Ke Huy Quan was a child star in two of the biggest movies of the 1980s, but gave up on acting when Hollywood gave up on him. Now he has made a remarkable comeback by winning an Oscar.
“They say stories like this only happen in the movies,” a tearful Quan told the Oscars as he accepted his award for best supporting actor in the anarchic sci-fi drama Everything Everywhere All At Once.
“I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This is the American dream.”
His is a story that would be hard to believe if it was the plot of a film.
As a child, Quan moved from Vietnam to Hong Kong as a refugee, then settled in the US.
He got an audition by accident to play Chinese pickpocket Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then starred as gadget-loving Data in The Goonies the following year.
But as he grew up, the roles dried up, and he settled for working behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator and assistant director.
Inspired by watching Crazy Rich Asians, he decided to have another go at pursuing his dream of acting as he approached the age of 50.
An agent friend agreed to represent him – and two weeks later Quan received a call about Everything Everywhere All At Once. That film would provide him with his second big break and his first Academy Award.
“My mom is 84 years old and she is at home watching. Mom, I just won an Oscar!” he said, overcome by emotion, kissing his golden statuette and holding it aloft.
“My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage.”
Quan was seven when he left Vietnam on a cramped boat in the late 1970s, landing in Hong Kong with his father while his mother and three siblings went to Malaysia.
The family were reunited when they emigrated to the US in 1979, a move he has said was “traumatic”.
“We were refugees,” Quan told the Guardian last year. “Nobody wanted us… They would call us ‘fresh off the boat’. They would make fun of us when we were at school. You can imagine what that does to the mental state of a child.”
His life was to change when he went to support his younger brother at an audition for Indiana Jones at the age of 12. Quan didn’t intend to audition, but the casting director suggested he tried out too.
Three weeks later, Quan was on his way to Sri Lanka to start shooting the film. “It was one of the happiest times of my life,” he said.
Some of the film’s depictions and themes have since been criticized, but Quan believes director Steven Spielberg deserves credit.
“Spielberg was the first person to put an Asian face in a Hollywood blockbuster,” he said. “Short Round is funny, he’s courageous, he saves Indy’s ass.”
Then in The Goonies, which was executive produced by Spielberg, Quan was cast alongside fellow young stars like Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman and Martha Plimpton.
He went on to appear in the TV sitcoms Together We Stand and Head of the Class. But as the 90s wore on, the offers began to dwindle. Any roles sent his way were small and stereotyped.
“It’s always difficult to make the transition from a child actor to an adult actor,” he told the Telegraph. “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.
“Your early 20s are supposed to be golden years and all I did was wait for the phone to ring.”
He reluctantly stopped waiting, and it wasn’t until the success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 that he decided to try to get back on screen.
Fear of missing out
“I remember watching that film in a theater three times. I cried every single time,” he said.
“I cried because it was such a beautiful movie, but I also cried for a different reason – I had serious FOMO [fear of missing out]. 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.”
When he received the script for Everything Everywhere All at Once, he probably didn’t expect it to take him all the way to the Oscars.
On paper, the film is a tough sell. It is an inventive cross between an indie drama about an immigrant family, a zany sci-fi adventure and a superhero action film.
Quan plays Waymond Wang, the husband of Michelle Yeoh’s launderette manager – as well as multiple versions of Waymond from alternative universes.
He has said he was unsure of how viewers would react to seeing a former child star as a middle-aged man.
“I was 50 years old when I decided to get back into acting,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
“It took the courage to give voice to this dream I’d had, a dream I had to walk away from, and I didn’t think it would find its way back.”
In a neat twist of fate, it was one of his old co-stars who helped him secure his comeback role.
Jeff Cohen, who played Chunk in The Goonies, had reinvented himself as an entertainment lawyer and helped Quan negotiate his contract. The film’s producer said “he never imagined that he’d have to talk to Chunk and Data for his movie”.
Keep your dreams alive
Both Quan and his film have now won over Hollywood.
Everything Everywhere scooped seven Oscars in total on Sunday, including best picture and best actress for Yeoh.
Quan has been one of the most popular figures on the awards circuit this year, with his irrepressible enthusiasm and streams of smiling selfies alongside A-list stars – who seemed just as happy to meet him.
At the Oscars, there was a touching reunion with his former Indiana Jones co-star Harrison Ford, who presented the best picture award.
In his speech, Quan went on to thank his mother “for the sacrifices she made to get me here”.
He also thanked his brother and wife – “the love of my life, who month after month, year after year for 20 years, told me my time would come”.
He added: “Dreams are something you have to believe in. I almost gave up on mine.
“To all of you out there, please keep your dreams alive.
“Thank you so much for welcoming me back.”