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'Downsizing' Presents A Comic Attempt To Solve Climate Change


It starts with good intentions - a Norwegian scientist is searching for a solution to climate change and overpopulation and finds it. Shrink the people, shrink the human footprint on the planet, save humankind. What starts as a noble idea ends up kitschy and commercialized, a way for people to escape the big problems of the big world and live in perfect opulent dollhouse-like leisure communities where luxury items are a fraction of the price because they're a fraction of the size.

That's the premise of the movie "Downsizing," which is already getting awards season buzz around one of its stars, Hong Chau. She was just nominated for Best Supporting Actress for a Golden Globe. Hong Chau joined me earlier this week from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. I started by asking her to tell us about her character in "Downsizing," Ngoc Lan Tran.

HONG CHAU: She is a political dissident who is imprisoned and is involuntarily downsized and ends up in Leisureland, where she meets Matt Damon's character. I loved that - here's this character we normally see in the background and they're not given very much attention in both movies and in life. And finally, we get to see this character in the foreground and driving a movie and driving the narrative in the story. So that was really exciting for me. It felt really personal to me. I felt like my whole life has been in preparation for this role.

SUAREZ: Why do you say that?

CHAU: Well, there's not really a lot of roles that are specifically Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American. I've just never really seen a character that was written specifically for a Vietnamese woman and also had this - came from this walk of life that was so similar to my parents.

SUAREZ: You were born in - of Vietnamese parents in a refugee camp?

CHAU: My parents left Vietnam after the war. They left by boat. And my mom was six months pregnant with me. My older brother was 5. And my dad actually got shot that night by the guards as they were trying to get on the boat. So he was bleeding on a boat for three days. They finally arrived at the refugee camp in Thailand, and that's where I was born. And we ended up in New Orleans, La., because we had a sponsored family. So my character in "Downsizing," her journey is somewhat similar to my parents' journey and how they arrived to the U.S..

SUAREZ: Let's play a clip. This is when Matt Damon's character, Paul Safranek, makes a house call to Ngoc Lan to try to fix her prosthetic leg. He notices the paper decorations all over her apartment walls.


MATT DAMON: (As Paul Safranek) I guess you like butterflies?

CHAU: (As Ngoc Lan Tran) Yes, I like very much. When I little girl, my father, he take me and my sister go see butterfly. Me and my village, they live in the tree. You know, they fly cold place to hot place every year. Stay tree, then go away, come back.

DAMON: (As Paul Safranek) Like migrating butterflies.

CHAU: (As Ngoc Lan Tran) Yes.

DAMON: (As Paul Safranek) That sounds beautiful. How do you say butterfly in Vietnamese?

CHAU: (As Ngoc Lan Tran) Con buom.

DAMON: (As Paul Safranek) Con buom?

CHAU: (As Ngoc Lan Tran) Con buom.

SUAREZ: Your character has very limited English, so you can't always rely on the script to bring Ngoc Lan to life on the camera. Was it difficult to develop a character around working in dialect? Is it hard to do from a craft point of view for an actor?

CHAU: Well, I always like to work on a character from the inside-out versus outside-in. In terms of the accent itself, I really just thought about the character and her position in life and in the world. So I thought about, well, what was her life like in Vietnam before she arrived to Leisureland? Who was this woman? What were her life circumstances? What was her level of education? And then he or she arrives and Leisureland, and she's only been there for, you know, a couple of years, so what would her English be like?

SUAREZ: Have you gotten a lot of static for the accent, the role as a maid, the depiction of an Asian refugee? I mean, has there been feedback that hasn't always been what you wanted to hear?

CHAU: Yeah. It's been tricky because the majority of the criticism has come from, you know, critics who are able to see advanced screenings. Most of them are white. They're male. This character is not necessarily representing any point of view or life experience that they can identify with. I've met so many people who were overjoyed to see this character on screen because either their parents are immigrants who speak with strong accents or they themselves are English as second-language speakers. So those are the people that my character's repping, and they are not necessarily the ones who are going to be online writing reviews. So I am glad that, you know, that they were discussing it, but I do feel that it is misguided and off-base a lot of times.

SUAREZ: In not a long period of time, we've gone from white people playing Asian characters to the notion that any Asian can play any Asian to "Downsizing," where a Vietnamese-American actor plays a Vietnamese character. Is that a kind of progress?

CHAU: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a little bit more complicated than that. Again, going back to the people's objections or critics' objections to my role. It started off by questioning my authenticity, you know. And it kind of felt a little bit like an interrogation. Well, is the actress even Vietnamese? Does she actually speak that way? And those are demands that aren't made of other actors. You know, Christoph Waltz, he is an Austrian playing a Serbian in the movie. No one really brought that up when David Oyelowo was playing Martin Luther King, you know. So for some reason, particularly with Asian actors, you have to be exactly that thing. Those demands aren't made of other actors.

SUAREZ: Well, you've been in the business for a while now, but this has been - I think it's fair to say - a pretty good year for you, right? A Golden Globes nomination for this role, a role in "Big Little Lies" which got a lot of attention when it was running on the first run. A lot of writers are saying you're the one to watch in this movie. Do you feel like you've finally arrived?

CHAU: I don't know if I have arrived, honestly. I just want to, you know, keep my feet on the ground and just work.

SUAREZ: Well, I hope this is a great experience for you and starts your phone ringing even more than usual. Hong Chao, her latest film is "Downsizing." Thanks so much for joining us and have great holidays.

CHAU: Thank you. You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.