Director Jon Chu was on deadline to cast the part of Nick Young, the male lead of his film Crazy Rich Asians, based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan. But despite going so far as to invite anyone to submit a video audition on social media, Chu hadn’t found the perfect Nick—the magnetic, Oxford-educated heir of one of Singapore’s wealthiest families.
Enter Lisa from accounting. She had met this guy Henry Golding five years ago when he hosted travel shows for the BBC and the Discovery channel, and she was struck by his charisma, his British accent, and... Well, look at him. Chu follows him on Instagram. Golding screen-grabs the notification. Asks his manager what it means when a Hollywood director randomly follows you. “They’re casting for Crazy Rich Asians!” he’s told. He starts reading the book. But before he’s able to finish, Chu gets in touch. “I’ve got two questions for you: Can you act, and will you read for me?” One audition later and Golding is a newly minted actor in this year’s biggest rom-com.
Pure luck? Maybe. But then you learn about his Jedi-mind-trick-like optimism. “Hi, I’m Henry. I’m a television host” is how he would introduce himself when he was twenty-one, having left behind his job as a hairdresser in London to make it in Kuala Lumpur. The catch? He wasn’t a TV host. But the fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude worked. “Sometimes it’s just that mental switch in yourself that changes and opens doors that you would never imagine,” says Golding, now 31.
“We knew that this film would be putting everybody on the path of normalising leading roles with Asian faces attached to them.”
Although it’s unusual for a first-time actor to nab such a huge role, it’s rarer still for the part to have such social significance: Crazy Rich Asians is the first American film with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, based on another novel about the Asian diaspora, was in theaters more than 25 years ago. The potential for this movie to bring Asians to the forefront in Hollywood in the wake of recent whitewashing scandals like Tilda Swinton’s casting as a Tibetan monk in Doctor Strange is not lost on Golding, or the rest of the close-knit cast. “Everybody was from a different part of the world: the U.K., Australia, America, we had Singaporeans, Malaysians, and they’d all been through trials and tribulations of being Asians in non-Asian countries, of always having this turmoil of ‘Do I belong here?’ We knew that this film would be putting everybody on the path of normalizing leading roles with Asian faces attached to them,” he says.
“Jimmy O. Yang [Bernard Tai in Crazy Rich Asians and Jian Yang on Silicon Valley] really highlighted the fact that he never spent time—real time—with other Asians in entertainment. He was just like, ‘This is why we’re not united enough. This is something we should be striving for—just supporting each other.’ We haven’t gotten to a stage where we can help push each other onto the platforms that we need to be pushed onto to get the word out to the rest of the world.”
While he wants to continue telling Asian narratives—he recently wrapped the film Monsoon, about a man who returns to Vietnam to spread his parents’ ashes—he and his team are focused on leading Hollywood roles. He’ll costar alongside Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (out September 14), a fun, twist-filled suburban whodunit. “I’ve become like Paul’s nephew,” he jokes. But Golding’s dream job? “Anything that Denis Villeneuve is attached to, like Dune. I would love to be in a Bond movie. I would love to be in Star Wars. I’m ready to work hard.” Plus, he’ll have no trouble introducing himself.
This article appears in the Autumn '18 issue of Esquire Malaysia. Get the digital edition here.