“I thought from day one, this guy is going to be a big star,” said Hollywood director Paul Feig, whose mystery thriller A Simple Favor starring Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick just opened here. He was referring to Henry Golding, the half-Iban, half-British actor who starred in the blockbuster rom-com Crazy Rich Asians, and impressed Feig’s wife so much that she suggested the Bridesmaids director cast him as Blake Lively’s husband in A Simple Favor.
Suddenly, Henry Golding is everywhere: front row at Tom Ford wedged in between Vogue US editrix Anna Wintour and rapper Cardi B, charming Ellen DeGeneres on her talkshow, strolling down the teal carpet at Crazy Rich Asians’ premieres being greeted with deafening cheers, and making the covers of major publications, including this magazine.
When we spoje to Henry, he was phoning us from the luxurious Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills, where the Malaysia-born TV host-turned-thesp is putting up while promoting Crazy Rich Asians. “What’s up? Hometown represent!” Henry, 31, chirps warmly to us, sounding genuinely glad to hear a familiar Singlish accent. This Singapore PR has called our island home for the past six years, where he did very Singaporean things like queue up for one Michelin star chicken rice, get around on SBS buses and lunch with his shirtless dad at home.
And, er, secretly indulge in his video game obsession when his wife’s not looking, just like most of our guy friends. “I watch [online game] Fortnite videos after a long shoot day. It’s so sad,” Henry admitted in an interview.
“My wife [Liv Lo] pretty much shut down my computer game-playing really early into the relationship, so I have to do it vicariously through the teenagers playing this game. I know all of the top players’ names. It’s embarrassing,” he added. Okay, we think he can at least afford Grab rides and maybeee skip the chicken rice queue now, since Henry Golding is currently, well, gold status.
His own rise to become Hollywood’s leading man du jour probably deserves a movie of its own. Born in Sarawak to a British father and Malaysian mother (who’s from Sarawak’s Iban tribe), Henry spent his childhood in Terengganu before moving to London, where he worked as a professional hairstylist in a posh hair salon.
“When you’re in a seat getting your hair done, there’s this instant trust. People just tell [me] all sorts of things,” he had quipped. It was these tête-à-têtes with clients that would later serve him well, when he switched lines to become a TV travel host for Channel NewsAsia, BBC World News and Discovery Channel.
But for a while before this, people knew Henry as that intrepid travel dude who traipsed to the Borneo jungles to do a gruelling rite known as bejalai. It was an Iban tradition passed down by his mother’s tribe, which involved enduring a 10-hour process of tattooing a dragon’s head and fig vine on his thigh with a needle and mallet. He scaled Mount Kinabalu after a devastating earthquake to do an investigative piece on the earthquake victims. He was grittier than Bear Grylls on a desert jaunt…
Then unexpectedly, Hollywood came calling. Chinese-American director Jon M Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Step Up 3D) was working on an adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-selling novel. (The book spawned two sequels, 2015’s China Rich Girlfriend and 2017’s Rich People Problems.)
The movie was fast garnering major buzz as the first Hollywood studio flick in more than a decade to feature an all-Asian cast since 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Jon was looking for his perfect leading man for Nick Young, the story’s Singaporean main character who brings his American-Chinese girlfriend to his hometown to meet his ultra-high maintenance family.
After a worldwide search that turned up no Nicks, a mutual accountant friend of Henry and Jon’s suggested Henry to the director. “They sent me about three or four e-mails asking me to audition," Henry explained on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. "But I was like, 'No, no, no, no, no. I'm not an actor. I’m sure there's somebody absolutely amazing ready for this role. And the studio's not going to gamble on a newbie or a greenhorn."
But it’s confirm-chopely the time for Henry to shine. ’Cos against all odds, he’s now the star of a history-making rom-com which opened at No.1 in the US to rave reviews (93 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes). Unsurprisingly, a sequel is in the works. People all over the world swooned over Henry’s exotic good looks, the tight abs he flaunted in the movie, and that engaging British accent that turned Fallon into a dreamy fangirl. Like Nick Young, Henry is equally at home in a sweaty T-shirt, walking on a dirt track and talking to the camera for his travelogues, or spiffed up in a Tom Ford suit on the red carpet at a movie premiere.
There are plenty of pretty boys in Hollywood, Singapore and some say Malaysia. Perhaps what sets Henry Golding apart is how easily he has adapted to his newfound acting career, and how grateful he is for his rapid success, even when he’s thrown headfirst into a supernova zooming for the Tinseltown A-list.
After he was cast as Nick, Henry promptly thanked the accountant who pointed him to the role by tracking down a pink Hello Kitty mug he knew she would love. He developed such a bromance with Jon M Chu, he was one of the groomsmen at Jon’s wedding in Napa, California.
Cynics might call this Good Guy Henry thing a PR spiel. But before all of this blew up, our pal who worked on the set of Crazy Rich Asians expressed surprise to us that Henry had opted to go back to his own home while filming in Singapore, instead of enjoying the perks of the lavish five-star hotel where the rest of the cast were housed.
That’s not to say that nothing ruffles Henry's feathers. When we ask him how he would rate his first major Hollywood acting performance, his deep velvety voice turns icy. “A 10,” he replies reluctantly after a pause. Why a 10? We ask. “Why not? Can’t I be proud of my work? That’s a weird question to ask!” he replies testily. “You’re the only one who’d asked me to rate my acting!” Later, we would understand the root of his touchiness, when Henry tells us that his steep learning curve as a new actor also includes accepting that he “deserves to be [on the set]”.
Although it sounds like Henry's Crazy Rich Asians role dropped neatly into his lap, he has made sacrifices for this gig. To complete his screen test, he was summoned to LA right in the middle of his South African honeymoon in 2016, when he had just gotten hitched to Italian-Taiwanese TV host Liv Lo.
“Wife wasn't happy, still making up for it, but I think she loves me,” he once joked. He weathered his showbiz trial by fire with eloquence and charm, disarming critics who called his half-British blood in an Asian role “whitewashing”. Indignant netizens questioned why a Malaysia-born is playing a Singaporean. But Henry is unfazed, simply ’cos he knows he had paid his dues to be where he is in Hollywood today. “When I got the [acting] opportunities, I dove right in and proved that I could hold my own, which is the most important thing,” he avers.
Post-Crazy Rich Asians, Golding has A Simple Favor, a murder-mystery in which he stars in alongside Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, followed by Monsoon, an arthouse flick where he plays a young man who returns to his birth country of Vietnam to scatter his parents’ ashes. Busy, busy, busy.
But whether you think nasi lemak originated from Singapore or Malaysia, there’s no denying that Henry is on a roll. Or is he merely the flavour of the year, like Sam Worthington when he was in three back-to-back high profile movies, Avatar, Terminator Salvation and Clash of the Titans, only to go under the radar? Is he the next big star from Singapore (kinda) to break into Hollywood? Fann Wong had her shot in Shanghai Knights but she never followed that up, while Chin Han is the go-to character actor. Only time will tell.
Henry had also rececntly celebrated his second wedding anniversary with his wife Liv. “What does our future hold? That I can’t be sure of, but one thing for certain is that it’s me and you against it all @livvlo,” he Instagrammed. We aren’t clairvoyants, but we are sure there’s no time for Henry Golding like now.
8 DAYS: Not only is Crazy Rich Asians the first Hollywood studio to feature an all-Asian cast since 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, it also marks your acting debut. Did you feel the added pressure right from the start?
HENRY GOLDING: Not at all (laughs). To be honest, when we were filming it, we didn’t feel the kind of pressure that we are feeling now. We knew the project was super important, we knew it was groundbreaking. But now that there’s a media frenzy about us putting all our eggs in one basket, the pressure is definitely on. Thankfully, we made an amazing film. There has always been Asian cinema. The fact that Crazy Rich Asians is a contemporary piece made by a Hollywood studio like Warner Brothers, it makes a massive statement: the system is finally appreciating other cultures. So yes, there is absolutely pressure on the set. But did we let it get to our heads? No. We knew we had to concentrate and not worry about what was to come and just worry about what we were doing then.
What are your thoughts about director Jon M Chu and Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan turning down a huge payday from Netflix to get the movie in cinemas?
It was absolutely the right decision to make. I mean, there is nothing like Hollywood. It has so much history and so much behind it. The fact that Jon made the decision with the support of everyone, including all the producers, Bradford Simpson, Nina Jacobson and John Penotti. Kevin Kwan put his faith in Jon and Jon made the decision for the right reasons. It was a statement of being on that platform, saying that our story was worth telling on the big screen in this pantheon that’s Hollywood. That’s what we deserve. We can’t just have it streamed into your living room. Jon wanted people to drive to the cinema, park their car, buy their popcorn, sit in a dark room and say: “Tell us a story.” That’s the magic of cinema. You don’t get that when you’re on a one-to-one service. Netflix is fantastic, there’s nothing bad about it, but it’s not for this movie and [the statement we’re making].
After Crazy Rich Asians, you got cast in the Blake Lively-Anna Kendrick-starring mystery thriller A Simple Favor, and Monsoon. You’re on a roll! Would you turn anything down?
Of course. Every choice is a decision towards something bigger. I’ve got three roles — in a rom-com, a suspense thriller, and [an indie] drama. I have a spectrum of movies I’d like to be in. We’re aiming for a big number at the end of the year, so the next project is going to be an important one. We’re looking at materials now, and the biggest thing we can say now is no. If the material is good, I will be considering the role. It’s the story that takes precedent. You have to be [receptive] towards any role. If there’s a good script and an amazing director attached to it, then they’ll find a role suitable for me.
Was it easy to transition from a rom-rom to a mystery thriller like A Simple Favor?
[A Simple Favor director] Paul Feig is a legend in Hollywood and he’s the nicest human being. To directly jump from Jon Chu to Paul Feig, with a bigger star power of Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, was great. It was another experience that was equally rewarding in a different way. We filmed the movie in Toronto for two months, and I was able to live there for that time. It was magnificent, it was great working with a masterful cast for such intimate scenes. I loved every minute of it.
What did you like most about working on A Simple Favor?
I enjoyed spending time with Paul, having another perspective from a director and working on a totally different genre of acting. It’s less smiles, more suspicion and broodiness. Everything about it was a joy to work on. And Blake and Anna are amazing, extremely professional and so talented. It’s been an absolute pleasure and it was a vast learning experience acting opposite them. Holy moly, it’s Blake and Anna, Jesus! They’re amazing, very successful actresses and very strong women.
The trailer shows your character making out with Blake Lively. How do you communicate with your wife about filming intimate scenes?
She’s the biggest Blake Lively fan, so she didn’t have a problem with that, fortunately (laughs). If I get a script I’m interested in, I always have her read it. We go through all the story elements, what’s going to be happening between my character and other characters. It’s all about communication. I keep her in the loop and we discuss things as much as possible. I was never an actor before, so this is all new to her as well. It’s a learning process for the both of us.
You did jump straight into leading movie roles from a TV hosting background.
I took aspects of my previous jobs and transferred them to my acting. I used the empathy I [gained] from all the experiences I had [hosting shows on] Channel NewsAsia, BBC and Discovery Channel. Empathy is one of the greatest tools in acting when you’ve to put yourself in somebody else’s position. The overwhelming thing was being on set with amazing actors, having a hundred people milling around you, but you learn fast. If you don’t keep up with your head above the water, you’re going to go under. It was a very sharp learning curve for me.
What sort of things did you have to pick up immediately?
I don’t know (laughs). Acting came very naturally to me. It’s not acting. It’s reality, channeling your character and building up the backstory in your head. It was more about understanding that I deserve to be there, and that people have faith in me and they want to see what I can bring to the film.
It must have been very frustrating for you then, when people say that your role in Crazy Rich Asians was whitewashed since you’re half-British.
Well, that goes without saying. Before [Singapore became independent], everyone was Malaysian, right? How do you define being more Singaporean than Malaysian? It’s not the case of labels; it’s how you feel and what’s in your heart. It’s what you identify with most that counts. If you’re proud to be Singaporean, you’re Singaporean. I’m Malaysian and I’m British, and I’m proud to be both. But it’s fair for people to comment — the dialogue should be there since Hollywood has a history of whitewashing. It’s something that needs to be addressed. My character in A Simple Favor is Asian, and it’s a step like that in the right direction. It’s about the bravery of the director and the studio, and normalising all of this. Jon saw so many actors in Singapore, Malaysia, Hongkong, Beijing, US and the UK, but not one single person came close to being Nick Young. And [it turns out] I was the right person for the job. If someone doesn’t fit the bill or has the right skills to portray the role properly, then they’re not right for the role. You’re not going to give the CEO’s job to an intern!
Your Hollywood success came almost overnight. How do you stay grounded?
Well, people always say that about other people who work hard. They only see the results, they never see the culmination of the effort. To me, if you don’t work hard and you’re not great to work with, you will never get a second or third movie. When I got the opportunities, I dove right in and proved I could hold my own, which is the most important thing. So yeah, [acting] is definitely my passion and we’re going to continue to tell brilliant stories the way they should be told. Colourblind roles, that’s what we are striving for.
How has your life changed since you went to Hollywood?
I haven’t been able to spend much time at home in Singapore. I’ve been on the road for literally four months, and only had one night in Singapore in between that. I miss Singapore. That’s where I’ve lived for the past six years and I can’t wait to come back.
You got married in 2016. Any plans to have kids?
Absolutely, at some point. It’s every young couple’s dream to have a family. That’s something you deal with. But you can only plan so much (laughs). It’s something you adapt your life to.
You used to be a professional hairstylist. Do you still do your own hair for the red carpet now?
Once in a while I do, actually! When you’re doing your own hair, you know how your hair lies and the right products for it. Usually I get a little funny when someone else is doing my hair. I’d be watching [the hairstylist] closely to make sure they’re doing it right. But I’ve learnt to keep my mouth shut!
Do you notice any differences between being interviewed by Asian and Western media?
It helps to have media training. All the work I did in Singapore helped. To be honest, they didn’t really ask very different questions. Most of them have seen the movie, and they were more curious about the story element and how much it means in the bigger picture. Sometimes if they haven’t seen the movie, they can only depend on a press kit to ask questions from. The fact that everyone loved the film and were really passionate with the questions, means that they were more in-depth. The reception has been amazing so far. Almost everyone has seen the film and the response is beyond anything we’ve expected. Not one single person had come up to us and said: “Yeah, it was okay.” The response has always been mad. It just goes back to the tradition of the story being key, and it just so happens that Crazy Rich Asians has an all-Asian cast. It’s super important to people, and I’m glad that we have achieved both — to have an all-Asian cast and a film to be proud of at the same time.
A Simple Favor is in cinemas now.