When Ke Huy Quan won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this March, no one was more surprised about the honor than Quan himself. It wasn’t the award so much as the journey to getting it that floored the actor, who broke into the film industry as a child actor in the ‘80s after immigrating to the United States from South Vietnam and spending time in a refugee camp.
Though Quan had endearing and star-making turns as a kid in blockbuster films, finding work as an actor in his 20s proved to be far more challenging, especially given the dearth of roles available to Asian actors in Hollywood. Quan turned to working behind the camera, with jobs like stunt coordinating and assistant directing—but he never forgot his love of acting.
Fast forward to 2023. Quan’s Best Supporting Actor win made him the second Asian actor to win the award and the first actor of Vietnamese descent to win an Academy Award. For Quan, his return to the silver screen is not just a testament to his perseverance or the dogged pursuit of a dream, but an opportunity to make opportunities and open doors for actors like him.
Here, we caught up with Quan to talk about his comeback, his historic Oscar win, and the change he wants to see in Hollywood.
What has surprised you most about your career so far?
It's strange how life works sometimes because when I was certain that the last chapter of my career was written, my story not only continued, but there's been so much interest in what comes next. Throughout this whole journey, there has just been so much love and I'm very blessed to be on the receiving end of it.
What did it mean for you to win your historic Oscar?
I still think about it sometimes and cannot believe it happened. I think we've proven that anything can be possible. To be able to represent my community like that—it makes me so proud.
You've spoken a lot about your childhood and how you left South Vietnam by boat and spent time in a refugee camp. How do you think that those experiences in your early life have shaped you as a person and also influenced your career as an actor?
I think it gave me perseverance. Having to leave our home at a very young age and facing the uncertainty of what was going on, not knowing what's going to be on the other end, and seeing how my parents made a huge sacrifice for all of us—it made us a lot stronger, even though it certainly hasn’t been an easy road. When I think about it, it's a miracle that we're here.
What do you think has been the most important lesson you've learned on your journey as an actor?
Don't ever give up. And work hard to be ready when the opportunity comes. It's important to believe in yourself even when others don't. As an actor, we face rejections over and over again and during those difficult times, it's very easy to say, ‘You know what, I don't think I'm going to be able to do this. I don't think I'm right for this.’ Those thoughts have entered my mind many, many, times. You have to believe in yourself even when nobody else does and especially when those times get really tough, I think it's important to surround yourself with people who can cheer you on.
What informs your process as a creative? How do you prepare for a new role or a new project?
When I am given a role that I really want to play, I pour myself into it. I spend a lot of time thinking about the character, what I want to do with it. But it’s also what you bring to the set is really important because it affects everybody else. Moviemaking is a collaborative process and if you bring negative energy to it, then it sucks the energy out of everyone else. So I always try to be positive and practice gratitude.
How do you think that your journey as an actor has impacted and influenced others?
When I was a kid, I did those two movies and so many people from the AAPI community have come up to me and told me, ‘You know, you were the only Asian face on-screen when I was growing up.’ When I look at today's landscape, there are so many AAPI members working today and to think that I played a small role in maybe influencing them to pursue this business is incredible. It’s kind of a full circle moment for me because when I was struggling, I was looking at them and seeing how well they were doing and it gave me hope to believe I could do it again.
The past decade has seen a big shift in how decision-makers in Hollywood are thinking about and approaching issues of inclusivity and representation both on and off-camera. How do you hope to contribute to that effort to create more opportunities for the next generation?
Over the past few years, we have seen a lot of great Asian stories being told. It works because we have writers or agents who really understand our culture and can really put the nuances in to tell our stories authentically. Having great directors like John Chu and Destin Daniel Cretton who really excel in what they do is important, as is having producers and studios who are willing to give stories like ours an opportunity. But more work needs to be done.
Steven is one of the greatest and most successful filmmakers and yet he's so humble. He's so kind. And that is something that I aspire to every day. With Michelle, I've been a fan of hers for many, many years. What I talked about earlier about bringing positive energy to the set—that's her every time she comes to set. She's really happy and wants to make the best movie we can.
What would you like to see change in the future of the industry?
I’d like to see more diversity, more inclusion, equal pay, and equal opportunities for all groups of people. I want to see the people who have the power to make decisions to be bold and brave and to tell stories that we don’t normally tell. There are a lot of great actors who are just waiting for the spotlight and I hope one day that those actors will get the chance to shine.
What do you think needs to happen for us to get there?
I think it needs to come from every department of this business. You know, writers can only write what they can sell, so producers and studios need to buy scripts that are new and challenging. We need more AAPI talent to be working not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well, too.. I just think there needs to be more AAPI writers, directors, producers, and people behind the camera. The studios need to do more to tell those stories.
What do you hope your legacy is?
I don't know if I have an answer to that yet. Because I still have so much stuff I want to do. I don't know what's going to define me 10 years from now, but so far what has happened to me has been incredible.
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Write to Cady Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org