Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan reflect on their paths to Hollywood success
For Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh, historic Academy Award wins in March for their performances in "Everything Everywhere All at Once," capped years of hard work, niche fame in blockbusters and ultimately success in an industry that historically never offered quality roles to Asians.
"And with this win, we kick that glass ceiling, bamboo ceiling down and shattered it to a gazillion pieces where it'll never be put back together again," Yeoh said during an interview with ABC News.
"My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp. And somehow, I ended up here on Hollywood's biggest stage. They say stories like these only happen in the movies," Quan said during his acceptance speech for the best supporting actor award.
And both stars tell ABC News that they're just scratching the surface when it comes to their artistic journey.
Yeoh and Quan speak candidly with ABC News' Juju Chang about their careers and the growing presence of Asians in Hollywood as part of "The New Face of Hollywood – A Soul of a Nation Presentation," airing Friday, May 26, at 8 p.m. ET and streaming on Hulu the next day.
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Both Yeoh and Quan began their careers in the 1980s on different sides of the planet.
Quan's family fled Vietnam in the late 1970s, in a crowded boat to Hong Kong, before eventually moving to Los Angeles. Quan said he felt like an outsider and was picked on a lot in school.
"That term 'fresh off the boat', it's us. That's what [kids] would make fun of in school," he said.
Quan said his family didn't have enough money to go to the movies, but a chance encounter with a movie casting director changed his life forever.
Quan's brother attended a casting call for the character "Short Round," Indiana Jones' young Chinese sidekick in the 1984 film "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and he tagged along.
"The casting director saw me coaching my brother, and he said, 'Yeah, do you want to try?' And I was just this precocious little kid and I said, 'Yeah. Sure. Why not?'" Quan recalled.
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A screen test with Harrison Ford sealed the deal, and Quan won the role. He told Chang that the movie's success benefitted his family financially.
"I was able to buy a house for my family to live in. I was able to buy a car for my siblings when they were old enough," Quan said. "So, it changed my family's life."
The next year, Quan would star in another hit, "The Goonies," playing "Data," the tech expert of a band of boys who seek lost treasure.
"I thought every single movie, it's going to be like this," he said.
Around the same time in Hong Kong, Yeoh, a Malaysian actress who had formal training as a ballet dancer, was slowly making a name for herself in Hong Kongese movies.
At first, she played damsels who needed saving, but Yeoh told ABC News that she yearned to be the hero.
"I went to a gym where all the stunt coordinators…were training, and then I said, 'I would love to be able to try that. I'm not very good at the damsel in distress role," Yeoh told Chang.
After wowing audiences in the 1985 action movie "Yes, Madam," Yeoh became a mainstay of the Hong Kong action genre with hits such as "Magnificent Warriors," "Supercop" and "Wing Chun."
Yeoh credited her father with helping to build her confidence.
"It's like, "Why would anybody tell me I can't do this just because I'm a girl?" she said.
Quan, who for a period of time was credited as "Jonathan" Quan after his agents recommended he take an American-sounding name, said he wasn't getting many meaningful offers in the late '80s and early '90s.
At one point he was up for an audition to play a Viet Cong soldier who only had a few lines, be he did not get the role. Quan said he later quit acting and focused on other filmmaking opportunities, including stunt coordinating.
"To say, 'Let's put an end to your dream,' it's incredibly difficult," he said. "It was a decision that I struggled with for a long, long time, for years."
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Yeoh, in the meantime, was gaining more attention worldwide. In 1997 she starred as Wai Lin, the Chinese secret agent counterpart to James Bond in "Tomorrow Never Dies."
Yeoh said after the Bond movie she got roles where she was either some femme fatale or a Chinese character who had no depth.
"I started my career in Hong Kong, and we were the celebrated, we were the stars," she said. "So, it seems like when I got over here and suddenly you go, 'What does that even mean, that I am a minority?' It strikes a chord. It took me a while to wrap my head around that."
In 2000, Yeoh starred in Ang Lee's critical and commercial hit "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and went on to play a wide variety of roles in movies and TV shows around the world through the years.
But it was her role in the 2018 film "Crazy Rich Asians," which featured an entirely Asian cast, that film critics and Asian American advocates say helped to change the way Hollywood thought about Asians in film.
Yeoh starred as Eleanor Sung-Young, the protective mother of Nick, the boyfriend of the main character, Rachel. Yeoh said she worked with the filmmakers to ensure she Eleanor wasn't a one-note villain.
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"There's nothing wrong with them, but they have dreams. They have hopes. They have, you know there is a backstory," she said. "If you do it very superficially, then you laugh at them. You're not living it with them."
The movie went on to gross over $238 million and earned massive acclaim.
"It sent a very clear signal to Hollywood that people actually could accept Asian Americans as the lead," Rebecca Sun, a senior editor with the Hollywood Reporter, told ABC News.
One of the people who saw that signal was Quan. He said the success of "Crazy Rich Asians" showed there were more parts out there for Asians than just the stereotypes.
"That acting bug that I buried for decades, slowly, slowly crawled itself back to its surface," Quan said.
After getting an agent, Quan said he was shocked when he was asked to read for the lead in a script that he found incredible: playing opposite Yeoh in "Everything Everywhere All at Once."
The pair played Evelyn and Waymond Wang, an immigrant Chinese couple who struggle to keep their laundromat afloat and their family at peace, while also dealing with a wacky sci-fi adventure that endangers humanity.
Quan and Yeoh said the film's success was because even though the plot is very fantastical, deep down the characters share similar stories, emotions and issues that many Asian Americans face.
"That's why I love Waymond so much. It shines a light on our dads that did everything he could, so that his family can have a better life," Quan said.
When the movie swept through the awards season, movie critics and cinephiles gushed over Quan's comeback story.
Even Quan said he's amazed at how far he has come.
"When I was up on that stage, I couldn't help to think of my 11-year-old self," he said. "And how excited he would be if he knew, if knew that one day he would be holding that Oscar."
Quan and Yeoh have a slew of highly anticipated projects lined up.
The pair will be seen again on Disney+ in the TV adaptation of the critically acclaimed graphic novel "American Born Chinese."
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Quan will also be seen later in the fall in the second season of the Disney+ show "Loki."
Yeoh will be playing the witch in the upcoming adaptation of the Broadway musical "Wicked." She noted that the role never asked for an Asian actress.
"Today when I receive scripts, they don't say what race she is, and I think for me, that has been the biggest step forward," Yeoh said.
Quan and Yeoh said they are grateful to help inspire other Asian artists to pursue their dreams.
"It is a damn good time to be an actor," Quan said. "We finally have a seat at the table. Isn't that exciting?"
Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan reflect on their paths to Hollywood success originally appeared on abcnews.go.com