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In 'Everything Everywhere,' Ke Huy Quan found the role he'd been missing

Ke Huy Quan plays Waymond, the meta-verse traveling husband in <em>Everything Everywhere All At Once.</em>
A24
Ke Huy Quan plays Waymond, the meta-verse traveling husband in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Actor Ke Huy Quan was 12 years old when he made his screen debut in Steven Spielberg's 1984 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He followed up with another megahit, the 1985 adventure film The Goonies.

Then, in his 20s, Quan had trouble landing any acting jobs. Disheartened, he decided to switch from being on-screen to working behind the camera.

"I spent a long time lying to myself that acting isn't fun anymore," he says of his decision to step away.

But as time passed, he noticed that the roles for Asian actors seemed to be expanding and getting "meatier." So Quan decided to try it again. The first script he read was Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Part sci-fi martial arts film, part absurdist comedy and part family drama, Everything Everywhere All at Once tells the story of a Chinese immigrant family who drifts in and out of parallel universes. Quan plays Waymond Wang, the unassuming, metaverse-traveling husband to Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh).

"When I read the script for the first time, I was overwhelmed with emotion, because it was a script that I wanted to read for many, many years," Quan says. "It was a role that I thought was written for me, and I was just so excited."

Quan says stepping in front of the camera for the first time in 20 years made him feel alive: "I felt whatever that was missing all those years. ... All of a sudden I felt like I was back where I needed to be."

Quan's been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Waymond, and he's already won a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe. He says accepting the Golden Globe was particularly poignant because he was able to reunite with Spielberg, who won the award for best director for his film The Fabelmans that same night.

"To be able to look [Spielberg] in his eyes and to thank him for everything that he has done for me, you know ... that was really special," Quan says. "I gave him a big hug and I said, 'Steven, I hope I make you proud tonight.' And he says, 'Ke, you made me proud when you were just 12 years old.' And it was just so good to give him that hug."


Interview highlights

On the fight scene in Everywhere Everything All at Once, where his character uses a fanny pack as a weapon

I loved it. ... I watched Jackie Chan movies a lot. I've seen every single one of his movies. And, you know, he's really good at using mundane objects, like a chair or a table, as weapons. But never did he ever think about using a fanny pack. So I thought it was really cool when I read the script.

But I was also very nervous because that style of fighting is called Wushu rope dart, which I know nothing about. ... It was a style that's very hard to master. And I could never do it, even though we were training for weeks. And I knew that on the day of the shooting, we do not have the luxury of doing many, many takes until we can get it right. ... And there was one particular sequence that ... was all done in one shot. And the first take, I failed miserably. ... And then take two, I heard the camera roll, I heard "action," and I started swinging the fanny pack around my shoulder, around my neck. And finally, the very last piece of that move [happens], where I kick the fanny pack, and see it, almost in slow motion, fly out. And I was just so overwhelmed with joy. And I hear everybody clap and applaud. And it was a great feeling to be able to do that in two takes and [for it] to turn out as well as it did.

On keeping all the different versions of his Everything Everywhere character straight

When I was preparing for this role, I came across an interview that Margot Robbie did, and she was talking about how, for every movie she does, she always hires a body movement coach. ... And so I got in touch ... and we had numerous sessions. And it was fascinating to me, because the process starts with him reading the script and then picking a very specific animal for me to do.

Quan says he imagined a fox while playing "CEO" Waymond.
/ A24
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A24
Quan says he imagined a fox while playing "CEO" Waymond.

For example, "tax" Waymond he would pick a squirrel, "CEO" Waymond he would pick a fox, and then "alpha" Waymond, he would pick an eagle. And my homework was to spent a lot of time on YouTube looking at various videos of these three different animals. And I spent a long time just watching videos of squirrels. And I even pointed out pictures of different looking squirrels and different looking eagles and foxes. And I would just tape them on the wall. That was the very first step that I did to help myself get into these characters.

On landing his first acting role, in the 1984 Steven Spielberg film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Spielberg and Lucas, they were looking for a Chinese kid to play Short Round and they went everywhere. They went to New York, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco even. ... Almost gave up the role when, thank god, [for] the casting director Mike Fenton, who suggested that they would have an open call in Chinatown, Los Angeles. And this was like 1983. So there was a very small Asian community living in Chinatown at that time. And they went to my elementary school and they passed out these fliers. ... And my brother's teacher thought he was perfect for the role. So he went to audition and I tagged along and as he was auditioning, I was behind the camera, coaching him what to do. I had no idea why I was doing that, because I didn't even know what was going on. But I was just telling him to do this, to do that. And the casting director saw me and asked if I wanted to give it a try. And I did. And the very next day we got a call from Steven Spielberg's office.

My mom thought it was a really fancy meeting because she heard "Hollywood big director," "big movie star." And she had me wear this really uncomfortable three-piece suit that she bought in Chinatown, that I would wear during Chinese New Year. And I looked really uncomfortable. Steven took one look at me, gave me a hug and asked me to come back the next day and wearing something really comfortable. And I did, walked into the room and there was Harrison Ford, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. We spent an afternoon together and three weeks later I was on a flight to Sri Lanka and walked on set for the very first time, and that changed my life.

On his family's decision to immigrate to the U.S. from Vietnam

That's why I think my parents are heroes. To make that difficult decision, to leave home and to bring our entire family to a foreign land where they don't speak the language. ... They gave up everything they had to get all of us here. It was such a selfless decision because they're not doing it for themselves. ... My dad was a businessman in Vietnam and my mom had her own clothing store. They made decent money and they gave all of that up. So by the time we got to the United States, they were heavily in debt. And so they would have to just do any job they can that was being offered to them to put food on our table, just so that we can have a better future. I mean, that's crazy. It's so noble what they did. And that's why when I, as fate would have it, when I landed my first job working with Spielberg and Lucas in Indiana Jones, I felt so proud because for the first time in my life, rather than taking something from them, I felt that I can give something back, make them proud.

On his fear that Everywhere Everything All at Once would be a one-time thing

We shot the movie in 2020. Thirty-seven days out of 38. So we were shut down with one more day to go. And then [because of the pandemic] we didn't regroup until eight months later. And we finished the movie and I was like everybody else, staying at home trying to be safe. ...

So my agents were sending me audition opportunities where I was recording myself at home and sending in self tapes. And I was doing that a lot. ... I cannot get one job. I kid you not. And not even a callback, in fact. And I was scared all of a sudden, because I thought Everything Everywhere was a one-time thing and it brought me back to those times when I was in my late teens and early 20s where I was auditioning and not landing anything. I lost my health insurance. ... And I had a conversation with our producer and I said, 'You've seen the movie, am I any good? ... Nobody wants to hire me. I can't I can't get a job.' And he says, 'Ke, trust me, you're really good in this movie. You just wait.'

And sure enough, our movie came out in March of 2022, and my world changed. Everything changed. The first phone call I got was from a wonderful producer I met on the X-Men. He was an associate producer at that time, and he is Kevin Feige. ... And he called me and he said, 'I saw your movie. You're great in it. And I want you to come join the [Marvel Cinematic Universe] family.' And I was just so happy.

Audio interview produced and edited by: Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi.

Audio interview adapted to NPR.org by: Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.