The mid-80s were magical for Ke Huy Quan. Not only was he chosen by Steven Spielberg to co-star with Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the young Vietnamese-American actor followed that up with The Goonies too. But with very few roles for Asian actors at that time, Quan decided to stop acting and pursue a career behind the scenes. Here, Quan reflects on his time away from the spotlight, how the 2018 comedy Crazy Rich Asians was a personal game-changer, and the deeply humbling experience of his return in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
DEADLINE: A lot of people don’t realize that you took some time off from being In front of the camera and studied film at USC. Then once you graduated, you ended up working for renowned Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen and a certain Wong Kar Wai.
KE HUY QUAN: Yeah. A long time ago in the late ‘80s, Corey came to me wanting me to star in his movie in Hong Kong. At the time I was contractually tied to a television series, but we kept in touch over the years. So, when he found out that I graduated from USC film school, he called me and said, “Ke, I just got this little movie in Toronto, I would love for you to come work for me.” This is literally right after graduation, so I packed my suitcase, got on a flight, landed, walked on set and realized it was The X-Men [laughs]. We then spent the next nine weeks together choreographing the Wolverine-Mystique fight at the end of the movie.
Then after that, Corey kind of took me under his wing and we worked on a number of projects including Jet Li’s The One. He also asked me to work on a couple of projects in Hong Kong and it was there that I met this wonderful filmmaker named Wong Kar Wai.
DEADLINE: What was that meeting like?
QUAN: Kar Wai said, “Ke, great to meet you, I want to do some stuff in America and I was wondering if you’d be interested to come and work for me.” Those who know me know that In the Mood For Love is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I immediately said, I would love to work for you, but only if I get a DVD signed copy of In the Mood For Love [laughs]. I remember distinctly he got up from his chair, went over to his bookcase, pulled out his own copy of In the Mood For Love, signed it in front of me and says, welcome to Jet Tone [Wong Kar Wai’s production company]. I ended up working a number of years for him at that time.
DEADLINE: To then work on Everything, Everywhere All At Once, which introduces various multiverse versions of your Waymond Wang character, it feels like you were able to tap into everything you learned from these two filmmakers.
QUAN: Honestly, between these two filmmakers, I learned about how to shoot an action sequence and what looks good on camera. There’s a big difference between real fighting versus cinematic fighting, so when it was my turn to do the fanny pack fight sequence in this film, I was very comfortable in that space. All those years working for Corey Yuen, I studied Taekwondo and I also helped train a lot of the actors. So, when it was my turn to do it for this film, I was very comfortable and I knew how to get myself trained and make myself look good on the screen.
DEADLINE: Waymond Wang also is part of a classy Movie Star Universe which feels like a total homage to Wong Kar Wai films. Did you tap into the stillness that he asks from his actors for your performance?
QUAN: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think I could have done The Movie Star Universe had I not spent those years working for Wong Kar Wai, He has a very unique way of shooting his movies and it’s fascinating. He would spend hours and hours perfecting one single shot and he would have his stand-ins, completely dressed with hair and makeup and costume and would perfect that one shot with them before bringing his actors in. All those years of working on 2046 as an assistant director, it’s so ingrained in me. You said it, there’s a stillness to his films, but yet it’s so beautiful and it impacts you in a profound way. That’s why when I was on a set for Everything … Daniel Kwan, director] said, remember this from In the Mood For Love, I knew exactly that language very well. All those wonderful memories that I had standing behind the camera watching Tony Leung doing his thing in front of the camera, I brought all of those with me when we were doing The Movie Star Universe.
DEADLINE: Has Wong Kar-wai seen this film?
QUAN: He’s so sweet. I texted him when I landed the role of Waymond and I said, I’m doing a movie with Michelle Yeoh, I’m back as an actor now. He was very supportive and said, that is so wonderful, you’re back where you belong. So, when our movie came out in Hong Kong, I texted him and asked if he had seen it. He did see it and loved my performance in it. He also told me to please thank the Daniels for paying homage to his films. It was just very sweet of him.
DEADLINE: There are so many variations of Waymond in this film and each one is different from the next, how did you prepare for them and which one did you feel the closest to?
QUAN: When I got this part, I knew a couple of things. I knew that it was going to be physically demanding and also emotionally demanding. But somehow when I read the script, I thought this role was written for me. I understood where I needed to go. So, when I got the role, I had three months to prepare and I guess because I was so hungry and eager, I stopped watching movies because I didn’t want to absorb any of the performances from other actors.
This script was written very well, but it was always written that Waymond changes from one second to the other. I knew the audience needed to distinguish the different versions, not just by how he talks but through his gaze. So I hired an acting coach, a dialogue coach, a body movement coach and a voice coach to help me work through the way he moves and acts. I just needed to make sure I could nail these three performances down separately and make them my own because everything that I have experienced up to this point, were moments in my life that I can connect to these characters.
DEADLINE: How so?
QUAN: I grew up with very traditional Chinese family values. Since I was a little kid, my parents taught me to internalize the emotions that we have instead of projecting them outward. It’s very contradicting to what an actor is. With all these internalized emotions, I just needed to spend a long time with myself and bring all of that out. If I had this role given to me 10 or 15 years ago, I don’t think I could have played him back then.
DEADLINE: Present day Waymond expresses himself by speaking very little but saying everything through his eyes. There is a pureness that we end up seeing on screen that can be heart-breaking.
QUAN: It was a creative decision that I had with the Daniels from the very beginning. I wanted the audience to know immediately through his eyes. It was one of the most difficult things for me to do in the movie.
DEADLINE: Because all the other actors were going through similar experiences playing different characters, did you guys have a lively lunch break where everyone compared notes?
QUAN: Well, we never had that luxury of time where we can sit down and chat. Because our shooting schedule and budget was so tight. The Daniels have a huge shot list that we have to go through every single day. We would start by gathering the cast and crew together to do warmups for half an hour, once that’s done, we start rolling the camera and we would not stop until they got the entire shot done. And then we do it all over again for the next 38 days.
DEADLINE: Did that remind you and Michelle Yeoh about working on the fast-paced film sets of Hong Kong?
QUAN: Yes and no. The pacing of it was very similar and, of course, it was something that Michelle and I were very familiar with because of our years working in Hong Kong. But in this film, the majority of the shots were done in two to three takes maximum. For example, the fanny pack sequence, it was shot in one day [laughs]. As you know that scene would’ve taken two weeks in Hong Kong. You can imagine what our schedule was like. If you look at all the different edits, all the different shots that they pulled off, I don’t think it could have been done with anybody else.
And there were no egos on set, everybody came to the set with great attitude and really wanting to do the best we can for this movie. From the Daniels to our matriarch Michelle, all the way down to the entire crew, it was like a family getting together and we just had a really good time.
DEADLINE: Besides the action and the different multiverse characters, Everything… not only celebrates Chinese culture, but uses a lot of Cantonese and Mandarin as part of everyone’s daily language.
QUAN: Well, one of the first thing that resonated with me was the switching back and forth between the languages. That was something I think in all diaspora families, going from the native language to English and back and forth, is something that we do naturally every single day. So, when the Daniels incorporated that into the script, it felt very comfortable and familiar.
DEADLINE: Do you feel that destiny played a big part in getting this role?
QUAN: I do. The interesting thing is when I decided to get back into acting, it was literally two weeks after that I got the call for this. The Daniels found out about me when they were scrolling through Facebook and found a gif of Andrew Yang, who was running for president at that time, and someone made a joke that Short Round is all grown up and running for president. That triggered them to go, “Oh, I wonder what Ke’s doing nowadays?” So, they did search and then found that I’m about that right age for Waymond. That’s why when I read the script, I told my wife, I think this role is written for me.
I truly believe that our script had a very strong soul. It knows exactly what it wanted and because of that, pulled us all together. Everything just came together perfectly, the timing, all the pieces, all the talents, everybody. I do think it’s meant to be.
DEADLINE: Was your family excited about you returning to your acting roots?
QUAN: Here’s the funny thing, when my family saw the movie, they went to the movie theater and they said, “Wow Ke, you’re in this A LOT.” They were expecting I have just a little part. I go, yeah, yeah, I’m so lucky to have landed this role [laughs].
DEADLINE: The film Crazy Rich Asians was an important instigator for you to come back to acting because you saw that there was a place in Hollywood movies for an all-Asian cast. Everything… also has a predominant Asian cast, so you’re having a pay it forward experience now.
QUAN: Let me tell you, how I’m feeling is so complex. I grew up watching Bruce Lee and James Hong, and honestly, growing up in the States, those were the only Asian faces that you see up on the screen. So, when I got my opportunity to be in a movie with Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and George Lucas, that was the big thing. Nobody put an Asian kid in a huge blockbuster movie, and after The Goonies, nobody else did it. Over the years, a lot of Asian talents have come up to me and said, “Oh my God, we grew up watching you and you are the reason why we want to be in this business.” But that compliment always felt bittersweet to me. For the longest time, I would go watch movies and I would enjoy them completely but I wondered how come they didn’t write roles like that for Asians? How come it’s only for one group of people? That’s why I stepped away.
Crazy Rich Asians featured an entire Asian cast, which I didn’t think was possible before. But since then, we have The Farewell, Shang-Chi, and now our movie. It’s a wonderful feeling and I can’t believe how far we have come. Of course, as long as we’re still talking about it, there’s still a lot more to be done. But we are finally here. Dan Kwan gave a wonderful speech the other day, he said, we finally have a seat at the table, so what do we need to do moving forward? Representation really matters.
DEADLINE: How has it been for you to receive all these accolades and seeing how this film resonates with so many people?
QUAN: It’s been incredible. I’ve been overwhelmed with emotions since our movie came out. In fact, every time I do an interview, I get emotional and my wife says, “Ke, can you not cry anymore?” I tell myself every time before I do an interview, I say, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” But I’m so grateful for everything that’s happened since this film came out. In the past, people recognized me and they go, “Oh hey, are you the kid from Indiana Jones And the Temple Of Doom? Or are you the kid from The Goonies?” It’s wonderful, I’m so grateful for those two movies and it’s changed my life.
But for the longest time, I wished I could do something as an adult that people would recognize me for. So, for some people to say to me, you are Waymond from Everything Everywhere All At Once, and oh yeah, you were also in Indiana Jones and The Goonies. It’s such a wonderful feeling to have people recognize me for that.
I was at a restaurant the other day in London shooting Loki Season 2 and a grown man recognized me from being in Everything… And he says, “I love you in that movie.” And he starts talking about the movie and starts crying in the middle of the restaurant. I see him cry and I cry, too. Honestly, it’s so heart-warming.
DEADLINE: Since Everything… has come out, you’ve worked on American Born Chinese with Michelle Yeoh again, Loki Season 2 and now a project with the Russo Brothers. You’re quite popular now.
QUAN: Let me tell you, we finished shooting Everything… at the beginning of 2020 and then the pandemic happened. During that entire time of the pandemic, I was auditioning again and again because there were more roles for Asians and I got nothing. I didn’t land any role, not even a call back. I was about to lose my health insurance towards the end of 2021 and I called my agent desperate for anything from series regular all the way down to a guest star spot and still nothing. When 2021 passed and I lost my health insurance, I even made a joke, saying, “Hey, nobody wants to hire me except Spielberg, George Lucas, Wong Kar-wai and the Daniels.”
I was so miserable and I felt so nervous because this was all happening again, like in my younger days. I called our producer for Everything…, Jonathan Wong, And I said, “I can’t get any job, nobody wants me. Please tell me how is the movie? Am I even good in it? [Voice shakes] His response was very sweet, he said, “Ke, just be patient. Just wait until the movie comes out.” And yeah, he was right. When the movie came out, everything changed. That’s why to this day when I walk on a movie set, knowing how difficult it is to get to have this opportunity, I’m always grateful. I didn’t think I would have this amazing second act as an actor in my early 50s, and I hope my story inspires someone to not give up on their dreams.
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