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Boston University alumna Hong Chau on ‘Showing Up’ and life beyond her Oscar nomination

Hong Chau as the artist and landlord Jo in "Showing Up."Allyson Riggs/A24 via AP

Hong Chau, 43, studied film at Boston University but had no plans of becoming an actress. Today, she boasts a filmography of memorable roles, most notably Charlie’s (Brendan Fraser) friend and nurse, Liz, in 2022′s “The Whale,” which earned Chau her first Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

Her latest film role is Jo, a confident large-scale installation artist and landlord to the subdued sculptor Lizzy (Michelle Williams) in the Kelly Reichardt film “Showing Up.” Set in the Portland, Ore., art scene, the film follows Lizzy over several days as she deals with last-minute preparations for an art show, dysfunctional family dynamics, and a broken hot water heater (that Jo is reluctant to fix).


“Showing Up” opened April 14 at AMC Boston Common 19 and Landmark Kendall Square Cinema. Chau spoke to the Globe via Zoom about shaping the character of Jo and what she wants to do next in her career.

Hong Chau at the Oscars on Sunday, March 12, 2023. Chau was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance in "The Whale."John Locher/Invision/AP

Q. How did the role of Jo come to you?

A. I was in New York in 2021, and the script came to me, and I read it. I thought it was really funny. I was already a huge fan of Kelly Reichardt, but strangely, I initially tried to back away from it because I had just started filming on “The Whale.” I was feeling overwhelmed and not able to wrap my head around doing another project at that moment.

It was during the height of COVID. My daughter was still very, very young; she was only a few months old, and all of those things were kind of stacked against me wanting to take on another role so quickly. And thankfully, Kelly kept the conversation going, and we talked, and I was so glad that I did end up going to Portland to work on the film with her.


Q. You worked with sculptor Michelle Segre to prepare for the role, right?

A. Yes, Michelle Segre was extremely generous. Her artwork is the work that I mimic in the movie. She let me come and hang out with her in her studio in the Bronx ... I saw how physical her work is, which isn’t initially obvious. She was bending pipes with her body, and she was climbing up and down a ladder and drilling. When I was watching her, by the end of the day, she was sweating, you know? [laughs] We were all sweating in her studio, and that was such a nice complement to the artwork that Michelle Williams’s character is doing in the movie.

Kelly had sent me a huge box of colorful yarn because she thought that she wanted a close-up of my hands weaving because Michelle’s work incorporates a lot of brightly colored yarn. Initially we thought that that was going to be the picture for Jo’s art. But then once we realized how physical Michelle’s artwork was, Kelly decided to change it up.

Q. Did the physical nature of the artwork then inform your character choices as Jo?

A. Yeah, before we even started filming, [Kelly] said something like, Jo’s pleasure center is bigger and more accessible to her than Lizzy’s is. So much of Lizzy is very internal and kind of closed off and a little bit hunched over. And that’s the complete opposite of Jo. She’s running around, throwing tires up on a tree, and climbing in and out of her truck. It’s a very loose and experiential character.


Michelle Williams, left, and Hong Chau in the Kelly Reichardt film "Showing Up." Allyson Riggs/A24 via AP

Q. That contrast is really interesting. Even the way Lizzy’s art is shown, it’s very solitary compared to Jo installing with other people.

A. But I like that the movie isn’t trying to say that one is better than the other. They’re just different people, different artists, they create different work.

Q. How did you and Michelle Williams work to build the dynamic between your characters?

A. It wasn’t anything that we discussed. A lot of the work happens before you actually show up on set. We both knew what we wanted to do with our characters and who our characters were, and so it was a matter of sticking to the script and listening to Kelly’s notes. I found that Michelle and I had a completely different dynamic than our characters. Michelle had also just had a baby a few months before I did, and so we just talked about motherhood and breast-feeding and all of that. That’s what we were talking about in between takes, so it was a very nice, familial shooting experience.

Q. I was curious if you’re able to talk about what kind of roles you want to do going forward now that you’re fresh off your first Oscar nomination.

A. I think I’m just going to keep going with the flow. I have been very surprised with all of the roles that have come my way, and it’s nothing that I would have said out loud, like, ‘Oh, I want to play a health worker in Idaho, which was “The Whale,” and I could have never dreamed of ‘Oh, I want to play an artist in Portland,’ which is who I play in “Showing Up.” Those things would have never occurred to me to say I wanted to do, so I’m really looking forward to working with interesting filmmakers. It’s not so much about the role, it’s more about the filmmaker.


Abigail Lee can be reached at