Chris Noth and I are inside the China Club, a throwback, members-only restaurant atop a bank in Central Hong Kong. A platter of Peking duck sits between us. The early 1900s-era decor (brass flamingo lamps, rickety wooden fans overhead) has inspired a game: Which period of history would we relive if money and status were no object? Noth goes for biblical, specifically, Galilee during the time of Christ: "I would've liked to meet the guy, maybe sit in with the disciples." I pick ancient Greece, a humble goat-herder, ambling over meadows with my hand-whittled flute, wine flask strapped snugly around my waist.
“That’s got to be the most pretentious answer I’ve ever heard,” he scoffs.
Noth’s here on vacation, a brief lull between shooting The Good Wife and diving into rehearsals for Doctor Faustus, an Off Broadway production he’ll be starring in at NYC’s Classic Stage Company (opening May 29). The play — a dense, 15th-century text riddled with Latin — seems to loom over him (“I’m in great dread of it,” he concedes), but Hong Kong is proving a worthy distraction.
This might have something to do with the drinking. Now on his third gin fizz, Noth moseys up to film the restaurant's live jazz band with his iPhone. Except he unknowingly switches on the flash — technology, I find out, isn’t his strong point — and while circling the room to capture the scene, temporarily blinds several unsuspecting diners.
For a minute, he’s just another camera-happy tourist — until he gets recognized. Then come the audible gasps. “It’s him!” someone blurts out over the band’s up-tempo crooning. One girl scrambles up from her table to trail Noth around the room, a bizarre entourage forming like moths around his glaring iPhone beam.
Earlier in the week, Noth and I meet at the Peninsula Hong Kong. Noth has a 17th-floor corner suite with a bathtub overlooking Victoria Harbor. It’s the city’s oldest hotel, dating back to 1928, and possibly one of Asia’s most iconic addresses — Salisbury Road, Kowloon. It also boasts Hong Kong’s only hotel helipad. Naturally, we make that our first activity.
We’re whisked up to the hotel’s China Clipper lounge, a retro-style penthouse with plush green carpeting and an illustrated timeline of Hong Kong’s aviation history. Noth is dressed casually, in a zipped-up black bomber jacket and khakis. His crest of silver-streaked hair spikes handsomely at the top. Outside on the green-painted tarmac, he poses impishly before our gleaming empty chopper. “I wanna sit up front!” he jokes, elbowing his way past me. But there’s no such thing as a bad seat in a helicopter. Once we’re airborne, the views are all-encompassing. We swoop over skyscrapers, taxi-filled streets, and those plunging forest-covered hills you see in all the postcards. Noth looks down, fascinated by the city’s soaring, impossibly cramped apartment buildings. “I mean, how do they fit so many people in there? How do they live?”
Noth’s acting gigs have been pretty New York–centric, but that hasn’t stopped him from seeing the world. Later that day, in a speakeasy-style cigar lounge, he tells me his mother, a CBS reporter, used to take him and his brother on assignments to Russia and Switzerland. As a teenager, he biked solo up the coast of Scotland to the Orkney Islands, eventually ending up at the Edinburgh Festival, where he saw his first-ever production of Doctor Faustus. “My bike only broke down once. It was a very lonely trip, but I didn’t mind.”
Ensconced on a leather sofa, lit Cuban in hand, Noth seems to be in his happy place. He plugs his iPhone into the bar’s audio system, and Manu Katché’s Song for Her (his favorite jazz track) ripples out over the speakers. Puffing on his Cuban, he speaks slowly, as if lost in thought, and regales me with stories from the Sex and the City season finale shoot in Paris, where he threw a Hemingway-inspired dinner party at Left Bank haunt La Closerie de Lilas. “That was so much fun,” he recalls, “There’s something magical about that place for me. As a college student, before I went to Paris, I’d always reread A Movable Feast.”
The school he’s referring to is Marlboro College, in southern Vermont, which he calls “truly one of the most beautiful places in the world. For me, those college years were pure poetry.” I ask if he studied acting there. “No! I didn’t study acting,” he recoils, offended at the notion. “You don’t study acting. Every time a kid tells me they’re studying acting in college, I wanna barf.” Instead, he immersed himself in classics like Homer, Aristotle, and Chaucer, hoping one day to become a writer. There’s an academic somewhere in him, I observe quietly. “It’s a well-kept secret,” he retorts.
The photographer interjects to announce he’s gotten his shots. “Do one more close-up for me, and I’ll send it to my mom,” Noth instructs, striking an intense, serious pose.
Things get a little weirder that night, when we’re out to dinner at Bo Innovation, a new, avant-garde restaurant by mechanical engineer turned three-Michelin-starred chef Alvin Leung. They call him the “Demon Chef,” though the experience is more Happy Meal on crack than Hades. The 15-course menu cites questionable ingredients like “crispy smoked oyster milk,” “wok air powder,” and “marshmallow with green onion oil.” At one point, we’re served chili crab in a baby-food jar with a Thomas the Tank Engine spoon.
Noth isn’t having it. “Is this the last course? ‘Cause I’m about to die” he groans as our waiter unloads plates of chian dan chee, a traditional Hong Kong bite-size ham sandwich, here gussied up with black truffle. “Mmm! Cheeseburgers,” Noth squeals sarcastically, prompting hoity-toity patrons to look over in disapproval. (Until, of course, they figure out who he is and begin sneakily trying to snap pictures over their wineglasses.) The marathon meal concludes with an elaborate metal birdcage containing two tiers of small, glazed sweets. “If I have a heart attack, I’m suing this place,” Noth mutters.
Other adventures round out our itinerary, though one other moment stands out. It is spent not at a fancy hotel or Michelin-starred restaurant but, rather, at a back-alley laundromat off Nathan Road, where Noth had dropped off some dirty clothes the day before. Casually, he leads me down a fluorescent-lit corridor, revealing a grittier side of Hong Kong: shoe-repair shops, a crammed doctor’s waiting room, and dingy cafés with half-drunk teacups bobbing in the sink.
The setting leaves a lot to be desired, but Noth isn’t fazed one bit. In fact, he appears at home, glad to be leading the charge for once, and not marching to the beat of some PR-orchestrated parade. Through a small kiosk inhabited by rumbling machines, a young woman hands off his clothes in a white plastic bag. Noth lifts it to his nose, “Aaahhhh, that’s fresh. Now,” he says, as he and the ponytailed laundry girl pose for a picture, “where can we find the opium dens?”