As a child growing up in an international expat community in Dungun, Malaysia, Henry Golding used to tell his mum off whenever she tried to teach him Malay. Everyone they knew spoke English anyway; why did he have to learn? All he wanted to do was to fit 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.”
With a Malaysian mum of Iban ancestry and an English dad, Golding, 33, has spent his whole life navigating two cultures but feeling as if he doesn’t quite fully belong to either one. Being of mixed heritage meant “never quite understanding a sense of home”. Was it Malaysia, where he was born? Or England, where he moved to when he was eight? When, soon after filming Crazy Rich Asians, the romcom blockbuster that would make him an overnight sensation, Golding got the script for Monsoon, he connected straight away with its sensitive exploration of a gay British Vietnamese man’s search for identity.
In Lilting director Hong Khaou’s lyrical new drama, Golding plays Kit, a refugee who fled to England when he was six to escape the aftermath of the Vietnamese war. He returns to Ho Chi Minh City many years later, weighed down by grief, to scatter his parents’ ashes. Back in his homeland, which has changed so much he no longer recognises it, Kit feels like an outsider. “He’s from Vietnam,” says Golding via Zoom from the Los Angeles home he shares 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?”
It’s a question you can imagine Golding asking himself. He describes his new life, after his family moved from Malaysia to Surrey, as “a slap in the face”. Speaking with a cut-glass British accent that has a slight transatlantic drawl, he recalls the playground taunts that would rain down on him as the new kid at 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.’”
It was a harsh reminder to a young Golding that “you’re different, you’re not British, you’re not one of us”. Things gradually got better as he got older. “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.”
Once that yearning took hold, he couldn’t ignore it. It spurred him to leave a successful career as a hairdresser at Richard Ward’s salon in Sloane Square, London, when he was 21, to move to Kuala Lumpur with dreams of making it in TV. He packed his scissors just in case it didn’t work out.
It was a characteristically impulsive decision, but back in Malaysia, instead of feeling the warm embrace of homecoming, “I felt like a fish out of water. I was like: ‘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.” Neither England nor Malaysia, he admits, have ever felt like home to him. Instead, he finds his sense of belonging “wherever my loved ones are”.
Friendly, relaxed and upbeat, Golding is the very definition of a thoroughly nice chap. He has asked for the video to be turned off for our chat, perhaps a sign that he no longer wants people to focus so much on his appearance, one that is part Burberry model, part dashing matinee idol. During lockdown, he and his wife fostered a blue nose pitbull named Stella. “We fell in love! She was the sweetest dog.” Later, they marched until their feet were sore at the Black Lives Matter protests. “It was a crazy experience and so empowering.”
Golding’s easy charm and innate likability is what makes him such an appealing presence on screen. He was cast in Crazy Rich Asians – the first Hollywood film featuring an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 – with no prior acting experience. The director, Jon M Chu, was at his wits’ end after a fruitless search for his leading man. An accountant working in the film’s Malaysian production office suggested Golding. She had met the travel show host a few years before and claimed he was exactly like the character of Nick, Singapore’s most eligible bachelor in the groundbreaking 2018 film.
Not only was it a monumental step forward for Asian representation in Hollywood, it was also a box office juggernaut, quickly becoming 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 pipeline. Golding says they are working on the scripts but he doesn’t know much more than that. “We haven’t heard anything, to be honest with you.”
At home as a kid, Golding loved watching Princess Mononoke, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Police Story and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He dreamed of becoming a chef or a firefighter, and briefly considered joining the army, as his dad had. When he was 16, he dropped out of school to become a hair stylist. His working life seems to have been built on a series of bold career changes that required huge leaps of faith: moving to Malaysia with no experience as a TV presenter; becoming an actor with no acting credits to his name.
Though he exudes an air of cheerful confidence, he admits he’s 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.”
Most of his roles since Crazy Rich Asians, bar a villainous turn as a gangster in his childhood hero Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, haven’t strayed too far from the template of Nick. In A Simple Favour, a darkly humorous thriller, and then Last Christmas, a festive romcom with a twist – both directed by Paul Feig – he again played the charming love interest with sparky assurance, romancing more complex female leads.
In doing so, Golding occupies a rare space in Hollywood. Before him, east Asian actors were hardly ever portrayed in films as sexy. Instead, they were depicted as science geeks or martial arts fanatics; asexual sidekicks rather than desirable leading men. But Golding’s success has changed all that and he has managed to be cast in roles where his ethnicity isn’t even mentioned, opening the door for others to follow.
While his new status as a mainstream sex symbol represents a turning point for east Asian masculinity in popular western culture, it’s one he’s still getting used to. “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.”
For Feig, who was so impressed with Golding that he cast him in two films back-to-back, the actor’s skills hark back to cinema’s golden age. The pair have become good friends and enjoy catching 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.”
Emilia Clarke, his co-star in Last Christmas, was equally enthralled after they bonded while coming up with dance routines to UK garage songs on 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.”
And it’s this undeniable star quality that has propelled Golding to become a serious contender to replace Daniel Craig as James Bond when Craig finally – if the rumours are to be believed – bows out after No Time to Die. Is it time the world got its first half-east Asian 007? Golding takes a long pause. “It is the 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.
While the world is championing him to take over, there’s another film franchise that he’s not so shy about putting himself up for: The Matrix. Golding is a huge fan of the original films – his brother gave him the first one on VHS as a Christmas present when he was 12 – and credits it for igniting his love for movies. The fourth instalment, directed by Lana Wachowski, has resumed filming after production was halted by the pandemic and Golding would love 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.”
Monsoon, inspired by Khaou’s experiences as a Cambodian-Chinese refugee, feels like watching Golding flexing his acting muscles. Puffy-eyed, weary and at times muted in his ever-growing sense of loss and alienation, Kit is a far cry from the more polished characters we’re used to seeing him portray. He has dialled down the simmering magnetism to reveal a gentle vulnerability.
The film follows Kit’s tentative romance with an African American expat, Lewis, whom he meets on a dating app. Golding points out that the sex scenes between the pair reveal how their relationship deepens. “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.”
Next up, he will be taking on the superhero mantle in the GI Joe spin-off Snake Eyes, an origin story exploring the roots of the fierce ninja commando (a sequel is already being discussed even though it hasn’t been released yet), and voicing a shape-shifting tiger in the animated adaptation of the popular children’s book The Tiger’s Apprentice. Last year, he launched a production company, Long House Productions, which will be focusing on “thinking man’s action and sci-fi”. His dance card isn’t just full, it’s fit to burst.
In just three years, Golding has achieved what many actors spend half their lives trying to build and he’s making the most of being catapulted straight into leading man roles. While critics weren’t so kind about Last Christmas (“When holiday movies go very, very wrong,” said Rolling Stone), the experience seems to have toughened him up. “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.
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