American actress Hong Chau stars in her breakout role opposite Matt Damon in the science fiction comedy-drama Downsizing currently in theaters. Her portrayal as the Vietnamese political activist Ngoc Lan Tran has earned the rising star a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics’ Choice Movie nominations for best supporting actress.

When introduced to the part, Chau says she felt personally invested in Lan Tran. “This role was sort of like a beautiful, odd, and funny love letter to my parents because my parents are Vietnamese refugees,” she said. “This was an amazing opportunity to play a character that I have never seen portrayed with such layers and complexity and with so much humor because a lot of times things sort of get presented in a very earnest and documentarian way … This is a very complex character, and I’m glad that it will sort of confront a lot of people’s expectations of what positive representation is,” Chau continued.

Indeed, Hong Chau’s parents were among the boat people who fled Vietnam in 1979. Chau’s mom was pregnant with her at the time, and they then lived in a refugee camp in Thailand where she was born. An American family sponsored them, so Hong, in turn, grew up in Louisiana.

Hong describes herself as shy while growing up. “I was an introvert,” she told People magazine. Trying to overcome her social insecurities, she took acting classes while majoring in film studies at Boston University. She also acted in other students’ short films. After college, Chau thought she would have a career in documentaries when she went to work with PBS, but she instead opted to go to New York to continue studying acting. She says she started going on auditions “as a dare.”

Among her first procured roles, Hong was cast in the HBO series Treme based in New Orleans. Her first feature film role was in the neo-noir comedy-drama Inherent Vice, but the part didn’t lead to more film auditions as she had hoped. However, in 2015, she was cast in the Off-Broadway play John which Chau says helped strengthen her acting skills. She also was cast in a supporting role alongside Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. From there, the 38-year-old actress is now receiving praise for her performance in Downsizing.

As the character of Lan Tran wears a prosthetic leg, Chau prepared for her role by seeking the expertise of a below-the-knee amputee consultant. Hong met her at a rehabilitation center where she does her physical therapy; in turn, Chau expressed some ambivalence about researching real people for the sake of acting, saying, “When I first got there, there was definitely a lot of trepidation on my part about entering this space and being there with people who actually had disabilities and were there to do actual real work. And I felt like I was invading their space a little bit.” The consultant was also a nurse who shared pertinent information about the disability in a clinical way which helped inform Chau’s approach to Lan Tran.

Audiences can expect to see more of Hong Chau as she is cast in American Woman, a film to be written and directed by Semi Chellas about the women who cared for Patty Hearst.