Lady Gaga will not be the only star born this year. In 2016, producers for Crazy Rich Asians began a four-continent-wide search to find the perfect Nick Young — the suave scion to a gigantic Singapore fortune who, in Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, is characterized as something like Southeast Asia’s JFK Jr. That is, a hunk of blinding charisma with man-of-the-people humility who men want to be and women want to be with.
But with name-brand Asian-American actors unable to nail the character’s posh Singaporean-British accent, Asian-born actors for whom English is a second language also unsuitable for the role, and much of the rest of the film’s principal cast already locked in, director Jon M. Chu had begun to despair about finding his leading man in time for the production’s start date. Then, out of left field came a fateful email suggestion from the film’s Malaysian production office: What about Henry Golding?
“I get this email from our line producer saying, ‘Hey our accountant said we should look at this guy. He presented at an awards show that she saw, like, five years ago and all her friends are obsessed with him,’” Chu recalls to Vulture. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, another good-looking Asian dude. Got it.’ But I started searching his Instagram. And every video was so charming. He was like Cary Grant!”
Were it not for that offhand suggestion from accountant Lisa-Kim Kuan, Golding — a Malaysian-born, English-reared former model and hairdresser who had found a modicum of fame hosting travel programs for the BBC and Discovery Channel — would never have even tried out for the part. Not only was he cast in the role of Nick despite having precisely zero acting experience, given Crazy Rich Asians’ $35 million five-day opening take, Golding has almost overnight morphed into moviedom’s most bankable Asian leading man. And with two more movies coming out — the Vietnam-set indie Monsoon, in which the actor portrays a gay man returning to his homeland, and director Paul Feig’s mystery-thriller A Simple Favor (out September 14), in which Golding portrays the love interest of both Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick — audiences certainly haven’t seen the last of him.
Just ahead of CRA’s Singapore premiere earlier this week, Vulture tracked down Kuan to hear the backstory of Golding’s miracle casting.
You worked as an accountant in the film’s Malaysian production office. Safe to assume your job didn’t involve casting actors in primary roles?
Absolutely safe to assume!
So why did you decide to speak up?
An executive producer and I were working on the Crazy Rich Asians budget. When we got to Nick Young’s part, he mentioned they were having difficulties finding the right guy to play him. I thought of Henry right away!
Where did you first encounter Henry? And what made you think he’d make a good Nick?
I was a guest at an event in 2013, a travel show. I can’t recall what it was called. It was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And Henry was presenting the show. I read Crazy Rich Asians after the event. As I was reading the book, I thought of Henry being the perfect Nick Young. You know how it is when you read a book and you imagine the person to be in that perfect role?
When you first suggested Henry, how seriously did you expect your suggestion to be taken?
The executive producer, Tim Coddington, smiled and nodded with approval. He said he would mention it to Jon Chu. But never in a million years did I think my suggestion would be taken seriously.
So how surprised were you when Henry got the part?
I was ecstatic. Once the announcement was made that Henry was playing Nick Young, girls were swooning over him. I was at a Brian McKnight concert and overheard a group of girls talking about Henry. They kept saying how handsome he is, but they also could not understand how he got the part when he was not an actor. I smiled and walked away.
Has he ever thanked you?
When he first came to the Kuala Lumpur office for a fitting, Jon introduced us. Henry did thank me then.
Was he emotional at all?
He was more bemused that I remembered him from 2013, bearing in mind that I do not know him and had not met him before.
Now Henry has three movies coming out. How do you feel to have “discovered” Hollywood’s most newly bankable Asian male movie star?
Extremely happy for Henry. My adik [Malay for sister] said to me after [Golding’s appearance on] the Jimmy Fallon show, “You built a bridge for Henry to get to the other side.” I thought that was sweetly appropriate; that was all I did. Everything else was down to Henry.