The decision to spend the time, months and months away from your friends and family—that’s your sacrifice. So what are you doing it for?
Henry Golding arrived seemingly overnight—a ready-made charming prince—and what’s more, he’s the first one to tell you he never intended on being an actor. The British-Malaysian heartthrob spent the majority of his professional career as a TV presenter before a surprise audition for 2018’s box-office smash Crazy Rich Asians turned him into the global sensation he is today. He has built up plenty of steam with his subsequent forays into cinema: as the fooled husband in Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor and the enigmatic stranger in Last Christmas, and a live-wire crook in Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen. In 2021, Golding will turn action hero, headlining Robert Schwentke’s Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. In an increasingly versatile career that is certain to arouse envy, the debonair actor is reportedly in the running to take over as the next James Bond. If there is one through-line in his young filmography, what he’s so often tasked with is to be dashing, which, granted, he’s very good at doing. His latest role in Hong Khaou’s understated, evocative drama Monsoon comes as a revitalizing departure from everything else we’ve seen him do so far. So clean-cut in his breakthrough debut, here, he’s crumpled and vulnerable—a matinee idol dented by his character’s existential malaise. But is he any less handsome? Of course not. He is simply excellent in what is effectively his first real dramatic role that’s bound to win plenty more admirers.
Golding is impressively nuanced as Kit, a British-Vietnamese man who returns to the old country 30 years after being spirited away by his mother, fleeing the turbulent wake of the Vietnam War. The trip’s purpose is poignant: his goal is to find a place to scatter his mother’s ashes. Meanwhile, he tries to flesh out what few memories he has of Saigon. But Vietnam has changed a lot since he was last there, and so has Kit, who can now only remember fragments of what was once his native tongue. He is now almost a tourist in the city, grappling to find some slender connection to his birth nation. Another reason that Kit is so bewildered by his new-old surroundings, a rapidly modernizing country that doesn’t match his patchy childhood memories, is because his parents rarely spoke about their homeland after their untimely displacement. After trying to find his bearings, Kit meets up with the welcoming but wary Lee (David Tran), the cousin left behind. As you might expect, Lee’s life has been less privileged than Kit’s so there is a mixture of jealousy, sadness and guilt between them, even as Lee does everything he can to assist Kit on this pilgrimage. As Monsoon progresses, Kit finds himself increasingly torn between his national and cultural identities, but refreshingly, he seems completely at ease with his sexuality, striking up a romantic relationship with Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a black American designer living in Saigon.
Anthem linked up with Golding recently to discuss his past, present, and even brighter future.
Monsoon arrives on November 13.
Not much, just talking to you. How are you doing?
I’m good, man. I’m really good. I’m freezing my ass off, weirdly, in Venice. It’s chilly!
I noticed it’s getting super chilly out west. I was hanging out in Palos Verdes the other day.
It’s winter already.
Monsoon is beautiful. It resonated with me because I have a similar immigrant experience—not only with Kit, but with you as well I’ve come to find out—and in thinking about cultural identity and displacement. When you read the material, it must’ve invited a lot of opportunities for reflection and introspection. Was it very relatable to you from the start?
It was one of the reasons why I was attracted to it to be honest with you, but not in the way you perhaps think. I moved over from Malaysia, where I was living as a kid, to the UK at about 8 years old. Then I grew up, through primary school, secondary school, and into my working career until I was about 21. Then I made a choice to go back to Malaysia and it was that transition from the UK to Malaysia, which is very similar in a sense to Kit’s experience. It’s turning up to Malaysia like, “This is gonna be great. This is gonna be easy. I’m half-Malaysian. Of course they’re going to welcome me!” and getting there and just feeling like, “What the hell is this? This is crazy!” Not understanding the culture. Not being able to speak the language. Not being able to recognize the Kuala Lumpur I had remembered as a kid. I knew nobody. So that sense of displacement is what I found similar with Kit. That was one of the main things really.
It’s a very particular experience, isn’t it? It’s such a specific thing to inhabit.
With memories and imagery, you don’t know if they’re real or just you making up stuff, trying to remember something from when you were a kid. So when the truth and the realities are finally in front of you, it’s often very different. It’s not how you remembered it! Hong [Khaou] saw that and saw the truth in that. That’s what he wanted for Kit.
You’ve previously spoken about how, when you made that move to the UK as a kid, there were new feelings, new people, and new smells. It reminded me of when I moved to America at 8 years old. The first smell I ever associated with here was Target. The store…
Monsoon captures Kit’s overwhelming sense of displacement so convincingly, especially when he’s reorienting himself in the environment. How did you draw out the truth in those wordless moments?
It almost becomes a character in itself—the subtleties. You come to understand that Kit is talking to somebody, and that person is himself. He’s internalizing. He has grown up learning to internalize his emotions and that’s one of the issues, I think. All these frustrations that he’s had with his parents. They never spoke to him about their emotions. They never told him how they felt about leaving Vietnam. He grew up in a family where they all built these emotional walls. So in those moments where he goes in on himself, you see his eyes glaze over in the middle of a busy street. That’s him kind of talking to himself, trying to understand. He’s so discombobulated because his parents told him one thing and the reality of the situation is completely different. It’s like, “What else didn’t they tell me?” The more that he found out from Lee, his cousin, and the more that he explored with Lin [played by Molly Harris], the artist friend—it’s such a beautiful and lovely character journey. When you see Kit at the beginning of the film, he’s so tense and he’s so enclosed. Then later on in the movie, he kind of comes out of his shell. He becomes more personal with Lewis. He cracks a smile near the end.
Although he’s trying to piece it together in whatever roundabout way he can, the memories that his parents never passed down to him are now gone forever. Did you know more about his backstory or is what we see pretty much what was laid out for you?
That was pretty much the undertaking. The only thing I would add is something that the film doesn’t spell out. It’s easier to see it in the script than in the movie because we didn’t want to make it too obvious. So the real motivation for Kit’s trip was to find a resting place for his parents’ ashes, right? But he comes to the realization that his parents never wanted to come back home to Vietnam because it was never their home. For 35 years, they had made a home and a loving family in the UK and that was where they would want to rest and be. Perhaps for their own personal reasons, but that’s also why they didn’t want to talk about Vietnam, because they had left that in the past. They decided to cut that off from themselves and make a new life and new opportunities for the family. But because they didn’t have that communication within the family, between the parents and their children, there was no understanding. So it’s all guesswork. Poor old Kit thinks that he’s going on this noble quest, but in that, the quest becomes really for himself. It’s to find his true identity, rather than find his family history. It’s to find him.
Your personal tattoos are prominently featured in the movie and I understand that one of those you got at the end of your Bejalai journey. I wonder if that tattoo gives Kit an added texture with meaning.
When I got that tattoo, it was for my last big presenting gig [on BBC’s The Travel Show] where I went back to my roots in the jungles of Borneo and spent time with tribes, under this premise of trying to go through Bejalai, which is a journey into manhood. At the end of it, you would represent the journey through a tattoo so I got that thigh tattoo. It all coincided with my marriage, my wedding. It’s celebrating my journey up until that point and the starting of a new one. But what I didn’t know at the time was, six months after my wedding, my life would change with Crazy Rich Asians when I got the call from Jon Chu to be in his film. So for me, that tattoo represents a big pivot point in my life where it really went 180 degrees and shot to the stars. It’s a magical point.
Something to really appreciate about this character, too—in Hong’s writing of it and in your portrayal—is how Kit’s sexuality is addressed, which is to say that it’s not addressed. It just is. I think you’re so right when you say that Monsoon is not a journey into Kit’s queerness. There’s something beautiful in that his queerness is resolved even before the film begins. That’s how it’s normalized and it’s just one aspect of him. What has your experience been like in talking about being a straight actor in a gay role?
I mean, it’s valid. You have to have these conversations because you can’t let these types of roles fly under the radar. There are so limited roles for the LGBTQ community. But at the same time, like with Kit, sexuality should be normalized. It shouldn’t even be a factor. If a gay actor wants to play a straight role, that shouldn’t be questioned. But we’re not at that stage yet. That is the issue. So to have a character where his sexuality is normalized and the story isn’t about his sexuality, it’s refreshing. It’s weirdly refreshing because it shouldn’t even feel refreshing, you know what I mean? That should be the status quo in a sense. I’ve had so many messages from young gay men who say, “I’ve never seen representation like that between a gay Asian man in love with a black man. I’ve never been able to experience that on a format like the big screen or in a movie like that, so thank you.” I’d never even looked at it that way because our main goal was to make a movie about identity and finding solace in your history. I think in approaching it like that, with the respect that’s needed and with the understanding, we made the best film that we possibly could.
Just broadening out a bit, years ago, before Crazy Rich Asians came along, I asked an Asian-American professor who teaches film studies at UCLA what it would take to sexualize Asian men in Western cinema. As you might expect, she didn’t have clear answers. Kudos to you for breaking down these barriers. It’s incredibly important to see you at the movies. You’re the heartthrob I was asking about.
Thank you so much, man.
You’re amongst a stable of actors being considered for the next James Bond.
It’s such a gift to be able to be a part of that conversation, you know what I mean? And could we imagine this conversation happening pre-Crazy Rich or five, ten years ago? I don’t know—that’s a tough one. We’ve had industry leaders though. It’s not new. But I think it’s the timing of it that’s different this time. I think the world is ready for change. We’ve had Daniel Day Lew— [laughs] Daniel Dae Kim!
They’re both great!
We’ve had Daniel Dae Kim, we’ve had the Jason Scott Lees—our heartthrobs in cinema. I think we were fortunate to be coming out of the time where people have had enough of ordinary, cookie-cutter heroes—blond hair, blue eyes, white. Let’s shake it up! Let’s get something exciting out there. Let’s give people a sense of reality. The world is so universal now and it’s not the end of the journey. It is the beginning in a way and there’s a lot more to happen. I’m really looking forward to seeing Minari with Steven Yeun. I hope to God he gets the [Oscar] nomination because we need somebody to break that ceiling. That would be wonderful. We gotta help support each other.
Despite it never feeling like enough because we have so much to catch up on in terms of representation, it has felt momentous when Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars, when Minari won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and with your visibility, Henry, in the mainstream arena. Now you’re going to headline Snake Eyes, which I know you wrapped on before COVID hit.
Yeah! Obviously a lot of productions were put on pause or delayed. Releases were pushed back. We’re coming out next October. It was meant to be out now, essentially.
That must feel weird, right?
It’s a weird, weird concept. This year has gone past so fast.
What’s happening with the second and third installments of Crazy Rich?
I meet up with Jon—me and Jon are like best buddies. We’ve been discussing a little bit about Crazy Rich. He thinks he’s cracked it with the team as to what direction to take it, so there is progression. I’m excited to say that there’s movement on that front. Of course, it’s a long process. And we have the first one to be compared to now. Before, it didn’t matter: “Let’s just throw shit on the wall and hope it sticks. It honestly worked? Amazing!” [laughs] But now we’re gonna be scrutinized against the first film. It has to kind of live up to that. But yeah, with the wait and everything, it’s been fortuitous because it’s allowed me the time with my loved ones. Throughout the entire pandemic, we’ve all refocused or realigned family and health and friends. Because we realized there is nothing else that matters. Work can be completed at home. Work can come at a different time and whathaveyou. But health and sanctity—
Just quickly going back to Snake Eyes, I spoke to your director when The Captain came out.
Oh wow. I gotta say, that’s one of my favorite films I’ve seen. It was weird because I hadn’t heard of it. They were like, “This is the film by Robert [Schwentke], the director they’re hiring for Snake Eyes.” I was like, “Awesome! Now I gotta watch it.” Then I was like, “Woah!”
Robert has one of the most diverse filmographies I’ve seen from a director so I asked him how he has managed to do that. He basically said that you have to say no to things a lot. This is the same guy who turned down the chance to direct the Game of Thrones pilot. Do you see some truth in what he says?
Yeah, I think it’s very true. A lot of people say that you’re only as good as your last film here, which I don’t quite believe. But I think there’s truth in what he says, for sure. Especially in a sort of fledgling career like mine, it’s really important to get the range in characters and the stories. We went from romcom with Crazy Rich to a kind of thriller/dark comedy with A Simple Favor. I filmed Monsoon, which is very much dramatic, and then I did Last Christmas, which went back into the romcom realm. The Gentlemen with Guy [Ritchie] is your gangster film. Then we’ve got Snake Eyes. To have that spectrum has been wonderful and it has in some ways steered my decision-making in terms of what I want to do next. I think it really is about finding the right filmmakers with the right material. With another romcom, if I love the filmmaker and I’m in love with the script, of course I’d do it. It’s about making the films where you don’t mind spending five months of your life on, essentially. The decision to spend the time, months and months away from your friends and family—that’s your sacrifice. So what are you doing it for? Are you doing it for the paycheck or are you doing it to be able to come out of it like, “Man, I loved making the movie. This was a pleasure to be a part of. I can’t wait to have it in my collection and stan”?
Were you aware that Korean Air has had Last Christmas in their in-flight entertainment since January? It’s another weird COVID thing. Now really everyone has seen it.
[laughs] Well, Christmas is coming up so I think they’re going to crank it out again anyway.