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A year ago, this sentence would have felt impossible: As predicted, Ke Huy Quan won an Oscar on Sunday night for his supporting actor performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
For many, Quan’s appearance in the Daniels-directed, genre-breaking, sci-fi action-comedy — an unlikely awards contender in its own right — was the sudden reintroduction of a child star who had disappeared into pop culture history after a promising debut in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies a year later.
But on the strength of his role — or make that roles, given EEAAO’s multiversal nature — as the alternately sweet/badass/debonair Waymond Wang, Quan became virtually the only lock this season, picking up Critics Choice, Indie Spirit, Golden Globe, SAG, Gotham, National Society of Film Critics, L.A. Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle awards on the way to the Dolby Theatre. Still, presenter Ariana DeBose’s voice cracked as she announced his name at the Dolby Theatre.
“My journey started on a boat,” said a tearful Quan, now 51, who was born in Vietnam during the war. “I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage. They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This is the American dream!”
Quan’s Oscar triumph caps a four-decade journey that saw him involuntarily retire from acting in his early 20s because of a lack of roles for Asian actors in Hollywood. “My manager [at the time] told me that maybe it would be easier if you were to have an American-sounding name,” Quan, who briefly went by “Jonathan Quan” and “Jonathan Ke Quan” in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, said backstage. “It’s insane that at one point I would try a different name than the one given to me, but it can only show you how desperate I was to try and make things different… Tonight, to see Ariana open that envelope and say my name, was a really special moment.”
Not wanting to entirely leave the industry he loved, he studied film at USC and upon graduating embarked upon a second career behind the scenes, assisting famed action choreographer Corey Yuen on such films as X-Men and The One and serving as an assistant director on Wong Kar-wai’s 2046.
It wasn’t until 2018 when he watched Crazy Rich Asians — co-starring his future leading lady, Michelle Yeoh — that he realized opportunities for Asian performers might have changed, and he began exploring a path back in front of the camera, landing a part in the 2021 Netflix family film Finding ‘Ohana. But even then, a comeback wasn’t assured, as Quan lost his health insurance during the pandemic, just before EEAAO’s release, because he failed to book enough work to meet union requirements.
“I owe everything to the love of my life: my wife, Echo, who month after month, year after year for 20 years told me that one day my time will come,” Quan continued from the stage. “Dreams are something you have to believe in. I almost gave up on mine. To all of you out there: Please keep your dreams alive!”
With his Oscar, Quan becomes just the second Asian performer to win in the supporting actor category, after The Killing Fields’ Haing S. Ngor in 1985. Like the late Cambodia-born Ngor, Quan, who was born in Vietnam, is ethnically Chinese. The only other Asian men to earn Oscars for acting are lead actor winners Yul Brynner (who was partially of Russian and Mongolian descent), Ben Kingsley (whose father was Indian) and F. Murray Abraham (whose family hails from the Western Asian country of Syria).
Quan’s Oscar night also included a couple of full-circle moments for the newly minted Academy Award winner. He attended with his former Goonies castmate-turned-entertainment lawyer Jeff Cohen (Chunk), and mingled with his Indiana Jones director and Goonies exec producer Steven Spielberg, a fellow nominee this year. He also later had an on-stage Indiana Jones reunion with presenter Harrison Ford when Everything Everywhere All at Once won for best picture.
“During one of the commercial breaks, I ran up to Steven Spielberg and he gave me a big hug. He said, ‘Ke, you are now an Oscar-winning actor,’ and hearing him say that meant the world to me. I still cannot believe it,” Quan said backstage. “My younger self would not know all the struggles I went through to be here because he was just having the time of his life being a kid, being on a set, on a pirate ship going down a water slide. [Goonies castmates] Corey Feldman, Kerri Green, Jeff Cohen, every single one of them is so happy. Sean [Astin] reached out. Josh [Brolin], Martha [Plimpton] and we are family forever. Goonies never say die.”
While Quan remains in touch with his roots, he’s hopeful that the new hardware will change his future.
“I remember when I was struggling, I would call my agent — I try not to bother them too much; I would call them once every three, six months — and I would say, ‘Hey, is there anything out there for me?’ The answer would always be the same: ‘I’m so sorry, there’s nothing out there but I’ll continue to look,’” Quan said backstage. “So hopefully when I call my agent tomorrow, he will give me a different answer.”
The 2023 Oscars aired live on ABC on Sunday from the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood and were hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. See the star-studded Oscars red carpet arrivals.
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