actually a lot of opportunities for up-and-coming actors of colour to jump in there in a supporting role, but I want to hold off on that. I really want to work on characters that have a lot of complexity and you don’t always get that in comic book movies because they’re not character explorations. I have nothing against movies like that, but I do see them as kind of like a cheeseburger. You can’t eat a cheeseburger every day or else you’re going to die. I need variety in my diet and I need to consume other things that feed my soul. It’s nice to have a quiet movie to give you time to meditate on an idea. A lot of movies don’t give you the space to feel anything.”
For her character, Chau tapped into her own experience of being the child of Vietnamese refugees living in New Orleans, where English was her second language and her family was poor. She says that, thanks to her background, she has a different empathy of things, and that it’s harder for others to come from a place of privilege and understand what it’s like on the other side. “People are really upset right now with everything that’s going on,” she says. “There are people who have the same sensibilities as me who cannot understand why or how people hold these racist and very ignorant views. And I’m not giving them a pass, I’m not saying it’s not as bad as it seems, but I just have a different patience for it. I see that it’s a privilege to have access to education, it’s a privilege to have time to read a book, it’s a privilege to have time to go see a movie. If you’re busy working, or you’re just stuck in a small town and you don’t have access to travel... I know it seems like it’s so easy to have access to other people and other cultures and other philosophies and points of view but really time is a privilege.” That divide, that misunderstanding, is what’s exploding the world right now.
“A lot of people will talk about how timely the movie is but I also feel like it’s a timeless movie. They wrote it 10 years ago, without all of the things that are going on in the world,” she says. All of the issues in Downsizing – rampant consumerism, immigration, the possible extinction of the human race, etc – are still here. Hollywood may be changing, but globally everything is the same.
“I think ultimately most people are decent people at heart and it takes direct contact with people to change that mindset. I guess that’s where movies and TV shows can come in and help.”
Downsizing is in cinemas January 19 2018.