Up-and-coming actress Hong Chau immigrated to the United States from Vietnam with her family as a child and grew up in Louisiana, mainly in New Orleans. She attended Boston University, where she fell into acting, and had the good fortune of returning to her hometown to work on the HBO series Treme for three seasons, in the recurring role of Linh. Last year, she landed her first series regular role on the NBC romantic comedy A to Z, playing Lora, a sourpuss techie at an online dating company. She also made her feature film debut as massage parlor vixen Jade in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog.
Hong Chau: I can turn it on, I guess. I grew up there. Some people say I don’t have an accent, but I feel like I kind of do. I watched a lot of TV growing up. My parents didn’t speak English. So I didn’t model on them. So I guess the way I sound is a mixture of watching a lot of TV and the way my friends’ parents sounded.
Did you ever consider changing your name to something more Americanized? No. I fought hard against that as a kid. I think my best friend in third grade tried to change my name to Helen, and I just never responded to it.
Is it harder to be an Asian actor? It’s hard for everybody across the board. I don’t feel like I have anything new to add with respect to the lack of opportunity or quality of roles for people who aren’t white, male and heterosexual. Right now, I think it’s better for me just to do good work and have other people decry the unfairness.
When you arrived at BU, what was something about Boston that struck you as weird? I wasn’t prepared for how many affluent kids I’d be going to school with. That was a shocker. BU is a huge school, but it was really obvious. In Louisiana, you obviously have your rich white people, but for some reason, they’re different up north. I remember doing catering work at the Algonquin Club and the Somerset Club, and I was like, “This is a different type of old rich white person than I’ve ever encountered.”
So what did you get out of BU? It’s funny. Absolutely nothing against BU, but if I had to do it over, I’d probably skip college altogether, because I didn’t really get too much out of it, and I would have liked to just start in life. The things I liked most about my college years were the internships I did and part-time jobs. I learned more from those.
Thing you liked best about Boston? There were so many. I don’t know anything about baseball, but I really liked going to Fenway. I liked the Garment District. The Brattle. I like the novelist Richard Yates a lot, so I thought it was pretty cool that Crossroads, where he hung out, was right down the road.
What made you realize that acting was your future? Believe it or not, it was relatively recent. I didn’t grow up wanting to be an actor. I did a little bit in college, acting in my friends’ student films. But then I started taking improv classes, and then I just randomly started to go on auditions thinking I’d get a commercial. Stupid me—I didn’t see a lot of Asian actors, so I thought there weren’t a lot of Asian actors, instead of a lack of roles.
You pretty much had immediate success right out of the starting gate. It’s kind of funny. I actually haven’t auditioned much, and I’ve been very lucky in the roles I have gotten. People always say you get the roles you’re meant to get, which is kind of stupid, like the saying “Everything happens for a reason.” I prefer the saying “Shit happens.” But I don’t know how I ended up getting the roles I did. I’m just thankful for it.
Are you as much of a computer whiz as your A to Z character? Not at all. I prefer paper and pencil. I don’t like to use the calendar on my phone. I don’t even like to talk on the phone. I’d much rather have brunch with people, see them in person. I hate getting texts that say, “What’s up?” If you want to know, let’s go grab coffee.
You’re cast as a pretty tough cookie. Do you see yourself that way? There’s probably a little bit of me in everything that I do. I guess appearance-wise, I seem like a pretty pleasant person, but I can have some pretty unpleasant thoughts about people.
Three things you can’t live without? My dog, coffee and hot baths.
What’s more appealing: a leading role or being a part of an ensemble? I like being part of an ensemble, and those are the kind of things I like to watch, too. I really like supporting actors. I watch TV differently because I am an actor. I’ll watch something for that actor who has one or two lines, playing a cop or a waitress. Those are actually really hard roles. And I always think about those people’s families huddled around their television.
Show you never miss? There’s a lot of great TV right now. I love The Americans on FX, Orange Is the New Black, New Girl…those are my current shows, I think.
Role you’re dying to play? I’d really like to do something in the sci-fi or fantasy genre where there are no boundaries.
Role you didn’t get that you wish you had? Any role I auditioned for and didn’t get, when I saw it afterward, I never had any remorse. It always made sense why I didn’t get it, or I was happy that I didn’t.
Biggest audition disaster? [Laughs] I don’t sing or dance, but when I was starting out, I would look at the casting notices in Backstage magazine. I once went to an open call for a musical. They were taping all the auditions. I quickly learned a song and went in, and it was horrible. It’s on tape somewhere, and hopefully it will never get out.
Fantasy love scene partner? I don’t like even watching love scenes, because I know what goes into them. My first was on Treme, and I just look at them very differently now. They’re so technical, and they’re so long and awkward, no matter how comfortable you are with the other actor. It’s just weird. So I guess I’ll say a dog. I’d love to make out with a dog on camera. [Laughs]
So was Treme personal for you? It was amazing. That role just kind of came out of the blue, and people always ask if they plucked me off the street, or out of the swamp, and gave me that role. I actually auditioned for it while I was out in Los Angeles, and I would fly back to New Orleans to work on it, which was great, because I grew up there. Every location where we shot was somewhere I’d been to as a kid. All the restaurants and neighborhoods were familiar.
Did they know beforehand that you were from New Orleans? No, I don’t think so, because I didn’t meet anyone. I put myself on tape, and I found out a week or two later that I got the role. I flew to New Orleans without speaking to a single person involved in the production, which is pretty bizarre.
Who’s hotter: Joaquin Phoenix or Josh Brolin? I think most women of a certain age would say Josh Brolin, but Joaquin is really, really funny. I always make an animal analogy. There’s something so feral about him, and it’s great.
Would you ever do full-frontal nudity? I think I offered it up on Inherent Vice, but I don’t think anybody wants to see my naked body. [Laughs]
Director you’re dying to work with? Paul Thomas Anderson again. I’d work with Wes Anderson, too. I like Pedro Almodovar, although I don’t speak Spanish. Ang Lee is great. There are so many.
Worst part of being on set? It happens before getting on set. I hate going to wardrobe fittings. You have to strip down naked in front of this person you just met, who may or may not be cool. You may or may not have groomed yourself. And people are always giving me chicken cutlets to stuff in the side of my bra. It’s just not fun.
Do you think you have to be a good liar to be a good actor? No. I think being naïve and innocent is a better way, because you can trick yourself into believing that all these circumstances are real. So I guess being good at lying to yourself is a plus.