In Monsoon, Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) portrays Kit, a character that strongly resonates with his own experiences. Like Kit, Golding was born in an Asian nation and raised in the United Kingdom. He returned to his motherland as an adult feeling, oddly, like a stranger in "the place that you're meant to feel the closest to," Golding told The Advocate.
"It was putting myself back in those shoes of discovery," Golding recounted of his acting experience. He spent about three months in Vietnam for production wandering the streets of Saigon and Hanoi and, like Kit, learning the complicated history of the Vietnam-American war's legacy on a nation and its people.
However, there are several differences between Golding and Kit. The former was born in Malaysia, the latter in Vietnam, which the character's family fled as refugees after the war. Additionally, the former is straight, and the latter is gay. Kit's sexuality is not the centerpiece of the film by Hong Khaou (Lilting). But there are several sex scenes and, more importantly, a relationship that grows with Lewis (Parker Sawyers, Southside With You), an African-American man whose father fought in the war. He becomes an anchor for Kit in a place where he initially feels unmoored.
And no matter their birthplace, viewers around the world will relate to Kit in his disconnection from the society around him; in several scenes, Kit gazes out of windows and through tablet screens at family members, foreshadowing the quarantine to come.
Below, Golding discusses his process of giving life to a gay man going on a journey for love, family, and self-discovery in Vietnam. He also addresses the politics surrounding the casting of roles related to nationality and sexuality as well as the "ferocity" of Kit's love life.
The Advocate: What I thought was really interesting about Kit was that he has this confusion about who he is culturally. But not about his sexuality. He seems very grounded in being a gay man. I'm curious how you approached that balance of having a character who was at once unmoored and in another sense so certain of who he is.
Henry Golding: I quite liked the idea that Kit is so secure in his sexuality and so comfortable. … He allows himself to express those feelings because it's almost like a security blanket in the beginning. It's when he feels, I suppose, grounded in such a tremulous location, because you see him at his lightest when he's with Lewis. ... And that progression of their relationship is really interesting, because in the beginning, it's so visceral, it's so almost cathartic, but then it slowly progresses into something more. It becomes soft and passionate and he's actually giving him an opening to who he is. Especially for Hong Khaou, the director, he didn't want the story to be centered on his sexuality. I think he wanted to make it a normality, in a sense. And so the focus really was on his personal journey, rather than a journey into his sexuality.
I feel like that's still remarkable in films that come out today.
To be honest, we need normality like that. Why do we need to question a character's sexuality so much and be so intrigued by like, oh, OK, so he's gay? Well, that doesn't change who he is. It's just an aspect of his character, you know?
And it's a strength in a lot of ways because it gives him the ability to find a groundedness and a place in another person.
We need partners sometimes to lean on, sometimes for a window of sanity whilst you're on the search for truth. And truth has been eluding him since he was a kid. Sometimes you just need a break from that. It becomes therapy.
We don't often see gay Asian characters in film very often. What's it like to be a part of reflecting a queer community that rarely sees themselves on screen?
I've had a tremendous amount of messages saying that it's so rare to find multicultural characters like Lewis and Kit on-screen in a relationship with it not be overly highlighted, you know what I mean? It's almost the side quest to the actual story, [which] is him as a character rather than these sexual escapades. And the fact that it was such a beautiful thing that a Black man and an Asian man can have an open relationship like that and not have to explain it or not have people questioning it. You hope for the best going forward in representation. But it takes a village to create art like that, from the writers to the directors to the producers. I'm happy to have been able to fly that flag for young gay Asian men.
Is this your first gay role?
I did this tiny cameo a long, long time ago for this Malaysian movie. ... I played a boyfriend to one of the main characters, but it was a comedy sort of thing. ... But this was definitely my first time really living a character like Kit, so complex and so layered. It was a joy to be a part of that.
As an actor, what's it like to take that on? And I ask that because there's this fraught history of "leading men" avoiding certain roles because of fears they might make them less financially viable in the mainstream market. And now there's, of course, the whole question of authenticity.
There's no right or wrong answer. I think there has to be an open dialogue when it comes to these topics and issues. And is there a world where every character that we see on-screen is exactly that character? I think that it's hard. The authenticity would definitely be beneficial. …
I always feel going into a character like that with love and respect and understanding the community and the place that he would play in it and creating art and beauty within that world, I think there is allowance to it, or I hope there is. And I think it goes either way for people of all sexualities, of all makes and beliefs. But I think then it needs to be a broader dialogue. It can't just stop at straight guys playing gay man or bisexuals playing straight people. It has to be a whole conversation.
It’s such an interesting question, isn’t it? How would you put it yourself? It's interesting because I always get this question. And I'm always curious as to the perspective of a viewer or an audience member.
Well, I think there are two sides to it. And the conversation is changing daily, so I don't think one is right and one is wrong. But I do know that there has been a history of discrimination against LGBTQ actors in Hollywood that prevented them from playing themselves on-screen. And so I think what we're seeing now is this conversation is coming more to light. In an ideal world, that history didn't exist and the playing field is even.
The sad fact is we’re not there yet. I wish that was the case. But what are the steps to making it OK? You can't just have one overnight leap and suddenly it's OK. You have to build the progress like any kind of social rules or social etiquette. There has to be a way forward. So is this correct in what we're doing? Are we creating a film that's helping go in that direction? I'd hope that this is the type of film that is helping. And there are films that definitely, even for Asian representation, take the piss out of race or sexuality. And those don't help the cause. But I just hope that this film plays a little part in opening the eyes of, perhaps, people who weren't aware of the struggles.
Absolutely. And I think there was this echo of that conversation in response to Crazy Rich Asians as well, where people were looking at the nationality of the actors versus the characters.
We're actors. It's our job to [portray other people.] If English people can't play Americans or Germans can't play English people? Look at that film with Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson … set in America back in like the 1930s or something, [The Devil All the Time]. The majority of those actors were English.
In the perfect world, that would be … 'Oh, no, that's not right. They have to be of the nationality to have authenticity.' But it kind of goes the same with Asians. It's a weird one. Because with Asia, it's so segregated. You have Thailand, you've got Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea, you’ve got a tremendous amount of variation in that sense. And we all have very, very different cultures. So is it more sensitive for Asians playing other Asians? Or is it just OK because Caucasians can play whoever they want? It's such a weird world that we put up these boundaries within our own communities. You know, 'He's not Asian enough, or she's Chinese and not Thai, she can't play that.' It's crazy, some people, they grasp on and focus on very negative things sometimes. And at the end of the day, we make the films for people to enjoy, so I don't know.
And it's all in response to white heterosexual privilege. So I think in my view, anything that pushes against that is good.
Same for me. Sometimes you need little steps forward, as long as they're going in the right direction, as long as it adds to the culture or pushing it to a place where one day it would be the ideal environment for anybody and everybody, no matter what their background is. Is that the goal? Is that what we're all hoping for? So let's try to work towards that, I guess.
The sex scenes were beautiful. What were they like for you as an actor?
Speaking on Lewis and Kit's experience, the beginning, it was this kind of roar in a sense and there was so much energy and it was lust and a ferocity to their lovemaking. And then once Kit goes on this journey and is blossoming as this human, his tenderness comes into play. And I think his walls start coming down. And Lewis becomes almost therapeutic to be with because it takes his mind off his personal matters. And slowly it progresses to a point where it's so loving. They're almost in love and so comfortable with each other, which I think we find in our own relationships. It's always this animal instinct to make love and procreate or whatever. But it's beautiful when it's slowed down and you drink the person in. And I think that's what Kit got to in that stage near the end. He's so comfortable. He wants Lewis to comfort him in a way and he finds solitude in that relationship.
But in terms of filming it, it was very directed in a sense, coming from Hong's experiences, to almost the subtleties of how Kit would beat Lewis's chest in the sense. He knew these little moments that he wanted to put into these to make it so personal. And so, there was never once one moment where I felt unsure or uncertain or embarrassed. It was such an open dialogue between us three, of Parker, Hong, and myself, that it felt so natural. It was such an amazing experience.
What message do you have for your queer fans? How do you hope Monsoon affects them?
I come from a culture where it is still illegal to be gay. It is still not even considered, in a sense, where it doesn't exist. Malaysia has a lot of eye-opening to do. I've been getting [a] tremendous amount of support from the community in Malaysia, specifically, of how proud they are that somebody from their country is able to make a film like this and have it so artful and so beautiful and so normal. They've been starved of that. So I hope that they really enjoy it and they look forward to more of that.
Monsoon is out in theaters and VOD Friday. Watch the trailer below.
This interview has been edited and condensed.