You can take the boy out of Malaysia but you can’t take the Malaysian out of the boy.
Until early last year, it would have been a safe bet that few people outside Southeast Asia knew of a personable young television host named Henry Golding. All that is going to change when the much anticipated Jon M. Chu film adaptation of the Kevin Kwan novel Crazy Rich Asians rolls out on screens worldwide in August.
When STYLE first caught up with Golding at the Santos de Cartier watch launch in San Francisco in April, he was still able to enjoy some anonymity exploring the darkened venue while Hollywood names such as Jeremy Renner, Sofia Boutella and Lily Collins were ensconced in an enclosure with other guests. It was clear that the unassuming Golding was soaking up the new life that Crazy Rich Asians has catapulted him into, in the nicest possible way. There is a lot of hype surrounding the movie, the first Hollywood production starring an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. The story is set mainly in Singapore and begins when Nick Young, a seemingly low-key university professor in the US, returns home with his girlfriend, Rachel (Constance Wu), to attend a wedding.
It is only then that the unsuspecting Rachel learns what a catch she has landed. As the heir to one of Singapore’s biggest family fortunes, Nick is the island republic’s most eligible bachelor – in his own words, the “Prince Harry” of Singapore – and Rachel finds herself struggling to fend off infatuated gold-diggers, meddling relatives, and a highly disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh).
Golding was a surprise choice for the role of Nick, around whom the world of these crazy rich Asians revolves. Golding’s résumé until then had comprised of two jobs: hairdresser and travel show host, neither of which gave him an acting pedigree.
With an English father and a Malaysian mother from the Iban tribe in Sarawak, Golding’s mixed heritage also upset racial purists who felt he was “not Asian enough” for the role. The fact is that young Henry grew up in Sarawak and Terengganu in Malaysia until he moved to England when he was seven – and has been based first in Malaysia, then in Singapore, for the past 10 years.
Last year, after the production of Crazy Rich Asians, Golding returned to his tribe in Sarawak and underwent the bejalai, a traditional Iban ritual of discovery, where he had to endure the challenges of the jungle. His experience, from eating raw wild boar liver to hunting and sleeping in the jungle as well as enduring an excruciating 10-hour native tattoo session, was filmed for Discovery Channel Asia’s Surviving Borneo series.
“To be honest, most of the reaction – like 80 to 85 percent – was super positive. Of course people have the right to question my ethnicity in terms of being Asian, but I’ve always felt more Asian than anything so it never flummoxed me. It gave me the fuel to prove them wrong and that I was the right Nick Young for the movie,” says Golding, who has become used to straddling two cultures as his wife, model and yoga teacher Liv Lo, is also an Eurasian with Italian and Taiwanese parents.
“Never feeling really at home in any one country is always challenging. You realise that you have to lean on yourself and to own it. You own your identity; it is important to feel that way.”
Ethnicity aside, Golding has proved that he has what it takes to be a Hollywood actor: he is good-looking, has abs to kill for, and more importantly, he speaks perfect English. He has already been snapped up for two movies since Crazy Rich Asians finished shooting: Monsoon, an art house film by Vietnamese writer-director Hong Khaou, and Paul Feig’s thriller A Simple Favor opposite Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick.
His new-found success does not take away the thrill he felt when he got the call from director Chu to audition for the role of Nick. “I went through two three rounds of self tape. I went for a chemistry read in Los Angeles, came home, then went back for a screen test with Warner Brothers. It took three weeks before they told me whether I [had] got it. I was in limbo for that worst period of time. But it’s been an amazing journey,” says Golding, who had not read the book before Chu’s approach.
“But I definitely read it before the auditions and I did a lot of research into the role. I came up with a whole back history for Nick Young. We went out [to LA] about two or three weeks before shooting and started to discuss [it] with Jon.”
It did not prepare him for how nerve-racking the first day on set was, despite everyone being helpful. “It’s definitely worse in your head than it really is,” recalls the 31-year-old who beat Michelle Yeoh to being the first Malaysian celebrity to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
“Constance Wu was fantastic; she’s perfect as Rachel. But for me, Michelle Yeoh, it was like working with a legend. She is everything you wish and want her to be. I’m so proud to be working next to such a legendary Malaysian. I was absolutely overjoyed. Michelle was guiding me through a lot of things and also just [helping me] explore different avenues within acting. It was really helpful!”
Having seen the film “about six or seven” times, Golding’s enthusiasm has not waned. “I love it! Each time it just gets better and better. Jon Chu is an absolute genius with his story-weaving. It’s going to be amazing!”
Starring opposite Yeoh, Wu, Lively and Kendrick is a world away from that fateful morning in London when Golding, then a hairdresser at Richard Ward Hair, asked himself what he really wanted out of life.
“The only reason I left the salon was really to chase these dreams of either being an MTV host or a travel host. I loved the idea of doing something fun and interesting for a living and that is what got me over to Malaysia,” says Golding, who ended up sharing a flat in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, with some girls who happened to know a television producer.
To cut a long story short, Golding quickly realised his dream hosting travel shows for Malaysia’s 8TV and on BBC World News, including The Travel Show.
Despite his new career in the United States, Golding and his wife have no immediate plans to move out of Asia. He has representation on both sides of the Pacific: FLY Entertainment in Singapore and Paradigm Talent Agency in Hollywood.
“We’re definitely going to be staying in Singapore up until the new year,” he says. “We’re going to see how everything unfolds. There’s no rush at all to move. Luckily we have two good bases for my career. It’s really about taking it in stride and making the right decisions, and having the ability to say no to a few things, which is the most important.”
Golding has also been keeping an eye on political developments in his home country where a new government was voted into office in May. “I think the election [results] are fantastic. It’s going to be a fresh look at Malaysian politics. Hopefully they will do away with all this corruption that has been eating away at the people and it will be a new time to shine.
“I hope I’m going to be a beacon for young Malaysians to be positive, to work hard, to aim high, and be good people.”
Henry Golding is just your regular crazy, nice guy.
Starts working as a hair stylist at Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa, London
Becomes a host of TV shows at 8TV, a Chinese TV station in Malaysia
Hosts Football Crazy on ESPN Asia
Becomes co-presenter of The Travel Show for BBC World News in Kuala Lumpur
Hosts Surviving Borneo for two months for Discovery Channel Asia and completes bejalai, the Iban rite of passage into manhood
Stars in Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since 1993
Stars in A Simple Favor alongside Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively
-This article originally appeared on South China Morning Post STYLE