February 5, 2023

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Hong Chow on ‘The Menu’, ‘The Whale’ and his career struggles

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Hong Chow learned a valuable lesson working on his first film “Inherent Vice”.

Playing a massage parlor employee in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 comedy, Chow appeared ready for his big on-camera moment only to have his shoot pushed back days after production pushed a cast schedule that included everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Reese Witherspoon. And to Josh Brolin.

“I somehow managed to get myself from day one to the end,” says Chow. But it gave him an incredible education in film acting. “I saw our best actors come in and do what they do, and I really liked people who would do something different with each take,” she recalls.

Chow continued to use that approach in his later work – giving his directors extensive line readings and feedback whenever they called for “action”. And it’s resulted in a string of performances of extraordinary versatility, becoming stars that, if there’s any justice, could land Chow in the thick of the Oscar race (he just received a Screen Actors Guild nomination).

In 2022, Chau began playing a self-confessed artist in Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up”, which premiered at Cannes. He followed that up with a disturbing turn as a nurse desperately trying to save, or at least stabilize, his terminally obese friend (played by Brendan Fraser) in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.” And Chow capped it off with a sizzling supporting role as Elsa with one of the best coiffures in movie history in Marc Mild’s “The Menu.” Chowie pushes Mildred into his character to get his memorable savage bangs and a bun.

“In the script, the only description of my character was that she was a serious Scandinavian woman, which is clearly not me,” says Chow. So, he decided that in order to play her, he wanted to give Elsa a haircut that caught the audience’s attention. “I needed something that jumped out at you,” Chow says

Chow’s hot streak doesn’t seem to be cooling off anytime soon. Next up are projects with Yorgos Lanthimos and Wes Anderson β€” he’s hesitant to divulge any details about the tight, secretive films.

“I planned everything impeccably,” Chow jokes. The succession of exhibition turns came at a point where Chow said he took a more laid-back approach to career planning. “I don’t think I’m really pushing for anything,” she says. “I’m not calling my agent on the phone.”

But Chow says the change in fortunes stemmed from the industry’s reaction to his work as a political dissident in 2017’s “Downsizing,” the Alexander Penn comedy that earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

“Before that movie came out, I was struggling to even walk into the room just to get an audition,” she says. “Now, most of these movies are being offered to me because their directors have seen me in something else.”

In fact, when his agent first approached him about “Whale,” Chow said he wasn’t interested. She was just about to have her first child and she wasn’t sure she was ready for such a dark story. But good sense prevailed, and he found himself in upstate New York, going toe-to-toe with Fraser. As Liz, the nurse who has personal reasons for trying to keep Fraser’s character alive, Chow is a tangle of contradictions – sympathetic, but fragile; Compassionate, yet angry; Both a caretaker and an enabler who feeds her friend fast food even as she tells him to take good care of himself.

“The lease is not straightforward,” Chow says. β€œAnd that’s what I love to play. I like characters that can’t be pinned down easily.”

To get herself in the right headspace, Chow drew on her recent experiences visiting hospitals and interacting with nurses while pregnant. He remembered how some of them had elaborate piercings and tattoos and decided that Liz would rock a similar look. So every day, the back of his neck and both arms are tattooed by one of “The Whale’s” makeup artists.

“You don’t really see them on screen,” Chow says. “It was just for me, but taking time with those little details really helps.”

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