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Good as Golding

In 'Monsoon,' actor Henry Golding plays Kit, a gay man who left Vietnam for the UK.

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Henry Golding (photo by Tim Palen)

In a relatively short period of time, actor Henry Golding’s star has ascended, making him one of the most recognizable names and faces on film. Beginning with the double whammy of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor, and continuing with 2019’s Last Christmas and The Gentlemen, Golding is a hot commodity.

In addition to these high-profile movies, Golding has also ventured into the world of independent features with Monsoon , written and directed by gay filmmaker Hong Khaou, who also directed 2014’s Lilting. In Monsoon, Golding, an LGBTQ ally, plays Kit, a gay man who left Vietnam for the UK with his parents when he was a young boy. He returns, 30 years later, to scatter their ashes. While there, he meets and begins a relationship with American expat Lewis (Parker Sawyers, who played a young Barack Obama in 2016’s Southside with You). 

Golding was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of the November release of Monsoon.

Gregg Shapiro: What was appealing to you about the character of Kit in Hong Khaou’s Monsoon that made you want to portray him?
Henry Golding: I think for me, it almost mirrors my personal journey in a sense. I grew up in an expat community in Malaysia until I was about eight. Then I moved from Malaysia to Surrey in the UK, just south of London. I grew up there, pretty much, for the rest of primary school and secondary school, up until I was about 21, when I made the decision to move back to Malaysia and try to get into broadcasting. I landed in Malaysia and was just kind of dumbfounded with how alien I felt. [I assumed] that because I’m half Malaysian, I’m going to feel right at home and it’s going to feel great. [Laughs] But it’s often a very sharp slap in the face—“Yeah, you’re definitely not used to this type of culture.” When I was reading the screenplay for Monsoon, that experience really resonated with me. Kit’s story has much more of a personal trajectory, in that his parents never told him much about Vietnam. He has so many questions bubbling inside him that his parents didn’t answer before they died. So he went on a mission of trying to figure out a little bit of his past. At the same time, he wasn’t really expecting the experience that he got.

Had you previously seen any of Hong’s previous films such as Lilting, starring Ben Whishaw?
Yes,  I watched Lilting pretty much immediately after I read Monsoon. I loved it! I think one of the things that drew me to working with Hong was his subtlety and beauty in being. That’s what he wanted from Kit. These moments of self-reflection, these moments of inner turmoil, and these questions just whirling around like a vortex in his head. There’s this look on his face when he just kind of phases out. He’ll be in the middle of a street in Vietnam somewhere with all this traffic, and he’ll just have a moment to himself. He’s [been in] this sort of safety bunker within himself, growing up, and you see glimpses of that. To see him and his journey through the movie, and have him come out of his shell, I think it’s such a beautiful thing.

Like Lilting, Monsoon addresses loss, grief, and family. For fans who know you well from comedies such as Crazy Rich Asians, Last Christmas, and A Simple Favor, how do you hope they’ll respond to you in such a serious role?
Hopefully, they’ll find that they enjoy it. I finished Crazy Rich Asians and I just got back from A Simple Favor, which we filmed in Canada, so I was [at a place] in my career where I had just gotten started. I had nothing that the world had seen. I think at that stage, I loved the idea of [having] a much more personalized experience while filming a movie. That’s what an independent film allows you. So the collaboration between myself, co-producer Tracy O’Riordan, and Hong taught me so much. But yes, I think people are going to be surprised.  Hopefully, they see the range that I have as an actor. I have Snake Eyes coming out next year—[another] little glimpse into this world before I’m in another studio film. I think I’ve had a taste of the nectar, to be honest with you. It was such a lovely experience to be so involved in a movie like that. It’s difficult, because you have people to answer to when there’s a big budget and a lot of opinions. But when you’re just making a movie for yourselves, it’s beautiful.

Monsoon doesn’t shy away from the subject of Kit being a gay man. It includes intimate scenes with Kit and Lewis, as well a scene with a guy that Kit picks up while he’s in Hanoi. Can you please say something about the challenges and rewards of playing a gay character?
For me, it was wonderful. Hong has a way of telling these stories. His sexuality wasn’t the driving factor, or the driving attribute, of Kit’s personality or this story. It really centered around his personal identity struggle. I think he’s so secure in his sexuality that [being gay] takes a back seat, in a way.

That’s right, his sexual orientation seems to be secondary.
Exactly! I’ve had a lot of messages from people who have watched the film, especially young, gay Asian men who have never seen that type of movie where [the character’s orientation] is not even taken into account. It’s so normalized, which it should be. It’s so strange and amazing to see what [audiences perceive as “normal”] on the big screen. It just shows that there are communities out there that are starved for representation. I think Parker Sawyers and Hong approached it respectfully and with a collaborative spirit. There was real love on that set. There was so much trust, so there was never a question of “should we be doing this?” It just felt so natural, in a way.

It comes across that way. Kit returns to Vietnam after 30 years to scatter his parents’ ashes, even though, as you mentioned, his parents left the country and never expressed any interest in ever returning. Do you think Kit was doing the right thing?
I think we juggled the script a little bit to [show that] he realizes this, so you can see glimpses of this in the finished film.

Kit had an understanding that he was bringing them home, [even though] Vietnam had not been their home for 35 years. Their home was where his family was in the UK. We often do that as immigrants. [Your geographic] home is just a distant memory. Home is really where the heart is. I think he comes to that realization: “I never needed to bring them back, but I needed to come back.”

While in Saigon, Kit meets up with Lee (David Tran), an old childhood friend. Do you have a childhood friend that you haven’t seen for many years that you hope to reunite with someday?
Yes, from my time in Malaysia, when I was growing up in an expat kind of community. My dad worked on helicopters for the oil rigs, and stuff like that. We had a very close community, and we were all around the same age. Mark was one of my best friends. I think they were a South African family. I haven’t seen him since we left when I was eight or nine years old. I think they moved to the UK as well. Often, we have these best friends that we grew up with, and we lose contact. Sometimes it’s how life is. It goes in chapters, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t mean the chapter is closed. It’s not the end of the chapter, it’s kind of open-ended.

Your tattoos—including the one on your thigh, the one on your tricep, and the ones on your shoulders—are all visible in the movie. Do you have a favorite tattoo?
I think the most personal ones for me are my shoulder tattoos. I’m from the Iban tribe in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. That tattoo is the strongest identifier for our tribe. It is given to a young man who’s come of age; after that, they go out into the world. Back in the day, if you came across people in the jungles [with] these identifying tattoos on them, you could easily recognize them as Iban. It’s almost to help you travel through life with safety, and to bring you home from those journeys.

This article appears in the December 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Gregg Shapiro

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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