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Oscar-nominated actress Hong Chau on her new movie 'Showing Up'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Few artists get rich. The works of a few more sell for millions after they die. But many artists, maybe most, spend much of their lives - worry about how to make rent. This is all reflected at a tense and telling moment in the new film "Showing Up." A sculptor, Lizzy, played by Michelle Williams, confronts a fellow artist, Jo, who's also her landlord, played by Hong Chau. She's playing on a backyard swing when Lizzy asks about her hot water.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHOWING UP")

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Lizzy) I don't know what I'm supposed to do without hot water.

HONG CHAU: (As Jo) My shows open on Friday. I'll be free to deal with it after that.

WILLIAMS: (As Lizzy) I have a show, too, you know, just - you're not the only one with a deadline.

CHAU: (As Jo) I know, but I have two shows, which is insane. Hey, give me a push.

SIMON: "Showing Up" is directed by Kelly Reichardt. She's known for films often set in Oregon, as this one is, that feature quietly powerful performances from women. So, of course, we wanted to talk with Hong Chau about her performance. She's just recently off an Academy Award nomination for "The Whale" and joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

CHAU: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I have to ask this directly - and I know you're just playing a character - but why doesn't Jo just fix the damn hot water?

CHAU: Well, you know, Jo is somebody who can come up with a lot of excuses (laughter), which is where some of the comedy of the film and their relationship springs out of. It was really funny to do all of these things that keep us from getting our work done, whether it's deciding that you need to put up a tire swing and that taking up most of the day or just driving around Portland and meeting friends and having a drink, you know? So it's all of those things that an artist kind of needs to do in order to let the work sort of percolate. But from the outside, it does kind of look like a lot of nothing.

SIMON: Well, is it a lot of nothing? Or does it nourish something in an artist?

CHAU: Well, that's - you know, that's the question. I think it's different for different people, what does productivity look like? And that's very different for an artist. You know, thinking of actors, the work that I do before arriving on set doesn't really look like work to people (laughter) who aren't in this industry. And so for artists, like our characters in the film, it looks very different from what you would imagine. It doesn't necessarily take place in the workshop or studio.

SIMON: How did you start acting?

CHAU: I never wanted to be an actor, actually. I was very introverted when I was younger, and I initially thought I would do something a little bit more solitary. I felt very comfortable writing. And my father asked me what kind of job I would actually be able to get after obtaining a degree in creative writing. And so I switched over and majored in film production because I thought that film school would teach me a trade. And I just fell into acting, I guess, through improv classes. I think I was intrigued by the preparation that an actor has to do in order to tell a story and contribute to a film in that way because I had always looked at it from the other side and not from being inside of the movie.

SIMON: And you mention your father. May we mention that your family had a tough road in life? Would that be a good way to put it?

CHAU: Sure. My parents are Vietnamese. They left Vietnam in '79. They were part of the mass exodus after the war. They left by boat. My mom was six months pregnant with me. It was a very harrowing journey that they went on. A lot of people say that their lives sound like a movie, and I agree. My dad was shot leaving the country and was bleeding on a boat for three days until they made their way to the refugee camp in Thailand, which is where I was born. And when I was pregnant with my daughter during the pandemic, when I reached six months, I was thinking, oh, my God, I can't believe my mom got on a boat and was ready to take this huge leap of faith that they would arrive safely somewhere. So it's incredible to think about.

SIMON: Does acting give you a chance to inhabit other characters?

CHAU: What I get out of acting might be different from what other people get out of acting. I don't really look to have some sort of out-of-body experience or to learn something about myself. I don't know. I think I've heard some people - the way they talk about acting, it feels like therapy or something. And that's not what I get out of it. I just like being on set, and I like being around other people doing film work.

SIMON: I'm just wondering if you've developed an answer in your mind now after playing this role and, in a sense, playing all of your roles. What fuels art?

CHAU: Necessity to express. It's just this unsuppressible (ph) need and urge to spit something out whether it's through writing, which is a little bit more accessible to people or more readily understood, or through a painting or art that's a little bit harder to define what the artist is trying to say. But it's still - the artist is saying something.

And with film, I think a lot of times what filmmakers find so difficult is when they're doing interviews or doing press and people ask them, well, you know, what do you want the audience to get out of this story or this movie? What do you want to say? And I think that if they knew how to just say it, they would just write an essay or something like that. And this is their way of saying it. And it's just that, this need to put something out there. It can come out in all different shapes and forms and colors, and film just happens to be one of my favorite mediums for that expression.

SIMON: Hong Chau is one of the co-stars of the new film "Showing Up" - in theaters now. Thank you so much for being with us.

CHAU: Thank you, Scott. This was lovely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER'S "THE BET HITS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.