From series creator Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers, Lost) and based on the iconic graphic novel created by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the HBO drama series Watchmen is set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws and the police conceal their identities behind masks to protect themselves from a terrorist organization, known as the Seventh Kavalry. It’s a story that is equal parts challenging and thought-provoking, as it looks at so many of the modern issues that plague us today, and questions who the true heroes and villains really are.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Hong Chau, who plays the mysterious Lady Trieu, talked about being a fan of Damon Lindelof’s previous work, how much she got to learn about her character prior to filming the series, mining the scripts for clues to help her understand more about Lady Trieu, her character’s memorable introduction, the masks that all of the characters wear, and what it’s been like to work with this cast.
Collider: Did you know how interesting this character would be, or was everything very secretive?
HONG CHAU: Actually (showrunner) Damon Lindelof was pleasantly very open, from the get-go. I met with him about the project, but I didn’t know what the character would be. I didn’t have any familiarity with the Watchmen graphic novel, prior to this, so when I first met Damon, he explained the entire Watchmen graphic novel to me, which took awhile and was a lot of information to absorb. I don’t know if I really absorbed all of it, but then he moved on and explained the show that he was making, and how my character, Lady Trieu, fit into that. So, I did know, from the very first meeting, her origin story and where she would end up, at the end of the season.
So, you were able to then go into this feeling like you had a fairly good understanding of who she was?
CHAU: Yes and no. He told me a lot of information, but there’s only so much I can do with just information. I need to also be able to mine the words on the page, look for little clues, and have time to let it marinate and then meditate, see what the costume designer, Meghan Kasperlik, came up with, and also the hair and make-up team. It was a really collaborative effort, at the end of the day, which is so fun. Damon has a very singular voice, as a writer, so I didn’t know how open he would be, to discussing certain aspects of the character, in terms of how she looked, and certain little moments and beats in the story. But I was pleased with how open and accessible he was. He answered emails, very quickly.
Damon Lindelof is somebody that does have a very distinct vision with his material. Had you been a fan of his work, previously?
CHAU: I loved Lost, even though I know that wasn’t entirely his show. The Leftovers was also very wonderful, and different and similar, in certain ways, to Watchmen. Damon likes to ask big questions, and he likes to give the audience the freedom and room and trust to come up with their own theories and feelings about things. That takes a certain amount of graciousness and bravery, to allow people to do that. He just allows what will be to be.
The way that we’re introduced to your character says a lot about her, and about how she’s the kind of negotiator that is just not going to take no for an answer.
CHAU: I love that. I’m not like that in real life, so it’s fun to play a character like that.
Was the idea of playing someone like that part of the fun of this?
CHAU: Yes. That was such a scary scene. That farmhouse scene in Episode 4 was the very first thing that I shot, and it’s a lot. There was no way to really ease into that, and it was difficult because it wasn’t with any of the other major characters in the show, so I couldn’t really anchor myself to something that somebody else had done, to see where I fit in, or how I could fit in. Even though I knew, information-wise, who Lady Trieu is, I just didn’t know exactly how to go at it. We tried a bunch of different things that day, and it was a really exhilarating day of filming. And getting to work with a real baby, as well, was wild. We had a rotating line of babies on hand. There were so many babies in the house. We were shooting on location, in a real house that was in the middle of a field. It wasn’t this climate controlled stage, or anything. That was a pretty wild day.
Is Lady Trieu someone that has always been so convincing, or is that something she’s spent time working on?
CHAU: Gosh, when I think about any person that is enigmatic or powerful, they always have some sort of humble beginning. That’s very true for my character.
Do you feel like there are still layers of mystery to who Lady Trieu is?
CHAU: I feel like there’s so much more to explore, with all of the characters, really. There’s a whole plot that needs to be serviced, but Damon’s done an incredible job of creating layers and depth and complexities to each of the characters.
Each of these characters really have the masks that we can see, but they also have the masks that we don’t see.
CHAU: Yeah. My character doesn’t wear a literal mask, but I feel like she’s very hard to read. There are some points where I’m not sure if she’s joking or not, and that was something that I needed to know in advance, before doing the scenes. So, for my approach to the character, I really needed to know all of the information beforehand. That’s how I prepared it. It wasn’t one of those things, where I could go in and just be in the moment and wing it.
There’s something very scary and dangerous about a character when you’re not sure if they’re kidding or not, and they have to let you know what their true intentions are.
CHAU: It’s funny, I always take compliments from the boom guy very seriously because they just stand there all day, holding that boom, and nobody really talks to them or interacts with them. The boom guy on Watchmen came up to me at craft service and he was like, “I really dig your character because I never know if she’s being for real, or if she’s gonna cut you.” That was really nice to hear.
These characters live in a world where they all have to have secrets, for their own survival. Is there anyone in her life that you think fully knows her and knows all of those secrets?
CHAU: I think there is, and we shall see.
Is that also very lonely?
CHAU: Damon Lindelof really likes to explore loneliness. It’s probably the thing that attracts people to what he does.
There are so many layers and complexities to this story. Are there specific themes and elements that you’re exploring, that really spoke most deeply to you?
CHAU: Well, getting back to the loneliness for a second, it just occurred to me that my character lives in this building that she’s created, that simulates her home country, and there was something so sweet and humanizing about that detail. I thought that it was just so sweet and endearing that this woman actually has something that she misses and is nostalgic for. So, there’s a little bit of vulnerability there that we show, even though she’s this really powerful, take no prisoners character.
You get to share scenes in this with actors like Regina King, Jean Smart and Louis Gossett, Jr. What’s it like to have seen partners like that? How has it been to work with this group?
CHAU: It’s been incredible. It’s part of the reason why I signed on. I was so jazzed to hear that Regina King was the lead of the Watchmen series. How incredible is that? Sign me up for that. And it’s really been wonderful. I love working with people who are veterans and who are living legends. It just makes me excited to come into work. And the thing that always astounds me is how somebody like Louis Gossett, Jr. can show up to work and still be so excited and gleeful to be there, after all of these decades. I really take that to heart, and it just makes me very appreciative of where I am. It makes me really take in the moment.
Watchmen airs on Sunday nights on HBO.