Hong Chau's Audition For The Whale Blew Darren Aronofsky Away

Darren Aronofsky's 2022 film "The Whale" has been described as "problematic" by many of its critics. "Problematic" is a word that is more or less the same as "offensive," only amended with smaller, positive qualities lurking therein. Overall, the film's treatment of obesity is badly handled, and its themes are misguided; it's clearly a story of depression and homophobia, but Aronofsky seems to think it's about obesity. Perhaps there is a great, compassionate version of "The Whale" in a parallel universe somewhere, but we certainly didn't get it in ours. 

The above-mentioned positive qualities come from the film's performances. Brendan Fraser won an Academy Award for playing the self-hating writing teacher Charlie, and Hong Chau was nominated for her role as Liz, Charlie's nurse and one of his only friends. Indeed, Liz is the only person in Charlie's life that seems to like him, including Charlie. Chau's performance lends "The Whale" whatever shreds of recognizable humanity it possesses, saving the film from being 100% misery porn. Many viewers who weren't already fans of Chau's became fans after seeing her in "The Whale." And, indeed, one of her biggest fans seems to have been Aronofsky himself. 

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Chau revealed that she didn't want to take part in "The Whale" at first, but that Aronofsky really wanted her in his movie. Chau sent in an audition tape, and Aronofsky was startled not just by the quality of her performance, but her understanding of basic things like blocking and camera angles. Chau, Aronofsky felt, was already something of a director herself. That was all he needed to cast her in his movie.

The audition tape

Hong Chau recalled reading the script for "The Whale," and initially disliking it, but found that she was unable to stop thinking about it. She finally agreed to mail in an audition tape. This was around December of 2020, only a month after he first daughter was born. As new parents can attest, looking after a newborn robs parents of sleep, and Chau was feeling completely exhausted when she committed her scene to memory. She explained:

"They had asked for three scenes, but my baby was not a good sleeper, and I was just really tired. [...] Just the act of committing that monologue to memory and figuring out everything that needed to be done just took so much energy."

Perhaps it was her lack of energy that appealed to Darren Aronofsky. Or perhaps Chau is such a naturally gifted performer her fatigue wasn't an issue. Regardless, Aronofsky saw what she had committed to film and was astonished at how well it looked. Notably, he loved that Chau bothered to block the scene. He recalled:

"It was remarkable because not only was she great, but she actually used the camera to block the scene. And we're talking about a camera on a tripod, so the camera was still, but the way she moved in and out was exactly what the text suggested. [...] I was like, 'Oh, not only is she an actor, but she's clearly a director as well, because she's thinking about how to work with the camera.' So that was really impressive."

As of this writing, Chau has not directed any shorts or features.

Chau's ascendency

Between her role as Liz in "The Whale," her performance as the snippy maître d' in "The Menu," and her leading Kelly Reichardt's "Showing Up" at Cannes (the film is due out in theaters on April 7, 2023), 2022 was a banner year for Hong Chau. Chau's star had been rising since her first film, "Inherent Vice," in 2014. She has gone on to act for Alexander Payne in "Downsizing," appeared in the excellent small-town drama "Driveways," and will soon appear in Wes Anderson's new film "Asteroid City." 

Viewers may chalk Chau's success up to her talents, but she maintains that good fortune played a large role as well. "It was just amazing luck," she said, "the projects that came during that time." Sometimes, a series of amazing projects just land in front of you all at once. Working with many well-established directors became an outcropping of that luck. 

Darren Aronofsky, meanwhile, continued to sing her praises, describing Chau as "just incredibly brave and bold, and fearless and excited and smart." Chau is scheduled to appear in Dog Liman's next movie, "The Instigators," a crime caper about thieves going on the lam with a therapist. She will also appear in Yorgos Lanthimos' upcoming anthology film "And," the movie with the least Google-able name in history. Perhaps appealingly, Chau hasn't yet appeared in a large-scale effects-based blockbuster, notwithstanding an excised voice role in Kenneth Branagh's "Artemis Fowl." Given the shape of modern Hollywood, it will only be a matter of time before "Star Wars" comes knocking.

Whatever Chau chooses to do, however, she will likely continue to astonish.