Henry Golding is ready to take on Hollywood.
“[We’re] possibly moving to Los Angeles,” said the 31-year old British-Malaysian actor during a luncheon in Century City in June. “The focus is definitely on movies.”
It’s a warm day, so we are sitting at a picnic table under an awning on the rooftop of Eataly. Golding doesn’t seem bothered by heat and is wearing a light brown jacket over a neat polo. He had just spent two months in Vietnam shooting his next project, Monsoon, an indie film about a British Vietnamese refugee returning to the motherland, by Lilting director Hong Khaou. Compared to Vietnam, the heat in Los Angeles is not bad.
He orders a chopped salad but just picks at it when it arrives as he wants to be sure to answer all the questions I had prepared in the few minutes that we have for this interview. We talk a bit about his time in Los Angeles and if he will make the big move to the City of Angels. He says it will all depend on how successful the films he’s starring in will be. “I love movie-making. I love [that] the industry is so weird and wonderful. It’s really, with my wife, Liv, that she’s comfortable moving to a city she’s not familiar with. We have friends here, but it’s not the same as Singapore where we have been for six years. We have a close knit [group] of friends. We have to assess everything when it all comes out.”
Golding stars in his first big studio film in this week’s much-anticipated romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians. In fact, this would mark Golding’s first acting gig… ever. He had previously been a travel show host for BBC and the Discovery Channel. Just before he was cast in Crazy Rich Asians, he had finished a six-part Discovery Channel television series called Surviving Borneo, where he traveled to his Iban homeland in Betong to the mountains of Bario to go through bejalai, an Iban rite of manhood, which resulted in him getting a traditional Iban tattoo — where ink is hammered into your skin using a needle attached to a bamboo stick. It is as painful as it sounds, but Golding takes traditions seriously.
“I come from a generation of Asians who are indigenous, and we have our own set of challenges,” he says. “We’re a very animus culture and it’s about spirits and respect for mother nature. Those traditions of respect goes through all cultures and how family comes first in all things.”
Now the actor has come to Hollywood, where he will be seen next in Crazy Rich Asians and next month’s mystery thriller A Simple Favor, directed by Paul Feig. Golding can’t believe the opportunities he has received since being cast in a major film.
“The weird thing [is] that I’ve been on this freight train that doesn’t seem to stop,” Golding says. “I’m glad it [isn’t stopping]. Everyone is working hard to make sure that we are making the right choices.”
Although Golding has received praise for his role as Chinese Singaporean rich kid Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians, his casting sparked controversy on the internet because Golding is half white. Golding doesn’t blame them for questioning his casting since Hollywood studios have whitewashed many Asian roles in recent years. But Golding closely identifies with the Asian side of his family. He was born in Sarawak, Malaysia and raised in Terengganu before moving to England when he was 8 years old. Wanting to break out in media, Golding moved back to Asia when he was 21 and has been there ever since.
“It always comes to the point where I think about how Asian do you have to be,” he asks. “What is the litmus test of who you are as an Asian? Is it blood? Is it the fact that you were born in Asia? Or lived most of your life in Asia? Are you less Asian because you’ve never been to Asia, but you have cultural ties? As being a Half English, Half Malaysian, I was never accepted in England. I was never accepted in Malaysia. So, I was like, you know what, fuck it. I don’t care what other people say. I’m going to relate to whoever I feel most attached to and that’s my Asian side.”
He knows there are still naysayers for his casting, but director Jon M. Chu chose him because he was the right man for the job. “I was the 11th hour pick,” Golding recalled. “I was four days before they had to close and bring over to Warner Bros. [who] they wanted to pick. Jon found my name, researched the hell out of me, and got a hold of me. Jon has a catalog of every Asian actor on video and tape because his search was extensive. There were so many overly-qualified people who could do the job, but no one rung through as much as I did. I just hope that we achieved what we wanted to achieve and [brought] to life these characters who haven’t been heard.”
With that, Golding understands that he has automatically become a westernized Asian representative for Asian Americans. He knows that this movie — the first major studio film in 25 years to feature an all-westernized Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club — is more than just a movie, it is a movement.
“It shouldn’t be a big deal,” Golding says. “Sadly, that is a big deal. That highlights the fact that there is not enough representation. Not enough people of color or ethnicities telling these stories that originated anywhere but America. To me, it’s a sense of pride. Also, why did it take so long?”
Being based in Singapore, Golding’s eyes were opened by the lack of representation in western media. “It’s become more highlighted since I’ve been on Crazy Rich Asians,” he revealed. “I recognized there weren’t many faces on the big screen of big movies but because I lived in Asia for so long and grew up in Asia watching Hong Kong martial arts, and the Taiwanese film industry is huge. But, they are not Hollywood big budget movies which are globally recognized. That was a difference for me. Talking to the rest of the cast, I used to watch TV and there were our people on there all the time.”
He credits Warner Bros., the investors, and the producing partners for putting so much faith in the film and in author Kevin Kwan’s books.
“It’s something that is about time,” Golding says bluntly. “It’s bloody about time. Actually, it’s [a little] too late, but let’s make the most of it and move forward.”