'Downsizing's' Scene-Stealing Actress Hong Chau Defends Her Interpretation Of Refugee Character

Downsizing Matt Damon Hong Chau

Don’t be fooled by the marketing for DOWNSIZING. Kristin Wiig is not the leading lady of Alexander Payne’s latest quirky comedy, DOWNSIZING. That job went to newcomer Hong Chau who plays Vietnamese refuge Ngoc Lan Tran and she steals the show. Chau is playing a leading lady rarely seen in a Hollywood movie -- a character speaking broken English with a thick accent. For her performance as a Vietnamese refugee, Hong Chau received a Golden Globe, SAG, and Critic’s Choice nomination. However, at a recent press conference she found herself defending her choice in playing the character.

In a futuristic world in DOWNSIZING, a Norwegian scientist discovers a way to downsize people as a solution to over-population. Communities of five inch-tall humans live in a place called Leisureland. Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek and his wife played by Kristin Wiig take that leap only to find out the transition doesn’t live up to the hype. At Leisureland, Paul meets dissident Vietnamese refugee and amputee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a housekeeper, who had been downsized against her will and exiled from her country. She forces Paul to experience another downside of the downsized world from the aspect of impoverished immigrants living in a tenement on the other side of a vast, imposing wall.

Downsizing movie Matt Damon Hong Chau

The Vietnamese-American actress laid on a thick accent to play the refugee character. At the Los Angeles press conference with the filmmakers and producers, she revealed her “interpretation” of  Tran was inspired by her Vietnamese parents who were refugees. Yet, a common complaint about her performance was the stereotypical sound of her accent.

“When I look at my parents, I don’t see a stereotype. I see a human being, a full person,” she explains. “I’m not quite sure why people are so flabbergasted to hear her story in an accent in the movie. We’re surrounded by people who speak with accents. We’re a nation of immigrants. They do labor most people don’t want to do.”

Perhaps some audiences are not accustomed to hearing accents on the big or small screen. Hollywood tends to whitewash accents which is why British and Australian actors are often asked to drop their accents for an American one even when it doesn’t matter to the character.

Downsizing Matt Damon Alexander Payne

Hong Chau’s performance in DOWNSIZING is a refreshing twist on a quirky comedy. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne and writer Jim Taylor weren’t thinking of diversity when writing the story.

“We wanted to make this an international movie, and it’s an international problem being addressed, and we’re all humans. We only set out to have a character. What would that character… what would be their experience. How would they react meeting another character? And same for the Serbian. Anyway, we weren’t on a mission…”

Regardless of their intention, it says a lot to go with a character with such a heavy accent to carry the film along with Matt Damon.  

Audiences will most likely be surprised with Hong’s scene-stealing performance since she is nowhere in early trailer previews or television spots.

“She’s going to get the most attention the most from the film, but she’s not known yet. She’s not necessarily a draw. I have insisted in the trailers that they include her.”

Kristin Wiig is being sold as the leading lady in a broad comedy, but will that misdirection hurt the film?

“I’m curious to see how this is going to do commercially for exactly the reason that you’re saying because it fulfills neither the broad comedy expectation nor that of a science fiction film,” says Payne. “It takes a broad comedy premise but goes it’s own social satire, humanist direction. And the movie is kind of crazy. I hope the audience doesn’t hold it against me or that the film delivers something other than what is… but you know.

However, now that the actress is up for three major awards this award season that may have changed. Matt Damon who?

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