Interview: Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians on why Nick is an asshole, auditions and his whirlwind experience

With no prior acting experience, British Malaysian actor Henry Golding lands the leading role in romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians. The rom-com became the first Asian assemble cast film in 25 years, breaking box office records making $25 million on the opening weekend.

We got the chance to have a chat with Henry Golding where he told us his “audition” story and how his life has changed since the film.

So, how whirlwind has this been, so far?

Henry: Pretty insane. There’s no words, really, to describe how life has shifted since December 22nd. I can put a stamp on that. It was December 22nd when everything … The cogs were working. Which is when I realised Jon M. Chu (director of Crazy Rich Asians) started following me on Instagram, and it just went all over, instantly.

The funny thing is, I wasn’t up for it, at that point.

Oh, you weren’t up for the role yet you haven’t auditioned? Please do tell the story!

It’s quite a long story! I hadn’t auditioned, I hadn’t done anything for the movie. But that was why it was even weirder, because I know this movie’s happening, and there is this massive buzz about it.

I just so happened to realise that Jon started following me. I sent a screen cap to my manager Ling and asked “What does this mean?”

She said, “I don’t know.”

And then, I actually head off to Japan for Christmas and New Years, I get an email out of the blue from an old friend Steven. He’s said, “I’ve got a friend whose reached out to me, asked a few questions. His name’s Jon, he’s a director. He thinks you might be suitable for the role. Would love to be able to hook you guys up through Skype, and you can officially meet each other.”

I thought, “Yeah, that’d be really cool.”

And, so it started from there. Jon reached out, we had a long conversation, he told me that he was stalking me on all sorts of platforms and thought that Nick and Henry were sort of merged into, very much similar characters.

“I’m going to send you some side characters, would you mind reading for them?” After couple of rounds of those, Jon said, “All right, well, next week, can you come out for the cam tests with Constance?”

And, that was the start of things, it happened very quickly.

Did you have an inkling that you got the role?

I knew there were reads happening and I was offered to do the recordings and things like that, but I thought, “Oh, I don’t think I’m all too suitable for it. Maybe they’re looking for a pure Chinese, Singaporean.” That’s what my initial thought was. So, I never really thought I was it in that sense.

Before all of this has acting in a Hollywood movie ever been in your line of thought?

That has been planted since I was a kid. My love for film has been throughout my life. The study of film has been something that’s constant for me. I knew at some point that I would, but I didn’t really know how or when. There was, three or four years ago, a stage where I said, “I’m going to dedicate the next year to the craft and auditioning, and stuff like that.”

And then, I’d get a random email from the BBC to start on a travel show, and it was just a sign that I need to keep on track. So, it was in the plans, but, again, it just came out of the blue. It was the right time and the right place.

I really believe that I was at the right place in life, where I’m super comfortable with what I’ve done. I’ve travelled a tremendous amount, and I felt like I was ready for it.

Do you think your hosting skills helped in your acting? Do they compliment each other?

I think there are certain similarities, but I think it’s more camera knowledge and getting used to being on set and in front of the camera. That does definitely help. But, the interaction stops there. I’ve always believed that to be in front of the camera presenting, it’s 20% extra, but with acting, it’s 20% less. It’s a control, rather than more of an engagement.

Can you talk about your version of the character? Was it very much the stuff that was on the script?

I suppose, it worked to my benefit to the fact that Nick and myself have very similar characteristics. It felt like I wasn’t stepping in to his shoes, or he was stepping in my shoes, it was more learning about his past and understanding where he came from, and why he’s made some of the decisions that he’s made, but still having that, sort of, charm and charisma that comes across as Nick. Nick is such a lovable character, and I think that’s why he’s so popular when he comes back to Singapore, everybody knows him as Nick, that’s lovable cousin, Nick.

Nick the bachelor?

The bachelor. I mean, yeah, he’s had his naughty side, according to the book, but with the film, we don’t really touch upon that too much. So, it just felt very natural.

How has it been acting with Michelle Yeoh and Constance Wu? What is it like working with these two actresses, who obviously have different ways?

They are both phenomenal. They have very contrasting and different styles. Constance is theatre trained. She lives and breaths the arts and she’s so passionate about what she does. She really envelopes herself in it.

Whilst, Michelle has experience from Hong Kong, China, acting in Malaysia, and obviously global side. So, through the years, she’s developed her comfort, where she’s in.

You know, I’m very lucky to have some of the only solo scenes with those two, and I love that. Because, you have this, almost, tunnel vision of concentration and you really are able to bounce off each other.

Especially with Michelle. Michelle is like the best mommy ever. She’s so loving. And, we’ll be sitting through takes, and there’s a sad scene, and she’s looking and she’ll be like, “You have beautiful eyes.” She’s so complimentary. And, she’s just a saint. She’s queen bee on set. She totally is.

We talked about your character Nick, thoughts on him not letting Rachel know about his wealth or his family background?

Asshole. You know, I understand why he did it. Because, you’ve got to think that Nick has tried running away from this for most of his adult life. He moved over to London to study, he left Singapore, at a reasonably young age, and he continued back in New York. I think he’s always felt, it’s not shame, it’s not embarrassment of the fact that he has wealth, it’s more … He wants to live his life, he doesn’t want to be under the guise of having that gifted childhood, of being the heir apparent to this amazing riches. He wants to be his own person.

So, his meaning is good, but perhaps, because he’s so shy of the fact that he doesn’t want to give her an inkling what is waiting in store for them in Singapore, he does feel bad about that as well, but he’s … He has this internal struggle, he wants to tell her, but he doesn’t because he doesn’t want to scare her off either. That is his greatest fear, is that she’s in love with Nick, not with everything in Singapore. So, if Singapore comes in to this, how is she going to react? He doesn’t know, so he’s scared essentially.

He doesn’t want her to think that he’s a golden boy?

Well, it’s more he doesn’t want her to think that he’s different from who he’s been with her. At a moment, Rachel is his life, and the life that they have in New York, is what he wants. But then, of course, it’s all going to bleed through when things get more serious in their relationship.

Talk about the presentation, how did you find the way Singapore was represented visually?

We’ve been lucky enough to have seen some of the sizzle of what we’ve been filming. We had a halfway sizzle viewing and people were crying in our lunch, where we were eating lunch and they showed it, and people were so emotional. It’s not only such a beautifully shot film, so atmospheric, and so rich in depth and environment. It puts Asians in a light, like any other that’s been shot from Hollywood.

And, we’re so proud of it, and I wish you could see what we’ve seen, because I’m not just waffling on, but there’s something about this movie that’s so special, and we can’t wait. There’s all elements, there’s a romantic element, there’s hilarious characters, and each character in the movie, there’s such a world behind them, that they bring something different to the table.

There is depth and nuances that have never been explored, like, they’ve never been allowed to explore with Asian characters. There’s no stereotypical characters here. Each one has a different world all together. It really is amazing. The cast is stacked with brilliant, forward leading, young actors like Ken Jeong, Michelle, we’ve got the bastion of Asian actors, in general.

You said that you were shocked that you thought that they wanted to get a Singaporean Chinese. Did you have to compartmentalise and say, this really doesn’t matter, this is for Asians?

That’s come up a lot. I’ve struggled with that my entire life. I’ve never felt welcomed in the UK, I’ve never felt fully welcomed in Asia. That’s something as a mixed blooded Eurasian, we have to deal with. But then, there comes the argument of how Asian do you have to be, to be Asian?

I’ve lived more than half my adult life in Asia. I’ve experienced Asian cultures. Who’s more Asian? Who understands the culture more than just being full-blooded, or half-blooded.

We shouldn’t be nitpicking the fact that, “He’s a quarter this, or he’s a quarter that.” You can go through it with a fine pick comb, but our goal, is to bring a film to the table for the Asians, Asian community, when we get there, then other questions start arising. Hold on, it’s not good enough, because this guy’s not fully Asian.

You’re never going to make everybody happy, but what we can do is bring our A game to the table and, hopefully, make people proud.

Would you say the film has been authentically Singaporean? Because it is set in Singapore, written by a Singaporean?

The elements are all there. But, there’s also a side to Singapore that people don’t know and will be able to experience. It’s not … You know what? It’s not a stereotypical film. So, even when people say, “Oh, it’s not authentically Singaporean.” It shouldn’t be. Singapore is such a melting pot of everything. It’s not like, oh it’s this Chinese culture, it’s this culture. You know, you’re one of the largest shipping routes in the world. This is where Malacca, Singapore where everybody drops off half of their goods and brought in Portuguese, the Dutch settlers.

I’d like to ask about Jon, because he’s done movies where music is so much a part of the rhythm. I’m just kind of curious. So, when a film like this, there’s a mixture of drama and comedy and how do you make sure that everything’s going in the right place?

You know, I am 100% totally blessed that Jon is my first time director. Because, Jon is so giving as a human, not only a human, but as a director, he’s very open to my ideas. For him, it’s all about keeping that tempo and those beats correct.

So, there’ll be moments of real emotion, when it comes to Nick and Rachel, Nick and Eleanor, but then he’ll be brought back to life with these characters that Kevin has created. Jon is only made that even stronger. I think you can definitely see the rhythms and things, when it comes to his music. His selection of things that we’ve had going through our heads, like old remixes of 1920’s Chinese music, which is amazing. And that just set the tone.

Our first day of roll, we were doing screen tests for outfits and things, and we just had this in the background, just playing, and it really set the mood, it set that very luxurious and classy. Most importantly, classy environment. That’s what’s trickled down. That’s the beauty of Jon, he sets the tone, and it’s trickle down economics. Everybody just follows his lead, and it’s been nothing but a massive family on set, which is great.

Since we just passed the church, can you give us a reference point and description as to where you are at that scene?

Eleanor’s been dogging on Rachel about pretty much everything. There were things that Rachel realised after a trip and wondered, “What is going on in this family?”

She’s in second thoughts of whether or not she is going to be coming to the wedding, but she realises that, “You know what? I’m going to stand up for myself and I’m going to do what I think is best.” So, she appears, and I’m (My character) at this point, I’m unsure whether or not she’s pulled through and is coming through.

To my surprise and love that she’s actually front row and centre, pretty much. Her strength just shines through, and there’s a very amazing moment between her and Nick, sadly, throughout the entire wedding.

Especially with the keno graham music, it becomes an anthem for what’s happening between them. You see their strongest love, at that stage, I think. But, then, what happens next, it goes a little awry.

I heard about the water, can you give us a little hint?

Nelson Coates and his team, have done an insane job. Every single place has been out of this world. It’s taken us to another world, especially the church scene, and everything. We live in this environment, and it lends itself to the acting.

How are you going to go back to normal life after this?

I know. It’s going to be very real. Thank you all very much.

Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas now!