Several years before he landed the lead role of Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding hosted a TV travel show that took him all over Asia, including the Philippines, where he fell in love with chicken adobo and learned to cook it. I didn’t realize right away that the dashing leading man was the same guy I watched on long flights as he explored caves, rivers and mountains and skydived on BBC’s The Travel Show.
Now, he’s starring with Emilia Clarke in director Paul Feig’s romantic comedy Last Christmas, with a story by Emma Thompson (who also co-stars) and her husband, Greg Wise.
Related story: Is Henry Golding The Luckiest Man Alive?
Hollywood’s rare Asian leading man was born in Sarawak, Malaysia, the son of a Malaysian mom of indigenous Iban ancestry and a British dad. The family lived in Terengganu, on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, until they moved to Surrey, England, when Henry was eight years old. At 21, he moved back to Asia, living in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore where he landed modeling and TV and event hosting gigs.
Aside from The Travel Show, Henry hosted Discovery Channel’s Surviving Borneo, where he journeyed for two months into his mother’s tribal homeland. He completed the Iban tribal rite of passage into manhood and received a traditional hand-tapped (reportedly extra-painful) bejalai tattoo.
Henry’s wife, Liv Lo, also has an international background. The TV host and yoga instructor is of Italian descent on her biological father’s side, though she was raised by her Taiwanese mom and Hongkonger stepdad. “They live in Taichung, which is probably about an hour and a half outside Taipei by high-speed rail. We try to go there at least once or twice a year,” Henry says.
What are the international couple’s plans for Christmas? “We go back to the UK. My family’s down in Surrey, which is in a nice countryside,” he says. “We do the traditional Christmas gathering. We try to cook dinner together. And then a Christmas walk is especially needed once you fill yourself with very heavy food. It’s just one of those times when everybody loves going back and making the effort to reconnect with family. I enjoy it.”
How many times did you visit the Philippines for The Travel Show?
I went to the Philippines a tremendous amount. Working in travel shows, especially as a journalist and a person who is inquisitive, you get to really work on stories that have more bones than anything. You really go out with a mission to find out or investigate, and that makes you look at a country differently. You interact with people differently. It’s not skin-deep. You really try to get into the story that you’re trying to tell. I traveled to Tacloban, Leyte, [after Typhoon Haiyan] hit. We were there for like two or three weeks after that tragedy happened to see how the city was trying to rebuild itself.
I’ve been to Manila many times, out into the islands. The Philippines is a wonderful place. It’s one of my favorites.
Do you cook?
Once in a while. I do have a couple of little dishes that I like to cook. I grew up eating a lot of spaghetti bolognese, and that’s been my favorite. So I’ve perfected my bolognese, but otherwise it’s chicken adobo which I picked up in the Philippines. Yeah, Southeast Asian food is good like that because you have Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam. You have so many different influences.
What makes your chicken adobo special?
Oh my gosh. Now you’re testing me! Lots of garlic. I’m heavy on the garlic. And thick, good quality soy sauce is essential.
Now, about Last Christmas. Who do you and Emilia Clarke play?
I play a character called Tom. Emilia’s character, Kate, is kind of lost in the world. She’s in her 30s, she’s not really quite sure what she’s planning to do in life. She’s had a job that she only had for Saturdays in a Christmas store which ultimately became her full-time job. She’s a pessimist, defensive about a lot of things and she’s had issues with family.
She dreams of becoming a singer, but because of her problems with health and family, she’s never been able to achieve those dreams. Tom comes out of nowhere and opens her eyes to a different way of looking at not only the city but also life in general. He plays — I wouldn’t say a knight in shining armor — but he shows her the other side of the coin. He gives her something to think about, which is wonderful.
Emilia’s character works year-round in a Christmas shop. What’s the most banal job that you’ve had?
I started off working Saturdays in a barber shop. For probably about a good eight to nine hours of the day, I was sweeping hair. It was a tiny three-seat barber shop and I did the job for about two years while I was still at school. It was great because it gave me a sense of earning a living, not relying on my parents. It imbued me with a good sensibility.
You have tattoos. What do they mean to you?
Tattoos are so integral to my culture. I’m from the Iban tribe in Sarawak. Tattoos are a way of connecting to their beliefs. They tell the story of a person. The Iban tribe… believes that light is reversed [in the afterlife] so the dark tattoos become bright. So in the afterlife, the more tattoos you have, the brighter you shine.
What will you be shooting next?
I’m going to be filming Snake Eyes in Japan, so we’ll be there for a bit.