Not many people know that actor Henry Golding – you know him as Singapore’s most eligible bachelor in Crazy Rich Asians or Emilia Clarke’s impossibly perfect love interest in Last Christmas – started out as a hairdresser. Not just any hairdresser: having dropped out of school at the age of 16, he later moved to London to cut hair, soon amassing rich and famous clients who demanded he reinvent their look.
Instead, he reinvented his own life, deciding by 21 that what he really needed to do was move to Kuala Lumpur – his mother is from the Iban tribe in Malaysia, where Golding lived as a young child – to become a TV show host. This based on no experience, just intuition. He pitched himself to outlets with a homemade video, and before long he was a travel host for the BBC and Discovery Channel Asia.
That should have been the end of it. But two years ago, on the other side of the globe, director Jon M. Chu’s was frantically launching casting calls for the star of Crazy Rich Asians. An accountant he knew remembered meeting Golding five years earlier when he was hosting events in Kuala Lumpur. Chu liked what he saw on video, but there was a problem: Golding didn’t want to audition. This, even though he was secretly harbouring acting ambitions himself.
“I definitely think there’s something a little magical out in the universe,” says Golding. (Case in point: he met his wife Liv Lo at a New Year’s Eve party on 1/1/11.) “Even getting into films itself. I was at a stage where I was in a career for eight, nine years, and I had reached everything that I wanted to, and I was kind of lost. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m losing my passion for the thing that I’ve been in love with so long. What do I do now?’ And then Crazy Rich Asians came about, and I’ve been obsessed with creating movies and being in films ever since.”
So why didn’t he jump at Chu’s offer immediately? “We all get stuck in our own ways, you know what I mean? We get comfortable, and have these blinkers on, and we don’t see the opportunities that lie ahead of us. And so Jon Chu really slapped it out of me, and was like, ‘What are you thinking? Like, Come on, dude, this is the chance of a lifetime – you should at least audition.’ I was like, ‘Oh man, you make sense. I totally should.’ That’s how it all began. Sometimes it’s the belief of others that needs to get through to you.”
Plenty have believed in him since. Since Crazy Rich, Golding has been on a roll: as well as being cast in A Simple Favor and then Monsoon, he now hits the screens in The Gentlemen, director Guy Ritchie’s exceptional black comedy about criminals who rule – and want to rule – the marijuana trade. There he holds his own with a stellar cast, including Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnan, Hugh Grant, Michelle Dockery and Colin Farrell. Even in the movie’s trailer, Golding takes centre stage, as Grant’s character describes him: “Our antagonist explodes on the scene as a millennial firework….” And there is Golding, all slicked-back hair and malevolent sneer, so different to the gooey, heartthrob characters he’s best known for playing.
On the day of our interview, Golding has completed a press junket in New York to promote Last Christmas, a movie that had him involved in an endless game of deja vu, “because we filmed in the streets [of London] that I used to walk nearly every day, and the streets I used to ride my bike through. And now there’s a totally different memory attached to them.” The strangest part? A few years ago, he was on the other side of the press junket, interviewing celebrities as TV host.
“Weirdly, it feels pretty normal,” he says. “I’m kind of taking every day as it is. It sounds weird saying it, but it’s not, like, out of the ordinary. I understand what the job entails, and the situations and stuff. Of course, when these opportunities come up, I’m just like ‘Holy Crap Balls!’ But at the same time, I don’t let it overpower me and weigh my true understanding of what’s happening. Because I think a lot of people can get wrapped up in all that magic, in the promises, and ego-inflating. I think I’m a realist at heart.”
And if anyone suspects that he’s lost his way, that Hollywood has gotten to his head, just ask him about what film he returns to, again and again, and the cinephile at his core rises to the surface. “Oh man, there’s a few that I go back to. The Matrix has always been one. Here’s the story about The Matrix: the first time I watched it was midnight Christmas Eve. My brother hands this rectangular package to me. We were allowed to open one Christmas present at midnight on Christmas Eve.”
“He passes it to me and says, ‘You should open this.’ I ripped it open, and it’s a VHS copy of The Matrix. I’m 14, 15 years old at this stage. It instantly goes into the machine and I’m sitting there at two in the morning, watching this film unravel, and it’s just the most magical thing. And that’s the one thing that’s really thrown me into the love of movies.” The 32-year-old might have come to this thing late, but one knows he’s not getting off the rollercoaster anytime soon.