Andrew Eccles for variety
Ke Huy Quan had a mission. He had just been named Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance as Waymond Wang, the wacky husband of a laundromat owner in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and he wanted to share the moment with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, you see, was the filmmaker who cast him in his breakout role in 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” when Quan was 12 years old.
So during a commercial break in the Academy Awards broadcast, Quan, 51, went to where Spielberg was sitting with his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, who hadn’t seen Quan since they starred together in “Temple of Doom” four decades earlier. . After hugging everyone, Spielberg put his hands on Quan’s shoulders and said, “You’re an Oscar-winning actor now.”
The depth of this statement was lost on none of them as Quan’s Oscar win capped off one of the most unlikely comeback stories in Hollywood history. For decades he had been relegated to the fringes of the movie world, with no career and no health insurance.
But we are getting ahead of things.
It’s been less than 24 hours since Quan leaped up the steps of the Dolby Theater stage and told the story of an immigrant from Vietnam – the seventh of nine children – who, after much hard work, had achieved the “American dream.” And this morning, despite a marathon night of celebration, his joyful energy is contagious.
Yet there is an underlying hesitation in Quan’s voice. He fears that he will wake up from this dream and find that his resurrection has evaporated. “I’ve had a conversation with my agent,” he says. “I’m so afraid this is just a one-time thing.”
Like many immigrants, Quan’s parents wanted him to become a doctor or a lawyer – anything that would ensure economic stability. Instead, fate intervened when his younger brother attended an open casting to play Short Round, Indiana Jones’ sidekick. But there was something about Quan, at age 12, that made the casting people think they’d found the perfect foil for cinema’s most famous archaeologist, and Quan, not his brother, got the part. The following summer, he followed it up by playing Data, one of the treasure-hunting misfits in Richard Donner’s “The Goonies.”
Then it was over. For 30 years, Quan suffered through countless failed auditions. He later attended USC film school and took odd jobs as an “X-Men” fight choreographer and developed projects for director Wong Kar Wai at his production company, Jet Tone Films. There he met his wife, Echo, whom he considers the unsung hero of his recent success. Echo has said to her husband every month for the past 20 years, “Trust me, your time will come.”
“Sometimes I was frustrated with her,” says Quan, tearfully recalling their conversations. “I told her, ‘You keep saying that, and it’s never going to happen.’ I didn’t believe it. Twenty years is not a short time.”
There are never any guarantees in Hollywood. But Quan is making the most of his turn as the darling of the awards season. Three completed projects are on the catwalk: two television series, “American Born Chinese” and the second season of the MCU for Disney+’s “Loki”, as well as the upcoming sci-fi movie “The Electric State”, starring Millie Bobby Brown and Chris Pratt. As of today, there are no other offers on the table.
But this morning is for celebration. Quan plans to visit his mother in LA to show her his figurine. Before he does, he sits down to discuss the journey that brought him to the Oscars.
How do you feel?
I’m still processing it. I didn’t get much sleep last night – I think it was only an hour. When I woke up, I wondered for a minute or two if this was a dream. But I’ve been doing that a lot lately because so much has happened in the last year and it feels unreal.
When you received your Oscar, you talked about being a refugee and living in a camp. How did you end up in America?
I was an ordinary child in Vietnam in 1978, and suddenly my parents decided to flee the country. I didn’t understand what happened. I only knew that I was separated from my mother, from my little brother and some of my sisters. It was the middle of the night when my father, five of my siblings and I escaped in a boat. We arrived in Hong Kong and I spent a year in a refugee camp, surrounded by guards and police officers, until we were granted political asylum. Then I got on a plane and landed in Los Angeles for the first time. This was in 1979.
I didn’t have the maturity to process the sacrifices my parents made for a better future. And as fate would have it, four years later I got a job at “Indiana Jones”, which changed my life. I’ve always wanted to thank my parents for what they’ve done, but I grew up in a family where we just don’t share those kinds of emotions. And last night I did so in public. I wanted the world to know how much my parents meant to me. Our film ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ is also about this immigrant family. That’s why the story appealed to me so much.
Not only did you win, but Jamie Lee Curtis also won the Best Supporting Actress award, and Michelle Yeoh made history by becoming the first Asian actress to win an Oscar for Leading Actress.
Right before it happened I looked at Michelle and I knew she was very nervous. And we held hands: Jamie was closer to her, so Michelle held Jamie’s hand, Jamie held my hand, and I held Stephanie Hsu’s hand. We just hoped and prayed that her name would be called. And then history was made.
Does it make you hopeful for the future in terms of Asian representation?
Forget 30, 40 years ago – even 10 years ago. Look where we are now: the landscape looks so different. We take a seat at the table. Our voices are heard. Our faces are seen and it feels great.
Last night there was a mini “Indiana Jones” reunion on stage. Harrison Ford was the person who opened the envelope and announced that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won the Best Picture award. How was that?
When he opened that envelope and read the title, it made our win for best picture even more special. And when I ran on stage I pointed to him and he pointed back to me and I hugged him. I just couldn’t help myself. I just want to shower this man with all my love. I gave Harrison Ford a big kiss on the cheek.
How was your first day on a movie set?
I heard Steven give me directions, and every time I did something he liked, he gave me a high-five.
Remember when you first watched “Temple of Doom”?
We saw it at Mann’s Chinese Theater. That was the first time I saw myself on the big screen. Watching the film with the audience and hearing them laugh and applaud was such a great feeling. I wanted to repeat it again and again.
You made two movies back to back with Steven Spielberg: “Temple of Doom” and “The Goonies.” Thought you’d reprise your role in “The Last Crusade”?
I secretly hoped. But honestly, Steven has given me so much – not one movie, but two movies. And they were the first to put an Asian face in a major Hollywood movie.
After those movies, you struggled to find roles. What happened?
I was taught never to blame anyone. If something doesn’t go your way, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, weren’t good enough, or didn’t try hard enough. So when I couldn’t get a job, I blamed myself: I thought I wasn’t tall enough, that I didn’t look good enough, or that I wasn’t a good enough actor because I wasn’t classically trained. I have never blamed anyone – even to this day.
We talk about Asian representation, but I don’t like looking at the past and saying, “Oh my God, it was bad!” I prefer to focus on the present and moving forward. A lot has changed.
How is your relationship with your parents?
My father died in 2001, but I had a great relationship with both my parents. I was a little kid and I had all these great opportunities with “Indiana Jones” and “Goonies”; I saw the joy and pride my parents felt. And when those opportunities dried up, I saw that they wanted something else for me because they could sense that I wasn’t happy. My mother is a very superstitious person, so she told me to go to fortune tellers. They were Buddhist, so I saw my mother praying to Buddha to give me a career. That’s why it was so painful for me – because there was nothing I could do to get someone to put me in a movie or create a big role for me. And that’s one of the things I hated about our company.
This means a huge comeback for you, but you don’t have any projects lined up. Worried that despite the success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” you might not get cast again?
I recently attended an event and sat next to Cate Blanchett. I told her I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I feel I have a responsibility to do something good, and I don’t want to disappoint all the people who have supported me. And she said, ‘Just go with your heart and be irresponsible: don’t worry about what other people think. Choose something you believe in, choose something you love, and you’ll be fine.”
Location: Mandarin Oriental Residences, Beverly Hills; Care: Anissa Salazar; Chloe Takayanagi/The Wall group; Custom Giorgio Armani; Brooch: Fred Leighton; Cufflinks: David Yurman; Watch: Omega; Glasses: Oliver Peoples