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Image Courtesy of A24

Acting Up: Ke Huy Quan


The Snapshot:

Ke Huy Quan plays a multiverse-hopping man on a mission to help his Chinese immigrant wife save the world in the mind-trippy film, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

(Incidentally, the film didn’t open everywhere all at once. Rather, limited release on March 25th.)

 

The Performance:

When it comes to groundbreaking films, I’ve always been a fan of originality. One reason I count the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collab Being John Malkovich (1999) as an all-time favorite.

Originality itself is one compelling reason to watch Everything Everywhere All at Once. Others are its fresh concept, crazy-rich visuals, and of course, the resurrection of a familiar face from two classic ’80’s films: The Goonies (1985) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984):

Ke Huy Quan.

In his most visible role since (by far), Quan steps into the role of Waymond Wang, a married man, a secret agent of sorts, and ’verse-jumper who spans time in the most creative of ways.

It’s a plot better watched than described, but Waymond’s main mission is to guide his wife through her many lives, an existential mind game that changes often and in frenetic fashion.

In one sequence, he’s a married co-owner of a laundromat under IRS audit with his Chinese-American wife, Evelyn (the film’s centerpiece, played remarkably well by Michelle Yeoh). In another, he’s a martial-arts master surprisingly skilled at kicking ass with a fanny pack. Add to the mix that Waymond and Evelyn also have a daughter (the super-talented Stephanie Hsu) who’s at odds with mom and who also has a few tricks up her sleeve that the multiverse will soon reveal.

But every original film has that moment. The one where you realize you’re watching something that is fresh, unique, and going to take you places you may’ve never quite been to. For Everything Everywhere All at Once, that scene is at the IRS audit where the family sits across from Deidre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), the kind of IRS agent you probably never want to meet.

Waymond first accesses Evelyn during their IRS tax audit as a married couple, in what’s later revealed to be the worst version of Evelyn’s life — because that’s the one where she’s likely to be most heroic. However, once Waymond (who knows things) teaches Evelyn how to travel to the other versions of her life, he and she develop a newfound appreciation for what they have — despite the challenges they currently face in their marriage, with their daughter and with the IRS.

Again, the rest is better explained by simply watching the movie, “a relentless tornado” as GQ called it. A phrase I’d have to agree with given the hyperkinetic pacing. But it’s a notable film, not just for its multitude of multiverse twists — but for the unlikely career comeback of Ke Huy Quan.

 

The Career:

If you were alive and had a pulse in the ’80s, you probably remember Quan from the The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. After setting booby traps as Data and getting picked on by Harrison Ford’s ornery archeologist as Short Round respectively, you would’ve thought Quan would enjoy a career filled with lots of TV/film opportunities.

But, in his late teens and early 20s, Quan suddenly didn’t find himself starring in everything everywhere all at once. In a common story, Quan experienced what many child actors face after early success: a dry period. It wasn’t for lack of desire. After getting discovered by Steven Spielberg for the role of Data during an open audition in Hong Kong and starring in two of the ’80s’ biggest films, the phone stopped ringing. As he told GQ, “In Hollywood, very, very few child actors make smooth and successful transitions into adult acting. It’s very difficult for many, but I think it’s a hundred times — a thousand times — more difficult when you are an Asian actor.”

Quan eventually found himself pursuing stunt work and going to USC film school to explore a career behind the camera. But it wasn’t until Crazy Rich Asians made it to the big screen in 2018 that Quan found himself experiencing serious FOMO and wanting to give acting another try.

That’s when the now-51-year-old actor reached out to an agent friend and secured representation. Two weeks later, Everything Everywhere All at Once showed up, and despite long odds, Quan got the role after one of the film’s directors, Dan Kwan, saw “a gif of Quan as Short Round” on Twitter and according to this story, inquired and signed him up for an audition.

And if you want to know how specific the breakdown was for the role of Waymond in Everything, here’s what Daniel Scheinert, the film’s other director, had to say. “We needed someone who was convincingly sweet, kind of [a] beta male, who you’d almost laugh at and dismiss… But then also he had to speak English, Mandarin [and] Cantonese, know martial arts, and be able to switch between multiple versions of himself and be a totally convincing alpha man as well.” From there, Quan got hired and secured all the coaches to get his A-game in check.

In the same story, Quan reveals: “I hired an acting coach, a dialogue coach, a voice coach, because I wanted them to sound different. And then I hired a body movement coach because it was really important to me that the audience can distinguish which version of Waymond they’re watching.”

For now, Quan’s comeback is quite the story given the substance of his role, his performance and infinite praise for the film, which started its run at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. As a result, one can expect the phone to continue ringing for Quan this go around, as he’s already shooting his next project, the Disney+ series American Born Chinese alongside his All at Once co-star Yeoh.

As for the future beyond that, who knows. But one thing’s for sure: It’s good to have Data back.

 

Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.