The Inverse Interview

Henry Golding channels his main character energy

“I’m always the outsider,” the Snake Eyes star says.

Originally Published: 
henry golding
Kaleb Marshall

Henry Golding liked to wear the ghillie suit.

At the outset of quarantine in March 2020, the rom-com star found himself in a war zone: Call of Duty: Warzone, the popular battle royale spin-off of the military shooter franchise.

“Gaming kept me sane, especially when Warzone dropped,” Golding, 34, tells Inverse. “I think it saved a lot of human beings from being super bored.”

Golding’s Warzone strategy is illuminating of the man himself: To win, he devised a plan where he held back for as long as possible, observing combatants and picking them off from afar before finally rushing into the fog of war.

“Being able to put a face like mine on the big screen, it’s so important.”

“That’s my tactic,” he says. “Stay alive, let everyone beat each other, pick them off with the sniper. I bought the ghillie suit so I could hide even better. I won a couple, not gonna lie.”

It’s a June afternoon when the actor shares his Call of Duty strategy with me over Zoom — he from the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, me in my childhood bedroom-turned-lockdown office in New Jersey. It’s a little strange talking about video games with Golding, who even over Zoom exudes charming regality he showed off in Crazy Rich Asians. But his cut-glass British accent can’t hide the authenticity of his recollections. Golding is a gamer.

And now, he’s also an action star. Golding’s latest movie, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, is engineered to begin a new cinematic universe, but it’s also a new beginning for Golding, whose mixed heritage has long cast him as an outsider waiting for his moment to move in.

Henry Golding, 34, at the Palm Springs Hotel in Los Angeles.

Kaleb Marshall

Golding is the star of Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, due in theaters July 23.

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There’s a tension in entertainment journalism where professionals like yours truly try to maintain a distance from the celebrities we interview. Even when we find relatable common ground — Golding and I both enjoy a good round of Call of Duty, and we like to reminisce over old iPhone snapshots — there’s an implicit obligation to view a subject objectively.

But for many, this profession starts with a passion. For myself, a love of movies has forever been at odds with how movies didn’t love men like me. For nearly thirty years, I rarely, if ever, saw Asian men swoon as handsome leading men or thematically complex heroes and antiheroes that enrich and inspire our shared cultural memories.

Henry Golding didn’t see them either. Like other Asian men, we both latched onto the usual suspects: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li. But Lee was dead before Golding and I were born, and neither Chan nor Li were allowed to grow as artists beyond their martial arts. In 2000, a test screening of the film Romeo Must Die included an unused ending where Jet Li kissed co-star Aaliyah. The negative reception circulated like a warning: Asian men are not romantic. The James Bond adage, women want him, men want to be him, never had an Asian face.

But Golding possesses what you would call main character energy. Born out of TikTok, the term refers to puffing up one’s own chest as a means of self-care than a shallow ego boost. In a June 2021 essay for The New Yorker, Kyle Chayka writes that post-Covid main character energy is about trying to “reclaim control of our stories, exert ourselves upon the world,” and “take our places as protagonists once more.”

This is Golding’s narrative. He’s an actor with all the attributes of the main protagonist, but decades of systemic racism in Hollywood have kept protagonists from resembling Golding.

“For me, photographing my wife during the birth of my daughter was probably the greatest photo I've ever taken,” Golding says. “I think it meant so much.”

Kaleb Marshall

This is why Golding’s career is, on paper, impossible. Shortly after his star-making debut in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, his momentum continued in the glossy murder mystery A Simple Favor, which finds him smooching Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick. In 2019 he led Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, a gay romance about a refugee who returns home to spread his family’s ashes. He was the “sexy ghost” of Paul Feig’s Last Christmas, a suave specter sent to renew Emilia Clarke’s holiday cheer. In Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, he played a Triad gangster. For the first time in his short career, he’d ditched boyish charms to channel a bully’s masculine rage.

Asians, the first and thus far only movie in the list of top ten highest-grossing Hollywood rom-coms to star an Asian lead, was a period Golding was cautioned to remember. “It was a whirlwind,” he recalls. “It snuck up on me.”

Golding poses with an action figure of himself from Snake Eyes.

Kaleb Marshall

His director on the film, Jon M. Chu, advised him to begin journaling. “Write down everything,” he was told. “Everything you remember. Every experience. Write it down because it’s going to go like”— he snaps his fingers — “that.”

He never wrote a word. “It felt like homework,” he says with a laugh, though he regrets this now.

“Once the film came out, it took a life of its own. I remember the morning the movie premiered. I was in New York [doing] press for A Simple Favor, so I really didn’t stop. I’m walking down High Street minding my business, and suddenly people were acknowledging, ‘Isn’t that the guy from that movie I saw last night?’ It was a shift in my perspective. During quarantine, I’ve been able to reflect on how amazing that period was.”

In lieu of a journal, Golding has iCloud. “I go down memory lane on my iPhotos. I skip to the end and work my way back. You remember the time you were there, who you were with. I do that on long flights, and I was doing that a fair amount during quarantine.”

In 2018, Henry Golding made his screen debut in Crazy Rich Asians, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan. The role called for a British-accented, southeast Asian prince with a sincere, humane soul. His performance inspired his casting by the producers of Snake Eyes.

Warner Bros.

Golding, with Emilia Clarke, in the 2019 romantic comedy Last Christmas.

Universal Pictures
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In a few short years, Golding has experienced a career upswing most can only dream of — and that many Asian actors are fighting to normalize for themselves in a still painfully white Hollywood. Even he admits he’s not sure where he belongs.

“I’m always the outsider,” Golding says. “I feel like an outsider now. I wasn’t Asian enough for Crazy Rich Asians. I’m not white enough for Snake Eyes. People can say what they want and have a minuscule view of the world. But we are global.”

“We should be uplifting each other and rooting for the success of everyone.”

In both Crazy Rich Asians and Snake Eyes, Golding’s presence ignited hostile skepticism. During Asians, some took issue with his English roots, which opposed his character’s Singapore background. For Snake Eyes, Golding just didn’t look like the hero nostalgic G.I. Joe fans remembered from their childhoods.

Both experiences allowed Golding to empathize with Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu, who went through a similar ordeal after landing the lead part in Marvel’s Shang-Chi. “It’s rubbish,” he says. “We’re playing characters. Not their background. It’s bonkers we’re still having those conversations when we’re fighting for something so much bigger. It’s toxic.”

He adds, “We should be uplifting each other and rooting for the success of everyone. Not just a few because they’ve been lucky to be brought up in a certain location.”

During his quarantine Call of Duty games, Golding favored the ghillie suit. “I’m such a cheapskate, I wasn’t into buying all the skins,” he jokes.

Kaleb Marshall

On getting through quarantine with his wife: “When we felt trapped we’d get in the car, put down the windows, and drive out to the hills and the mountains and get fresh air. Look out to the ocean, park, and go home and eat. What else was there to do?”

Kaleb Marshall
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Snake Eyes’ story of an outsider who hones his skills in Japan echoes Golding’s own. Born in Malaysia before moving to the UK, he went back to his mother’s homeland at age 21 to pursue a career in TV. In 2016, to marry his wife Liv Lo Golding, he took up a rite of passage called bejalai, an ancient tradition for the Iban Dayak from whom his mother descends.

For two months, Golding lived in the wilderness of Borneo and reconnected with ancient ways of survival that modern life in the UK severed. He slept on camps and beds made from the wood of nearby trees. He hunted with machetes and darts. He slaughtered pigs. Bugs crawled up his ear. Temperatures sweltered with 100 percent humidity.

“I’m half white. I’m half-Asian. I’m never gonna be enough of anything.”

At the end of it, Golding earned the tattoos that now adorn his body, including one of a fig tree on his right thigh painfully applied in the old school Iban style: a needle, a bamboo stick, and a hammer. Enduring the bejalai also gave Henry a new name endowed by tribal elders: “Gerawat.” It roughly translates to someone once confused but now found.

“Someone who is Asian-American, who has grown up in America and never stepped foot in Asia, will feel out of place when they come to China or Malaysia,” says Golding.

I relay to him that I’m a Filipino-American but have never been to the Philippines. I don’t speak Tagalog.

“It doesn’t make you less Filipino,” he tells me. “That’s something I had to grapple with being mixed race. Yeah, I’m half white. I’m half-Asian. I’m never gonna be enough of anything. So I’m going to be who I am. I’m going to lead a movie the best way I can.”

“We don’t want people feeling sorry for us. We want people to create stories for us and have us in mind at the point of conception. That’s the difference.”

Kaleb Marshall

Henry Golding is putting assumptions about him through what amounts to a live-fire exercise in Hollywood. There are no bullets but the stakes — box office returns — are real.

In 2019, Paramount approached him to play Snake Eyes, the fan-favorite ninja of the G.I. Joe franchise, in a stand-alone reboot film. Previously played by Ray Park in a silent (and masked) supporting role, Golding’s version is now the main character, an orphaned ninja trainee embarking on a journey of transformation before his recruitment into the elite G.I. Joe unit.

Though Golding grew up in the UK, the deeply American G.I. Joe toys and cartoons (a product of the Reagan years) still made it to his shores.

“The first time I saw [G.I. Joe], it was Saturday morning cartoons and the Transformers/G.I. Joe comic book,” Golding says. “I looked through it so many times.” The actor believes his “limited exposure” to the franchise was an advantage. “Concentrating on your own character didn’t cloud my vision. It gave me the ability to start from day one.”

“Henry has an approachability and a really probing mind,” says G.I. Joe producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura in an email. “In Crazy Rich Asians, he projected a type of élan we believed would be essential to Snake Eyes.

“He has lived life and come away with a witty, zen perspective. That was necessary to let the audience in on his [character’s] emotional trauma, a charm that made [his] presence to be an action hero.”

“Henry has an approachability and a really probing mind.”

Directed by Robert Schwentke (Red), Snake Eyes challenges the deeply Western narrative of white saviors, a familiar trope perfected in the modern age by Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai.

Snake Eyes breaks from its own tradition by compelling audiences to reevaluate what an outsider actually looks like. In the original G.I. Joe canon by Japanese-American comic book legend Larry Hama, Snake Eyes was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white American who began training after losing his family. His whiteness in Japan defined his story, seeding rivalry with his clan brother Storm Shadow.

Hama, an executive producer on the film, gave the movie and Golding’s casting his blessing.

“He gave us license to co-create with him the backstory that he always wanted to tell,” Golding says. “People are like, ‘That’s not history, he’s white.’ Well, maybe Larry had to do that. Larry had to make it such an obvious story. When he was writing comic books, he had to use tropes: White guy learns the way of the ninja. Now you may be white, Black, whatever, but you will be a fish out of water when you are taken from your culture and put in someone else’s. Those are the intricacies we can use in our stories now. That wasn’t the case back in the day.”

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura confirms Golding is set to play Snake Eyes for the long haul. “If we have a winner on our hands you can bet that Henry will be joining us for any and all sequels.”

Paramount Pictures

Director Robert Schwentke (left) with Golding (right) behind the scenes.

Paramount Pictures

Golding co-stars in Snake Eyes with Andrew Koji (Warrior), who plays Snake Eyes’ clan brother Storm Shadow.

Paramount Pictures
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The same summer Golding took up his bejalai, the online project #StarringJohnCho went viral. Organized by William Yu, it called attention to the absence of Asian stars in American cinema. It communicated its message by altering posters that swapped out white leads for John Cho, still one of the most recognized actors of Asian descent. Looking at the posters of a Cho-led Avengers or Mission: Impossible is like peeking into a parallel universe where onscreen diversity is more normal than novel.

Golding, who name drops #StarringJohnCho in conversation, says that can happen here, too.

“It starts with the directors, in the writer’s room,” he says. “It starts from conception, creating stories and characters anybody can play. Is it so important that your character has to be a particular race?” For some movies, Golding says, it is. “But if it’s [the character’s] actions that drive the story, then anyone can play it. Anyone should play it. If you’re not serving justice to the page, then what’s the point?”

“You see the precipice,” Golding says, “We wanted to macro-zoom on a character that was so important to the G.I. Joe universe and give that character justice building his history.”

“This sets the tone to where this is heading,” says Golding. “It’s not cookie-cutter. It’s something new and fresh and exciting, something people are hungry for.”

Paramount Pictures
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Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins has a lot of big ideas hidden beneath its surface. But there’s a lot of fun shit on full display, too.

For one thing, it’s not another superhero movie, insists Golding.

“The last thing I wanted to do was add to the pile of superhero movies we’ve been seeing,” he says. Its action is visceral. Its environments come to life with tactile texture. No shade at Avengers, but Snake Eyes is light on aliens, apocalypses, and green screen climaxes.

The film stands on the “precipice” of a new G.I. Joe cinematic universe, Golding says, and takes influence from genre masters like Jackie Chan, who famously performed his stunts and staged real action on camera. On Zoom, Golding raves about Chan classics like Police Story and Drunken Master. “When I saw him, I think in Armor of God when he’s rolling off the hill, he’s like Indiana Jones, I was like, I’ve never seen an Asian Indiana Jones. That opened my eyes.”

“The last thing I wanted to do was add to the pile of superhero movies.

Hoping to live up to the master, Golding put the work in.

“The two months of preparation and getting my ass kicked is [seen] on camera,” Golding says. “Working towards this point was a challenge.”

Choreographer Kenji Tanagaki trained him with a custom system of swordwork made for the film. “[Schwentke] didn’t want super flippy flurries, unrealistic combat. He wanted two strikes, whoot, and the guy’s down.”

“The key to being good at action is a willingness to put in the hours it takes to get physically up to speed and the discipline to master the choreography,” adds di Bonaventura. “Henry has [done that]. He is physically imposing, which helps when one is trying to project strength.”

Says Golding: “There’s a sense of guys actually doing stuff [on camera]. It’s us without masks and the pretense of CGI. We did every bit of choreography we had to do. It’s a throwback to the action movies we grew up with.

“Real action, physical stunts, physical combat is at the forefront.”

“I still get that comment of, ‘You’re not Asian enough’ or ‘He’s Asian, he shouldn’t be doing that.’”

Kaleb Marshall

Principal photography on Snake Eyes wrapped in February 2020; Golding was in lockdown playing video games a month later. But along with an airborne disease, a disease of violent prejudice against Asian communities swept after Covid-19 was found to originate in China.

Golding counts himself lucky not to have had a violent encounter, but that didn’t make him immune from rage seeing others assaulted. “These people being attacked are helpless. They’re like grandmas,” he laments. His message to those perpetuating violence is simple: “You’re a fucking idiot. You deserve to be locked up and thrown in jail.”

Snake Eyes has no voice in the original canon. But Golding is unafraid to speak his mind. On the day of our Zoom call, Golding called out Andrew Yang, at the time campaigning for Mayor of New York, when the aspiring politician went on Twitter to voice support for Israel during the escalating conflict with Palestine. “The people of NYC will always stand with our brothers and sisters in Israel who face down terrorism and persevere,” Yang tweeted.

Golding tweeted back, “You are an actual twat.”

Weeks later, Golding is a bit more measured but no less annoyed.

“In that situation, the one-sidedness was what I disliked,” he tells Inverse. “It’s a barbed conversation. It’s a sensitive topic. [But] it was so irresponsible. To tweet something like that, especially when you’re in the public trying to lead our community into something greater, that’s not the way to do it. It was naughty of me to say that, but I think it pushed through what everybody else was questioning: Why? The one thing I can think of was for votes. It’s a shame.”

“I can sure as hell do [more] action after Snake Eyes. Sci-fi is something I’ve always wanted to get into. I’m looking for the next sci-fi project.”

Kaleb Marshall

For me, it is hard to ignore the timing and positioning of Golding in the lead role in Snake Eyes. It feels like a stealthy reclamation of a place that’s been denied to people of color and mixed heritages.

We love movies, too, and Hollywood has long kept us on the margins of our own stories. The abundance of Asians looking hot and kicking ass in Snake Eyes is long-awaited wish-fulfillment, a panacea for a sickness that’s plagued popular culture for too long.

“Being able to put a face like mine on the big screen, it’s so important,” he says. “The more exposure we have for people like me, like you, it’s going to normalize those characters being written.”

In late March 2020, the birth of his daughter gave Golding his biggest role yet: Dad. The job has inspired him to log off Call of Duty and get back to work; he’s now shooting Persuasion, a Jane Austen adaptation. Once again, he’s the male lead.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” Golding muses on fatherhood. “Everything becomes not about you.”

“You have motivations beyond your own gratification. You start building a future not only for yourself but this tiny, miniature human who relies wholly on you. You’re gonna see an extremely motivated Henry Golding [from now on]. One that is going to take risks in his career.”

Henry Golding is done hiding and observing through a long-range scope. He’s charging in.

Photos by Kaleb Marshall

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins opens in theaters on July 23.

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