‘It’s fate’ — 40 years later, Ke Huy Quan is a star, again

Ke Huy Quan
Ke Huy Quan appears at the Governors Awards on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, at Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles.
Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File

By JAKE COYLE AP Film Writer

Ke Huy Quan is trying hard not to cry.

He’s been crying a lot lately. Quan tends to get emotional any time he contemplates his sudden reversal of fate. Every since “Everything Everywhere All at Once” opened in theaters earlier this year, 51-year-old Quan — who a lifetime ago was the iconic child star of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” as Short Round, and Data in “Goonies” — has been, he says, “overwhelmed by emotions every day.”

“I didn’t think this day would come. It was a day I wanted for so long, for decades. And it’s finally here,” says Quan. “When you have a dream and you kind of bury it because you think it won’t come true, to see it finally come true is incredible.”

“I cry a lot,” he says.

Quan was once one of the most indelible faces — and voices — of the 1980s. He was 12 when he was cast as Harrison Ford’s Yankee-hat-wearing sidekick in “Temple of Doom.” His younger brother, David, auditioned, but Ke caught Spielberg’s eye. Quan starred in 1985’s “Goonies,” too, but found few roles after that. By the time Quan was in his 20s, he had all but disappeared from the screen. Struggling to find a foothold at a time when roles were scarce for Asian American actors, the Vietnamese-born Quan passed into “Where are they now?” territory.

Quan gave up acting. He went back to school to study film at the University of Southern California and transitioned into working behind the camera. Twenty years passed before he acted again. But when Quan was 49, he decided to give it one last go. Two weeks later, he landed his role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

Now, Quan is not just a working actor again, with a string of upcoming roles, he’s being celebrated for one of the best performances of the year. He plays Waymond, the meek husband who transforms in the film’s spiraling multiverses into a fanny-pack-slinging hero and a debonair “In the Mood for Love”-style bachelor. Decades may have passed, but Quan’s sweetly sincere screen presence still shines.

The 51-year-old actor has already picked up awards from the Gotham Awards, the New York Film Critics Circle and has been nominated for a Spirit Award. After spending much of his adult life as an actor just looking for a second chance, Quan may be the favorite to win an Academy Award, for best supporting actor.

“For the longest time, all I wanted was just a job,” Quan says. “Just an opportunity to act, to show people what I can do. This movie, ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ has given me so much beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

While speaking by Zoom during his day off shooting Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Electric State” in Atlanta,” Quan’s wife was nearby off-camera urging him: “Don’t cry! Don’t cry!” Quan tried. But as he reflected on his full-circle journey, he often found it difficult.

“There are so many people out there who doubt themselves, who have dreams they’ve given up or didn’t think would ever come true,” Quan said, his voice cracking. “To those people, I hope my story inspires them.”

Remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Since the release of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” what’s this year been like for you?

Quan: I’m cloud not nine but 18. Before it came out, I was really nervous. When I got back into acting, I didn’t tell my family. I kept it a secret from everybody. I didn’t know whether anyone would want me. I didn’t even know if I could get a job. And even after we finished the movie, I didn’t know if I was any good. That’s why I kept it away from my family because I’m thinking: “If I get fired during production, they won’t know about it.” Or, “If I suck or the movie sucks, they won’t know about it.” I told them right before our trailer came out. The day before I called my family and said, “I’ve got a little surprise for you.” I said, “I’m an actor again.” When the movie came out, they saw it and they called me. They had zero information about my role. They said, “Ke, you’re in this movie a lot!”

This image released by A24 Films shows, from left, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh and James Hong in a scene from “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”Allyson Riggs/A24 via AP

Given your personal history, do you connect especially with the movie’s exploration of alternate realities and lives not lived?

For the longest time, the characters I went up for didn’t have a character name, they only lasted a page or two. I thought this role was written for me. I remember reading it until 5 a.m., sitting on the sofa, imagining all the things I wanted to put into this character and the three versions of this character. I was looking out the window and I saw the sun rise. I felt like I have enough life experience now that I can do this. Right before I went to bed, reality set in. The imagination was done. I’m thinking: “There’s no way I get this role, especially having not acted in more than 20 years.” It’s impossible! How can anybody think that your first movie back, that I would have this movie as my comeback movie? At that time, I think winning the lottery would have been much easier.

When I got that wonderful phone call and heard the three words that every actor is so eager to hear, which is “We want you,” I was so happy I can’t even describe my feelings at that time. Honestly, I don’t think I could have played this character had it been offered to me 10 years ago. Everything had to happen the way it did. It’s fate.

When you quit acting, had you made your peace with it? Or did you hold out some hope of returning some day?

I struggle with that decision for at least two years. You know, the last audition that I did was for a role with no name, two lines. I walk in the room and there were 30 other Asian actors fighting for this tiny bread crumb. When I didn’t even get that, I didn’t see a future for myself anymore as an actor. I felt like time was just slipping away. I spent so much time waiting by the phone, hoping it would ring, hoping my agent would call me, hoping that one day I would get another role like Data or Short Round.

That was when I decided to enroll in USC film school. When I stepped away, I thought I stepped away for good. For the longest time, I believed that I didn’t like acting anymore, until I started seeing my fellow Asian actors succeeding. I go: “Wow, time has changed. We are getting not just very stereotypical roles but meaningful roles, meaty roles.” It wasn’t until then that that acting bug, which I buried very, very deep, started crawling back to the surface, to the point that I could not deny that urge to get back anymore. You understand, I’m not in my 20s. I’m not in my 30s anymore. I was 49 when I made that decision. It scared me. But the idea of having regret of not giving voice to that dream scared me even more.

Producer George Lucas, from left, actors Kate Capshaw and Ke Huy Quan appear with director Steven Spielberg in London where they are attending the “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” premiere in London on June 11, 1984.AP Photo/Joe Schaber, File

All through those years, you’ve said Spielberg has sent you an annual holiday gift. What does he send you?

It’s always a wonderful present with a card. Every single year for the last 38 years. Every year will be different. I always look forward to that one special gift that I get from Steven. It always warms my heart that he still remembers me, that he still thinks about me when the holiday comes around. I’m always grateful to that man. Not only did he teach me so much, but he changed my life in the most wonderful way. I guess the reason why I love acting so much has a lot do with him. My first experience as an actor was on his set. I have such fond memories of that experience. That’s the reason I fell in love with acting.

What would an Oscar nomination mean to you?

When I was auditioning for this movie, I prayed to get this role. I made a wish and it came true. I had my birthday in August and every year for the longest time, for as long as I live, every single year I’ve made a wish. This year I didn’t. I didn’t want to be greedy. I’ve already had everything I ever wanted as an actor with this amazing movie. Whatever happens, my dream has already come true. God, Buddha has already answered my prayer. Everything else is icing on the cake.

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