Few comic book characters mean more to me than G.I. Joe’s resident Ninja Commando. Created by Larry Hama and based on the Hasbro action figure designs, Snake Eyes wasn’t just my favorite action figure, he unlocked my imagination as a child. A silent warrior with a classified name and background meant that anyone could be beneath that iconic all-black mask. So for years, Snake Eyes looked like me until the comics eventually revealed the man underneath was yet another white-guy-who-happens-to-be-best-Asian.
So in the summer of 2019, when Paramount Pictures announced Henry Golding was going to star in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, I shed a tear for that five year old version of me who will finally get to see his favorite character look like him* onscreen.
*Fine, Snake Eyes doesn’t exactly look like me. Granted, no one looks like Henry Golding.
Now that the Snake Eyes trailer is finally online, the rest of the world can share in my joy!
I recently had the great honor to speak with Henry about being cast as Snake Eyes and what it means to take on such an iconic character.
One thing I’ve been talking about for years is the notion that Snake Eyes could and should be an Asian American character. What was it about the character that drew you to the role, and how did you approach embodying him?
Golding: I think it goes to what you said, it was the fact that they went to me and asked me if I was willing to play this character. Going against what has been known in the past — this character was a blonde hair, blue-eyed warrior, but for the sole reason of being “a fish out of water.” His race was a foil, and that’s what I wanted to prove wrong. I wanted to make people understand that even as Asian Americans, when you’re taken back to Asia, or Japan for this instance, you are going to be a fish out of water! There’s no doubt about it! Cultures are so complex and so different, and I always describe it as like, you can take a Caucasian person from America and drop them in the middle of Europe, you think they’re going to feel at home? No way!
That was the beauty of Crazy Rich Asians. Constance’s character was all about the culture clash of the Asian American in Asia.
The argument is always, “only the white guy can be the fish out of water in Asia.” That totally erases the lived experience of Asian Americans.
It plays to the race narrative. People are still, sadly, willing to believe you have to be of a different color to be a fish out of water. It’s stupid! It’s absolutely insane! So let’s throw that out the window, take this iconic character and do what was necessary to give him what people really understand to be a fish out of water — his history, his choices, his motivations, the bad decisions that he’s made, the lessons he’s going to be learning — and see him as a human rather than a box on a government form: “Asian, Hispanic, White, Black,” like let’s do away with that.
I think why Snake Eyes was so compelling to me as a kid was because the filecard on the back of the figure said “real name: classified; background: classified,” you know? You didn’t really know what he looked like or sounded like under the mask, so I would assume he was Asian. Because he was my favorite character, he must look like me under there. I’ve actually told Larry [Hama] this before, but it was heartbreaking when I learned Snake was white in the comics. So the idea that whoever under that mask could be anyone is what’s powerful.
Exactly. And with this origin story, it gives the believability that anyone can become someone like Snake Eyes. Because he is human at the end of the day. He’s not a superhero. He’s not been gifted with these powers. He didn’t fall in a vat of nuclear sauce and came out with, like, bursting eyeballs. He’s a guy who went through the ringer. He’s been dragged through the dirt, but he decided to pick himself up. He decided to make the right choices and make amends for the wrong ones that he made. All of it is explained in the story which is the most exciting part. This movie is all about character creation, and a character that is so complex as Snake Eyes needs a whole movie to explain him. And that’s why we’re so excited!
He’s one of those characters who always had mysterious origins, so getting to see that play out is incredibly exciting! To that point, as someone who will hopefully get to play this role in future installments, were you ever concerned that one day the role will consist of no talking and never showing your face?
Not at all. I think creatively, it can be sort of worked with. There are moments where, because of who he is as a character, he doesn’t need to say anything. His actions speak louder than his words. We definitely didn’t make him some sort of chatterbox or funny guy. That’s not who he is. So creatively, we made the decision to give him the dialogue we did. And you’ll see it’s perfect because with everything he says, there’s so much meaning behind it. He’s not talking for the sake of talking. But there are going to be times where he takes that silence and he truly is that character. But of course, you can’t live behind a mask your entire life. It goes back to our first conversation, he’s human. He’s a dude just like you and me. But he just has extraordinary talents in which he worked hard for.
One of those human elements is his relationship with Tommy, aka Storm Shadow. What was it like working with Andrew Koji and playing that friendship-turned-rivalry-turned-maybe friendship again?
You’re completely right, because it’s one of the most complex relationships in comic book history. One moment, they’re on the same side; the next moment, they’re fighting against each other; the next one, they’re combining forces for the good of whatever it is, they’re back and forth. But the through-line is their history, and this is what we build in this movie. You need to understand what drives them to have such a passionate relationship moving forward. Why are they so feverishly sort of hating each other, but at the same time have this sense of brotherhood. You need that sense of jeopardy within a relationship, and I think breaking all the characters down and starting from the beginning, you will only be able to get that. So moving forward, this universe of G.I. Joes will only go from strength to strength if we do exactly what we’re doing, and that’s micro-examining every character, giving them the history they deserve.
Well I can’t wait! The last question I’ll ask involves the fact that Jon Chu discovered you for Crazy Rich Asians but before that, he directed what is the best G.I. Joe movie — until July 23, that is — G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
When you got the part, did you reach out to Jon at all to say, “Hey man, we’re both in the Joe family now!”
[Jon and I] have been best friends this entire period, and he had Ray [Park’s] Snake Eyes character [poster] on his wall at home, and when I came to him with the news, he pointed to it and was just like, “this is unbelievable! From finding you in Singapore to who you’re becoming and now you’re the character that I’ve had on my wall and worked on in these movies.” Jon is like the best human being and the most amazing cheerleader in my career, and he’s blown away at what we’ve been able to show him. He’s so excited for this movie, and I agree, he made one of the best G.I. Joe films. I loved it! He couldn’t be prouder.
As you can see, Snake Eyes is my favorite character, and I’m so honored to get the chance to speak with you about this movie.
Good luck in the future, and I can’t wait to put your action figure next to all of the other ones on my shelf!
One hundred per cent! Thanks, Keith!
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins opens only in theaters on July 23!