The Boy From Sarawak Who Made It Big in Hollywood

Reconciling Henry Golding's Mr Nice Guy demeanour with his grit and tenacity to succeed in an industry that serves up rejection daily.
Tuesday 10 April 2018

In Hollywood, acting is a métier where most of its professionals are out of work for half the time. Few actually realise a sustainable living and those that do, are the anomalies rather than the norm. Research shows (thank you Google) that you have a higher chance of succeeding if you are under 30, male, straight and white.

That Henry Golding has defied the odds with only 2.5 of the success factors makes his achievements even more significant. Henry’s film debut in Crazy Rich Asians was not without its own share of controversy – some Asian actors protested that because of his half British parentage, Henry was simply just not Asian enough. He defended that with a statement to Entertainment Weekly saying, “I was born in Asia, I’ve lived in cultures that are synonymous with Asian culture, but it’s still not Asian enough for some people. Where are the lines drawn for saying that you cannot play this character because you’re not fully Asian?” Lucky for him that Hollywood is blind to the half and half – Halle Berry for instance is considered a black actress despite being half white.

However, for the longest time it seemed that Asian actors needed kung fu or some type of martial arts skills to land the oh-so-coveted leading man role (think Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan). Martial arts films, as entertaining as they are, tend to perpetuate racial stereotypes (it’s akin to seeing black actors only playing ‘gangstas’ in the hood and rappers), so someone needed to nuke that pattern. And this was done when Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme and Jason Statham started fly-kicking their way through the movies. Unfortunately, the Asian leading man role then became relegated to being the sidekick or side bar. A Kato to the Green Hornet.

Related: First ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ trailer

Ultimately, even for single white males under 30, it’s not an industry that you could decide to roll out of bed one morning and like the shoe, Just Do It. But that’s precisely what Henry seems to have done and hopefully will continue to do. Before Henry, the great Asian (non-kung fu kicking) hope lay in actor Russell Wong, who gathered great acclaim and popularity after 1989’s Eat A Bowl Of Tea and The Joy Luck Club. Unfortunately, after a promising start, Russell seemed to vanish off the main screens, such were the limitations for an Asian actor.

With Henry’s second film A Simple Favour, he may just be the man to break racial barriers and get leading man roles that are non-ethnic specific. “Paul Feig is a director who likes to step out of the comfort zone and not necessarily do what people think films should be about,” he comments on the director’s choice of casting him as Sean Townsend, Blake Lively’s husband in A Simple Favour.

The promotion begins! Our first @asimplefavor cocktail party! 🍸🍸🍸🔪

A post shared by Paul Feig (@paulfeig) on

I first met Henry eight years ago, when he had just arrived ‘fresh off the boat’ (quick nod here to his co star Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians) from London. Surrounded by a coterie of cooing young girls, they bared their pretty little fangs when we both started talking, such are the effect of his charms and looks on young women. In fact, he seemed rather embarrassed by their attention, but I’ve seen how adept he is at letting people down gently. Over the years, I have had to exfil him from various situations when the attention became a little too ‘intense’, and charming clever boy that he is, nobody felt a thing when he said “No, thank you.” Despite his good looks, Henry doesn’t preen, peacock or demand to be the centre of attention and all the clichéd behaviour that comes with that packaging. He was just so normal. Before the interview, I was wondering whether that was still the case.

Now 2017 has been the kind of year for Henry that any undiscovered actor would kill for. He sounds and acts like the same Henry, until he starts rattling off names like Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, and you realise, he is now orbiting quite a different planet. He is perhaps more sure of himself, happier and even relieved that HE. HAS. MADE. IT.

Yet he is not much different to the young man I met, or the professional that I worked with just before his big BBC break. He is EVERYWHERE and all media outlets, (including UNRESERVED), are giddily covering his ascent. The boy that I met eight years ago has now become the Man of the Moment.

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Shirt and trousers by Hackett; shoes by Lanvin; eyewear by Givenchy. Photo: Delvin Xian

In 2013, we travelled together for two whole months around the world for the Star World television show Newsmakers Unplugged interviewing various people from the Mayor of London to Harvey Weinstein (way before the #MeToo reveals). It was a particularly challenging production in which anything that could go wrong, did. If he was one of the seven dwarfs, he was most definitely Happy. In fact, he was so well behaved, you were embarrassed into just behaving better. That niceness was infectious.

After talking to people he has worked with over the years, from the stylists at London hairdresser Richard Ward to comments on social media from John Chu and Paul Feig, directors in his upcoming films, you get more platitudes on why he is so wonderful. This quality he possesses was the first thing I asked him about, “Why are you so nice?”

“I know how hard it has been for me to get here. I have had to work my way up, and met all sorts of people from different parts of society, and it’s important to remember that… going through such tough times has made me able to deal with a lot. I have also had a very good upbringing,” he replies. The good upbringing he refers to is his Iban-British parentage. His mother was studying in Brunei and his father was training the British army when they met and fell in love. Henry was born in Betong, Sarawak and grew up in a typical native long house that lacked modern amenities. As he says, “It was all very ulu (primitive) stuff… but I do relate tremendously to my Iban side – that’s a very strong part of me.” As he wryly comments, “People don’t know how hard you have had to work, what you have been through, all they see is the lucky break.” He has actually made a conscious decision to be nice, which he feels makes him more hire-friendly than the talent who is less nice or less easy to work with.

Related: Henry Golding Almost Turned Down ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

Ironically, he was the one playing difficult when it came to accepting a meeting for his first film role. However, it was less out of ego, but more from a moment of self-doubt. He initially turned down the role in Crazy Rich Asians, and glimpsing a rare moment of vulnerability he admitted, “I didn’t feel I was good enough, I was still in my presenter head.” He had to be persuaded by director John Chu, despite the fact that he had always wanted to act, and this particular role was the rare hot ticket for any Asian actor.

The lucky break we see now is a culmination of hard work that began when Henry was just 14 years old. His decision to leave school was prompted by a complete lack of interest in formal studies. “I really hated the format of sitting in a class room, learning. I was distracted and didn’t feel like I was learning anything,” he remembers. At that point, he was working weekends sweeping hair off the floor at a barbershop, but decided he needed to self-educate, so he convinced the owner to mentor him into developing some kind of career path.

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A photograph from Henry’s early childhood in Malaysia. Photo: Henry’s family

Despite his lack of formal education, he is incredibly well read, and has immense discipline that people usually attribute to higher education. He describes himself a ‘set rat’, absorbing and learning as much as he can about his craft. He is almost, and I say this in the nicest possible way, like Matt Damon’s character in The Talented Mr Ripley, such is his skill in just absorbing and to use his terms ‘sponging’ up information and observing the people around him. It’s probably precisely his lack of formal education that pushes him to go further, and learn harder than most.

It is an uncommon quality in those who have navigated their lives by their looks. Pretty boys are a dime a dozen in the industry, but Henry differentiates himself by his insatiable appetite for knowledge and self-improvement. But an actor also needs that indefinable quality, a presence that has to stand out in a sea of beautiful, talented people.

Related: Watch How Henry Golding Nailed His Cover Shoot

At the Cannes amfAR Gala in 2013, amidst hundreds of stars and hundreds more journalists hoping for a celebrity sound byte, I saw first-hand how Henry stands out. We were jostling with all the other journalists and deployed a clever strategy of rock, paper, scissors to decide who would get to interview which star. Enter Sharon Stone stage right. As she stalked down the red carpet, my baser instincts shoved him to the front, knowing that Sharon has an eye for gorgeous men. “Okay, she likes good looking men, you do Sharon!” I barked. He yelled her name, she turned, giving him an appreciative once-over. But it was his pitch, “Sharon, you are looking as yummy as ever” which transformed her smile into a cat-that-got-the-cream beam, that landed Henry the scoop. He knows his looks help, he doesn’t shove it in your face, but in the end, he does know how to ‘work it’ when needed.

And if he knows he is popular with the ladies, it’s not obvious. In fact, in eight years, he has only showed me one picture of a girl he said he fancied with a sheepish grin, and that was Liv Lo – the same girl who would become his wife.

Their young marriage has intersected with Henry’s star rising, and this has caused a difficult period of readjustment for both. Henry describes this period as a steep learning curve for the both of them. “For me, it was about being thrust into this world that I had only seen from the outside… but I needed to see it through her eyes. And understanding that the person she sees me being onscreen, is not the person she has been with for the last six or seven years. Seeing me falling in love with another woman onscreen, something as simple as holding another person’s hand, it’s a very strange feeling for her.” He confesses that he should have more forward thinking about that aspect of his new life, and discussed it more with her, but he got, as he says “lost in the moment”. He continues with a tiny crack in his voice “Come the second movie, we had been along a few speed bumps, but it’s gotten better.”

Practical as he may be, he feels that his life right now is a fulfilment of a bigger destiny. Perhaps that’s his mystical Iban side coming through, which may be slightly at odds with his more practical British side, but it explains the distinct facets of his character. For instance, he is proud to display his bejalai tattoo, which represents a rite of passage for a boy becoming a man in Iban culture, but as we spoke for the interview, he was scratching it and irritatedly said, “They can get itchy these things.” At the age of nine, he found an eagle’s feather on the sand, and saw it as a sign of bigger things to come. Yet he is practical, even sensible, and the media like to describe him as grounded, which makes acting a very odd choice indeed for a sensible person. He once mentioned to close friends his absolute belief that he would one day be a star in Hollywood, and naturally they all laughed him off. Until, of course, he got cast in two leading roles in not insignificant films.

And that is one of the most interesting things about him. He is a dark horse – with no formal education (yet he landed a gig with the BBC, which has a particular hauteur when it comes to qualifications), no drama school training (yet he gets plum lead roles), and only his gut instinct as a guide. It seems he has been guided by a bigger sense of destiny and purpose that has led him to where he is now. A trait that is perhaps not so normal. Most would never suspect him of harbouring big, burning ambitions as he wears it very, very deeply under his skin. He has pursued his dream no matter what people say and no matter how high the odds. The drive and willpower this takes is also powerfully hidden underneath that Mr Nice Guy demeanour. You would think that his niceness is antithetical to the grit, tenacity and resolve that have got him this far. Yet the seemingly divergent qualities of his character don’t clash, they seem to complement each other.

It’s too simple to dismiss it all as a stroke of luck. Some say you make your own luck, and this is clearly the case with Henry. From shampoo boy to television presenter, Henry the pre-actor, was always extremely committed to his work. His attitude reflects a maturity and wisdom that belies his 31 young years on this earth. At his core he is a realist, in an industry that is fuelled by imagination and fantasy. “This is the business of rejection… there are many people who can do what I do. What I am looking forward to is grabbing the opportunities that I have and giving it a hundred percent, as I know that there are many waiting in line if I don’t,” he says.

They say nice guys finish last. This is not the case with Henry. And perhaps because he is the exception, he will have that exceptional future.

This feature first appeared in the April 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.