A child star in the 1980s, he hit a dry patch and turned to stunt work in the 2000s. Now he has returned to acting in a part that blends his action and drama chops.
In the mid-1980s, Ke Huy Quan was in two of the decade’s biggest movies, playing Harrison Ford’s orphaned sidekick, Short Round, in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and Data, a tech-obsessed inventor of various bully-beating devices, in the comedy “The Goonies.”
In March, Quan, now 51, returned to the big screen in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” by the directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. Daniels. In “Everything,” Quan plays Waymond Wang, the mild-mannered husband of an embattled laundromat owner, played by Michelle Yeoh. But this is a multiverse picture, so Quan also plays two vastly different Waymonds: one, a martial arts master and universe-hopping warrior, the other, a lovelorn romantic lead who, in another time and place, let Yeoh’s character get away.
In many ways, Quan’s journey from “Indiana Jones” to “Everything” is nearly as unlikely and fantastical as Waymond Wang’s jumps through parallel worlds. At Quan’s home in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, over rib-eyes he cooked himself, he hit some of the high points of his career (including pool time with Ford), fanny pack wushu and lousy gigs that thankfully got away. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
You were born in Saigon and entered a Hong Kong refugee camp when you were 7. How did you go from there to “Indiana Jones”?
We came to Los Angeles in 1979, and as fate would have it, in 1983, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were looking for a Chinese kid to star in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” They went to Hong Kong, Singapore, London, San Francisco, New York, and were about to give up when the casting director said they should give Chinatown a try.
So Spielberg and Lucas held an open casting call at our elementary school. My brother’s teacher thought he should audition, so I kind of tagged along, and as he was auditioning, I was coaching him about what to say and do. The casting director saw me and said, “Do you want to give it a try?” I thought I did horribly.
Did you even know who Harrison Ford was?
No. I didn’t see “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” until after we finished the movie. But he was an amazing guy. So down-to-earth, so humble, and really generous as an actor. And he taught me how to swim. We were just hanging out at the swimming pool in Sri Lanka in our hotel, and he says, “Ke, do you know how to swim?” I didn’t, so he says, “Come on, I’ll teach you.”
A year later you’re in “The Goonies,” which was another big hit.
Yeah, that was another amazing adventure. But I didn’t grow up wanting to be an actor. As I got older, though, when I realized I wanted to do this, there were just not a lot of offers. When there was one, the role was very stereotypical, and you had every Asian in Hollywood fighting for it.
By the time I was in my early 20s, the phone had stopped ringing. And then my agent calls me: There’s this role. It was three lines, it was like a Viet Cong role. And I didn’t even get that.
Looking back at some of those roles, do you ever go, “Wow, I’m glad I dodged that bullet”?
Now, looking back, yes. But at that time, as an actor, all you want to do is work. Would I have done those roles that I auditioned for, if they were given to me? Who knows? But I decided to step away from acting. I didn’t want to give up this business, though, so I applied to U.S.C. film school, and luckily I got in.
You told them you were in “The Goonies,” right?
I certainly put it in my application.
What did you do after graduation?
I graduated in 1999, and I got a call from [the revered Hong Kong action director and choreographer] Corey Yuen, who invited me to Toronto to work [on the stunt choreography team] on a movie with him. I walk on set, and it was “X-Men.”
How does Corey Yuen get your number?
It’s a funny story. Many years before, he wanted me to do a movie for him in Hong Kong, as an actor. But at that time, I was contractually locked in to do a television show, so I turned him down. But we kept in touch over the years.
How did “Everything” come about?
I was working behind the camera in 2018, and this little movie called “Crazy Rich Asians” came out. I was so inspired by that movie, and the idea of me returning to my roots started percolating in my head.
So I call up an agent friend and said, “I’m thinking about getting back into acting, would you like to represent me?” And literally two weeks later, he calls and says, “There’s this movie written and directed by Daniels, and starring Michelle Yeoh. And there’s this role you may be right for, where you play her husband.” And I go, Oh, my gosh.
I auditioned the next day, and I thought I did a really good job. But I didn’t hear from them for two months. Just as I lost all hope, I got a call again, and they said, “We want to see you again.” And I thought I did really well on that second audition, but as I walked out, I saw another Asian actor waiting to read for the same role. He was taller, better looking, he looked like he just walked out of GQ magazine. I drove home, called my agent, and said, “Listen, man, I tried so hard, but I don’t think I’m going to get that role.”
Was he a famous actor? Anyone I would know?
I don’t remember. He was so good looking. So I didn’t think I was going to get it. But when my agent told me I got the role, I jumped so high. I was so happy.
It’s a nice comeback role for you.
Thank you. I loved every single minute of it. I remember the very first day of shooting: Jamie Lee Curtis is sitting in front of me, Michelle Yeoh is behind me, James Hong is to my left. For a brief moment, I had a panic attack. I go, These are all legends, what the hell am I doing here?
You have a pretty epic fight scene with a fanny pack.
The style of the fanny pack fight sequence is called wushu rope dart. I’ve done a lot of martial arts, but mostly, you know, with punches and kicks. But I trained really hard for that. I brought the fanny pack home with me, and I was constantly swinging it around in the house, breaking stuff. My wife was like, “Honey, can you practice outside?”
Michelle Yeoh has done a few martial arts films herself. Any pressure?
Michelle Yeoh is the frickin’ queen of martial arts movies. So I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t want to disappoint her. And she was constantly helping me out, you know, making me feel at ease, because we were in a lot of the scenes together.
James Hong, who plays your father-in-law, has been in Hollywood forever. Did he treat you like a kid?
He’s 91, and he would walk on the set like a 20-something guy. His voice is so deep and loud and strong, and he loves to work. He has over 600 credits. On the last day of filming, he brought a bunch of photos of him from different movies and he was like, “Who wants an autographed picture?” Everybody raised their hand.
This seems like a pretty great role or three. Is there still a dream role for you out there?
I want to play many, many different roles that I didn’t get an opportunity to when I was younger. So I’m open to anything. When I first started out, I was often the only Asian face on the set. So now, to be able to walk on a set and see a lot of Asian faces, it’s really inspiring. It gives me a lot of hope.
By Robert Ito