Whatever happened to Short Round? Ke Huy Quan returns to the big screen
Back in 2018, director Daniel Kwan was trying, and failing, to cast the role of Waymond in his science fiction-action-comedy-drama film Everything Everywhere All At Once (out March 25). The problem? Kwan and his filmmaking partner Daniel Scheinert (known collectively by the name "Daniels") were really trying to find someone who could play three parts. In addition to playing Waymond, the mild-mannered husband of Michelle Yeoh's laundromat-owning Evelyn Wang, the actor would also have to play a martial arts expert-version of Waymond from an alternative universe and a romantic lead-style Waymond from another dimension.
"With this character, we needed someone who could do the drama, do the comedy, [be] bilingual, maybe even trilingual, a martial artist, and then on top of that, be able to be convincingly dopey and sweet," says Kwan, who previously directed 2016's Swiss Army Man with Scheinert. "A lot of people who do martial arts tend to skew in the other direction and so we struggled for a while." One day, the director was scrolling through Twitter when he came across a gif of child actor Ke Huy Quan as the character Short Round in 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. "I started doing the math in my head," says Kwan. "I was, like, he would be the right age. What is that guy up to?"
It was a fair question. Quan had starred in Temple of Doom and also played Data in 1985's The Goonies, but, as far as Kwan could tell, the actor had not appeared onscreen since the 1997 Taiwanese action film Red Pirate. "I went down a rabbit hole and found out he had quit acting because there weren't that many roles for him," says the director. "So he moved on."
Around the same time, Quan had recently decided to try and get back in the thespian saddle, inspired by the success of Crazy Rich Asians, whose starry cast included Michelle Yeoh. "It was not until the year 2018, when Crazy Rich Asians came out, [that] the idea of getting back to my roots started percolating in my head, and I decided to get back into acting," says Quan, 50. "So I called a friend who is an agent, and I said, 'Hey would you like to rep me?' and this is decades without an agent. He says yes. Two weeks later, I got this call about this project that's written and directed by the Daniels and stars Michelle Yeoh. I was like, oh my God! I mean, Michelle is the reason why I'm even thinking about getting back into acting in the first place."
Despite decades away from acting, Quan impressed Kwan and Scheinert. "He was the first person we auditioned for the role, and he became instantly our favorite," says Kwan. "Because he is Waymond, he's a sweetheart who is just full of joy, who just wants to play, who just wants to welcome you into that energy. That's the person we imagined when we were writing this role."
Serendipitous, yes. But nowhere near as incredible as how he wound up in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Born in Vietnam, Quan, together with his parents and siblings, fled the country in 1978. "Our family was separated for a year," says Quan. He escaped to Hong Kong with his father and five of his siblings ("we were in refugee camps"), while his mother took three of the children and went to Malaysia. "Luckily, all of us, the entire family, were able to come to the States safely," Quan says. "We were so blessed. We came here in 1979, and, as luck would have it, four years later, I would meet a couple of guys who would change my life."
Those guys were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the director and producer, respectively, of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. They were searching for a young actor to play Short Round, the film's young pickpocket-turned-Indy-sidekick. "Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were looking for an Asian kid," says Quan. "They went everywhere looking, and they couldn't find him. The last stop was in Chinatown, Los Angeles. They held an open call, and my brother went in to audition, and I accompanied him. I was kind of coaching him behind the camera, and the casting director saw me and asked if I wanted to try."
The next day, Spielberg's office called, inviting Quan to meet with the director. "My mom and I, we didn't know what this was all about; we've never seen Star Wars or Indiana Jones," says Quan. "My mom thought this was a fancy meeting, so she put me in this three-piece suit. [Laughs] I was really uncomfortable. Steven saw me, gave me a big hug, a big smile, and asked me to go back the next day but in a bit more comfortable attire. So I went back the next day, and there was George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and Steven Spielberg. We spent a whole afternoon together. Three weeks later, I was on a flight to Sri Lanka, and it was the beginning of the greatest adventure of my life. Literally, that movie, it changed the trajectory of my life. I wouldn't be here talking to you if it wasn't for Spielberg and Lucas and Harrison."
Quan's appearance in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom led him to an enduring interest in martial arts. "I grew up watching Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung movies," he says. "So when they hired a taekwondo instructor to teach me to do those moves in Temple of Doom, I was just fascinated by it. I started taking taekwondo classes, and I got all the way up to a black belt, second degree."
Spielberg, who dreamed up the original story for The Goonies, was responsible for Quan appearing in that film as well. "I remember doing press for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at Steven's office," says the actor. "After I was done, he walked out, he says, 'Ke, I've got your next movie. It's called The Goonies.' I still remember the pitch, he said, 'There are seven kids, and you're going to be one of them, and you play this, like, 007, James Bond character, and you have all these gadgets.' Before I know it, I was on the set with six other kids and the most amazing pirate ship."
After The Goonies, Quan scored recurring roles in the sitcoms Nothing Is Easy and Head of the Class, but, as an adult, the Asian-American actor found work in the U.S. increasingly hard to find. That's how he wound up starring in the memorably-named 1993 Taiwanese show The Big Eunuch and the Little Carpenter. "That was a 40-episode primetime television show; it was really fun to do," he says. "After being in Indy and The Goonies, [there were] very little opportunities for me. I wanted to work, and I wanted to do more stuff, and I was able to get these opportunities from elsewhere. I did a movie in Japan, I did numerous projects in Taiwan, and I was able to do movies in Hong Kong too. So that was me trying to keep going and trying to stay in acting when there were just very few opportunities here in the States."
Eventually, Quan decided to throw in the acting towel and studied film at USC. "I graduated in '99, and I started working for some really fun and great people," he says. First was a director and action choreographer named Corey Yuen, whose many credits include 1985's Yes, Madam!, the Hong Kong film that put Yeoh on the map as an action star. "He took me under his wing and started teaching me about action and action sequences and how to choreograph them," says Quan. "So I worked with him on the X-Men and The One and we did some movies in Hong Kong."
In Hong Kong, Quan found another movie mentor in Wong Kar-wai, the renowned director of 1994's Chungking Express and 2000's In the Mood for Love. "I worked for Wong Kar-wai for many years," says the actor. "I was his assistant director on 2046, and I also helped develop some of the projects that he had going on at that time."
Eventually, Kwan returned to the U.S. "I tried writing, I tried short films and stuff, but the entire time I felt something was missing," he says. "I didn't know [what] it was until I saw Crazy Rich Asians, honestly. I really credit that movie. It's such a seminal movie for me. I felt, oh my God, that's what I want to do after stepping away for so long."
As a warm-up to his appearance in Everything Everywhere All At Once, Quan played a supporting role in the family film Finding 'Ohana, which premiered on Netflix last year. "I did Finding 'Ohana after I got the role of Waymond for Everything Everywhere All At Once," says Quan. "The reason I got Finding 'Ohana was, I was with some friends, and one of my friends started talking to the director Jude Weng. I'm listening to this conversation, and I hear Jude Weng talking about how she's getting ready to do a movie for Netflix called Finding 'Ohana; it's kind of like Indiana Jones-meets-The Goonies. I'm hearing this, and I'm like, wait a minute, I think I'm in both of those movies! So I got up, and I introduced myself, and four months later, I got a call from her saying, 'Hey, would like to be a part of this?' It was a small role, but it was a really nice and much-needed warm-up for Everything Everywhere..., so I was just really happy to do it."
His costar was duly impressed: "My God, this guy is courageous and bold," says Yeoh. "[He played] that unassuming, gentle husband that you get so frustrated about because there you are, tearing your hair out about trying to get things to work, and he's like, 'La-da-da-da-da-da-da!,' singing and waltzing around. Then suddenly he turns into this James Bond-like character, full of charm and grace, or like Bruce Lee with his action."
Quan got to showcase his martial arts skills in a sequence where his heavily-outnumbered character uses a fanny pack to take on his opponents. "I actually took the fanny pack home and practiced for a long time," he says. "The fanny pack is six- or seven-feet-long, and I was constantly throwing this around, wrapping it around my neck and stuff. I ended up breaking a lot of things in the house, and my wife wasn't too happy about that. Can you imagine? It was just me swinging this fanny pack wherever I go, to the living room or the bedroom or the kitchen. I was doing it for months."
Quan is excited to see how Everything Everywhere All At Once will be received by audiences when the film premieres on March 11 at this year's SXSW Festival in Austin. "I'm very proud of it," he says. "I think it's an amazing movie; I feel so blessed to be a part of this. I think everybody's amazing in it. And, honestly, I think the Daniels are freaking geniuses. They wrote this beautiful script which, when I first read it, I cried and I laughed harder than [at] any script I'd ever read. I know people say this all the time, but it's so hard for an original movie to come by, and to a part of this original story, original movie, is just a real blessing."
Meanwhile, Quan has already booked his next acting job: He and Yeoh have been cast in the Disney+ fantasy series American Born Chinese alongside Chin Han (The Dark Knight) and Ben Wang (MacGyver), among others. Directed by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, the show is an adaption of the 2006 graphic novel about a teenager who becomes involved in a battle between Chinese gods. "Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi made a huge impact in pushing for further Asian representation and changing Asian narratives," he says. "I'm so happy to be reunited with Michelle Yeoh but also to do it with other Asian actors who have been working really hard for the last ten, 20 years to push for more representation."
So, is Quan ready for his second close-up?
"I can't tell you how happy I am," he says. "To have Everything Everywhere... as my comeback movie, I'm speechless. I'm really happy, and I'm really excited, and I just can't wait to see what's going to happen next."
Everything, Everywhere All At Once is out in limited theaters March 25 and is released wide April 8.
Michelle Yeoh plays a harried laundromat owner tasked with saving an infinite number of universes in this science fiction-action-comedy-drama from Swiss Army Man directors Daniels.