Malaysian-born actor Henry Golding spoke about growing up without a sense of home, how he went from hairdressing to acting and also the joy of filming sex scenes with Parker Sawyers.
While growing up in an expat community in Dungun, Malaysia, Golding used to tell his mother off whenever she tried to teach him Malay. Since people knew they spoke English, what was the reason for him to learn Malay? Golding wanted to blend in with his friends. “But then, when I went back as an adult to Malaysia, I was kind of embarrassed that I wasn’t able to speak Malay,” he said.
Golding, 33 has an Iban mother and an English father and he has spent his whole life navigating two cultures but feeling as if he does not fully belong to either one. To him he grew up “never quite understanding a sense of home.” Was home Malaysia, where he was born or England where he moved to at the age of eight? Following Crazy Rich Asians, the rom-com blockbuster that propelled him to fame, Golding received a script for Monsoon, where he connected instantly with its sensitive exploration of a gay British Vietnamese man’s search for identity.
Golding plays Kit, a refugee who fled to England when he was six to escape the aftermath of the Vietnamese war in Lilting director Hong Khaou’s lyrical new drama. Many years later, he returns to Ho Chi Minh City, weighed down by grief to scatter his parents’ ashes. Kit feels like an outsider in his homeland which changed so much that he does not recognise it.
In a Zoom call, Golding said that Kit’s from Vietnam. Golding is now living in LA with his Taiwanese Italian wife, Liv Lo. “But if he grew up in the UK, sways towards being more British, and doesn’t understand anything to do with Vietnamese culture apart from the things that his parents taught him, where does he sit?”
The question may seem like a question Golding might ask himself. The actor said that when his family moved from Malaysia to Surrey, it was like “a slap in the face”. Golding spoke with a British accent saying that he remembers the playground taunts he used to get as the new kid in school. “Casual racism was rife back then because there weren’t many Asians. We were called every racist name under the sun. It wasn’t even the right racist names, but they would just say them because they were kids. It was like: ‘Oh, shit. I’ve never experienced this.’”
To the young Golding it was a harsh reminder that “you’re different, you’re not British, you’re not one of us.” As he grew older, things gradually improved. “I always felt we were at arm’s length just because of the way we looked. Then growing up in the UK, you slowly start assimilating. As a young man, you start taking pride in who you are. You start realising: ‘Yeah, I am Asian.’ Then you yearn for a broader understanding of what that means.”
Golding could not ignore it once the yearning took hold. It encouraged him to leave a successful career as a hairdresser at Richard Ward’s salon in Sloane Square, London at the age of 21 to move to Kuala Lumpur with dreams of making it in TV. The former hairdresser packed his scissors in case the TV job didn’t pan out.
Making the move was a characteristically impulsive decision but when he was in Malaysia, he felt like a fish out of water. Golding said, “Whoa, I thought I was Asian. But this isn’t the experience that I thought I would be having. So that just makes you all confused again.” He said that neither England nor Malaysia makes him feel at home but the actor finds his sense of belonging “wherever my loved ones are.”
In an interview with Guardian, Golding was described as friendly, relaxed and upbeat. During the video chat, he asked for the video to be turned off, which may be a sign that the doesn’t want people to concentrate on his looks. Golding is part Burberry model, part dashing matinee idol. During the quarantine, he and his wife adopted a blue nose pitbull called Stella. “We fell in love! She was the sweetest dog.” The couple also marched till their feet were sore at the Black Lives Matter protests. “It was a crazy experience and so empowering.”
The actor’s charm and likeable personality are what makes him an appealing presence on screen. Despite not having any prior acting experience, Golding was cast in Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Jon M Chu, the director was at his wits’ end after a fruitless search for the leading man. Golding was a recommendation from an accountant working in the film’s Malaysian production office. She had met the travel show host a few years ago and claimed that Golding fit the character of Nick, Singapore’s most eligible bachelor in the blockbuster 2018 film.
The film was a monumental step forward for Asian representation in Hollywood as well as the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade. Two sequels, based on Kevin Kwan’s books China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems are in the works. Details are vague as of now. At a young age, Golding enjoyed watching Princess Mononoke, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Police Story and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Golding dreamed of being a chef or a firefighter and thought of joining the army as his father did. At 16, he quit school to be a hairdresser.
Golding’s career involved a series of bold changes such as moving to Malaysia with no experience to be a TV presenter and becoming an actor with no prior acting experience. He might be confident but he is not immune to impostor syndrome. “I literally went out to [Kuala Lumpur] and was like: ‘I’ve got to fake it to make it. I’ve got to pretend I have experience.’” Acting, for him, is no different. “It’s the same with any industry. Sometimes, you really have to put yourself on the line to get the results you really want. That’s pretending to be something you’re not, pretending to be better than you are, up until the stage you actually are better than you think you are.”
Since acting in Crazy Rich Asians, most of his roles have not strayed too far from the template of Nick except playing a gangster in his childhood hero Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen. More recently, he acted in A Simple Favour, a darkly humorous thriller and then Last Christmas, a festive rom-com with a twist. Both were directed by Paul Feig with Golding acting as the charming love interest with sparky assurance, romancing more complex female leads.
Golding fills up a gap in Hollywood where before him, east Asian actors were barely portrayed in films as sexy. They were usually science geeks or martial arts fanatics and asexual sidekicks rather than desirable leading men. With Golding, all that changed and he managed to get roles where his ethnicity is not mentioned, opening the door for others to follow. Golding is still getting used to being a mainstream sex symbol.
“I would definitely not describe myself as a heart-throb,” he chuckles awkwardly. “I love the fact that people take pride in me doing well and use me as I wouldn’t say idol, but as a north star for their own journey. If I can do it, they can do it. So if I’ve got to be the heart-throb, then I’ll have to take it.”
Feig was so impressed with Golding that he cast him in two films back-to-back. To him, the actor’s skills hark back to cinema’s golden age. The director and actor have become good friends and they catch up over regular Zoom cocktail evenings with their wives. “I always say he’s like Cary Grant; he’s got that light touch,” he says over the phone. “Obviously he’s gorgeous but there are plenty of gorgeous guys who can’t summon up that level of charisma and relatability. He is very comfortable on screen, very real, very natural. He just checks every box.”
Golding’s co-star in Last Christmas, Emilia Clarke was enthralled after they bonded while coming up with dance routines to UK garage songs on the set. “He’s incredibly watchable. He can hold an audience’s gaze in a way that’s very alluring. He’s the most beautiful human being in the entire world but it’s more than that. He’s just got that thing; that mix of talent and generosity of spirit.”
It is this unmistakable star quality that led Golding to become a serious contender to replace Daniel Craig as James Bond when Craig if the rumours are to be believed, bows out after No Time to Die.
Is this the moment where the world gets its first half-east Asian 007? Golding paused. “It is an opportunity for change. Be it female, male, bi, gay, straight, trans, Asian, black, Latina. Now is the time in our history where it doesn’t matter. That is the most amazing feeling. So the possibilities are endless.” Has anyone from the Bond team approached him? “I’m not being drawn into this trap!” he laughs. There is another film franchise that Golding is not shy about putting himself for: The Matrix.
The actor is a huge fan of the original films. His brother gifted him the first movie on VHS when Golding was 12 and he credits it for igniting his love for the movie. The fourth movie, directed by Lana Wachowski has resumed filming after production was halted by the pandemic. Golding expressed interest in a cameo. “They just need to call me,” he says eagerly. “I’ll be there. I’ll be the janitor. I’ll be the guy sweeping up in the background. The Wachowskis are geniuses.”
The film Monsoon, inspired by Khaou’s experiences as a Cambodian-Chinese refugee feels like watching Golding flexing his acting muscles. Kit is seen puffy-eyed, weary and muted in his ever-growing sense of loss and alienation. The character is a far cry from the polished characters Golding normally takes on. The story is about Kit’s tentative romance with Lewis, an African American expat that he meets on a dating app. The sex scenes in Monsoon show how their relationship develops.
“For Kit, the love and the lust change. From the first experience, it’s very frantic and much more primal. Then, it’s so much more tender. You see that Kit is falling for him.” Filming them was “extremely intimate in a strange way … Because you’re there to make a movie but as an actor, everything else goes away. Your main focus is the person in front of you. I mean, Parker Sawyers is a handsome dude, I’ve got to say. Not exactly the worst dancing partner that you can ask for.”
The next project Golding has signed up for is the GI Joe spin-off Snake Eyes, an origin story exploring the roots of the fierce ninja commando. Another project involves voicing a shape-shifting tiger in the animated adaptation of the popular children’s book The Tiger’s Apprentice. In 2019, Golding launched a production company, Long House Productions which will be focused on “thinking man’s action and sci-fi.”
Within three years, the actor has achieved what most actors spend half their lives trying to build. Although critics were not impressed with Last Christmas, the experience taught him a lesson.
“You perform for the crowd,” he says with determination, comparing himself to a gladiator. “You stay in the arena, you fight and you create what you think is beautiful.” Whatever you throw at him, Golding is ready.