This interview took place in March just before the release of Everything Everywhere All at Once.
From beloved child star of 1980s fame to retired actor, Ke Huy Quan returns to the big screen in the most extraordinary feat. You’ve seen him run away from pirates in The Goonies and watch him escape a forbidden temple with Indiana Jones, but then vanish. Like many actors of color during the time, young Ke Hu Quan hit a road block in the film industry. There weren’t many opportunities for people who looked like him- apart from the stereotypical roles that is, it’s a tale we’ve heard far too often. That’s until the right film comes along 30 years later, the picture is Everything Everywhere All at Once. Its a multiverse of hilariously absurd proportions centering around a Chinese American family. We got the chance to speak with Ke Hu Quan’s about his return to acting, the film, and what’s next on the horizon.
What an exciting return with ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’. Though before this, you’ve said roles of this caliber for you were few and far between. Do you mind elaborating on your decision to retire from acting?
Ke Huy Quan: After doing those memorable movies, I didn’t pursue acting when I was a little kid. As I got older, when I really fell in love with acting, that was the only thing that I wanted to do. I really began to seriously pursue acting, there were just not that many opportunities for me at that time. It was really tough. I was like in my late teens and early 20s, and I would just sit by the phone and wait for it to ring – to get a call from my agent telling me that there was an audition, not an offer, but an audition. They came few and far between at that time, and when they did come, it was really for a very minor, marginalized/stereotypical role that had two or three lines. If I’m lucky, they would be featured on a few more pages.
I auditioned for a lot of those, and it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. So soon after, I found myself at crossroads; do I want to go down a path where I don’t see a future for myself, or do I want to take the unknown road. And I chose the unknown over the known because I had no choice. I loved movie-making so much that I didn’t want to leave the industry. So I enrolled myself in film school and after I graduated, I started working behind the camera. And I was content doing that. But as I was doing that, I noticed things were changing.
How do you feel about the industry change and opportunities for Asians in film?
Ke Huy Quan: You know, there was something brewing on the small and big screens, more and more Asian actors were being featured in more prominent roles. I remember watching it go from one to two, and then all of a sudden, we would have an entire cast made up of Asian actors. For example, Fresh Off the Boat. Then along came the phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians. I remember watching that movie in a theater three times, I cried every single time. I cried because it was such a beautiful movie, but I also cried for a different reason – I had serious FOMO. I wanted to be up there along with my fellow Asian actors. It was really then that the idea of getting back to my roots started taking place. I called up an agent friend of mine one day and asked if he wanted to represent me, and this is after decades without an agent. He said yes and two weeks later, I got a call about Everything Everywhere All at Once. It was incredible.
I was going to ask you about Everything Everywhere, how did the script land into your hands?
Ke Huy Quan: So right before I was scheduled to go in and audition for the Daniels, they sent over the script. I read it and my gosh, it was incredible. This was the script that I wanted for so many years, that I never got to read. It was a beautiful story that featured an Asian American family with issues that are relatable to the world, and I really wanted to be a part of this.
So I went to audition for them. The first time I thought I did a really good job. I left, I didn’t hear from them for two months, and any hope of me landing the role was completely gone. Then I got the second call, went to audition for them the second time, and, again, I felt really happy about it. I walked out and saw another Asian actor waiting in the lobby to read for the same role and I was like, “Oh my god” because he was better looking, he was taller, he was in a suit – if I was the director, I would have given him that role!
You must’ve thought – “I have blown my audition.”
Key Hu Quan: That’s what the process is like when you audition. A lot of times, you think you did really good and then you walk out and see a ton of other actors just waiting for the same job! It’s scary, you know, because it’s like, “Am I good enough to land this role?” A lot of stuff goes through your mind, you get really insecure. So I went home and called my agent and said, “My gosh, I tried so hard. I tried. I tried. I tried, but I don’t think I’m going to get it.” Then 3 weeks later, I got that call. And it was one of the happiest calls I’ve ever gotten in my life.
Honestly, I can’t see anyone else as Waymond. It’s such a multi-faceted role and you pull it off so well. How challenging was that aspect for you?
Ke Huy Quan: Oh my god, first of all, having not done this for more than 20 years, to have [Everything Everywhere All At Once] as my comeback movie, and not just as one character but I’m playing three different characters, is incredible. This is beyond my wildest imagination. When I decided to get back into acting, I was prepared to like, you know, play a small role here and there, but to be part of this, I mean, what a dream come true. For a long time, this dream of acting was a distant dream, I would never think that I would be able to get a second chance to do this again. And that’s why I’m so grateful to the Daniels for making it a reality. I’m still processing how all of this came to be. All I can say is that I’m so happy right now.
No big kudos and felt like you like not a day went by like, you really stepped into this character. And like, even seemed like I saw kind of like some Tony Leung influences in the movie-star universe. I don’t know if that may be, like impacted or worse.
Ke Huy Quan: It’s really interesting. You know, had this role been offered to me 10-15 years ago, I don’t think I could have done it. I really needed to have all that life experience that I had. Like you say, in the “movie star” universe, I worked for Wong Kar-wai for many years and I remember standing behind the camera watching Tony [Leung] learn what he does best in front of the camera. And when I stepped onto the movie-style universe set, but now as an actor stepping in front of the camera, I mean, it was quite surreal. It was really sweet because we were able to pay homage to one of my favorite filmmakers.
I know. Some of your other like you said behind the camera, some of your work was stunt coordinating. Right? Correct. There’s a lot of stunts. I know you did a lot of stunts. What was the training like stepping into doing those stunts in front of the camera?
Ke Huy Quan: It was tough because I studied taekwondo for many years, but the particular style for the fanny pack sequence is called Wushu, and it’s something that I’ve never learned before. It’s a style that is very hard to master, so I trained with our stunt coordinator, qu Lake, and our martial club boys Andy and Brian Le. I trained for them for weeks, just trying to master that fanny pack. In fact, I brought that fanny pack home! It’s about 6-7 feet long and I was constantly swinging that thing over my shoulder, around my neck, everywhere I went in the house, and I was constantly breaking things.
No, you would not!
I would and then my wife wasn’t too happy! (laughs) She says, “Come on, honey, go practice in the backyard!” But that’s how I prepared for that scene, I would be watching television while just swinging the fanny pack. Also, because I knew that we had such a short shooting schedule – we shot that scene in one and a half days, including all the drama leading up to it. So I knew we wouldn’t have the luxury of doing 10, 20, or 30 takes to get it perfect. So I had to walk on set and be fully prepared. And it was a really fun sequence to do.
It really hooks you into the movie. And yeah, you can say it sets everything coming after you it’s really fun. I like that you really took like bringing your home your work home. Seriously.
Ke Huy Quan: I did, and that was the only way I could do it. All those years of working behind the camera, working for core un, a very famous action director, you know, he took me under his wings and taught me how to choreograph a sequence together, taught me all the art and how to make it better, how to shoot it, how to cut it. So I was able to have the privilege of watching it from many different angles, and I think that helped a lot when I stepped in front of the camera to do it as an actor.
It really shows it does. Major props to you. So finally, I’m curious if you’re looking for other projects now Oh, maybe have any ideas? What’s next? Or maybe in some talks?
Ke Huy Quan: Yeah, I’m super excited! I’m very optimistic to see how representation has been going for the last few years. I know a lot more work needs to be done. But, you know, I believe all sustainable improvements take time. They happen gradually. I think the times are certainly a lot better than back when I started. I’m also happy to tell you that I’m currently shooting a television series for Disney+ with Michelle Yeoh as well. It’s called American Born Chinese and it’s based on the graphic novel of the same name by Gene Luen Yang. And it’s been produced by Melvin Maher, Jane caston Kelvin Yee. And we have an amazing cast. Daniel Wu is in this Qin Han is in this. It’s gonna be really fun.