One on One with François Chau
It’s safe to say that
anyone subjected to boring orientation videos on the first day of a new job has undoubtedly wished they were watching something half as interesting as the Dharma initiative videos featuring Dr. Pierre Chang. That’s because pockets of energy and time-traveling bunnies beat out retirement planning and breakroom etiquette any day of the week.
Playing Dr. Chang on Lost is François Chau, an actor with nearly 30 years in the business. We recently talked to Chau about working on such a hit show, his bowling prowess and the realization that Dr. Chang is really kind of an asshole.
How did you get into acting and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
I became interested when I was in high school. I went to an all-boy prep school and by about junior year I was trying to figure out a way to meet girls, so I went to a girl’s school and auditioned for shows there. I started doing them and I kind of got hooked. From then on, I went to university and then came out to LA to try my luck.
What was it like starting out? Were you one of those people that were able to work pretty early on or were there long stretches of unemployment?
No, you know what; I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve been making a living at it for almost 30 years now, so when I came out to LA pretty much I got a commercial agent and then I started doing some commercials. I pretty much started working from then on. Nothing too steady at first, but enough to keep me going. After a few years, I started doing a lot of TV shows and stuff and have been doing that pretty much ever since.
One of your first roles was the voice of Quick Kick on G.I. Joe. How did that come about?
They were auditioning guys for the new character Quick Kick that they were coming up with. All the characters had their own little specialties and Quick Kick was a former Hollywood stunt man. (Laughs.) And he was supposed to do all these cheesy impressions so I went in there and did my cheesiest you know whatever they had, like John Wayne and all that stuff. I mean it was pretty bad, actually it was supposed to be bad. That’s how I got the gig.
You played Shredder in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie as well.
Yeah, I did the second one. Actually, my friend James Saito was The Shredder in the first one. And then they did the second one. They changed the whole cast and I’m not sure why, but anyways they were looking for a new guy so I auditioned and I got that. Yeah, that was pretty fun. It was very popular then, almost 20 years ago. Most of the movie, all you could see was my eyes because I was wearing that helmet that covered most of my face, but kids still recognized me. I met some little kid and he was all like: “Oh my god, it’s you!” and I said, “How do you know it’s me, all you could see is my eyes?” It’s amazing what these kids can pick up.
They’ve also all seen it a hundred times at that point, too.
You’ve also had guest roles on a number of memorable TV shows like Baywatch, McGyver, ER, Melrose Place, Walker, Texas Ranger and 24. Do you enjoy these guest spots on shows and the variety of work they offer or is that just how your career has worked out?
It’s kind of both. After I finished college, most of my friends went to New York to do live theater and so forth. But I knew I could never make a living doing live theater, so I came out to LA to do film and TV. Once I started doing it, I really, really loved doing it. I mean not just the acting. For some reason, I loved to go to work, be on the set and hang out to see what everyone else was doing and just listen. And I’ve never, so far anyway, it hasn’t gotten tiring to me. So every time I get a job, on a guest spot or doing a couple weeks on a feature or something, it’s great. I love going to work, hanging out and just doing my thing. When I was young, I think my first gig was Hill Street Blues and I played a gang leader. From then on, I’ve played quite a few gang leaders and as I got older I kind of got promoted to the boss guy in the Armani suit, you know, the drug lord guy. So I did a lot of guest spots doing that. Later on I started doing work as cops and doctors and stuff, but mostly my stuff has been the bad guys.
Many actors say it’s always more fun to play the villains. Is that true for you?
Actually, no. Whatever I do, it’s fun. For me, as long as I’m working, that’s pretty fun.
You played Mr. Cho in an episode of Alias. What it was like being on that show and did that have anything to do with you getting cast on Lost or was it just a coincidence that you worked on that J.J. Abrams show as well?
Well, when I did Alias, the casting director was April Webster and she was also casting Lost. I’d known her for years; she’d cast a couple of things before that. So I don’t think working on Alias had anything to do with me getting the job on Lost. Just the fact that I knew April and she brought me into Lost, that’s how I got the Lost gig. Alias was fun, before getting on the show I always taped it and watched it and I was like, “Hey I’ve got to get on this show one of these days.” When I got the call, I was like, “Hey, alright!” And I got to work with Isabella Rossellini, which was pretty amazing. I would have paid them to do the gig.
Was that the case with Lost too? Were you actually a fan of Lost before you came on it?
In the first season, I watched the pilot and the first couple of episodes and I thought it was pretty interesting. But then I missed a couple of them and it’s a show that if you miss, you’re sort of playing catch up the rest of the time. My schedule was kind of busy on and off and I missed a bunch of them, so I sort of stopped watching them for a while because I didn’t know what was going on anymore. And then once I got the job; even then, I didn’t start watching them faithfully until – I hate to say this – but probably about the third season where I would watch it because I got caught up in it, but also because people would start asking me a lot of questions. I kept saying, “Aw jeez, I don’t know who that character is” or “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” After a while I thought I better bone up on this so I don’t sound like an idiot when these fans start asking me stuff. So, pretty much from the third season I’ve been pretty faithful to it.
When you came on the show in season two you were used to further the mythology of the show and your appearance when you’re in the orientation video was a big moment for the fans. What did they tell you before you did the orientation video? Did they tell you anything about the character or did you just come in and they told you what to do?
No, they didn’t tell me anything. The audition was basically the orientation film. It was like a two or three page monologue. I got the pages and I was like, “Wow,” because I usually try to memorize all my stuff for when I go in but this was like three minutes of just nothing but me yapping away. I tried to memorize it and I got in there and went through it and after I finished it I was like, “Hey wow, I got through it.”
To this day, I suspect it’s one of the reasons they cast me is because I was one of the few guys who memorized it and got through it all. I think it was just supposed to be just a one-shot gig and that was it. And speaking of Alias, we filmed it on the set of Alias, the first orientation film. We came in at the end of the day after Alias finished shooting and then the crew stayed on and we shot the little orientation film and I thought that was it. But then a couple months later they called and said, “Hey, we’re gonna add some more stuff” and then after that it was more and more stuff, which was fine with me.
Each time you came in, did you think it was your last shot or at some point did they pull you aside and let you know they were going to be using you more down the road?
Season five was when they called and said, “We’re going to do something with this character and we’re going to guarantee at least seven episodes in season five.” I was very happy to hear that. But before that I think I did two or three episodes per season of just the orientation films.
I kind of got an inkling that it might be something more when I showed up on the set in Hawaii and they gave me the script the night before and it was another orientation film but the name was totally different. I think I started out as Doctor Candle and then one time I was Doctor Wickman and I thought, “Wow, this is interesting. I have no idea what’s going on but maybe they’ll keep giving me stuff with different names and things and we’ll see happens.” Yeah, I think up until I got the second character I thought, “Hmm, this gig might last longer than I thought it would.” Even now, they call me and they give me maybe a two or three week warning. They’ll give me certain dates and say, “Hey, in between these dates we’re probably going to use you for a couple days so keep it open” and that’s how it’s worked ever since.
Season five must have been rewarding for you because we actually got to see what your character was like outside of the orientation videos and to see his relationship with Miles develop. Was that a fun season to do?
Yeah, it was great, it was very fun. And the character, I guess I don’t know what they thought of, but in the early orientation films it was pretty much straight-forward instructional video, so that’s how I did it. My feelings of the character were kind of popular because people read into it what they want to so different people will see the video and they’ll think of the character in a certain way while other people will look at it and think of it in a totally different way. But when it came out of the orientation videos and I actually got to do some scenes with other characters and then the storyline with being the father of Miles and all that stuff came up, it was great.
But I was kind of bound by the way they wrote the character. The first couple of scenes I was reading and I thought, “I didn’t realize Dr. Candle was such an asshole. Wow, how come he’s so mean and sort of a jerk?” Later on you find out a little more and he’s not that much of a jerk, but that wasn’t my first choice in terms of how the character was going to be played. It was just sort of handed to me and I went with it. It was great. And it was great finally working with other cast members and another actual person in a scene. Before, I just flew in, did my little video on the set in the morning and then finished and flew out the next day. I didn’t see anybody. But season five was fun.
“Some Like It Hoth” must have been particularly fun for you.
It was great working with Ken and Jorge. Those guys are a blast.
Your character also had a little more of a sense of humor in that episode. He was still kind of an asshole, but he was a little more playful.
Yeah, there was a little glimpse in there, but the rest of the time he was still running around ordering people around, yelling at people and was pretty much the Dr. Chang we’ve come to know and love.
Will we be seeing more of your character this season? Will we find out about the different names and what happened to him after “The Incident”? Will that be paid off or do you even know at this point?
I have no idea. If you’ve been watching this season, they have the parallel universe storyline going on where the plane landed and they never got to the island. I’ve been watching it and one of the fun things is they are putting in either one scene or little cameos with all of these old characters that died or whatever and put them into the parallel season as different – well, I guess the same character, but in a different setting. They’re not the same character they were before and they do different things. I watched last week where the character of Keamy, the bad guy from season four who was on the freighter, showed up as a gangster or something. So I think they are doing that with a whole bunch of characters. And I do make an appearance coming up in I think episode 10 for a little bit. But other than that, I’m not sure.
In episode 10, you show up in the parallel universe?
If you are not on the island, it could be really interesting to see how things play out with you and Miles.
I was hoping that they would do something because they had set up this whole thing with Miles being his son and all that stuff that they would do something to kind of close it up, but I’m not sure. They have so many things to put a ribbon on. I’m not sure if they’ll get to everything. But hopefully.
We still have questions about your character, so we hope they find the time to explore your character more.
I have questions too. I would love to know about the different characters, different names and stuff. Maybe they’ll come up with something to satisfy us all.
You touched on this a bit before, but playing Dr. Chang and appearing in the orientation videos, we would imagine you had a lot of fans coming up and asking you questions because in the show, your character would have the answers. But as an actor, you wouldn’t really know anything. Was that something you were getting a lot?
Once the character became kind of popular, people would come up to me in the grocery store and stuff and say, “Hey, I love your show, you’re great.” Then they would start the questions with what’s going on with the plotline and who’s doing what. Some people would start telling me what their thought was about what was happening. But when they asked me, I usually don’t know any information. I usually gave them the old “Well, it might be this, it might be that, but I can’t really tell you because that would give away a lot of stuff.” But mostly, it’s just been news to me as the people watching it and actually, they probably know more about all that stuff than I do. The diehard fans, they know every little – what the numbers mean and who did what and in which episode Kate did this thing which mirrors later this episode where this and that happened. I mean, really, they spend a lot of time going over this stuff. People tell me stuff and I go, “Oh, that’s right, that’s true. I didn’t realize that.”
Usually, I’m in the dark. In the beginning, I would fly to Hawaii and they would give me the script the night before I was going to shoot. It was the orientation films, which was just a lot of two-page monologues. I had a hard time just getting it down. So finally I said to them, “Listen, if we’re going to keep doing this, you’ve got to get me more time and get me the script at least a few days before so I can have a better chance at learning it.” So they started doing that, but even then, I don’t know anything until I get the script two or three days before we start shooting.
Are you surprised by the level of fan excitement? It must be great on one level, but it would also be a bit strange, we would imagine.
Sort of yes and no. I am surprised at how popular it is, not just in the states. I get emails daily from like Asia and Eastern European countries that I guess are just getting the new shows or whatever. It is surprising to me how far reaching it is. But the fans, the ones that I’ve met, have all just been really, really nice and really great. I’ve never had any kind of weird situation or anything come up.
A couple summers ago, they invited me to this Lost convention in England. Going over there, I was a little apprehensive because, like you said, I didn’t know what to expect or how the fans were or so forth. I went up there for the weekend and it was a really, really great experience because those fans were just totally, totally nice and generous. They just wanted to hang out with you and talk about the show and ask what’s going on and stuff like that. By the end of the weekend, I felt kind of bad because I didn’t get to hang out with everybody and I felt kind of guilty because people paid a lot of money to be there. So I said, “I’ve got to try to hang out as much as I can,” but I just couldn’t get through everybody. Maybe next time, I don’t know.
There is a Star Trek quality to Lost, where 20 years from now they might still be having these conventions and still asking you come out to do appearances. It seems to have that enduring quality.
It is very Star Trek like. It doesn’t seem to be like a passing phase or where it’s very popular now, but maybe in a few years nobody will remember it. There will be fans watching this or re-watching it for a long time.
Have you put any thought into the ending of the show? Obviously, you don’t know how it will end, but is there a way you would like to see the show end?
No, not in terms of, like you say, “This is what I’d like to see happen.” Part of the big thing about the show, at least for me, is that the writers do come up with very clever stuff. And one of the things that gets me is it’s been on for five seasons now and I still am not quite sure if from the beginning they had a big kind of general outline of the whole show, how they wanted it to be and as the season goes along they’ll plug in things here and there to keep it going. Or if they don’t have anything and they’re just writing as they go along and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. Sometimes I think that because they come up with stuff out of nowhere and I think, “Wow, what the heck is this?” Other times, I’ll see an episode and go, “Hey, wait a minute. They set this thing up two seasons ago and now it’s paying off.”
That’s one of the great things – I still don’t know if they’re flying by the seat of their pants or if they’ve got the whole thing worked out from the beginning and they knew exactly how they wanted it to end from the time it first started. I’ve got a feeling it’s a little bit of both. I do think that they have a general shape of the thing and as they go along, they’ll change things here and there. But they’re pretty well sticking to what they started out with, I think. Then again, I could be wrong.
You recently played a bowler on Gary Unmarried. Do you actually bowl in real life? If so, are you as good as your on-screen counterpart?
(Laughs.) I start out good and it’s not just with bowling where I’ll start out doing pretty well, but then as I go along, instead of getting better, I usually get worse for some reason. My friend who used to be an avid golfer wanted me to get into golf and I said, “Okay, I’ll try it out.” I played with him a couple of times and I would start out great, then as we kept playing, I would just get worse and worse for some reason. I’m not sure why. But I am a good bowler at first, let’s put it that way.
The Gary Unmarred thing was great for me. I guess, it must be my personality, but people always think of me as this serious actor, maybe because I always play the bad guy. I’m always killing people or I get killed and stuff. I never get a chance to do like the Gary Unmarried stuff. So when it comes along, it’s a blast to do.
I saw on one of these blogs, someone was saying, “Man, I hate it when I’m used to seeing somebody do a certain character and all of the sudden they pop up in something else and it takes me out of it totally,” and the example she gave was she’s used to seeing me on Lost and being kind of the bad guy on other shows and all of the sudden, she sees me as this bowling guy on Gary Unmarried and that threw her a loop. She couldn’t get over it.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
That’s a hard question because a lot of times I think, “Boy, I wish I could do something else besides acting” because all actors are a little insecure as they’re searching for their next jobs, so I’m always thinking, “Hmm, I wonder what I can do?” But honestly, and sadly, I don’t think I can do anything else.
I’m a pretty good handyman kind of guy. I watch a lot of these HGTV shows and I do a lot of stuff for my friend and around the house. So maybe I could be a carpenter or maybe a handyman guy.
You could become the host of one of those handyman shows.
I always wanted to be Norm Abram. He had this show where he would build a chest of drawers or something and he’d say, “Oh, come into my workshop,” and he’d open his barn and his workshop is like 50,000 square feet of just every machine available. And I thought, “Man, well yeah, if I had that, I could build that chest.” (Laughs.) But that sort of seems like something I wouldn’t mind doing.
We would watch that show, but unfortunately it would really upset that one Internet commenter who is used to seeing you on Lost and playing bad guys.
(Laughs.) “What are you doing? You’re not supposed to be doing that. You’re supposed to have a gun or something.”
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. The final season of Lost airs Tuesday nights on ABC, but you probably already knew that.