The sadness of Short Round: Ke Huy Quan on why he quit Hollywood
Ke Huy Quan is half an hour into explaining his remarkable, heartwarming, frankly miraculous return to acting when his eyes moisten and his voice begins to tremble. The actor who appeared in two of the most beloved movies of the 1980s and then seemed to disappear is still processing the rapturous embrace of his comeback in the instant cult classic Everything Everywhere All at Once.
“The last time they saw me up on screen I was a little kid and now I’m a middle-aged man,” says Quan, Zooming in from Los Angeles. “I had no idea how the audience would respond. I think I’ve cried more in the last two months than I’ve cried in the last 20 years.”
What’s pricking his tear ducts right now, though, is the painful memory of why he quit acting almost 30 years ago. The way he sees it, he didn’t give up on Hollywood; Hollywood gave up on him.
Quan is 51 but you can still see in his face the kid whose entry into the movie business at the age of 12 had a fairytale quality. He was tagging along with one of his older brothers to a casting call for the role of Short Round, the plucky Chinese sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and ended up in a room with Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford. Not that he knew who they were: his family couldn’t afford to go to the movies. He landed the part and describes the shoot in Sri Lanka as “the best adventure of my life”.
Quan went straight from that film to playing tech boffin Data in The Goonies. This, he decided, was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. “Here I am in two of the biggest movies, so as a child I thought this was the norm,” he says ruefully.
What he discovered was that Hollywood wasn’t actually very interested in Asian characters or Asian audiences. “It’s always difficult to make the transition from a child actor to an adult actor,” he says. “But when you’re Asian, then it’s 100 times more difficult. If you were to take 100 scripts, there was a high probability that none of them would feature any meaningful Asian characters. A lot of the time we were the butt of the joke.” The older he got, the harder it got. “Your early 20s are supposed to be golden years and all I did was wait for the phone to ring.”
Quan hesitates before describing his lowest ebb. In 1993, he tried out for the role of a Vietcong guerrilla in a war movie. It was a nothing part — no character name, three lines of dialogue — but it was his first opportunity in a year, so his heart sank when he arrived and saw 30 other Asian men competing for it. When he couldn’t even get that flimsy insult of a role, his confidence collapsed. “I remember thinking oh my gosh, I can’t even get this,” he says with a catch in his voice. “I thought I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t tall enough, I wasn’t good-looking enough. I didn’t have what I used to have.”
He spent the next two years in a kind of limbo: not actively pursuing work but not yet giving up. “I was hoping for a miracle: maybe they’ll do a Goonies 2 or another Indiana Jones. Or maybe a TV show that comes along and shows people what I can do. And it never came.” He grabs a tissue. “I’m not very good at these interviews. I always get so emotional.”
Quan plays Waymond, the husband of Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn. Actually, he plays three Waymonds: a timid laundromat owner, a multiverse-hopping action hero, and a suave, melancholy CEO. He threw himself into the preparation process: voice coach, movement coach, the works.
Like an actor’s showreel, the different incarnations reference his own career as he dispatches goons like a martial-arts master and smoulders like a Wong Kar-wai character. “I feel like I have spent my entire life preparing for this movie,” he says. “It was like the acting gods said, ‘You know what? Since you didn’t have any opportunities before, we’re going to throw three opportunities at you in one movie.’ It was incredible.”
The movie’s driving theme of regret and roads not taken is universal but some critics have perceived a particular comment on the immigrant experience. Quan thinks that both readings are valid. “All diasporas share the same struggles of trying to fit in, the language barrier, the cultural differences,” he says.
Asian-Americans, he goes on, experience specific pressure to be a model minority: “The values that were instilled us when we were little to keep our heads down, work hard and not say anything. But it’s all changing with the younger generation. I’m very optimistic.”
Quan was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1971, the seventh of nine children. His father was from China and his mother from Hong Kong. When the war ended in 1975, they vowed to pursue a better life elsewhere. Their first attempt failed: “We lost everything.” Their second bid pided the family between Malaysia and a refugee camp in Hong Kong before they could reunite in Los Angeles in 1979 and start again from scratch. “We were poor and heavily in debt because the boat was expensive,” Quan recalls. “We didn’t speak the language.”
Belonging to such a large family, though, turned out to be good training. “On Indiana Jones I was the only kid, so I got all the attention. On the Goonies I was one of seven and I was constantly fighting for attention. But that’s what it was like in my home — constantly fighting for my parents’ attention.”
Quan has nothing but gratitude and fond memories but even those roles, which meant so much to young Asian viewers, drew on ethnic stereotypes. With the notable exception of Jackie Chan, Asians were nerds and sidekicks, never heroes. Quan thinks that recent hits such as Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings have upended assumptions about who audiences want to see on screen. “These stories work,” he says. “At the end of the day, these are human emotions.”
I’m hardly the first viewer of Everything Everywhere All at Once to observe that Quan’s own experience chimes with the movie’s existential questions about how life might have been different if only this or that had happened. For decades, he was dogged by his younger self. Strangers who recognised his face or voice would ask if he was the kid from Indiana Jones, and each time he would wish he had a future in acting as well as a past. Now that he’s shooting a Disney+ series, American Born Chinese, and weighing up movie opportunities, Quan has finally got his wish.
“Just yesterday somebody said, ‘Oh my god, you’re Waymond!’” he says. “And then somebody else said, ‘You were also Short Round in Indiana Jones!’” He beams with sweet delight. “And that’s what I wanted.”
Everything Everywhere All at Once is in cinemas now
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