The Gentlemen star on making the transition from rom-com leading man to supervillain in Guy Ritchie’s new crime caper.
Back in 2018, you might have caught Henry Golding on-screen as soft-spoken leading man in mega Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians – with exquisite manners and dapper Prince Charming tailoring to boot.
After the success of recent festive rom-com offering Last Christmas (with co-star and our Winter issue cover star Emilia Clarke), he returns to our screens early this year in a role which marks a distinct departure from his usual buttery charming lead status: stepping into the brogues of supervillain Dry Eye in The Gentlemen, a Guy Ritchie gangster caper, no less – set in the drug underworld, also starring Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant.
We caught up with the Malaysian-born actor and talked about drinking whisky with Guy Ritchie, Matthew McConaughey’s method acting, and Asian representation in the industry…
Congratulations on The Gentlemen – will you tell us how you first got involved in it?
The Gentleman came about as I was doing press for Crazy Rich Asians. Guy’s team reached out; he was looking for someone to fill the shoes of Dry Eye and we had a meeting. I went over to his house in London, had a whisky, talked about movies – just hanging out really. I think Guy’s really intuitive when it comes to choosing his actors and making his movies. And that was that. I was on board. It worked out that they were filming at the same time I was filming Last Christmas in London. It worked out perfectly.
Were you a massive fan of Guy Ritchie before? What research did you do to help you better embody a gangster?
I was a huge Guy Ritchie fan. I grew up watching Lock, Stock and Snatch, Revolver, RocknRolla – all those films. Growing up in the UK in the late 90s/early 00s, he was the director that every young lad wanted to work with. He didn’t even necessarily need to give me a script, I was like whatever it is, whatever Guy needs. I did some research on Asian gangs in the UK, and the ferocity and how they had to adapt to the cultures they were living in. And what made them tick. And so Dry Eye being of a younger generation, I knew he’s have a new-age feel to him. Didn’t necessarily need to be brash, but a bit more suave, and slicker than your average.
Your character Dry Eye feels like such a departure from your rom-com roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas – is this why you wanted to take it?
Definitely. It was a chance to step into shoes that I hadn’t played. And coming off a few rom-coms and dramas, it’s always so refreshing to really be able to embody a character that’s almost the polar opposite to what you are.
What were the biggest challenges in playing a villain? Have you had any funny feedback from friends or family members seeing you as such as an antagonistic character?
Yeah, it was interesting when my wife would leave the room and I would be reading through the script for The Gentleman, and she’d come back into the room and she’d feel this really thick atmosphere, and how my mood had just completely changed. And that very dark, heavy vibe that comes with it. So not really a challenge, but amazing to be able to explore that type of emotion. My wife could barely recognise me when I was getting into the script.
I read a hilarious story that you didn’t realise Matthew McConaughey was a method actor and thought he hated you on set? Will you tell us a little more about this?
I was told that Matthew was a method actor but I had never experienced that way of working and it took me by surprise for sure. I went in thinking that we were going to be best friends, but it was all business. He stayed in character. And I respected that completely. Took me off guard. But I adapted very quickly, and once the cameras stopped rolling he was like the nicest guy.
How did the cast along in general – was it as much fun as it looked?
Guy’s worked with pretty much all the same people since Lock, Stock really, and so they’re one big boisterous family. And so working with the crew was phenomenal, Jeremy Strong is hilarious, Charlie Hunnam is like amazing, Michelle Dockery – who I got to do a big scene with – was wonderful. And we had an amazing time.
It’s amazing what you’re doing for Asian representation in Hollywood – is this important to you, or do you not really think about it?
I think it is important for Asian representation. I have a very different view of what being Asian means for a lot of people who have grown up outside of Asia, their representation on-screen has been limited, but I grew up in Malaysia and Singapore and I spent the last sort of more of my adult life in Asia than I have outside of it. So for me, it means something a little bit different. But it’s about making the right sort of choices in the films that I work on, making people proud who derive inspiration from seeing Asian actors doing well. I don’t want to just concentrate on being an Asian actor, I want to concentrate on being an actor as well. And a leading man. And colour-blind roles and colour-blind characters are what’s important. And not taking who I am for face value.
What kind of role are you looking to take on next?
Currently I’m in production for Snake Eyes; I play Snake Eyes himself. It’s absolutely phenomenal what we’re doing with Robert Schwentke as director. We’ve got an amazing reinvention of GI Joe, I think people are going to be really surprised and really excited with what we come out with – and I’m super proud. He’s a very complex character.
The Gentlemen is in cinemas from 1st January