Snake Eyes star Henry Golding on the power of representation

Hollywood actor Henry Golding opens up about the power of representation, but cautions that labels can be “very dangerous”.

You were working as a travel-show presenter in South East Asia when you were offered the role of Nick in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), and turned it down three times before accepting it.

Do you ever imagine what life would look like had you not said yes? Completely different. Myself and [the director] Jon Chu have become very close, and we often laugh about how he had to track me down through multiple sources until he literally had to reach out on Facebook to me directly, and be like, “Yo, what are you doing?”

I was just in a very different stage in my life, concentrating on Discovery Channel-sort of TV shows. But when I got snapped out of it, I was like, “Holy moly, this is the chance I’ve been waiting for.”

It was a groundbreaking moment in terms of Asian representation in Hollywood, especially given it became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the past decade.

Are you proud to have been part of that long-overdue change?

Oh, for sure. It was about time. There have been amazing films before us and there’ll be amazing films after us. [But we need to] not make race an issue when it comes to casting.

Cast the actor on merit, cast the actor on their ability to portray the character. I’m not just an Asian leading man, I’m a leading man, and that’s the way it should be. I think labels can sometimes be very dangerous and more of a roadblock than anyone believes.

And almost overnight, you became a household name. Did you ever suffer from imposter syndrome?

It was kind of bonkers! [But] I think we all do. If you don’t, then you’re not aiming high enough. Because sometimes it takes you to sort of surprise yourself to know that you’re capable of so much more.

Apparently a bad experience acting in your primary school’s production of The Wizard Of Oz stopped you from ever harbouring those career aspirations. So what went wrong?

In rehearsals, I got berated by the teacher for not learning my very, very simple line. She got frustrated – it’s like herding cats when you’re trying to teach six- and seven-year-olds – so I think she had reached the end of her tether. But it just scarred me forever.

You left school at 16 to become a hairdresser. During the pandemic, before salons reopened, many people gave themselves a DIY job.

Were you responsible for any dodgy lockdown haircuts?

I managed to help my wife out – she desperately needed a quick trim. I did mine for a little while, [but] I couldn’t reach the mullet at the back, so it was growing quite oddly. I very rarely get my scissors out these days. It’s better for everybody’s necks and ears to stay away from me.

In 2018, you were also in A Simple Favor, which found you embroiled in a messy love-triangle of sorts with Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick.

Since it’s a film about deep secrets and mistrust, tell us: what’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?

When I first moved to Malaysia to try to get on television, I definitely pumped up my CV on experience in front of the camera, because I had zero. It worked, so was a good white lie.

In Monsoon (2019), your character was torn between two cultures – something you related to, having moved from Malaysia to the UK as an eight-year-old.

How has your cultural identity changed as you’ve got older?

As much as I’m proud of my background, I think it doesn’t matter where you’re from; the world’s so global at the moment. Again, the labelling; sometimes it’s beneficial, sometimes it’s a real hurdle.

But I think of myself as a very global being. For me, where [my wife] Liv and my baby are [the couple welcomed a baby girl, who’s name they haven’t revealed, in March], that’s where home is.

You’ve described training for the stunts you did as the eponymous lead in the new G.I. Joe adaptation Snake Eyes as “literal hell”. Has that experience deterred you from doing any more action films?

No – it’s spurred me on for more! You really have to throw yourself into it. For all the days that we were training, you have a sole focus. Reading from scripts and learning lines and trying to get your head into character – it’s all mental.

But to really hone yourself as a weapon… it’s so much more involving. [Snake Eyes] is one of the most legendary comic-book characters ever created, so it was definitely an undertaking.

And have you had any opportunities since to use your ninja skills in everyday life? Flying kicks around the house, perhaps?

I pounce on my wife once in a while from behind the door – but that happened even before Snake Eyes [laughs].

Snake Eyes is exclusive to cinemas from Thursday.