Several times over the past year, Henry Golding has been struck by the peculiar turns his life has taken. One morning not long ago, for instance, he was in Los Angeles, strolling through West Hollywood in black jeans, a black T-shirt, and black shades, a faint spray of black scruff across his cheeks. Having flown in from his home in Singapore two days earlier, he was a bit caffeine starved and entered an airy little coffee joint to grab an iced cappuccino. When he reached for his wallet, the cashier blushed, grinned, blushed some more; she seemed, for an awkward few seconds, to have lost the ability to speak. Once she found her voice, she informed Golding that his drink was on the house.
“Because you’re amazing!” she exclaimed. “I just loved your movie so, so much!”
Now Golding was the one blushing. The reaction seemed sincere, as if he was as genuinely surprised to be, well, Henry Golding as the cashier was to be serving Henry Golding. Few actors ever star in a movie as big as Crazy Rich Asians, the Cinderella–in–Southeast Asia blockbuster the cashier was referring to, a pop-cultural watershed for Asians in cinema and the highest-grossing rom-com in a decade. Golding, prior to being cast in the lead, had never acted. Now, with three films set to be released over the next year, the 32-year-old has become the subject of dewy infatuation and fervent speculation, an actor whose enviable genetic gifts, wholesome charisma, and British-Malaysian heritage have him poised to become Hollywood’s first bona fide Asian romantic leading man.
“It has been a trial by fire,” Golding said, sitting on a bench outside the coffee shop, letting his cappuccino and the sun go to work on his jet lag. He hardly sounded overwhelmed, however, and not merely because he speaks in the sort of refined British accent one associates with soothing nature documentaries. He also gives the impression of someone who was inoculated against anxiety while still in utero, and who, as a result, lives his days in an even-keeled state of permanent excitement. As unconventional as his path to stardom has been—prior to Crazy Rich Asians he was a travel host for the BBC, and prior to that a presenter on a Malaysian TV variety show, and prior to that a hairdresser in London—it has primed him to embrace change. “My comfort comes from the fact that I’ve had a lot of other careers,” said Golding, who spent his boyhood in Malaysia before moving to Surrey, England, at age 8. “I’ve lived a lot of my life through gut feeling—seeing the tea leaves, if you know what I mean.”
While his felonious good looks and disarming smile endeared Golding to the droves who made Crazy Rich Asians a hit, it’s his curious nature and flexible attitude that have most impressed directors. “He knows he’s just starting out, and is open to learning,” says the director Paul Feig, who has worked with Golding on two films—last fall’s thriller A Simple Favor, in which Golding held his own alongside Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, and the forthcoming Last Christmas, a holiday romance cowritten by Emma Thompson to be released in November. “He’s confident but grounded, and has that thing movie stars have—he knows how to pick material. He’s stretching his range, but not with things so out of the box that he can’t do it.” Before filming Last Christmas, Golding shot Monsoon, an indie due out this year in which he plays a gay British-Vietnamese man who travels back to his homeland to spread his parents’ ashes. “When he came on our set, there was a marked change in him,” says Feig, who has become an informal mentor of sorts, with the two regularly discussing life and work. “He’d figured some stuff out. That’s exciting to see, and rare for it to happen so quickly.” Golding seconded this assessment of his evolution as an actor. “That was where I think I found my footing,” he said. “Up to that point, I’d been a yes guy, but on Monsoon there was a point where I was like, Wait, I deserve to have a mind of my own.”
While Last Christmas is likely to cement Golding’s credentials as a rom-com mainstay—he plays a dashing, improbably earnest Brit who charms an angst-ridden woman played by Emilia Clarke—he is eager to avoid endlessly playing characters who are extensions of his off-screen personality. In fact, he seemed most excited about the upcoming release of The Gentlemen, a Guy Ritchie crime epic costarring Matthew McConaughey and Hugh Grant that gave him a chance to play a supremely unlikable criminal. “A totally repulsive man with zero redeeming qualities,” as Ritchie describes him. “And Henry nails it.”
Working with Ritchie was, for Golding, another one of those moments when he took stock of the surreal whirl that is fast becoming his reality. He first met the director on the night of the London premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, when Golding was invited over to Ritchie’s home to discuss working together—one of these nebulous meetings that, through an alchemy no one in the business quite grasps, somehow occasionally lead to actors getting roles and movies actually being made. “It was like an audition, I think, without an audition,” said Golding, explaining that when he entered Ritchie’s home, the director asked if Golding was a whiskey drinker. “He opens these double doors and there’s, like, a wall of whiskey,” Golding recalled. “Guy goes, ‘Hold the ladder,’ and the whole time I’m like, I’m holding the ladder for Guy Ritchie getting some whiskey for me.” They sipped liquor, they talked. The movie didn’t really come up, but Golding got the part. “Insane, you know?” said Golding, shaking his head at the memory.
Having grown up watching Ritchie’s movies, Golding was giddy when he arrived on the set of The Gentlemen. “What am I doing? This is so random!” he recalled spending the first day thinking in a continuous loop. He was particularly excited to work with McConaughey; given the actor’s reputation as a notoriously fun dude, Golding, a fun dude himself, imagined the two of them hitting it off, bro-ing down a bit between takes. “Didn’t quite happen like that,” Golding said with a laugh. “Matthew is intense. It was the first time I had come across a real method actor. He never broke character! So we didn’t get along on set all too well because our characters are foes.” He let loose another chuckle. “Going into a film thinking you’re going to be best friends with Matthew McConaughey and then getting very different results—well, you can’t be disappointed,” he said. “You have to go with it.” Ritchie, as it turns out, had been mildly apprehensive about gambling on Golding, wondering how the newcomer would handle working alongside such an established star. “But he wasn’t threatened by anything,” Ritchie says. “He has this ability to change, to shift, to rethink, to adapt to a new path.”
Listening to veterans go on about Golding, one can get the sense that he is simply a man to whom things come easily. But what underlies the aw-shucks exterior is a focused hunger and drive; the understanding that moments like the one he’s going through can be fleeting if not harnessed with precision. Prior to this trip to Los Angeles, he had taken a month off, vacationing in Bali, hanging out with friends, spending some quality time with Liv Lo, his wife, a TV host and celebrity yoga instructor. He lay on beaches and dusted off his hairdressing talents by giving a lot of haircuts to the newborns of friends. “My skills are now down to helping my wife blow out her hair every once in a while and cutting babies’ mops,” Golding joked. Still, he found himself checking the dailies, getting itchy. “I’m on a beach reading about how this guy’s cast in this, this guy in that, how Christopher Nolan has an amazing film being cast,” he said. “I’m like, What am I doing here? I’m never gonna work again! I need to get work!”
With that in mind, Golding hoped to check out a few potential homes while in L.A. Living in Singapore has certain pluses for a movie star—no paparazzi, for one—though it can feel removed from the industry he is still very much learning. While much has been made about his breaking barriers for Asians, Golding is more interested in transcending ethnicity, helping to pave a path where Asians can be considered for non–racially distinct roles. “There’s more of that happening, where parts are not written specifically for an Asian actor,” he said. “Like in Last Christmas, my character is just Tom, not ‘Asian Tom.’ That’s a big step.” He paused for a moment, considering. “I definitely hold that responsibility in high regard, in the sense that I’m leaving an impression, maybe opening some doors for whoever comes next. I want to conduct myself in the way a leading man should conduct himself.”