When Downsizing came out, people said—and they meant this as a compliment—wow, where did you come from? Like I’ve been hiding, not wanting to be discovered. I’ve been right here, assholes.
Following her breakout—and groundbreaking, where visibility for Asian actors are concerned—turn in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing in 2017, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Hong Chau returns with a leading role in Andrew Ahn’s modest character study drama Driveways. The film is also bookended by Chau’s run on HBO’s critically acclaimed miniseries Watchmen, and on the road to the second season of Amazon’s Homecoming as well as Kenneth Branagh’s sci-fi epic, Artemis Fowl, which arrives on Disney+ this summer.
Driveways follows Kathy (Chau), a single mother, who, with her young son, Cody (Lucas Jaye), travel to upstate New York one summer to begin the onerous task of cleaning out her recently-deceased sister’s home before putting it on the market. But what Kathy believed would be a short affair gets much more complicated upon learning—a little too late, and after years of estrangement—that her sister was a severe hoarder. Now Kathy struggles to make sense of what’s been left behind. Luckily, she finds some relief in her new taciturn neighbor, Del (Brian Dennehy), a widowed, Korean War veteran well into his autumn years, who takes an interest in little Cody. A fast—and perhaps unlikely—friendship blossoms between them, with Del rescuing Cody from the pre-adolescent terrorism of two neighborhood boys with whom he cannot connect.
Chau’s Kathy is that rare representation of a single mom in film who is flawed yet not terrible, and doing her best without entirely self-sacrificing. That she’s Asian-American in a complex role and at the center of the action is all the more unusual. Kathy is resourceful. She has fortitude. There are crude edges to Kathy. Chau’s spiky and unsentimental, but ultimately warm portrayal is one of the film’s richly detailed pleasures, which rightfully gifted the actress with her second Film Independent Spirit Award nomination this year for Best Female Lead—after picking up the Robert Altman Award for her ensemble work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice in 2015.
We have certainly walked these streets before in other slice-of-life movies. But there’s magic to the goodness on display in Driveways, a confident film brimming with small moments of kindness—about intergenerational empathy, about interracial friendship—that never seems to go out of style.
Driveways arrives on VOD on May 7th.
Where are you now, Hong? How have you been adjusting to the strange times we’re in?
I’m good! In the last year or two, I’ve been mulling the idea of leaving Los Angeles and moving somewhere else. But I’m really grateful to be here during this time because our state and local government is taking this pandemic seriously and working really hard to keep everyone safe. They’ve closed the beaches and hiking trails, but it’d be crazy to complain. The weather is great here. I take walks around the neighborhood. Strangers say hello now, more than they did pre-pandemic. I read on the front lawn with my dog. I just finished Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. I highly recommend it. Someone walked by as I was reading and said, “That’s a really good book!” So I’m not the only one who thinks this.
Going into Driveways, I expected pronounced racial tensions to arise between Kathy and her new neighbors because that’s how these stories so often unfold. The subject of race is conspicuously absent. I understand that Kathy and Cody weren’t originally written to be Asian-Americans. Did the script go through any major changes prior to filming?
You are correct. The characters were not specifically Asian-American in the script. I would not have signed on to the project if Kathy and Cody were two dimensional characters, who existed only to experience racism, so that some broad, clunky message that racism is bad could be delivered. There were script tweaks that I requested prior to filming. Nothing major. I remember asking for a more specific nickname for my kid. There was a lot of “sweetie” and “honey” in the script. I don’t have children, but with my dog, I have a dozen nicknames for him. So I came up with “Professor” because I wanted something specific to this mother and child. I also didn’t want to call him sweetie or honey because I didn’t want to give the impression that Cody was the way he was because Kathy babied him. There were a couple of lines that, for lack of a better word, felt white to me. I’d run it by Andrew before we changed it. To be clear, I don’t enjoy doing that. I also dislike improv and paraphrasing on set. I respect writers, and I believe in rising to the challenge of what’s been created. Changes should only be done when it’s necessary for the character, not out of convenience to the actor.
Growing up in Minnesota, there was an elderly white lady who I played Scrabble with after school. She would make my sister and I rice pudding. Cody and Del’s sweet, and perhaps what would be considered unconventional, friendship feels true to life. What was your experience like growing up in New Orleans?
Oh, that sounds like a great time. I love Scrabble. Yeah. Maybe for easier marketing and critique purposes, Cody and Del’s relationship is described as “unconventional” or “unlikely.” But, I agree with you. Their relationship is more likely and believable than most friendships I see on TV and in movies. My parents worked a lot. I had several teachers throughout my childhood who went above and beyond their normal duties. I remember I won a regional writing contest in elementary school. I was invited to a ceremony where all the kids would read their winning pieces and receive ribbons and certificates. But it was on a weekend and my parents were working. So two of my teachers picked me up from my house, took me to a buffet lunch, and then sat through the ceremony. That’s not quite the same as having an elderly neighbor who makes you pudding, but I enjoyed hanging out with my teachers way more than kids my age.
I also appreciate how much dimension your character has. Kathy is no shrinking violet. She is blunt, no-nonsense—a straight shooter. There is of course tragedy to her also, in her unresolved guilt about her sister’s secret hoarding. Kathy is a caring and loving mother. Did you model her after anyone in particular?
Thank you. I love children, but it makes my skin crawl when I’m around parents who coddle their kids. So I don’t think I could play a character who does that. My parents did not dote on me. I think it was mainly because they were so busy working. But I also think it was because I was their only girl, and they didn’t want to raise a wimp. So fast forward a few decades, I gravitate to female characters who aren’t wimps.
Andrew [Ahn] is so proactive about being inclusive, as a torchbearer for Asian representation in film. That’s true of Driveways, but also with Spa Night [Ahn's debut feature], where you have gay on top of Asian. He went on the record to say that he thought you would turn this role down when he offered it to you. What convinced you to say yes? When do you become convinced that a filmmaker’s intentions are irrefutably genuine and true?
Oh, I did not know that. Poor guy had no idea I was already a fan. There are filmmakers who, at the beginning of their careers, make something commercial, or for broad appeal, thinking they’ll circle back around to making something personal. They never do. And there are filmmakers who start with something personal, get wooed into making something for hire, and you never get them back. Andrew Ahn is that rare young filmmaker who is bravely following his own artistic compass. When I say “personal” I don’t mean autobiographical. I could care less whether a film is based on something that actually happened to you. When I say personal I mean in your unique voice. I’ve seen plenty of sensitive indie films, but when I watched Spa Night, I felt a cinematic voice. That’s why I wanted to work with Andrew. Yes, Andrew is Asian. But I’ve turned down scripts from other Asian American filmmakers because their voice is unclear to me.
You said something interesting once in an interview. This is not verbatim: You don’t want to know how your co-stars feel about your character. Is that because that could muddy up your interpretation?
No. I just don’t find it useful to discuss. Just as I don’t want to hear people’s opinions about me in real life, I don’t care to know what anyone thinks about my character. And they’re usually wrong. It’s like… you can read someone’s profile online—a dating profile, a Facebook page, whatever—and still have no idea what this person is actually like in real life. I think the most interesting thing about watching a human being is behavior. I pay attention to what their eyes are saying, what their body is saying. Not so much what their lips are saying.
Andrew said he was surprised by how good you are at the Big Buck Hunters arcade game while filming Driveways. He wants to write an action film for you. Would you explore that?
If he’s being sincere, he’d better get on it! My cartilage is not getting any younger. Yes, I’m open to doing something physical. That would be so fun.
It was interesting to learn that you had first majored in creative writing at Boston University before switching to film studies. From what I understand, your parents thought the latter was more practical. What did you want to do before acting became a path forward? Looking at your past credits, I wonder if you had aspirations in journalism or documentary filmmaking.
Like most teenagers, I did not know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Yes, I did initially think I would major in creative writing. But I don’t know how fruitful that would have been. I don’t think I would have ended up as a writer. I’m a good reader though. That helps when you’re an actor. There are actors who aren’t good readers and that always surprises me.
How different were your prospects before and after Downsizing? Was there a seismic change?
Yes and no. I’m sure it looks different from the outside. But my career has been slow, incremental. I started off doing background work in New York. I went on a bunch of open calls I found in Backstage. I showed up at random apartments for auditions I found on Craigslist. I did some non-union jobs. I met a director who told me, “You don’t sing or dance. You should move to LA yesterday.” So I did. I booked my first co-star role within my first couple months here, and I thought I’d be on a lucky streak. Then the writers’ strike happened and I didn’t book anything for another year, maybe two. I did network showcases. I got Taft-Hartley’d into SAG. Eventually I got a recurring role on Treme. Two years went by. I got a small part in my first feature film Inherent Vice. A year later I got my first off-Broadway play John. A year later I got Downsizing. It was a year and a half from when we wrapped to when the movie premiered. All that took ten years. Ten years. A question I dread during Q&As is about advice: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you give someone just starting out? It took me ten years. I don’t know. But I wanted to keep pursuing it, even when I was lost and miserable.
I understand that you’re a big moviegoer and a real fan of independent cinema. You even went to the local theater to watch movies on your downtime on Driveways. What do you think has permanently changed that we can’t go back to in regards to production and distribution?
Courage. It’s become harder and harder to find.
With the pandemic and the subsequent closure of theaters, Artemis Fowl is now set to premiere on Disney+. How do you feel about that? Have you seen the finished film?
I’m actually not appearing in Artemis Fowl. I got a nice letter from Kenneth Branagh informing me that they changed quite a bit of the story, so they had to cut the part I filmed. It’s alright because it was just a cameo and I had a good time. I would work for Mr. Branagh again in a heartbeat. I’m still in the trailer, for some reason. The director usually has nothing to do with the making and editing of the trailer. Most people don’t know that.
You’re one of our few leading Asian actors working in Hollywood. Is that something you’re always conscious of, and does that color the choices you make with projects and roles?
When Downsizing came out, people said—and they meant this as a compliment—wow, where did you come from? Like I’ve been hiding, not wanting to be discovered. I’ve been right here, assholes. Similarly, I’ve always been Asian. I’ve never not wanted to play an Asian. I’ve never wanted to subvert expectations or turn a stereotype on its head. It’s not interesting to me. It’s actually a cop out, a way to avoid reality. I caught some flak for my role in Downsizing. But I don’t want to wear Victorian costumes and speak British. I don’t want to play characters who deflect hardship and discrimination like teflon because they possess uncommon wealth and elegance. Sometimes you hear different from other actors. I think there are a lot of Asian Americans who feel very insecure about how they present to other people. Being Asian, a woman, gay, whatever, is not a limitation. You cannot wake up every morning feeling like the world is against you. And you cannot convince me that I have to act out of fear because someone, somewhere is going to make fun of me or someone who looks like me. I will always choose projects based on my interest in a script or the filmmaker. What kinds of opportunities I get is not entirely up to me.
During press for Downsizing people would ask, “How do you think things are going in Hollywood for Asians and people of color? Do you think the industry is changing?” It was my second movie ever. It’s like asking a McDonald’s employee, “How do you think the economy’s going? What do you think we should do to fix the economy?” Burden is a choice. I have made a choice to not do certain things. I didn’t try to cultivate a following on social media. I didn’t present myself as the inspirational voice of Asian America. I didn’t try to befriend journalists and critics. I turned down some roles in big franchises. People will advise you that those are smart things to do. I just don’t want to. They have nothing to do with acting. If I get offered something, I know that it’s because they’re excited about me as an actor. Not because I have a million followers. Not because I’m a media darling. Not because I was in a movie that filled some corporate coffers. I think that’s why you end up seeing people in roles that don’t really suit them. They get hot, but almost as quickly, they get cold.