Ke Huy Quan’s true Hollywood comeback

In a green room Ke Huy Quan was preparing for a clash with the past in Anaheim earlier this fall. The 51-year-old actor was in town for Disney’s D23 Expo where his casting was announced Loki Season two would unceremoniously introduce him to the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then someone pulled him aside with the message: Apparently Harrison Ford was right outside the door. As Quan walked over, he could feel his heart beating. After all, it had been 38 years since he last saw his former co-star Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

“He had this classic, grumpy Harrison look on his face, and then he put his hand up and pointed his finger at me,” laughs Quan as he tells the story. “I swear I thought he was going to say, ‘Don’t come near me,’ but instead he said, ‘Are you short round?’ And I was instantly transported back to 1984. I said, ‘Yes, Indy, it’s me.’ ”

The photos of the impromptu reunion that Quan posted on Instagram were both a Generation X nostalgia trip and an apt snapshot of this current moment in Quan’s career, which is closing with the success of A24 Everything everywhere at once Resurrecting a fame he hasn’t seen in decades.

As I speak to Quan over Zoom in London at the end of September, the broad outlines of his comeback have already become the accompanying lore for a film about two Chinese immigrant parents — the rigid Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh) and Quan’s always feisty Waymond — those with uncharted paths calculate.

Still, Quan still speaks in long, excited bursts — at one point, the lone Airpod he’s carrying leaps out of the force of his enthusiasm, in a rather Waymond-esque manner. It’s like he’s not sure if he can do it all before the playoff music cheers him on, like he’s been waiting forever to tell you everything. And when it comes to Ke Huy Quan, there’s always more to it than that.

Take that fatefully Indiana Jones Casting, for example, when 12-year-old Quan accidentally landed the role of Short Round after accompanying his younger brother David to an audition in Los Angeles. Quan, the seventh of nine children and in the US for four years, couldn’t resist coaching slightly older siblings – and caught the attention of the casting director himself.

He’d spent his early childhood in Saigon, in a large, “very traditional” Chinese household, where life was both boisterous and chaotic in equal measure: “We didn’t need friends because all my siblings were my friends.” In 1978, his parents separated Family to flee Vietnam: His mother took three of the children with her, including David – whom Quan refers to to this day as “my best friend” – while Quan and his father’s contingent made their way to a makeshift refugee camp in Hong Kong. “I was so young,” he recalls. “I didn’t understand why we gave up the place we call home to get on a boat with 3,000 people in the middle of the night.” The refugees were held on the boat for more than a month before they arrived country were allowed. In 1979, Quan and his family finally reunited at LAX and moved to Chinatown. Since then he has made his home in LA.

I ask Quan if the films helped with the assimilation process, as they do for many first-generation children in America, and maybe even sparked that first acting instinct. But he shakes his head. “When we came to the US, we were heavily in debt, so we didn’t have the luxury of going to the movies,” he explains. What Quan recalls is everyone at home huddled around the 13-inch TV to watch Hong Kong classics – making Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Chow Yun-Fat his most formative influences. “I don’t think I saw a single American film until I got the part Indiana Jones,‘ he muses. “Acting wasn’t even on the horizon or in my vibe.”

To Temple of Death and 1985s the goonies, For which executive producer Steven Spielberg all but ditched Quan’s role as Data, Quan discovered acting as a unique place – sometimes literally about a full-size pirate ship – for play and escapism. He credits the adults he has worked with for creating this space in awe: “I was so protected. I got to be a kid.” He quickly decided that acting was his calling. “I thought the path would be so easy,” says Quan. “But boy, was I wrong.”

In the period between 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and everything everywhere at once Quan often answered the question, “How come you’re not acting anymore?”MOVIESTORE COLLECTION/ALAMY.

First him figured he just had to finish high school to be eligible for serious full-time employment. But Hollywood’s opportunities for Asian actors in the ’80s and ’90s were particularly slim, and he spent his early 20s in a perpetual state of envy at how many Audition, let alone actual roles, his peers kept landing. There was a two-season spot as Jasper Kwong leader of the class In 1990 and 1991, starred in the 1993 Taiwanese costume drama The great eunuch and the little carpenter, and a handful of Asian films totaling 10 projects over 16 years. “All I did until recently, if you look at my resume, that’s all the offers I’ve had,” Quan tells me. The final straw came in 1993, when he went up against a roomful of Asian actors for a two-line no-name role. A week later he called his agent to confirm what the dreaded radio silence already meant. “I remember sitting on the edge of the bed for an hour. I haven’t moved. I just thought, Wow, what am I doing?” he agrees. “I’ve decided this isn’t the way to live.”

So Quan stopped acting. After graduating from USC Film School in 1999, he devoted himself to working behind the camera, often in Asia, often at the highest level of the industry. He choreographed stunts with Cory Yuen in the early 2000s and worked as Wong Kar-Wai’s assistant director on the Hong Kong auteur film 2046 No one knew how much Quan missed acting – he was embarrassed to admit it to himself. “What made it even more difficult was the fact that when I went out, they recognized me,” he explains. “People would come up to me and be like, ‘Oh my god, you’re so iconic!’ or, “How come you’re not acting anymore? You were so good at it when you were a kid.’ And then I’d say, ‘No, it’s done, I’d rather work behind the camera.’ Those were my main answers, and I’ve said it so many times over so many years that I actually believed it.”

His voice trembles as he thinks back to all the hours he’s spent watching 2046 Star Tony Leung behind the camera. “Have there been days that I wish it was me to say the lines? Yes, definitely,” he says. “Did I fantasize about it? Yes, but then I crushed it very quickly before it hit anything because I knew it wasn’t going to happen. It was a dream.”

Quan Credits 2018 crazy rich Asians, with his future co-star Michelle Yeoh as inspiration to get back into the game. Over email, Yeoh insists the inspiration went the other way. “Ke is too humble — forgetting he was one of the iconic Asian faces at a time when so few Asian faces made their way into Hollywood,” she writes. “His work paved the way.”

For a whole year, he and his wife, Echo (they met while both were working for Wong), talked about giving in to the “acting bug” one more time. “I wanted to live to be 50,” he says. “I didn’t know what it would be like to go to the audition and keep getting turned down. I didn’t know Hollywood would want me again.” He made the jump anyway — and the first script he read was for Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert Everything everywhere at once. It required a lead actor who could juggle martial arts sequences, Wong-style musings and the impossible optimism of a Chinese immigrant father. It was everything Quan could have hoped for: “I was starving for a role like this.” Ke Huy Quan’s true Hollywood comeback

Charles Jones

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