Ke Huy Quan has been cleaning house on the awards circuit for his celebrated performance as Waymond in Everything Everywhere All at Once and is widely considered the frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this weekend.
As he enjoys his victory lap, Quan says he has been approached by many Asian actors who have thanked him for his iconic child actor performances in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and The Goonies (1985). They’ve said his example helped inspire them to pursue careers in Hollywood.
But Quan, 51, says he’s the one who should be thanking them. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for Asian performers, Quan abandoned acting more than two decades ago. He was lured back due to positive changes in Asian representation in movies and television in recent years, especially in the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians.
“They always thank me and say, ‘Man, it was so great to see you up there on the screen, because I was able to see myself. Thank you for paving the way for us to be here,’” Quan told GQ. “And, of course, it’s really interesting because they’ve paved the way for my return. My return to acting is the direct result of the progress made by them. It proves how important it is for not just Asian, but for all groups of people to be represented in entertainment.”
Leaving Acting Behind
The Vietnam-born Quan portrayed beloved characters as Indiana Jones’ sidekick Short Round and the precocious Data in The Goonies. But his Hollywood fortunes quickly changed. Despite an early role in the sitcom Head of the Class and a small role in the film Encino Man (1992), Quan found that job opportunities were no longer forthcoming.
“When I started my career as a child actor in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I felt so very lucky to have been chosen,” Quan said during his recent Golden Globe acceptance speech. “As I grew older, I started to wonder if that was it, if that was just luck. For so many years, I was afraid I had nothing more to offer.”
Quan said he spent much of his teens and early 20s “just waiting for the phone to ring,” and the roles that did come along were often small parts with Asian stereotypes. Eventually, he felt he had no choice but to walk away from his dream of acting.
He stayed involved in movie-making, studying film production at the University of Southern California’s film program. A black belt in Taekwondo, Quan choreographed fight scenes for Hong Kong action movies as well as Hollywood films like X-Men (2000) and Jet Li’s The One (2001).
Finding Inspiration in Crazy Rich Asians
Quan eventually became an assistant director for celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, working on the acclaimed film 2046 (2004). Content with this new direction in his career, Quan thought his acting days were long behind him. But that all changed when he watched Crazy Rich Asians.
Directed by Jon M. Chu, Crazy Rich Asians starred Constance Wu as a college professor who travels to meet her boyfriend’s family and is surprised to learn they are one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. It was the first major Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club (1993) to feature an all-Asian cast centered around a modern Asian American story.
The movie was a box office success and drew wide critical acclaim. It also resonated strongly with Quan, who said he saw it three times in theaters and cried each time. He saw it as the type of positive Asian representation that had been lacking during his early career, and it made him want to get back in front of the camera.
“For a long time I thought I was at peace with [retiring from acting], but something was missing, and I really didn’t know what it was until Crazy Rich Asians came out,” Quan told GQ. “I saw my fellow Asian actors up on the screen, and I had serious FOMO because I wanted to be up there with them.”
Reclaiming His Dream Career
A newly-inspired Quan reached out to an agent friend to see if he’d like to represent him. Just two weeks later, the very first script that they received was Everything Everywhere All at Once, according to GQ.
Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the surreal comedy drama stars Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese immigrant in America named Evelyn Quan Wang, who discovers an ability to connect with versions of herself in parallel universes. Quan portrays her husband, Waymond, who teaches her how to harness this power and use it to prevent a powerful being from destroying the multiverse.
“When I decided to get back to acting, I thought I would get little roles here and there, but never in my wildest imagination did I think that a script like this would be in front of me and provide an opportunity to audition for one of the greatest roles I’d ever read,” Quan told Variety.
Now, Everything Everywhere All at Once is taking the awards circuit by storm and is poised for a potentially historic Oscar night. Quan’s performance in particular has garnered wide praise. He won the Best Supporting Actor award from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, making him the first Asian male to win a SAG award for acting.
Quan plans to continue acting and is set to TV series American Born Chinese, set to premiere on Disney+ this year, along with his Everything Everywhere co-stars Yeoh and Stephanie Hsu. In the meantime, he hopes his successful comeback story will inspire other Asian actors to pursue their dreams as well.
“I can’t imagine how many others like myself out there, young and old, who share in the same dream that lay dormant for many years,” Quan told HuffPost. “So if you ask me what I hope our movie can do, I really hope Everything Everywhere All at Once does for these dreamers what Crazy Rich Asians did for me. That would make me really happy.”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.