Henry Golding: ‘I’m Never Going to Be Asian Enough for a Lot of People’
The dashing star opens up about his touching new indie film “Monsoon,” grappling with his own cultural identity, and the rumors that he’s being considered as the next James Bond.
After shooting Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor in 2017, both major studio productions that would turned him into an international breakout star, Malaysian-British actor Henry Golding was stuck in career limbo, since these calling cards were still unreleased. “A lot of people hadn't seen any of my work. It was a very interesting period having all this material but waiting a year before something actually got seen,” he tells The Daily Beast.
That’s precisely when a casting director made him aware of Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, a project with great parallels to his own story. Golding, born to a Malaysian mother and British father, left Southeast Asia when he was a young boy and only returned many years later as an adult. In turn, the film follows Kit, a Vietnamese-born gay man back in Ho Chi Minh City for the first time in several decades after he and his family migrated to the U.K. during the fallout of the American war. Golding immediately ached to land the role.
Rigorous auditions and an in-person meeting with Khaou later, he was cast. Based on the Cambodian-British director’s debut feature Lilting, about the language barrier between an immigrant mother and her son’s boyfriend, Golding was certain Monsoon would serve as a palette cleanser from the Hollywood gigs under his belt. It was also a chance to collaborate with a thoughtful artist to create a subdued character grappling with a conflicted worldview.
“You have so much more of a grasp of a voice when it comes to independent filmmaking. You are really a part of the decision-making as much as possible. And you get to see sort of the inner workings that make a movie,” he explains.
Back in his birthplace, Kit begins to stitch memories together from the little he remembers of his Vietnamese childhood and what others share with him. The main purpose of his return is to put his parents’ ashes to rest in their homeland, but in the process the past he thought he’d buried confronts him. He barely recognizes the town, doesn’t speak the language, is treated like a foreign tourist, and yet there’s a glimpse of familiarity.
Like Kit, the actor has felt that sense of expectant identity, of feeling secure in who he is culturally only to realize, upon visiting his country of origin, that he doesn’t quite fit in anywhere.
“This is something that I struggled with as a young man and is what is reflected in Kit’s journey, the fact that when I went back to Malaysia, after living in the U.K. and growing up there until I was 21 years old, I thought I was going to be welcomed with warm hands and feel completely at home and be at peace in Malaysia,” offers the actor. “But when I went back, I just felt so alienated. I was so confused about what was happening. I didn’t understand the language, and the cultural differences were huge. ”
According to Golding, the people he encounters make the protagonist’s painful excursion back into his heritage more rewarding. “The three main characters that Kit finds have different windows into life,” he noted. Kit’s cousin Lee (David Tran) fills in the gaps about his early years in Vietnam before departing. Linh (Molly Harris), a young tour guide, represents the future. “She is of a generation that doesn’t want to be tied down to the war. She doesn’t want to be considered a survivor,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Lewis (Parker Sawyers), a Black American man Kit meets on a dating app, is the son of an American GI, in Vietnam to make amends for his father’s mistakes—his motive strongly echoing Spike’s Lee’s Da Five Bloods. Nevertheless, an unanswerable question prevails in Kit’s mind, and by the same token in Golding’s, even with the insight gained from the uncharted emotional exploration: Who is he?
“Are we a product of our nationality or are we a product of our cultural identity? You could be Vietnamese, but growing up in America, you consider yourself American. Or you could have an American father, a Vietnamese mother, but you were born in Vietnam, and so culturally you are Vietnamese and you feel Vietnamese. It really comes down to the individual’s journey,” Golding ponders.
As someone who’s made a home in a variety of countries around the globe, the idea of a homeland is not as clear-cut for the charming thesp: “We all, as humans, do have this inner need to fulfill a so-called prophecy of homeland, but does it exist? I don’t think so. What it boils down to is where your loved ones are, where your hearth is. Where is the living room that your parents hang out in, watch TV, and just are at peace with each other? That feels more of a homecoming than anything for me now.”
In Monsoon, Kit finds refuge from the turmoil within, as he comes to terms with the parts of his Vietnamese background that have nearly vanished with time, in romance. Khaou shows him at his most unlabored when Lewis is around, making a point that far from an unresolved issue, being part of the LGBTQ community strengthens and reassures him. That’s his truth, even if every other piece of who he is seems embattled.
“That was definitely by design. Hong has this beautiful way of creating subtleties on screen. One of the subtleties was the character’s sexuality. It was his one thing that he was so sure of, so secure in that it became a place of solace. He felt like himself when he was on a date with somebody, or like when he was in an embrace,” says Golding.
Society’s need for labels, he believes, remains one of the reasons why people wrestle with pinpointing an unquestionable, clearly-defined group to belong to. Golding still has a big family in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, and admits that when he visits them he still experiences a bit of shame because he is not fluent in Malaysian and can’t communicate with his grandfather or cousins—perhaps another point of connection for him and Khaou’s Lilting.
“It’s such a frustration, and makes me feel lesser than the Asian that I think I am. Culturally, it’s something that a lot of Asian Americans go through being over here and when they go back to the so-called motherland, it’s just a very different feeling.” Nevertheless, he has, more or less, come to terms with the notion of living a hyphenated life, a life in-between cultures: “I’m never going to be Asian enough for a lot of people, but it doesn’t stop me feeling Asian.”
One advantage he did have on the set of Monsoon was his experience as a travel host for the BBC, which had taken him to Vietnam on multiple occasions. That meant he was accustomed to the overwhelming sensorial barrage of Southeast Asia and could take pleasure in the food offerings in one of the most vibrant regions on the planet. But more importantly, over his time living in Malaysia and Singapore, Golding had witnessed monsoons firsthand, so the film’s title spoke to him rather poetically in relation to his afflicted character.
“When a monsoon hits, the streets are just flooded and cleaned of all the dirt, the litter, everything. It’s this almost sense of rebirth. For the film, it’s exactly what Kit is going through. He’s going through almost a rebirth,” he says spiritedly. “The only way you can cleanse yourself is the deluge, going through something so hard emotionally and beating those demons, flushing everything attached to what you presumed, out. That’s what Monsoon feels like for me.”
On the cusp of even greater opportunities, Golding’s name has been mentioned among those who could potentially become the next James Bond. Handsome looks, a virile deep voice, and that quintessentially British elegance are on his side, but he prefers to not indulge (or jinx) the media’s wish-lists. “It’s a character with great history. Whatever decisions they make will be exciting for the fans out there. Count me in as a huge fan. I’m just eager to see Daniel Craig’s last venture. I think it’s going to be an exciting one. So what comes afterwards? Who knows?” he rather diplomatically notes.
Much less hypothetical is his return to the Crazy Rich Asians franchise, for which he remains on board to reprise his part as the gallant Nick Young. Shooting is still forthcoming, but he believes the production’s current challenge is crafting an optimal screenplay. “They’re writing right now. They have a through-story, which integrates the last two books, and so the hard work starts now in terms of weaving the story with so many characters that we love,” says the star.
As his credits pile up and he inches closer to household-name status, only one truth is certain: the only label Golding will truly abide by is “talented.” There may never again be a time when no one has taken notice.
Monsoon is now available in virtual cinemas via Strand Releasing