Everyone thinks they know who Henry Golding is: handsome, plummy Home Counties accent, clean-cut star of Crazy Rich Asians, Last Christmas and Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen. But ask the Malaysian-British actor how he sees himself, and you’ll get a foggier image.
“Being half Malaysian and half British, it’s like, what really are you classified as?” he says via Zoom from his lockdown home in Los Angeles. “People don’t see you as fully British for sure; but when I go back to Malaysia, I can’t speak the language and nobody over there feels as though I’m Malaysian, so we’re kind of in this limbo.”
“Being half Malaysian and half British, it’s like, what really are you classified as?”
Monsoon, Golding’s latest film, echoes its star’s feeling of displacement. The artsy, indie flick – Golding’s first lead role like it – follows Kit, a young, gay, British-Vietnamese man who fled his birthplace in the wake of the Vietnam War, moving to Britain when he was eight. 30 years later, he returns for the first time to scatter his parent’s ashes, discovering a very different country to the one he left, and coming to the realisation that his family didn’t always tell him the full story.
“He held this against them for the longest time,” Golding explains of Kit’s relationship with his mum and dad. “But he realises that his parents left Vietnam for a reason – and that was because of what was happening there. Their true sense of home came from where they were welcomed, and that was back in the UK.”
Like Kit, Golding also left his home at a young age. Born in the late ‘80s in Sarawak, East Malaysia, to an English father and Malaysian mother, Golding (alongside his parents and two siblings) moved to Surrey when he was eight.
“It was so exciting. As an eight-year-old, your world just blew up,” he says of his first memories of the UK. “The world of possibility and new smells, new feelings, new people, new sweets, new schools!”
A typical, “pre-internet” kid, Golding never planned on becoming famous. He spent most of the time playing Street Fighter at the local arcade, or nerdy card game Magic: The Gathering with his geeky pals. There were your standard primary school acting roles – the title character in The Wizard of Oz and one of the three wise men in the Nativity – but drama wasn’t his main passion (that was stealing his brother’s comic books when he wasn’t looking).
At 15, Golding found himself working Saturdays at a local barbers, which led to an apprenticeship in hairdressing and jobs at swanky west London salons after he finished his GCSEs. Golding doesn’t name names, but reveals their customers included some well-known celebrities.
“Sometimes, it takes someone to slap some sense into you to take an opportunity”
“[I served] actors, socialites… the whole gambit!” he says, before describing downtime spent gazing at the swish presenters on MTV Asia while visiting family back in Malaysia, which encouraged his own career dreams. Gradually, the Malaysian clients who told him he had star potential were able to convince him: “One day, I was just like, ‘What the hell, why not! Let’s just start making plans to move over there, buy a one-way ticket and try my luck!’”
Eventually, Golding managed to grind his way to several in-demand gigs as a travel host (BBC, Discovery Channel), achieving his dream in the process. At the same time, however, Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu was struggling to cast the future smash hit’s male lead. After his accountant, who’d met Golding in Malaysia and remembered him as the “real-life Nick Young”, suggested him, Chu swung into action. Amazingly, Golding turned him down several times before finally accepting the part. “Sometimes it takes someone to slap some sense into you to say, ‘Hey, stop being so closed minded! Look at the opportunity and imagine where this could take you!’” he says. “And that’s what Jon Chu did to me.”
Crazy Rich Asians turned out to be a massive global hit – the highest grossing romcom of the 2010s – and Golding became a recognisable face overnight. Supporting parts in major blockbusters like Blake Lively drama A Simple Favour, Last Christmas and Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen soon followed.
Zero to megastar in less than 12 months must have been a giddy ride, but it was filming Last Christmas and The Gentlemen at the same time that led to some of Golding’s most surreal moments. “One day I’d be on set with Paul [Feig, director], Emilia [Clarke] and Emma Thompson, and the next day I’d slick the hair back, put on a cockney accent and face down Matthew McConaughey – it was magical,” he remembers. Of course, it wasn’t a totally smooth ride – and the aforementioned McConaughey picture was accused of casual racism by some. At one point, Hugh Grant jokes: “Chinese, Japanese, Pekingese… ricence to kill!” in a faux-Chinese accent, before introducing Golding’s “chinaman” gangster Dry Eye. How did Henry cope with his first bit of social media heat?
“Some people don’t want racist words on screen, but in reality it’s what happens”
“If you think gangsters aren’t going to be racist and go down to the lowest derogatory terminologies, I don’t know what kind of world you live in,” he answers unflappably. “In this day and age of being PC, do you think that restricts art or creation? Because we have to pander to people who perhaps don’t want racist words to be on screen or projected from someone’s mouth; but in reality it’s what happens. Are gangsters going to be nice to each other just because they don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings? I don’t think so.
“But of course there’s boundaries,” he adds. “And I felt as an Asian and as a man, those boundaries were never stepped over and it was always a safe set. If there is ever a time there isn’t a safe set, you know, the hand goes up and a discussion is made.”
The Gentleman is the cinematic polar opposite to Monsoon. While Ritchie’s movie is big and brash, Hong Khaou’s tender drama is subtle and moving. With minimal dialogue, Golding has nowhere to hide, his performance nakedly on display. “It’s quite a magical feeling really, because as an actor it’s those moments that you yearn for most,” he says. “It’s such a sandpit of emotions to play in.”
However, Monsoon came with its own pitfalls to avoid. Golding plays Kit, a gay man who, when returning to the country he was born in, begins a burgeoning relationship with Lewis (Parker Sawyers), an American whose father fought in the Vietnam War. Straight actors have been criticised recently for playing queer roles – Jack Whitehall’s casting as Disney’s “first gay man” faced backlash, as did Taron Egerton when he portrayed Elton John in the biopic Rocketman – did he have hesitations about playing Kit?
“The Oscars’ new diversity rules are a step in the right direction”
“I think you’d be ignorant if you didn’t have any hesitations. Of course, that is a conversation that has to be had. And there’s no right or wrong answer,” he says. “Even if I give you the most PC answer in the world, there are still groups of people that believe only people from the LGBTQ+ community should play these characters.”
He pauses, before adding: “But I think for myself, it was really… I’m not sure how to answer this one, because I’ve answered it in the past truthfully and there’s still [been a] backlash… because the story hinged on Kit’s journey rather than his sexuality, I felt as though it was a lot more comfortable for me to be allowed to play this character.”
This discussion leads us onto the Oscars’ new diversity rules, which were announced a few days before we speak. Golding sees them as a step forward. “Have they made progress? I think they have,” he says. “Are they the correct rules that we’re going to be using for the times to come? Probably not. Will they evolve? We don’t know, but I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
Looking ahead, Golding only has a handful of jobs on the horizon. Two sequels for Crazy Rich Asians are rumoured, but in interviews he claims they’re still working on the scripts. Remarkably, that’s not top of his agenda though. After reinventing himself as an art-house guru in Monsoon, Henry’s next gig may turn him into a blockbuster action hero instead.
“Snake Eyes has just blown me away,” he says of the upcoming G.I. Joe reboot, in which he plays the titular ninja commando. “They’ve recreated G.I. Joe into something very cool and a far throw from what we’ve seen thus far on the big screen. I think there’s room for many spin-offs, to be honest. This, I think, will be the launch of a brand-new franchise.”
The origin story’s release has now been pushed back to 2021 (“We’re living through the most heinous plot right now”, says Golding of coronavirus restrictions), but luckily production wrapped just before the world went into its first lockdown. Golding’s days were jam-packed with four hours of stunt choreography, three hours of script work, and then 90 minutes of private fitness training. “To be honest, it was painful,” he admits. “It’s definitely much more of a martial arts film than a superhero movie. It’s very, very physical. I fucking hated it in the beginning because I couldn’t even squat down and go to the bathroom. The first week was literal hell. I think I cried on the phone to my manager. I was like: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’”
On Golding’s glittering – albeit brief – resume he’s rarely tread the same path twice. There’s been festive fun in Last Christmas, gangster shenanigans for The Gentlemen and Crazy Rich Asians’ swoon-worthy romantic lead; but now he’s prepped to become a bona fide action man, could he do it all again? For years, he’s been linked with the James Bond role, soon to be vacant when Daniel Craig hangs up his cufflinks after No Time To Die.
“Of course I’d do it!” he says. “I think every actor in their right mind would be the first to say ‘100 per cent’. It’s such a rich character to get hold of. Will it be a shake up after Craig retires? I think so, but you know, as a longtime fan of the series, I’m excited that they’re carrying on and bringing new material to it.”
Golding will have to beat some stiff competition if he hopes to snag the part, but we think he’d nail this country’s most iconic action hero. He’s as British as they come.
‘Monsoon’ is released in cinemas and on digital this Friday, September 25