Hong Chau interview: ‘The Whale’
Before being cast in “The Whale” opposite Brendan Fraser actress Hong Chau wasn’t really familiar with the “George of the Jungle” star’s beloved resume of ‘90s and ‘00s box office hits. But, she tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview, the blind spots ended up being for the best.
“I knew Brendan’s seriousness as an actor instantaneously from the first table read and that is really what made me like him: that desire and that hunger to do the work and to be completely vulnerable,” she says. Not knowing his older films, Chau adds, “allowed me the opportunity to just meet him as he is and to start from there. He’s just a really special human being, Brendan Fraser. He just radiates kindness and warmth and gentility. And a lot of times you make allowances for actors, because oh, they’re having a hard day or a hard time with the material. But I never saw that with him. It was just remarkable.”
Chau isn’t Fraser’s only fan, of course. Based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who adapted his stage work for the screen, “The Whale” has given Fraser a career resurgence this year. His performance as Charlie, a morbidly obese man who tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) in the final days of his life, has received emotional standing ovations at film festivals around the world and made Fraser a top awards contender in the Best Actor category. As Charlie’s best friend and co-dependent confidant Liz, Chau has similarly earned top marks for her work, and many awards pundits think the 43-year-old actress could receive her first Oscar nomination for the film as well.
“I was very hesitant about taking it on initially because I had just become a mother and I was very happy to stay at home and I was not itching to go back to work,” she says about “The Whale,” which was directed by Darren Aronofsky. “But it was really thinking about the story and Charlie’s struggle to reconnect with his daughter that I found so heartbreaking.”
“The Whale” puts its cast through an emotional wringer – particularly Fraser, who wears a prosthetic suit to play the 600-pound Charlie. The makeup and mechanics of the suit took hours each day to apply to Fraser, but Chau says he never once complained.
“I dealt with a prosthetic a little bit on ‘Downsizing,’ because my character was an amputee in that movie. And so I had that experience of having people buzzing around while I was trying to focus and prepare before they call to action,” she says. “Just watching Brendan having to go through that, but 100 times worse… he was so beautiful with everyone who was working around him. He never closed himself off. It wasn’t like he went inside himself and just was quiet the whole time. He was still receptive and present. And I found that so remarkable. And I will take that with me on every project because it’s like, there’s no excuse for you. Because if Brendan Fraser could do what he did, then there’s no excuse for you to be a jerk right now. He’s just an outstanding human being and a first-rate actor in terms of professionalism.”
Since making her film debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 comedy “Inherent Vice,” Chau has worked with a murderer’s row of top filmmakers, including Aronofsky, Alexander Payne (“Downsizing”), Kelly Reichardt (2023’s “Showing Up”), Wes Anderson (2023’s “Asteroid City”) and Yorgos Lanthimos (the upcoming “AND”). This year, in addition to “The Whale,” she also received acclaim for her supporting performance in Mark Mylod’s “The Menu,” which has become a sleeper hit at the box office.
“I’m just really happy. All of the movies that I’ve done are really hard movies to make. They’re a really hard sell – not your straightforward films that are going to be blockbusters,” she says of her career so far. “So I’m just so thrilled whenever people respond positively to them.”
Of “The Whale,” she notes that it was hard for even Aronofsky – a former Best Director nominee who has a strong track record of success – to get the film made. It took the “Black Swam” filmmaker 10 years to bring the story to the screen. “I’m just really happy that it’s making an impact, and that people see how special it is and the performance that Brendan Fraser gives in it,” she says. When Aronofsky finally showed her the finished project, Chau says it hit even harder than she expected – especially because of her own daughter.
“I watched it with my brothers for the first time and I came home and I was saying to [my daughter], ‘You’re wonderful. You’re amazing,’” she says. “It does hit you differently as a parent.”
“The Whale” is out in theaters now.