It was a pleasure interviewing Zoë Chao on two fronts. First off, Downhill proved to be a more than worthy remake of Force Majeure. Secondly, Chao is a total cinephile, and she gave me a ton of value added insight on actress Paula Prentiss. Downhill details as well as insights from Chao are below!
Downhill centers on a Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who take their family for a ski trip in the Alps. When an avalanche leads Pete to grab his cell phone and immediately exit sans his loved ones, it leads to an understandable rift with his family. Zoë Chao and Zach Woods co-star as the younger couple who witness the growing deterioration of Pete and Billie’s union.
Chao, who will also be seen in the HBO Max anthology Love Life, is an in demand actress partly thanks to her well received run on the Facebook Watch series Strangers. Downhill marks her second high profile feature after last year’s Where’d You Go Bernadette.
One of the most ambitious sequences in Downhill comes during the argument between Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell). What was it like to spend three days shooting that scene?
Usually you shoot a scene like that and it’s broken up and it’s out of order; and you’re trying to orient yourself as an actor. But (thanks to) Nat and Jim, we had three luxurious days and we got to rehearse the first day and shoot the following two days.
And we got to go through the whole thing and that’s so rare to the point we were able to forget the camera was there and it became this play. People (have told) Zach and I, ‘Wow, your facial expressions were so good, what was it like practicing it?’ We didn’t practice anything. We were just there just receiving this slo-mo car crash that were these two powerhouses, Julia and Will, coming together. It was such great writing. It was pretty thrilling and exhausting and sweat inducing. I had very sweaty palms all three days, but it was such a charged scene to experience. And we just had to receive it.
How has the last several years been with you working on Strangers, collaborating with Richard Linklater on Where’d You Go Bernadette, and now this? Plus, you’re also a cinephile, so there’s an extra resonance to this.
Oh my gosh. Thanks so much for being familiar with who I am (laughs). You know as much as about (me) as my parents do (laughs)!
It’s been such a cool ride these past three years. I give a lot of credit to Strangers, my friend Mia Lidofsky who created that show and was so excited to write for me and sort of introduce me to this industry. Since then I’ve been really blessed working on just great projects with really kind, smart, funny, talented people. So this is my second big film. I did Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go Bernadette in 2017 – it’s very overwhelming and humbling.
When we were in Sundance we would finish our press (for Downhill) and I’d go hotel room and just cry just because it’s the dream to spend days with Will and Julia – people that are role models for you and who are generous as they are talented – and to get to talk about a movie that you’re really proud of independent of your own work but also proud of your work inside of it.
There were several years where I was working as a cocktail waitress after grad school, and the dream felt very far away. And now I’m moving through it.
The refreshing thing about Downhill is it’s not a straight up homage to Force Majeure. It has its own identity.
Totally. I’m so happy that the movies are distinct and they are their own experience but I think what is honored – in the way Downhill honors Force Majeure is just the way it presents to this audience the same challenges the protagonists are forced to reckon with.
I love that you’re still reflecting on it after seeing it days before. Both movies do such a good job commenting on how messy and unpredictable and confused human beings are, even though they are trying so hard to control things. I find that I felt less alone watching Downhill. Because I think I move through the world (thinking) ‘God everybody has all these answers and they’re doing life better than I am. Gosh, why am I so far behind?’
But then you see this film and you (realize that) relationships are so hard. Being a human is hard. You want to have the answers, but most of the time you don’t. And I wouldn’t know how I’d respond to an avalanche. I’d like to think I’d do the right thing. But we’re unpredictable.
In one of your past interviews, you mentioned how much you appreciate Paula Prentiss as an actress. Can you talk about why The World of Henry Orient and Man’s Favorite Sport? are among your favorite films?
Oh my gosh, thanks for reading the stuff that is out there that I’ve been doing.
The World of Henry Orient was a very formative film for me because I watched it when I was the same age as the girls inside the film. It’s about female friendship and about growing up. When i was 13, it was wild to see a movie that was done in (1964) that felt so contemporary. So The World of Henry Orient is a stunning portrait of young female friendship.
I think for Man’s Favorite Sport? (laughs), Paula Prentiss – she’s this lanky, gorgeous brunette in these films and she’s so funny and subverts her physique by having this low voice. Her reactions are so big, but they’re all very grounded. That on somebody else would look like over acting, but she is so committed and I loved watching her. Seeing a beautiful woman allow herself to be silly and frazzled was really exciting for me. Growing up, watching old movies, you see women being very beautiful and put together and graceful, but Paula was kind of a mess in both of those movies and I love that.
Here’s the audio version of Zoë Chao talking about Prentiss and Man’s Favorite Sport?:
What’s it like to go from being a novice from your early days on The Comeback and having mentors to now finally, with all of your experience, being able to give tangible advice to actors?
I still feel like I’m at the very beginning. I’m just so grateful for all of the jobs – any of the jobs. It’s weird to take a second and stop and reflect on the last three years.
And to think about The Comeback because that was my first real big TV thing. And that show is iconic. I didn’t even realize how important that show was when I was inside of it. I wasn’t even quite in on the joke. (There were) three video villages and I was learning what it was like to be on a set. Just studying Lisa Kudrow who is also a queen. I’ve just really lucked out working with some amazing, badass women in this industry and watching them do it so gracefully.
And yeah I don’t know if I can speak from – I don’t know if I have any advice to give – it’s nice to think that you think I might (laughs).
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Is Strangers finished?
It is. But Mia Lidofsky has a bunch more stuff coming out and I’m grateful to all those Strangers fans.