Ke Huy Quan's shapeshifting earns an Oscar nomination for 'Everything, Everywhere, All at Once'
Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcasted on March 1, 2023. Find that audio here.
Years before he acted in “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones,” and decades before he would play a lead role in the hit movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” Ke Huy Quan fled the chaos of the Vietnam war as a child.
Quan was born in 1971 in Vietnam to parents of Chinese descent. But seven years later, his father was forced to take him and five siblings out of the country. They escaped to Hong Kong, where they lived in a refugee camp for more than a year.
His mother took his other three siblings and fled to Malaysia, and the family of refugees reunited the following year when they moved to Los Angeles.
In 1983, his brother went to a casting call for an Asian kid to star as Harrison Ford’s sidekick in the next Indiana Jones film. Quan tagged along.
“I was giving him instructions behind the camera,” Quan says. “And the casting director saw me and says, ‘Hey Ke, do you want to give it a try?’ ”
He did. The next day, his family got a call from Steven Spielberg’s office. Quan had nabbed the role of Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
“It was pure fun,” Quan says. “The only thing I didn’t like was every time I was having fun on set, I would get pulled back into a trailer to continue my schoolwork.”
In 1985, at age 14, he scored another big role. This time, he played gadget-loving Data in “The Goonies.”
But things started to change after that.
“As I got older, in my late teens and early twenties, there was nothing there for me,” he recalled. “It was just really difficult being an Asian actor working in Hollywood at that time. I found myself spending a lot of time waiting for that phone to ring.”
The phone would ring with auditions for characters who were just stereotypes, he said.
“A lot of times it didn’t even have a character name,” Quan says. “And it wasn’t fun anymore.”
So he went to film school. As a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, he found work as an assistant fight choreographer and assistant director on both Hollywood and Hong Kong films. But he’d pretty much given up on acting.
Then in 2018, years after his last film role, Quan saw “Crazy Rich Asians.” The movie features a Chinese-American professor meeting her boyfriend’s family in China for the first time – and it is a comedy. But for Quan, watching the film and its all-Asian cast brought up very different feelings.
“I remember watching it three times in the theater, and I cried three times,” he says. “Not only because it was a really moving story. I also cried because I missed being up on the screen.”
He wanted to be up there with fellow Asian actors, he realized. So he decided to get back into acting.
In a stroke of good luck, that was the same moment when the writing-directing team of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan — self-styled “The Daniels” — were putting together “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Now, Quan is nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Waymond Wong.
The film stars Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese-American laundromat owner, whose quest to straighten out her taxes keeps getting interrupted by calls to save not just one universe but multiple.
Ke Huy Quan (right) in “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” (A24)
Scheinert and Kwan were searching for an actor to play Waymond, Yeoh’s husband – who, like Yeoh’s character, would have several different incarnations in the film’s multiple universes. But they were having trouble finding someone who met all the requirements.
“We needed someone who was convincingly sweet, kind of [a] beta male, who you’d almost laugh at and dismiss,” Scheinert says. “But then also he had to speak English, Mandarin [and] Cantonese, know martial arts, and be able to switch between multiple versions of himself and be a totally convincing alpha man as well.”
Scheinert’s partner, Kwan, stumbled on the answer when he was scrolling on Twitter and came across a gif of Quan as Short Round.
“My brain just kind of lit up,” Kwan says. “I wondered, ‘Where is that person now? Where is that person who was so formative to my childhood?’ ”
Kwan did the math. He realized Quan might be just the right age for the role and asked the casting director to bring Quan in for an audition.
“Never in a million years, in my wildest imagination, did I ever think I would land this role,” Quan says. “But I wanted it more than anything. I thought the role was written for me.”
Once he got the part, Quan got to work. He had not acted in over 20 years, so he embraced the challenge of playing several different versions of the same character.
“I hired an acting coach, a dialogue coach, a voice coach, because I wanted them to sound different,” he said. “And then I hired a body movement coach because it was really important to me that the audience can distinguish which version of Waymond they’re watching, just based on how he sits, how he walks, how he moves and how he talks.”
Among his biggest challenges? A martial arts sequence that involves the quintessential ‘80s accessory: the fanny pack.
Quan remembers the scene carried a lot of pressure. He had to pull it off relatively quickly and make it look cool. Take one, he says, was a disaster.
Take two started off a lot better. His first few swings with the fanny pack went off without a hitch.
“The last part, which is the most difficult part, I kick the strap, and in that instant, it was just like slow motion,” he says. “I saw the fanny pack – [it] shoots up and flies towards the camera, just the way it’s meant to be. I hear a ‘cut’ and everybody [is] clapping. I look over to the Daniels, and I think it was one of the happiest moments of the shoot because we got it in two takes.”
Ke Huy Quan in “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” (A24)
The Daniels, for their part, are proud of their role in rediscovering Quan.
“He has this ability to just make you want to watch him and make you want to love him,” Kwan says. “It’s such a shame that for so much of his life there was no space for him in this industry, and I’m just so happy to be one small part of bringing him back into the fold and reminding people of that ‘X Factor’ that Spielberg saw so long ago.”
For Quan, everything has come full circle. For years, many Asian talents working in Hollywood would thank him for paving the way. But he credits those very talents for making it possible for him to take on this role.
“My return to acting is a direct result of their progress,” he says. “It was a progress that we have been making in the last few years in Hollywood. So, this is an incredible time. All I can say is I’m really happy now. I’m at a very happy place.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Quan’s Oscar nomination.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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