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Hong Chau on Criticism of ‘The Whale’ and Why She Feels “Nothing” About Her Oscar Nomination



Hong Chau says that her past experiences with awards runs have left her feeling “nothing” about her 2023 Oscars nomination for best supporting actress.

In an interview with The Independent, The Whale and Downsizing actress opened up about the pressures and promises of awards season, as well as the criticisms that have faced both of the big screen awards contenders.

Chau says that in the case of Downsizing, the 2017 Paramount Pictures film in which she co-stars with Matt Damon, the awards buzz around her performance was incredibly strong — with people on set even describing an Oscars honor as a sure thing. But the nomination “didn’t happen” and instead she spent much of the film’s press run tackling criticisms around the movie’s Vietnamese representation.

“I said to myself, ‘I don’t ever want to go through this again,'” she recalls. “So now, when people ask how it feels to be nominated, it’s strange. I really feel nothing. If I can be completely honest, it’s more like, ‘Oh dear.’”

She adds that it’s also been a difficult situation for her as a performer because her entire career has “been about struggle. So I don’t really know who I am now.”

Chau scored her 2023 Oscars nomination for her role in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which follows a reclusive, bigger-bodied gay man and English teacher who is trying to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter. Like Downsizing, the film has faced critical backlash for its onscreen portrayal of someone from a historically underrepresented group. The film, which stars best actor nominee Brendan Fraser, has faced accusations of fatphobia for how it addresses its leading character and its contentious use of a fat suit.

For Chau, being proud of the film and open to criticism around its portrayal is not a mutually exclusive thing. “We know on our end how we felt about it. But I think it doesn’t hurt to also listen to people who’ve been frustrated with [Hollywood’s] depiction of obesity,” she said. “How they feel about it is totally valid. You can be proud of it and be open to criticism.”

As for the criticism she faced for portraying Vietnamese cleaner Ngoc Lan in Downsizing — critiques that likened her portrayal and accent to a racist caricature — the actress says she wished that a little more time could have been spent celebrating the chance for a character like her to be a lead on the big screen.

“It was the first time we’d ever seen a person with an accent — who was from a very working-class background and who didn’t have a college education — be the female lead of a big studio movie,” she explained. “I just wished that whatever people’s little qualms were about the film or my performance, that they could have acknowledged that a little bit more.”

Chau also said much of the criticism “was so off base” and wasn’t coming from people — including fellow Asians — who would have most identified with the character, the “Asian working class and the poor,” like her own parents. They fled their country during the Vietnam war and worked for years in manual labor.

“I felt like the people who were really harping on the accent and her place within society… [came] from a more privileged background. Nobody went and asked what the ladies who work at the nail salon [thought about it], or the people who worked in the kitchens of all of these restaurants,” she said. “Any time you’re getting an opinion about Asian Americans, it’s usually coming from a very wealthy, educated Asian person who has a very different background from what I grew up with.”

And because so much focus had been placed on the representation conversation — and having Chau answer for it — she at one point even considered that “it might be OK to just sort of peace out” and stop acting.

“It felt like [all the questions] were about identity and representation and the accent,” she noted. “I never felt like people thought I was an actor who was making choices.”

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