'People were like, 'This guy's half-Asian, he's half-white, he's not even full Asian,' and it comes to, like, how Asian do you have to be to be considered Asian?' he asks

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When director Jon M. Chu began assembling his exclusively Asian cast for the big-screen adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, scores of hopefuls stepped forward to play Nick Young. As the son of Singaporean near-royalty and boyfriend to protagonist Rachel in the novel, the role was a rare opportunity for an actor of Asian descent to play a romantic lead in a major studio film.

But as Chu told EW in November of 2016 before the casting process began, Nick was bound to be hard to find: They needed to find a specific type, he said, that of a “charming, leading man” who would “have to be able to sound educated from Oxford, so they have to have the English accent on top of being a good actor.” In the end, newcomer Henry Golding, a travel host of Malaysian, Singaporean, and British descent who grew up in England before relocating to Singapore, won the role:

The news, however, stirred up controversy from fans who’d hoped the role would go to an all-Asian actor. Actress Jamie Chung even commented on the casting, initially calling the choice to cast the mixed-race Golding “bulls—” before walking back her remarks, saying, “It goes both ways. It’s just frustrating to lose a job or not have a shot at it [because] of your race.”

To Golding, the commotion over his casting felt “quite hurtful,” he tells EW. “For me, it was almost like being kind of stabbed in the back. I was like, ‘Aren’t we meant to be in this boat together? Aren’t we meant to strive together for something bigger than these boundaries that we’re putting on ourselves instead of bullying each other?'”

Besides, he says, he felt that to critique exactly how Asian someone was made for an argument that could never be won. “People were like, ‘This guy’s half-Asian, he’s half-white, he’s not even full Asian,’ and it comes to, like, how Asian do you have to be to be considered Asian?” he wonders. “I’ve lived 16, 17 years of my life in Asia, and that’s most of my life. I was born in Asia, I’ve lived cultures that are synonymous with Asian culture, but it’s still not Asian enough for some people. Where are the boundaries? Where are the lines drawn for saying that you cannot play this character because you’re not fully Asian?”

“I live in Singapore, I’ve lived here for six years, so you think I’m less suitable than a Godfrey Gao or a Leehom Wang?” he continues, name-checking two popular Asian actors fans had dreamcast in the role. “I was chosen because I came as close to the character as possible.”

Credit: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros.

Ultimately, he says that the thought of his mixed-race background being an issue hadn’t crossed his mind. “Even going up for the role, I was concerned more that I was more Malaysian rather than Singaporean,” he explains, adding that it’s a conversation that has “no end.” “Nobody’s ever happy. There’s no ideal situation… It’s really about being open to not making criticisms when it comes to Asians on Asians.”

Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters Aug. 17, 2018.

Crazy Rich Asians
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