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Malaysian-British actor Henry Golding is flipping the insidious stereotype that Asian actors can't be leading men, one role at a time. The charismatic Golding stars in two history-making parts in the new movies Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor. In both films, Golding plays the sexy romantic lead, possessing a kind of confidence and power that remains too little seen in Hollywood's depiction of male Asian characters. "I think we're ready for a swap-over of roles," Golding says, expressing a sense of optimism. "It's a time where change is apparent."
What drew you to the role of Sean in A Simple Favor, alongside Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick?
The first thing that I heard was that my character Sean Townsend, he wasn't written as an Asian man. It was really just a leading man. And so, coming off Crazy Rich Asians, to have the opportunity to have a leading role in such an amazing filmmakers' new story — and of course being married to Blake Lively's not bad — but I thought it was important that I gave it my best. Paul [Feig]'s always been a great friend, pushing gender and ethnic diversity, so I'm glad was able to be a part of it.
You've said you hesitated at first to take on the role of Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians, and that you sort of had to be convinced.
Absolutely. For the previous nine, eight years, I've been a travel host, so I was never in that frame of mind to be an actor. And I knew that it would really stand out for a first project, so I was really hesitant about it. I was like, I'm sure they're going to go for someone with so much more experience, I kind of disregarded myself, which was my mistake. But after passing on the offer of an audition, Jon Chu got a hold of me directly and said, "I've seen a lot of your stuff online, and I'd love for you to at least read for the role. We think you've got the natural characteristics of this the character of Nick Young." And so that was definitely a sign from the stars that I should try to get involved. I dedicated myself to it and went full steam ahead.
Was there a bit of a learning curve for you moving from doing something like travel hosting to being in a fictional role?
Absolutely. There's a lot more focus when it comes to doing this sort of material justice, and working with a director. There's so many elements. But of course there's the focus of not having any of that in your mind and just being present, while presenting on the other hand is to be observant, to be aware of your surroundings, to see what's happening around you and that's what makes a really good travel host. So, it's a very different discipline but there are some overlaps that definitely present themselves. When it came to filming A Simple Favor, it felt so natural being on set with Anna and Blake and being directed by Paul who's just magnificent, and he's a really active director. He's so open to ideas and changing it up a bit.
Growing up as a young man, were there any Asian men in entertainment that you looked up to?
I grew up in Malaysia, and there was this one Malaysian star who was much like sort of the Frank Sinatra of Malaysia, his name was P. Ramlee. He did all these black and white films, he was a singer, he was a dancer, and growing up in Malaysia at that time, and I always thought to myself, I can't wait for the day that someone, an Asian man, can play these roles on more of an international level. I mean I've grown up with John Cho in that leading man as well, and he was really part of the movement that was breaking down boundaries. Sandra Oh, I watched her for years, so people like that. Being able to work with Michelle Yeoh — she was one of the first real Asian leading women who broke with the Bond franchise. She was one of the kick-ass Bond babes. There's always been leaders in that area, but I think now there's going to be a real public conversation pushing that forward and normalizing the fact that you have leading ethnic roles. And that's the goal, that's where we want to be especially in Hollywood.
The irony is the feeling in Hollywood that 'n excuse that films like this "won't sell" — which is clearly not true.
I think it comes down to the quality of the story. People want to be taken away from reality and dive into these larger than life experiences. It's great to watch any of those movies and just be just drawn into that world — that's why we go to the cinema, that's why Hollywood started in the first place.
Growing up in Asia, were you aware of negative cultural stereotypes of Asian men being exported from places like America?
Growing up in Asia, I was watching Asian television with Asian stars, and Southeast Asia especially has such defined markets. Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, they've all got their own stars. But Hollywood knows that they are the pinnacle of the entertainment industry — they are literally the top of everybody's dreams and aspirations, and people define being in Hollywood as being successful. So that was what was missing for me growing up, seeing Asian faces in the cinemas and in these big movie formats.
Have you had a lot of people reaching out to you from the Asian film community?
It's really supportive. There's been problems in the past where Asians were really segregated in the sense that if you were Filipino, you only grouped with Filipinos, if you were Chinese you only rooted for the Chinese, if you're from Thailand, only the Thais, but now we're seeing a real gelling of the communities and people are really feeling proud to be Asian. And we need that camaraderie and that strength in numbers.
This film is about to raise your international profile considerably — do you feel prepared for it?
I think to be honest, it's all a learning process. And the biggest learning process will be parsing out how my personal life will change. It's about staying grounded and staying rooted with myself and my wife. Being willing to put in the hard work, and achieve and tell great stories.
Do you have any sense of the kind of roles you'd like to take going forward?
I've got a trajectory in mind and that's definitely to be an unambiguous leading man. I don't need to be an Asian leading man, I don't need to be the international leading man, I just want to play brave roles and really test the storytelling of material and just be hopefully, you know, a beacon to everybody. This is a time where change is most apparent and I think we're ready for a swap-over of roles and I think it's open for everybody now. It's fair game.
Crazy Rich Asians is in theaters nationwide; A Simple Favor opens September 14.
Photography by Ben Hassett
Styling by Mia Solkin
Grooming by Michelle Harvey at Opus Beauty
Digital Tech: Carlo Barreto
1st Photo Assistant: Roeg Cohen
2nd Photo Assistants: Eric Hobbs and Chris Moore