Hong Chau on Taking the Lead and Why She Hasn’t Watched Her Acclaimed ‘Forever’ Episode (Exclusive)

American Woman
Greg Middleton

The Oscar-nominated actress steps into her first leading role with two new films debuting at Tribeca Film Festival.

Known for her Oscar-nominated role in Downsizing and her many supporting characters on TV, most recently on Big Little Lies, BoJack Horseman, Forever and Homecoming, Hong Chau is perhaps the screen's biggest and best scene stealer. She's able to make the most out of anything given to her, which is perhaps why she doesn’t put much stock in the fact that her latest films -- American Woman and Driveways -- mark her first leading roles on screen.   

"I approach all of my roles as if they're lead roles," Chau tells ET by phone ahead of the films' back-to-back premieres at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. "If you say I only have two lines, it doesn’t matter. I'm going to deliver those two lines like my life depends on it. I don’t judge a character based on screen time."

With that said, Chau does appreciate the opportunity to play the lead. "It does feel like professional progress, but I want to be careful not to be beholden to career moments," she says, citing friend and The Mary Tyler Moore Show actress Georgia Engel, who died at age 70 on April 12, less than a week before our conversation. 

The two acted in the Annie Baker play John in 2015, marking Engel's first lead role of her career. During a discussion following a performance, Chau remembers someone from the crowd asking if she resented not getting lead roles until the age of 67. Engel said, "No, because it's happening now and it's more beautiful than anything I could have imagined." It's something that stuck with Chau, who says she still thinks about that moment all the time. "I have wants and aspirations, but I don't need to get bogged down about who's getting what," she says.  

The two films, however, will certainly turn heads and lead to more meaty roles, if not leads, in the future. In Driveways, Chau plays a grief-stricken mother who moves with her son into her late sister's house only to discover she was a hoarder. Her son, meanwhile, forges an unexpected friendship with an elderly neighbor played by Brian Dennehy.

Ken Woroner

The performance in that film bookends nicely with American Woman, in which she plays a wholly different character -- this time a 25-year-old former radical who is tasked with caring for three fugitives, one of whom happens to be the kidnapped heiress (Sarah Gadon) of a newspaper magnate. Based on the novel by Susan Choi, the film is a fictionalized account of the real-life woman who spent time with Patricia Hearst after her abduction.   

"The script for American Woman stood out because there was something so sensual about the writing," Chau says of becoming interested in the part after struggling to find work that she wanted to do in the months following filming Downsizing. "Even though it's inspired by a famous event, I didn't know where the story would go." 

While the film is a showcase for Chau's expansive talents, it could have gone a very different way if other people ("I don't know who," she says) had gotten their way. The actress recalls a conversation she had with director Semi Chellas, who got pushback on the idea of a female director taking on a film with two female leads, one of them being played by an Asian actress. Despite the character being Japanese American in real life, Chellas was told to change her to a black character. Instead, she stood firm and kept the characters as they were. "I don't know if everyone -- or another person who was hungry to make their first feature -- would have done the same thing," Chau says with all credit to Chellas.

The incident is just the type of issue facing many in Hollywood, especially when it comes to Asian filmmakers and performers. Despite that, Chau says things have gotten better over the past few years. While she won't go as far as calling it a movement, she does "think it's a change in the culture in terms of what people are wanting." Personally, Chau doesn’t feel like any one person is trying to keep her down, but getting offered something took a while. 

Colleen Hayes

When it comes to her work on TV, she’s been offered more than a few scene-stealing moments. But none of them top the standalone episode of Forever, the Amazon series starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. In "Andre and Sarah," Chau plays a real estate agent whose decades-long romance with another realtor unfolds over the course of a half-hour. Upon its debut, it earned critical acclaim, with Emmy buzz for Chau.

"I'm glad that people seem to like it. Really, I just signed on because of Maya Rudolph. She reached out and said, 'Come do this,'" Chau says of her former Inherent Vice co-star. "It was really nice that she remembered me."

Despite all the praise for the episode, Chau admits she still hasn’t seen it yet. "I've been a little busy, but I also tend to not want to watch myself." Considering she's recently been in Atlanta filming HBO's TV adaptation of The Watchmen, in which she'll play Lady T opposite Regina Hall's Angela Abraham, she gets a pass. 

All showtimes and ticket information can be found here. Check back for ET's ongoing coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival, running April 24 to May 5.