Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan bestselling novel, opens in theaters soon. Long time director Jon Chu (G.I Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me 2) and newcomer Henry Golding team up for the first major studio movie with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. There are a lot of expectations, anticipation, and a huge appetite for a film like Crazy Rich Asians. I spoke with Jon and Henry about the film and how they ended up working together.
There’s a vibration we all have and sometimes you feel something and you can’t explain it. To have that kind of connection to a culture you’ve never experienced before but know that you’re home is beautiful. – Henry Golding
We don’t see a lot of Asian males as romantic leads in romantic comedies. How did you approach telling that part of the story?
Jon Chu: I tried to find people I know and wanted to present to the world – from Jimmy [O.Yang], to Ronny [Cheing], to Ken [Jeong]. But casting for Nick Young was the hard one. That was the character I knew we needed to find someone special to play. It’s hard to find a star, especially a male lead star, for any movie. When I was making G.I Joe: Retaliation, finding a male lead star was a difficult thing. Of course when The Rock comes, you’re good to go.
That was hard choice…
JC: [laughs] Before we had The Rock, [a male lead] was very difficult to find. Asian or not, it’s hard to find someone who represents what you want. We found Henry to play this iconic character that’s very specific. He had to be educated in the UK and have a sense of aristocrat, but also be an adventurer and lover of people. [Henry] is Nick Young. He was everything we saw on Instagram, that’s how we found him.
Wait. Time out. That’s how you found him?
JC: We were recommended to him from this accountant in Malaysia that said, “Hey I saw this guy present at this award show 5 years ago and all my girlfriends are obsessed.” Then I went on Instagram and stalked him a little bit. I found all his travel shows and he was so interesting and he loved people. He had a very Nick Young vibe. I saw we had a mutual friend on FaceBook and I reached out to our mutual friend and he connected us. I said, “Hey? Do you want to be the star of a big movie?”
Henry, did you think it was real when it happened?
JC: I slow played it…I know how to cyber stalk. I knew how to slide into your DMs properly [laughs].
Henry Golding: [Jon] played it very cool. We were introduced by Steve, our mutual friend, who said we were both fantastic guys and could make some creative babies. I got another e-mail that said, “Hey Henry! I’ve seen some of your stuff online and I’m casting for some roles in my movie. Would you be interested in perhaps doing a read?” Here am I thinking maybe it’s a cameo or a walk-on scene, or some eye candy role. I can manage that because I was a presenter at the time and wasn’t ready to dedicate myself to acting. I always knew I wanted to act but I never knew when and what would be the right time. Jon sort of kicked down the door.
That’s probably better so you’re not overwhelmed with the fact that you’ll be a lead in a movie.
HG: Yes, until the first audition. He sent me a scene with Nick and said he wanted me to read for that role. By this point, I’ve read the book and was like, “Ok, I need to take this seriously.”
JC: For his first in person audition there were 13 people in the room. All these people were packed in praying for him to be good. Halfway through the audition he stops and says, “I’m sorry guys, I’m just soooooo nervous. I don’t know what I’m talking about.” That won the room over, quickly.
HG: I think I said, “So effing nervous,” really loud.
JC: I felt bad for him. There weren’t supposed to be that many people.
HG: I’d watched Constance [Wu] on Fresh of the Boat and loved her work. To be in front of her doing scenes felt so natural, I felt so at home. There was this electricity between us and I think everyone saw the chemistry. Everything became laser focused and I knew what I needed to do. Walking into the room felt like, “Oh my God”, but when it came to the work, I’d never felt that way before in my life. It was addictive and I loved it.
JC: For the second audition, [Henry] left his honeymoon. He had to leave two days into it and come to the audition. I got married on Friday and I didn’t go on my honeymoon, I had to do the press tour. It’s all come full circle [laughs]. Now our wives can commiserate together.
I know you’ve been approached by fans telling you their reactions to the film. What are some of the things they’ve said?
HG: People come up to us and say, “You know…I didn’t have any high expectations for the film…but I LOVE IT.” That’s happened countless times. That’s from people who aren’t in that culture. For them to have that kind of reaction, we’ve achieved exactly what we wanted. A story that’s universal. A film that brings you on a journey and tells a beautiful story. It isn’t just about the color of the person acting the scenes out. For me, that’s mind blowing.
That reminds me of what Chadwick Boseman said during Black Panther’s press tour. It’s so culturally specific; you’d think it would drive people away. But the opposite happens…
JC: Universality through specificity. We constantly remind people of that. The more specific we can be, the more relatable everyone else will be. We’re all human and we all have the same crazy families. We all have traditions that we’re balancing with our contemporary lives and we’re trying to decide which one we are going to pass onto our children. More than anything, that’s what makes me most proud about this movie. It’s not just the journey we take the audience on, the journey that I went through making the movie and learning so much about Henry’s journey as someone who grew up in the UK and Malaysia. It was an education for me.
Did you say before the screening that this was your first time in Asia?
JC: Not my first time, but it’s based on the experience of my first time. I went to Taiwan when I was 9 or 10 and when I went to Hong Kong at 16. Everyone that’s gone back to their homeland has the experience of not having any connection…but when you go there everyone looks like you. When you go into a store, they treat me like their son or their cousin. It’s different. It’s really weird and they call you “gweilo” which means “White Devil”. So you don’t feel like one of them and you want to go back. But when you go back, you also feel THAT difference.
I had a similar experience going to Ghana.
HG: One of my favorite scenes is when Rachel’s mother [played by Kheng Hua Tan] is in the shop and she tells Rachel, “You make look like them, but here and here [pointing to his head and heart], is very different.”
JC: People see Asians as one big group of people that all know each other and all feel one way – no. There’s infighting and different things. As an American going back there, you’re treated differently.
When I first got off the bus in Ghana, our guide welcomed everyone. His name was Sammy and I’ll never forget he stopped me and said, “Welcome home. It’s home to everyone but especially for you.” I almost cried. I understood that feeling of belonging.
HG: It resonates with you. There’s a vibration we all have and sometimes you feel something and you can’t explain it. To have that kind of connection to a culture you’ve never experienced before but know that you’re home is beautiful.
What are you hoping people take away from Crazy Rich Asians?
HG: Travel opens eyes and perspectives. The joy of tasting different cultures is it gives you a broad perspective and you don’t judge people from stereotypical characters you see in films. That’s what’s been done with Asians. They’re all from mainland China and they play the sidekick.
JC: What I love about what you told us is what I want from this movie. I want to tell people that they’re not alone in your journey. So many people have a similar story and you feel so isolated that you can’t share it because people might not understand. With this movie we’re telling people that we get it. That’s the power of movies. We are all struggling to figure out our place in life. We all feel lonely trying to find our purpose in this world, but through that we’re all unified.