Born in a Thai refugee camp to Vietnamese parents, Hong Chau grew up in New Orleans before moving to Boston to study film in college. She signed up for improv class in order to "get out of my shell," she says. "It wasn't with the intention of being an actor." But Chau was encouraged to move to Los Angeles to pursue performing and eventually made her film debut in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice.
"Oh, God. I do not like improv!" she exclaims now. "The takeaway with improv for me is just about genuinely responding in the moment to whatever is being said or done in front of you. But on set, I like to respect the script and the words."
Which has made Chau an ideal collaborator for auteur filmmakers like Alexander Payne (Downsizing) and Darren Aronofsky (The Whale), with forthcoming roles in Kelly Reichardt's Showing Up, Wes Anderson's Asteroid City, and And from Yorgos Lanthimos. This year, she received her first Oscar nomination playing Brendan Fraser's caretaker and confidant in The Whale.
"Most of my career has been just trying to get in the room, trying to get my foot in the door, and feeling like I hadn't been invited yet," Chau says. "What's fulfilling for me is feeling like the room is getting to be more familiar and feeling less like an outsider."
MORE: 'I've Let Go of the Idea of a Perfect Take': How Hong Chau Reinvented Herself for 'The Whale' (Exclusive)
For this list, "I was trying to think in terms of memorable characters, and it ended up being about the female characters," explains the actress. "I often get asked about how I choose roles and that they always seem to be strong women. That word never quite feels right to me. I'm not interested so much in playing strong women as I am gutsy women, who move through the world unaware that the cards are stacked against them. There's a lot of comedic humanity that comes with that type of character. These are the movies that I thought of."
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff | Written by: Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff
I love Thora Birch's character, Enid, in that movie. She's a slacker. She doesn't really know what she wants to be or do, but she has an extremely refined b******t meter and is determined not to live a life of b******t. I think that character is just so funny and so interesting. And she's not a hero. She's not heroic, but that's the type of leading female character that I find really interesting. I've watched that movie a ton, and it's always fun. I love Thora Birch's performance in that. And I think about Enid all the time. I feel some days that I am an Enid.
Directed by: Robert Altman | Written by: Joan Tewkesbury
I don't know when I saw Nashville for the first time; it's one of those movies that feels like it's always been there. It's a perfect example of an amazing ensemble. Every single character gets to have their moment, and there are so many interesting female characters in that movie, and they're all so different. Karen Black, and Ronee Blakley, and Lily Tomlin, who is a sexual being in that movie and I don't think people normally think of Lily Tomlin in that way, but it was just so interesting! And, of course, Shelley Duvall, who's in a lot of Altman movies.
The one that stands out to me is Geraldine Chaplin's character, Opal. She made me laugh every time she appeared in the movie. That type of unaware, comedic work is something that I try to find in the characters that I do. I find that the comedy that works best to me is situational and behavioral comedy as opposed to jokes or one-liners.
Written and directed by: James L. Brooks
Holly Hunter and Joan Cusack are amazing. I was so lucky to get to work with Joan Cusack on the show Homecoming, and I hope I get to work with her again. She is tremendous. I try not to be a fangirl and fawn over people too much when I'm working with them, but I did ask about shooting that scene where she is doing an Olympic triathlon through the hall with that tape. She had so many wonderful things to say about that shooting experience, and it's really nice to hear that — when you enjoy a movie and you also hear that they had a fun time working on it.
She is such a funny person, but also an amazing actor and a scene partner. On Homecoming, I would stand on the side and watch the scenes between her and Chris Cooper, and when she would be off camera doing her part for his coverage, she gave so much. That's the type of actor I always want to be. I always respect those actors who are giving just as much, if not more, when they're not on camera, because they know how important it is for the scene when your partner is also really soaring. And I think Joan Cusack really understands that. She's just amazing. I love her so much.
Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich | Written by: Alvin Sargent
Joan Cusack also told me about the movie What's Up, Doc?, and that led me into another Peter Bogdanovich movie that I love, which is Paper Moon. I love Madeline Kahn. Trixie Delight is just a force of nature and Madeline Kahn is a force of nature. She's somehow able to straddle that line of doing comedy or a comedic character that feels a bit broad, but also grounded. And I don't know how she does it. I really have to study her performances. She's such a spark in everything that she's in.
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa | Written by: Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa
Throne of Blood is not a comedy, but it has a performance that I think about all the time at random moments. I love Toshirô Mifune — he is so sexy and so charismatic — but I feel like the person who runs away with that movie is Isuzu Yamada, who plays Lady Asaji. That is a spellbinding performance. It's something that is haunting, and thrilling, and oddly sexy. It's so scary and threatening, and I can't explain why, but I think about her performance all the time.