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How non-actor Henry Golding won the coveted lead role in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

"Crazy Rich Asians" director Jon M. Chu (left) and star Henry Golding in Chicago last month. | Colin Boyle / Sun-Times

When “Crazy Rich Asians” hits theaters Wednesday, it will be the first Asian-focused major studio film in 25 years.

That’s right. A quarter-century. The last was “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.

From the moment it was announced there would be a movie version of the best-selling, culture-clash, romantic-comedy novel by Kevin Kwan (the first in a trilogy), there’s been a lot of talk — and a lot of trolling — about the project.

Director Jon M. Chu (“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” “Now You See Me 2”) and leading man Henry Golding were recently in Chicago to talk about the movie and welcome the audience at an advance screening at the Arclight Theater.

Prior to the screening, we met at Cindy’s Rooftop, a bar and restaurant on the 13th floor of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. Seemed like a fitting locale given that “Cindy” is Cindy Pritzker, of the Crazy Rich Pritzker family. (Cindy’s son John oversaw the restoration of the hotel. A Warhol portrait of Cindy occupies a prominent space on the wall at Cindy’s Rooftop.)

Richard Roeper: Jon, tell me how you got involved with this project.

Jon M. Chu: I was shooting another movie at the time, and my sister and my mom emailed me, telling me I had to read this book. “This is such our family.” I read it, I loved it.

I was looking to do something more personal and not just do franchise movies. What am I actually contributing to the film landscape?

I wanted to do something about my cultural identity, which I had never touched.

RR: Tell me a little bit about casting Henry. He doesn’t come from a traditional acting background; he’s been a TV host. And yet he gets cast in this huge film.

Chu: We looked all around the world. We did online auditions. There were Chinese actors that couldn’t do a British accent, American actors that didn’t have the right charm. And then, about two weeks before we HAD to make a decision. … I was watching Henry’s Instagramm, [and he was] this man of the world.

Golding: I remember it specifically: I’m in a café with my wife. We’re about to head to Tokyo for Christmas and New Year’s. I see this notification pop up on Instagram: “Jon Chu is Following You.” And I know the hype that’s been building around this film, and a lot of my friends had read for it. I was still in the frame of mind of being a travel host and presenter, so I didn’t think anything of it.

But I thought I should at least pick up the book and read it. And a week later, I get an email from a mutual friend of mine and Jon’s, saying he wanted to connect us.

We met on Skype, had a long conversation for an hour, an hour and a half. He said, “Will you read for me?”

Wealthy Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, left) does not approve when her son Nick (Henry Golding) falls for Rachel (Constance Wu) in “Crazy Rich Asians.” | Warner Bros.
Wealthy Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, left) does not approve when her son Nick (Henry Golding) falls for Rachel (Constance Wu) in “Crazy Rich Asians.” | Warner Bros.

Chu: And the first video you sent was SO stilted. He had suddenly tried to act. And I was, like, “That’s not you, dude. It’s too serious. Just relax, be you.”

A week later, he sent another video, and that was [the character of] Nick Young right there.

Golding: I had gone to an acting coach, and Jon was, like, ‘Go with your instincts. Your instincts are strong’. So I was like, F— it, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll do my best, and if it’s not good enough, that’s fine.

RR: But the “less is more” school of acting, that’s much easier said than done.

Chu: Exactly. The camera is such an invading presence. But Nick being a travel host, he was used to having a camera in his face all the time. He was already over that hump. When I did the Justin Bieber movie, when I was doing interviews with him, he was cold and shallow, he didn’t have any spirit. But when he would turn to the camera, he was so used to talking to the YouTube camera, he was at one and at peace with that. Not that you’re similar to Justin Bieber, Henry, but …”

Golding: Hey, not too shabby.

RR: Nick reminded me a little bit of John F. Kennedy Jr. He was basically American royalty, but he wanted to be treated like a regular guy, riding this bicycle through the streets of Manhattan and all that.

Chu: That’s exactly who I had in mind. I think we messed up in that first scene [when we see Nick in New York]. I should have had him dressed down more, like JFK Jr., the hoodie and sweats, trying to fit in and be a man of the people.

RR: There was so much outside pressure attached to this movie. It felt like, no matter who was cast, there were going to people instantly trolling and voicing criticism of the choice.

Golding: It was the most coveted role for an Asian actor in the world, and it did add a little bit of pressure. I knew the gamble Jon and Warner Brothers were taking on a new face. Did it affect me when I was on set? No. When we were on set, in that environment, nothing else but telling the story mattered. We all knew how it important it was, but whatever chatter happened when my name was announced for the role, that all went away when we were on set.

Chu: None of the actors was apologetic about getting the role, regardless of whom they were playing. [During filmmaking], everyone’s opinion was welcome. In the book, Rachel talks about why doesn’t normally date Asian men, and Constance [Wu] was, like, “I feel very uncomfortable saying that in this movie,” and we actually had a two-hour conversation about it on set.

Michelle Yeoh told me, “If you want me to be the standard villain in this movie, I won’t do it, because I can’t go back home and have everybody look at me like I just sold my country out. So I’m going to defend our culture, and you can defend the American way.”

And that’s really the whole point of the movie. This next generation is like a remix [of previous generations], a new identity.