You might’ve heard that Hollywood is a place where dreams go to die. But if you really believe that, maybe you just haven’t met the right dreamer. Ke Huy Quan never looked for fame – fame found him. Born in Vietnam, he’d come to this country in 1979 and, along with his parents and eight siblings, settled near downtown Los Angeles.
Life in L.A.’s Chinatown, he said, was happy but unremarkable, that is, until the day in 1983 when Hollywood casting agents showed up at his elementary school, looking for a young Asian boy to star in a Steven Spielberg movie.
Funnily enough, he didn’t even plan to go to the casting call; his brother went to audition, and he tagged along: “And as he was auditioning, I was behind the camera giving him directions, coaching him what to do! And the casting director saw me and says, ‘Ke, would you want to give this a try?’ And I didn’t think much of it. And I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?'”
And so, only four years after coming to America, Ke Huy Quan beat out six thousand other kids for the role of Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
At age 12, he was suddenly a star. And a few months later, when he was cast in 1985’s “The Goonies,” young Ke thought he’d made it in Hollywood.
And then … the phone stopped ringing.
What happened? “Well, I started at the very top, so there was no way to go but downhill from there!” he laughed.
After “Goonies,” he made a couple of TV series [“Nothing Is Easy,” “Head of the Class”] and a few guest appearances, but after that, nothing.
“It was frustrating,” said Quan, “especially when I walked into the room to audition for the casting director and she recognizes me and she says, ‘Oh my gosh, you know, we love your work in “Indiana Jones,” we love you in “The Goonies.””
“So, then, you’re thinking, Oh, maybe I have it?” asked Smith.
“Exactly. And I’m thinking, Oh, I can land this role. But then, again, a week will go by, two weeks will go by, and then nothing.”
“What does that do to you inside?”
“Uh, it’s not good for your confidence, that’s for sure!”
He remembers going up for a two-line part as a Vietnamese soldier: “And I walked in the room, and there were 30 other Asian actors waiting to read for the same role. I went and auditioned, went back and waited for the phone to ring. And it was that moment that I said, ‘Maybe, uh, this isn’t for me.'”
Dejected, but determined to stay in the business he loved, he went to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, and afterwards built a career working behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator on films like “X-Men.” But in 2018, his dream of working in front of the camera got new life, when he saw “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“I saw it three times in the theater; I cried every single time,” said Quan. “But one of the reasons why I cried was because I wanted to be up there with them.”
And incredibly he was about to get a chance at a second act.
A new film about an Asian family was in the works, and after a 25-year break from the casting world, Quan read for the male lead of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and he nailed it. He recalled: “I left to call my agent, and I said, ‘I think I have a shot. I think it went well.’ I was so excited. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, please, please, let me know what they think, okay?’ Two months went by. And as each day went by, my hope of landing the job slowly, slowly dissipated.
“But it was my wife that said, ‘Ke, you … you will get this role.’ I said, ‘How can you be so sure?’
And she said, ‘Because you said this role is written for you, and you want it more than anything. You will get it.'”
“She would say that to you?” asked Smith.
“She will say that.”
And his wife, Echo, was right: his agent finally did call with good news. “And that phone call was one of the happiest phone calls I have ever gotten. And I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I said Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! And I kept jumping up and down. And I said, Yes! Yes! And I started crying. And I didn’t, I didn’t have to say a thing. She knew what that phone call was about. She knew. Oh, yeah. I remember that day well!”
In the multiverse comedy “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) gets at least one universe’s family out of a jam at the IRS office, with his fanny pack:
And now watching “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” it’s as if Ke Huy Quan has poured 25 years of pent-up emotion into his performance, and the world has taken note: He won the Golden Globe for his performance, and is up for an Oscar for best supporting actor. These days, if Quan looks like a man whose fondest dream has finally come true, that’s because it has.
“Can you believe it?” he laughed. “Never, never, never in my life did I think that the word Oscar would be associated with my name. I wasn’t thinking much. I mean, none of this, with Oscar nominee? Come on. I just wanted a job! But now, you know, looking back, I would not change a thing. It’s so much sweeter now. It’s so much sweeter now. And, you know, I always believe in this: a full life is a life full of ups and downs. You don’t know what sweet tastes like until you’ve tasted, you know, sour or bitterness.”
“And it’s awfully sweet now,” said Smith.
“I can’t believe it, Tracy! I still can’t believe it. I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know how it happened. But I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy!”
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Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Lauren Barnello.