Hannah Strong


Illustration by

Chanti Lee

Willem Dafoe and Hong Chau: ‘The meaning comes in the doing’

Willem Dafoe and Hong Chau lay out the particulars of Yorgos Lanthimos’s method with actors.

One is a veteran of the screen who’s been acting for over 40 years, the other’s career began to blossom after a starring role in Alexander Payne’s 2017 dramedy, Downsizing – Willem Dafoe and Hong Chau meet on-screen in Kinds of Kindness. For Dafoe it was a reunion having worked with Yorgos Lanthimos on Poor Things and playing the bubble-belching God, but for Chau, it was a call that came after her whirlwind year promoting Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which culminated in an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. They play various roles across each of the film’s shorts, but it is in the third and final segment, R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich, in which they play a pair of uber chill, free-loving cult leaders named Omi and Aka.

LWLies: Do either of you have any personal interpretations of what this film is about?

WD: I’m a battered actor. We talked a lot about not interpreting. You know, there’s no interpretation. I don’t have the ability to express interpretation because it slides around as I’m watching it. I’m watching these people, and certain things occur to me, because many things happen that are very evocative, you know. And the two times I’ve seen it, it’s presented different things to me. So I can’t. I can’t. I could make something up, but it wouldn’t be true.

All of his films are kind of like that, in a way.

WD: But this is even harder to express in those terms, because of the nature of themes that are threaded through it. But each movie is very distinct. Which movie are you talking about? Which character? Which situation? It’s like a kaleidoscope. There are too many colours.

HC: Yeah, I like to turn my brain off when I enter a movie theatre and let whatever happens on screen affect me. And I think that’s kind of the approach I took to working on this movie. I didn’t really spend too much time analysing the script or trying to connect any sort of dots. I think there wasn’t a lot there in terms of specific descriptions of things. Sometimes there’s a lot of that in scripts. And so the things that we saw on-screen, we found them through testing them out.

WD: Yes, trial and error. It was just nice to get to watch something and work on something and not know exactly what it was before we started.

HC: Ultimately, I think it’s a gift to be in that headspace of, ‘What is this?’ And the question of, ‘What is it?’ comes out of a certain kind of pleasure and curiosity. Because when you have that kind of curiosity, that opens the door to a kind of freedom of thinking and imagination. And Yorgos’ films do that at least to me. And I appreciate it.

As actors you read a lot of scripts. Is it common for you to sign on to a project and not necessarily have a clear sense of what the film is about?

HC: I think this is the first time where I felt, ‘Oh, I really don’t have anything in my pocket already to contribute in terms of a concrete idea of this is, how she should look and how she behaves.’ But I haven’t done as many movies as Willem. Is this unusual?

WD: I often don’t know. You’re attracted to certain things when you read a script. You’re aware of the things to do and things that are presented. So it’s not like, ‘I don’t know what this is at all.’ Themes and possibilities always spring to mind. But that’s just to guide you, whether you want to try to figure out what it is. But the meaning comes in the doing. Sometimes I do a movie, and the movie is beautiful, but I don’t know who the character is because I was him. If I performed well and if I was honest and I was graceful in my approach, I don’t know, because that’s not my job.

That’s really interesting because there are some actors who say they know exactly who their character is from start to finish. I find it so fascinating that there are so many ways of getting there.

HC: Sometimes, and certainly sometimes you use models and sometimes you even copy. And to copy is a good place to start creatively, strangely enough, because you can’t really copy. You can start to mimic and then in your limitations and the particular flavour of the mimic, it leads you somewhere else. I find that very useful actually sometimes that you take a model. But that model is just a diving board.

I was interested to hear from you about Yorgos’ method of building in rehearsal time and making sure everyone has the space to play around. How does this impact your own creative process?

HC: I mean it changes everything. I think earlier on, I used to really white-knuckle things where if I had a big scene or a monologue, I’d just keep my engine warm the entire day until I get to that point and it’s like, ‘Oh my god,’ if that scene comes up after lunch, forget about it. I am a goner. And I had to let that go – the idea of a perfect take – which really helped me to just be a happier actor. Because it’s kind of miserable the other way that I was approaching it. So to get a place to play and just having everybody come together and do just a fun, silly rehearsal period before we started the film was really nice.

WD: He has a rehearsal period before and that makes the company and we goof off, we humiliate each other. It’s like boot camp. We don’t so much deal with the text or the interpreting of the text. And for this one, it was quite brief, actually. We had a longer one for Poor Things. But as far as space when we’re actually doing it, there’s not a lot of rehearsal or anything. It’s a very relaxed and very supportive environment. So you feel free and easy. Because naturally there’s not a great pressure on you to convey a particular point of view. The thing that you’re supposed to do, as is my understanding, is to be engaged. Have a relationship with what you’re doing. Be alive in what you’re doing. Not be asleep. That’s all. And when the world is so well built and the things that you have to do are so specific and so constructed, you don’t have to gild the lily. You’ve got to be there for it and it is what it is. But Yorgos is very good with actors and gives good practical instruction.

I always find it quite comical how his films tend to put his characters through the ringer, yet he’s so thoughtful and gentle when you meet him.

WD: He’s so sweet. He’s so sweet and so lovely and just a very calm, very warm presence. Well he’s like that. And also when you fail at something, he’s like, ‘Well, that was not good.’ And you don’t feel the sting. Because he says, ‘Let’s do it again,’ or, ‘What if we do this?’ He’s helpful. He’s very good with actors. I mean he acted himself. He knows the theatre; he knows music. He’s a very well-rounded artist.

In the third act, you play a pair of cult leaders. How did you work together in creating those roles?

HC: Something is prepared but it’s prepared in costume selection, prepared in getting to know each other, hanging out on the set. We had all these extras around us. The location is very specific. We aren’t a machine when we’re shooting. We don’t shoot conventional coverage, or there aren’t a million takes or anything. It’s quite relaxed and well-planned. So you get time to hang out. I remember us hanging around that pool, just being totally chill, being able to formulate those decisions.

WD: They aren’t even decisions. You create an association, and so it’s easy to imagine that we’re a couple. But you can’t force those things. They come up, you know, like groundwater.

How did the experience of working on Kinds of Kindness differ from Poor Things, if it did differ at all?

WD: The man is the same, the movies are different, that’s all. It’s the same guy and his approach is the same. It’s being expressed through a different kind of filter, like painting with other colours.

And for you Hong, coming into this established group with Willem and Emma and Joe and Margaret – how did that feel to kind of be brought into the little family that Yorgos is creating?

HC: I guess because I knew that he was friends with Kelly Reichardt for some reason, like, that made it feel like, “Oh, okay, we’re all on the same wavelength.” Even though I had not actually worked with him or any of the other actors before, it felt like, “You know a friend of mine, so we’re going to get along.” That was my attitude going into it. And actually, a lot of our crew was Kelly’s crew.

Published 28 Jun 2024

Tags: Hong Chau Kinds of Kindness Willem Dafoe

Suggested For You

Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons: ‘Is Yorgos okay with us giving away the secrets?’

By Hannah Strong

Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons attempt to decipher the codes and meanings in Kinds of Kindness.

Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou: ‘It’s a constant relationship’

By Hannah Strong

The co-writers of Kinds of Kindness reflect on their enduring partnership and putting their characters through the ringer.

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.