Are the Kids Alright? is Yahoo Entertainment's video interview series exploring the impact of show business on the development and well-being of former child entertainers, from triumphs to traumas.
Ke Huy Quan's actual childhood is more dramatic than any superhero origin story. Born in Vietnam in 1971, the future child star of 1980s action classics like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies fled the war-torn country with his family when he was only seven years old. Quan escaped to Hong Kong with his father and six siblings, while his mother went to Malaysia. He didn't see her again for over a year, until the whole family reunited in Los Angeles in 1979.
"It still brings tears to my eyes," he tells Yahoo Entertainment, thinking back on those frightening formative years. "When we reunited, I was so happy, because I missed my mom so much, and I missed my family so much. It was the greatest moment in my life at that time." (Watch our video interview above.)
He didn't know it then, but more great moments lay ahead. Four years later, in 1983, Quan accompanied his brother to an open casting call for a major motion picture at his elementary school in L.A.'s Chinatown. "I was giving him direction and notes from behind the camera," he remembers, laughing. The casting director took notice of his interest and suggested he step in front of the lens for his own audition.
In the moment, the 12-year-old Quan was blissfully unaware of what the film was or the identity of the director he'd be working with. That changed the next day when he got a call from Steven Spielberg's office offering him the opportunity to talk more about being part of the sequel to the director's 1981 blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which introduced the world to archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones. The first-time actor was the top pick to play Short Round, Indy's youthful sidekick and a role that the production was finding difficult to cast before Quan came along.
"My mom had me wear this three-piece suit with a little gold chain hanging out of the side pocket," he says now. "I was so uncomfortable! Steven gave me a big hug and said, 'I want you to come back tomorrow, but wear something comfortable.' I went back, walked into the room and there was Steven, George Lucas and Harrison Ford. I spent an entire afternoon with them, and three weeks later I was on a flight to Sri Lanka. It was the greatest adventure of my life."
Quan's adventures in the screen trade continued with The Goonies, the Richard Donner-directed 1985 hit that multiple generations of kids have grown up watching. And unlike Temple of Doom, he didn't have to audition for the role of the group's resident tech genius, Data. "I walked into Steven's office, and he said: 'Ke, I got you your next movie. It's called The Goonies and it's about seven kids who go on an adventure. You will play Data, who is kind of like James Bond with all these amazing gadgets, but they never work unless your life depends on it.' Sure enough, a few months later, I was on a set with six other kids seeing a full-sized pirate ship in front of us."
Short Round and Data are iconic '80s characters, but in the ensuing decades they've also been held up as examples of Hollywood's painful history with Asian stereotypes. Quan says he's "grateful" to have played both of his youthful alter egos, and explains why it's important to put them in the context of the times. "If you look back, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the first ones to put an Asian kid in a big movie in a big role," he notes. "Over the years, so many people have come up to me and said: 'I wanted to be you when I was growing up.' Those characters are great. I mean, Short Round fricking saves Indy's ass! And Data is one of the gang and has these amazing gadgets."
"Of course, having said that, over the years Hollywood's portrayal of Asians hasn't been all that great," Quan continues. "When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I really wanted to pursue acting and there were just not a lot of opportunities for me. I remember reading a lot of scripts where the Asian character either didn't even have a name, or if they did, they would have two or three lines. And every Asian actor in the industry at that time was fighting for this tiny role."
The lack of opportunity for Quan to practice his developing craft eventually drove him out of acting altogether in the early 1990s. At that point, he moved behind the camera once again, taking on various crew roles — including stunt coordinator and assistant director — on Hollywood and Hong Kong productions. While Quan says he was "content" with that career path, in 2018 he was bitten by the acting bug once more when he saw Jon M. Chu's blockbuster romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians. "I had serious FOMO watching that movie," he says now. "I wished I was up there with my fellow Asian actors, and that was really when I decided to get back into acting."
It's only appropriate, then, that Quan is making his return to the big screen opposite Crazy Rich Asians star Michelle Yeoh, in the buzzy art-house hit Everything Everywhere All at Once. Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the film casts Yeoh and Quan as an immigrant couple on the verge of divorce. But their marriage — and relationship with their grown daughter (Stephanie Hsu) — is saved when they embark on an action-packed adventure that plays out on a multiversal scale.
"The last time audiences saw me, I was a little kid," Quan says of his already-acclaimed performance. "So hopefully they find it fun to see me return as a middle-aged man! It's an amazing role, and an amazing movie."
Do you have any memories of your childhood in Vietnam?
I have memories of when my family decided to flee. It was a traumatic experience for all of us: we come from a big family, and we were separated for over a year until we reunited here in America. "We were very lucky, but that whole experience [was difficult]. I just can't imagine what the people in Ukraine are going through right now. Honestly, every day I hope the war ends and that there's peace. Peace is so precious, and we need to love, respect and treat each other with kindness. That's what I hope for.
I haven't talked about [my childhood] for about 30 years. For a lot of people, when you go through something like that, you kind of bury it. I don't know if I ever dealt with it in a healthy way or not. Especially in a traditional Chinese family, they try to teach you to deal with it internally, which is very different today. We're now taught that if you have something you don't like, you express it and externalize it. So it's deep in there [within me] for sure.
Do you think it's found a way into your performances over the years?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, that's what I did with Waymond in Everything Everywhere All at Once. I'm not just playing one character in the film, but three versions of the same character. Had this been given to me 10 or 15 years ago, I don't think I would've been able to play this part. I really looked at my entire life — all the ups and downs, and the peaks and valleys. I brought my entire life into these three different characters and they all represent different parts of me, and different phases of my life.
You had never been on a movie set prior to making Temple of Doom. How did Steven Spielberg direct you as a first-time actor?
He was wonderful; he's known for getting really great performances out of child actors. The way we did it back then was that all the sets were practical, so as a kid when you arrived on those sets, you were instantly amazed by the sheer size of it and the details that go into building them. I was having a really good time, and Steven and George ran a very calm set. There was never any screaming. Every day was just a playground for me. The only thing that I didn't like was that I had to do three hours of schoolwork! I'd get pulled off set while I was having fun and have to go into a trailer to do all that homework. Being able to look back on that experience now with such fond memories is a true gift.
Harrison Ford hadn't really acted opposite children at that point in his career. How did you forge a bond with him onscreen?
He's one of the generous actors I've ever met and because it was my first time [acting], he was constantly behind the camera helping Steven get that performance out of me. When we were in Sri Lanka, we all stayed in the same hotel and every time we wrapped for the day, I would go swimming. I didn't know how to swim before, and it was actually Harrison Ford who taught me! To this day, I thank him for that.
Temple of Doom is a darker film than Raiders and famously led to the invention of the PG-13 rating. Were you scared by anything you saw on set?
No, it didn't scare me — it was fun! I saw a lot of the scary stuff, except for the scene where the guy gets his heart pulled out. I wasn't allowed to see that. But it's all movie magic, so it's really fun to be the presence of that stuff. The best part is when they put it all together and you watch it onscreen with sound effects and music. I remember watching Temple of Doom for the first time at Mann's Chinese Theatre where we had the L.A. premiere. I was blown away by everything that was up on the screen, and that's where I fell in love with moviemaking and acting.
Was it strange to go from being the only child on the set of Temple of Doom to being constantly around other young actors while making The Goonies?
It was weird, because coming off of Indiana Jones … I got all the attention versus being on a set with six other kids, and honestly they were all hams! [Laughs] They really knew what they were doing. So I found myself constantly having to fight for attention. But that was very familiar to me, because I grew up in a big family and that's what my home was like. I got some great friendships out of that movie, including Jeff Cohen, aka Chunk. He's my entertainment lawyer and we're great friends, as I am with Sean [Astin] and Corey [Feldman]. We're Goonies for life.
It's incredible how well that movie holds up, and I understand why people still love it today. Dick Donner really did an amazing job directing a beautiful story from Spielberg and the amazing screenplay by Chris Columbus. I'm really happy that we were all able to get together during the pandemic for a virtual reunion, because not long after that Dick passed away. We all miss him dearly, but what a life and what a legacy.
Growing up, did you ever experience any racial prejudice on-set or off-set?
I was a refugee when I was a little kid, so I certainly had my fair share of racism and prejudice. But I must say that I never experienced it on any of the movie sets I've worked on. I've always been treated with kindness, respect and a lot of love. I'm sure there's a lot of that out there, and certainly there's a lot more to be done. But I'm optimistic to see where things are going. One of the messages I really love about Everything Everywhere All at Once is that we are all entitled to be uniquely ourselves and to feel like that's enough. And my character, Waymond, strongly believes in empathy, because empathy creates a pathway for understanding and acceptance. So I hope people get that out of our movie.
As a young actor, did you ever go out to Hollywood nightclubs and parties or was that not your lifestyle?
I come from a very traditional Chinese family, and my parents are extremely strict. So it's not that I didn't want to go to those parties — I was never allowed! My parents would have killed me had I taken a path where I'm doing drugs or smoking when I was a kid. Luckily they really grounded me and kept me away from all of that. In fact, when you've just come out of a movie premiere where there's a thousand people cheering you on and then you go home and your family doesn't give a crap about that and treat you like their little brother … that really kept me grounded. I credit my parents and my family with who I am today.
Do you think you'd be able to handle being a young actor in Hollywood now in the social media era?
Oh wow, that's a good question. Certainly, I grew up at a different time. I'm so bad with social media, and I'm not great with technology. I think kids nowadays are so smart and so savvy, and they grow up so much faster than we did when we were younger. Life is so precious, and human interaction is so precious, so sometimes it's OK to put your phone down, look into the eyes of one another and feel each other's presences and not take that for granted. If the last two years has taught us anything at all, it's that we need we need this kind of interaction between people.
What do you tell young actors when they come to you for advice?
I always say a full life is a life full of peaks and valleys, because that's what makes a beautiful landscape. We all like the good times, but you don't really get to experience the full effect of that unless you experience the other side as well too. My life certainly has a lot of ups and downs and I would say that's OK. I worked with the filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai in Hong Kong for many years, and I learned one word from him: perseverance. If you have a dream, don't give up — continue at it. One day, it will come true. It's come true for me today! I never thought I'd be getting back into acting, and I'm so grateful to the Daniels, the directors of this movie, for making that a reality.
There have always been rumors about a Goonies 2: do you think that will actually happen or does Donner's death make it unlikely?
You know, we've been trying for so many years. We hired numerous writers … and we always wanted to do it. But Dick passed last year and I'm kind of at peace with leaving it alone. It's such a classic movie, and I'm fine the way it is. Besides our head Goonie is no longer with us and he was a big part of this. I don't think we can do it without him. I'm sure down the road there are going to be reboots and remakes and I would love to see those. But for us, we will always have The Goonies.
Oh my God, are you kidding? That's a f***ing great character! [Laughs] I would accept it instantly without a doubt. It'd be cool to see an adult version of short round, and it'll be cool if I get to play him! I'll be in the first in line to see the next movie. Nobody can play Indiana Jones but Harrison Ford, so I'm going to love seeing him don the fedora again and crack that whip one more time.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is currently playing in theaters.