To be a fan of Homecoming and Watchmen is to be a fan of Hong Chau. Viewers saw a whole other side of the Vietnamese-American actor as Audrey in the most recent season of the acclaimed psychological thriller, and as Lady Trieu in the superhero drama. Her latest project, American Woman, based off the eponymous novel by Susan Choi, is now available to rent on digital platforms. The film has its Canadian connections (it premiered at TIFF last fall and is directed by Semi Chellas, a Calgary-born filmmaker) but the story is undeniably American. Chau plays Jenny, a political activist in the Patty Hearst-era 1970s, who helps keep a group of wanted fugitives stay hidden from the Feds as they write a provocative book.
We reached Chau via email and asked her about her prep for the role, her affinity for politically charged stories and her connection to the character of Jenny.
What drew you to American Woman?
An excellent script is my catnip. There are so many bad to mediocre scripts that when I read one that’s good, it only takes me a few pages to recognize it. I knew I wanted to do American Woman after maybe just fifteen pages into the script.
How did you prepare for the role?
I’d say our film is a very faithful adaptation of Susan Choi’s novel. It’s also titled American Woman and was one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2004. We were not doing a biopic, so I didn’t do the typical actor homework. I relied heavily on the novel as a character bible. I read it several times before filming, which wasn’t hard because it’s gorgeously written. My character Jenny is very internal. Even though I’m the lead and the story is from Jenny’s point of view, I actually had the least amount of dialogue in the script. What I struggled with wasn’t trying to be authentic to the real woman who inspired my character or even to the time period, but to figure out what my character was thinking and feeling in the moment. Often before filming a scene, I’d re-read the portion of the book it was directly drawn from. This is the second film I’ve done that was adapted from a novel. My first was Inherent Vice, and my approach to that character was completely different because she was such a funny little ham that I didn’t need to constantly go back to the book.
Did you know a lot about the Patty Hearst affair prior to filming?
Honestly, I knew about Patty Hearst on a very shallow, pop cultural level. In very broad strokes like Charlie Manson. The sensationalism that endures doesn’t really interest me, but I find pondering the psychology of fellowship interesting.
Was there anything you learned that surprised you?
Asian-American activism during the ’60s and ’70s is something we still know very little about. I was stunned that I had never heard of Wendy Yoshimura before, even as a trivia footnote.
How did you connect with your character, Jenny?
I connected to her in a lot of ways. She’s Japanese American and I’m Vietnamese American, but I felt a kinship. She was born in Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp located four hours northeast of Los Angeles. I was born in a Thai refugee camp. We both grew up a healthy skepticism of the American dream. We are both quick to recognize hypocrisy in a system, but not quick to punish or condemn individuals.
What was it like working with Semi Chellas?
I adore Semi as a person and would love to find something else for us to work on. I’ve never been on a set where every single member of the crew was rooting for the director. I mean, the love was oozing out of their pores. Semi’s been working as a writer-producer for many years now, and she’s collected a lot of fans along the way. Most of our crew and some of our cast were just friends who came to support her on her first feature film. It was a wildly supportive set.
Previous roles you have taken on have also been political or addressed social issues in some way (for example, your roles in Downsizing and Homecoming). How does it feel to have this film premiere during this time, when demands for social change are rampant?
We filmed this two years ago and Semi and I would talk at length about how immediate and relevant it felt even then. We didn’t have thousands of people out protesting in the streets, but this feeling of being fed up was in the air. Naturally, that feeling becomes something you must act upon. What’s the right way to protest? How does change actually happen? Some people didn’t like or didn’t understand why some of the recent protests resulted in property damage. But can you deny that it got the attention of authorities? That struggle is the foundation of American Woman, and it will always be relevant because there’s always going to be injustice and inequity in the world that we have to figure out how to address. Revolutions will always be messy and confusing because it involves human beings who are emotional and flawed.
What attracts you to certain roles and scripts these days?
I’m open to anything, but, where I am now, I’m really hoping to be challenged and surprised when I read a script. I’d like to finish it and feel a little scared that I don’t know exactly how to approach the role.
What have you been up to in this quarantine period? Watching/reading/listening to anything?
The news! I cannot stop reading and watching what’s going on. What wild times we are living through. I don’t want to look away. To give my eyeballs a break, I like to go outside. I just took a physically distant walk with Semi yesterday. We started off in the park and loads of people were exercising. This is L.A., so they had weights and balls and all sorts of things. That inspired us to get donuts and coffee. I introduced Semi to a place that has vegan donuts that actually taste like donuts. They exist!
Do you have any projects coming up that we can look forward to?
The industry is on hold right now, so I’m just waiting at home like everyone else. There’s talk that production can maybe start back up later this summer or fall, but we’ll see. The rising number of COVID hospitalizations doesn’t bode well for that. Fortunately, I have four projects out this year. Two television shows – Watchmen on HBO and Homecoming on Amazon – and two feature films — Driveways and American Woman. The characters are very different from each other, so if you only know me from Downsizing, there’s plenty of new stuff floating out there.
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