Ke Huy Quan is welling up. Behind black-rimmed glasses, the former child star’s eyes are reddening. His voice starts to wobble as he talks about finding fame for the second time round with the phenomenal success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, this year’s most wildly imaginative breakout film. “It’s incredible. I’m still pinching myself every day. I can’t believe this is real.”
It’s been decades since Quan appeared as Short Round, Harrison Ford’s plucky sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and gadget-loving Data in The Goonies. Even so, it’s not hard to find traces of that young boy in the 51-year-old’s smile and jovial demeanour. We meet in his hotel’s private cinema, all velvet and brass furnishings, in west London. Quan, dressed in a navy sweater and black jeans, perches eagerly on a huge armchair.
The actor has just wrapped shooting for the second season of Marvel’s Disney+ series Loki, having hit the ultimate jackpot by joining a superhero franchise just a few years after resurrecting his career. “I don’t think I can reveal much,” Quan says apologetically. “To be welcomed into this vast family, this MCU universe, I’m very lucky. The last four months have been such a joy.”
Quan was forced to quit Hollywood in his 20s, dejected about the lack of good roles for Asian actors. It wasn’t until 2018, when he saw all-Asian romcom Crazy Rich Asians, that he realised they were no longer being relegated to the sidelines. He wanted back in.
Everything Everywhere All at Once was the first script Quan read after signing to a new agent. The mind-boggling fantasy, directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (AKA the Daniels), revolves around Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese-American launderette owner who is sucked into a mysterious multiverse. It combines big laughs with even bigger philosophical ideas and exhilarating martial arts sequences to create a life-affirming black comedy. So far, the independent film has made more than $100m (£87m) at the box office.
As Waymond, Evelyn’s husband, Quan plays three versions of the same character, ranging from downtrodden to debonair. His performance is so masterful that there’s talk of a possible Oscar nomination next year. What does he think of the awards buzz? “I’m blown away by it. I’m speechless!”
Not even Hollywood could have scripted a more perfect comeback story than Quan’s. Born in Ho Chi Minh City, he left Vietnam aged seven a few years after the war, with his Chinese parents, six sisters and two brothers, ending up in the US after a stint at a refugee camp in Hong Kong. A few years after settling in Los Angeles’ Chinatown area, he was discovered by chance, aged 12, at an open casting call for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Steven Spielberg, the director, had conducted an exhaustive search for someone to play Short Round, the cheeky Chinese pickpocket. Quan wasn’t there to audition – he was there to support his little brother. But then the casting director suggested he should try out, too.
“I remember doing a really bad job because my English comprehension was very minimal at that time,” says Quan. “The next day, we got a call from Spielberg’s office. My mum thought it was a really fancy meeting and put me in this ridiculous three-piece suit. Steven noticed how uncomfortable I was. He said: ‘Ke, I would love for you to come back the next day, but wear something comfortable.’” Three weeks later, Quan was on a plane to Sri Lanka for the shoot. “It was one of the happiest times of my life,” he smiles.
Every day after filming, the cast and crew would have dinner together and hang out by the swimming pool at their hotel. Quan would splash around in the water, watching Ford swim back and forth. One day Ford realised Quan didn’t know how to swim and offered to teach him. “That’s how we bonded. Everybody was so friendly. That was the kind of set that George [Lucas, the film series’ creator] and Steven would run. There was never any screaming. There was always laughter and peace.”
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a huge hit, but since its release in 1984 it’s been accused of racism and perpetuating the white saviour trope. The plot, after all, involves intrepid archaeologist Jones helping Indian villagers retrieve a sacred stone and includes an infamous scene where he is served chilled monkey brains as a local delicacy. Then there’s the sexism, with Ford’s love interest Willie, played by Kate Capshaw, constantly fretting about breaking a nail.
But Quan rebuts any suggestions that the film is problematic. “We’re talking about something that was done almost 40 years ago. It was a different time. It’s so hard to judge something so many years later. I have nothing but fond memories. I really don’t have anything negative to say about it.”
And Short Round was a groundbreaking character, he says. “Spielberg was the first person to put an Asian face in a Hollywood blockbuster. Short Round is funny, he’s courageous, he saves Indy’s ass.” The role, Quan argues, represented a huge step forward for Asian representation. “That was a rarity then. For many years after that, we were back to square one.”
Quan recently reunited with his former co-star at Disney’s D23 fan expo in Anaheim, California. Ford was promoting the fifth Indiana Jones film, while Quan was appearing at a Marvel presentation. He had been relaxing in the green room when someone told him that Ford was outside. “I hadn’t seen him for 38 years. As I got closer, my heart started pounding because I didn’t know if he was going to recognise me. He looked at me and said: ‘Are you Short Round?’ I was immediately transported back to when I was a little kid. I said: ‘Yes, Indy.’ He said: ‘Come here,’ and gave me a big hug.”
Spielberg, he reveals, still sends him presents every Christmas. “He gave me my first job and, so many years later, he has not forgotten me,” he says. “Every time I needed help, he’s always there.” It was the director who got Quan his next big role in The Goonies (Spielberg was an executive producer). It remains an enduring childhood classic about a gang of friends who go on the hunt for hidden pirate treasure. Data, a mini-007 crossed with Q, was a rare mainstream role for an Asian actor where ethnicity had nothing to do with the story.
“On Indiana Jones I was the only kid, so I got all of the love and attention,” says Quan. “On The Goonies, I was one of seven, so I was constantly fighting for attention. But it was something that was very familiar to me – my parents had nine kids. It was a lot of fun, especially those amazing sets. Going to work was like going to the playground.”
Quan has kept in touch with his Goonies co-stars, with the cast reuniting virtually during the pandemic to raise money for charity. He’s close to Jeff Cohen, who played Chunk and is now Quan’s entertainment lawyer. When he gets together with Sean Astin, Corey Feldman and the others, “even though we don’t see each other often, it’s like family, because we’re truly brothers for ever”.
Many child stars find their lives derailed by addiction as they struggle to cope with fame. Feldman, for one, developed a heroin habit, but eventually managed to get clean. Quan says his family kept him on the straight and narrow. “My parents were very strict. We were not allowed to curse. We were such a big family, the table couldn’t fit 11 of us, so I would always have to eat at the kiddie table. My parents constantly told me: ‘Do not take drugs.’”
His father ran a company making plastic bags in Vietnam and his mother was a shop owner, but the family lost everything when they fled the country. Quan remembers arriving in Hong Kong in a cramped ship with 3,000 other refugees. He travelled over with his dad and five siblings. His mother and three other siblings went to Malaysia. It was their second attempt at escaping. The family remained apart for a year, reuniting in 1979 when they emigrated to the US. “That was a really traumatic experience for me,” Quan says, looking down intently. “I’m sure if I go to therapy, there will be a lot more to pull out.”
Adjusting to life in the US was hard. “We were refugees. Nobody wanted us … They would call us ‘fresh off the boat’. They would make fun of us when we were in school. You can imagine what that does to the mental state of a child. To go from that to starring in one of the biggest movies in 1984 gave me and my family hope, courage and a lot of freedom.” He was able to buy a house for his family with his earnings and help pay off some of the debt his parents had accumulated because they had left Vietnam.
But all the childhood upheaval had a lasting impact. “I always felt like an outsider, especially when I was growing up. I had major identity issues.” When he was a teen, Quan changed his name to Jonathan Ke Quan. “I wanted to assimilate. Also, I used to do a sitcom and before each taping, there would be an announcement of everybody’s names. Every week they would struggle with my name.” But Jonathan didn’t feel like him for a long time. “When I got back into acting, I decided I was going to go back to my birth name – that was really important to me.”
After Quan’s hot streak, starring in two of the 80s’ most iconic films, his acting career slowly sputtered to a halt. There were roles in the TV shows Together We Stand and Head of the Class, films Breathing Fire and Encino Man, and Taiwanese historical drama The Big Eunuch and the Little Carpenter, but eventually, the work dried up. He was faced with the harsh reality of life as an Asian actor in Hollywood – constant rejection and an endless procession of stereotypical roles. Usually, this was “the marginalised character or the person who shows up and gets killed”. But Quan persevered: “When you are hungry, you eat anything.”
“I remember not having one single audition for an entire year,” he sighs. Quan finally cracked when he tried out for the part of a Vietcong soldier with only two lines. He waited anxiously for a week to hear if he’d got it. They went with someone else.
“I thought: ‘What am I doing? I can’t be waiting for the phone to ring every day.’ I was 23 at that time. I was so lost. I just didn’t see a future for myself as an actor.” So he enrolled in film school at the University of Southern California, quietly burying his acting dreams deep down inside.
Quan went on to work with action choreographer Corey Yuen on films such as X-Men (the actor is trained in martial arts) and as assistant director on 2046, a lavish romance by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Wong even played cupid for Quan and his wife. The couple, who live in Los Angeles, have been together for 22 years after Wong first suggested they should date.
While Quan was happy with his new career behind the camera, he couldn’t ignore a nagging feeling. “I felt there was a big part of me missing and I didn’t know what that was.” It finally dawned on him while watching Crazy Rich Asians. “I noticed Asian actors were getting more opportunities, and I began to harbour this dream of getting back into acting, but it took a lot of courage to give voice to that dream. One day I decided: if I don’t do this, I will regret it.”
Along with Everything Everywhere All at Once, Quan has also starred in Finding ’Ohana, a Goonies-style Netflix caper, and will be teaming up again with Yeoh in American Born Chinese, a new Disney+ action comedy series exploring Chinese mythology, based on Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel. He is making up for lost time, sloughing off those years of knockbacks like dead skin.
Maybe there will even be room for him in the sequel to the film that inspired his comeback. Quan remembers meeting Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M Chu. “I did tell him: ‘If you ever do Crazy Rich Asians 2, you gotta put me in it,’” he laughs. “He said: ‘Fingers crossed.’”
“Everything happens for a reason,” Quan says, thinking about his long and winding road back to acting. “For the longest time I was so insecure and always felt like I wasn’t good enough. Every time I lost a job to somebody else, I thought: ‘That man deserves the job better than I did.’ Now I understand that everything needed to happen the way it did. Just don’t give up.”
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