Why 'Indiana Jones' and 'The Goonies' Kid Star Ke Huy Quan Quit Acting for 20 Years: Inside His Return

The former child star talks early fame, his long break from acting and being back on the big screen in the acclaimed genre-defying fantasy Everything Everywhere All at Once

Ke Huy Quan rollout
Photo: Rich Fury/Getty

Ke Huy Quan's Hollywood story is the stuff of fairy tales — or a true Hollywood fairy tale, that is.

Just a few years after landing in Los Angeles with his family after fleeing their native Vietnam after the Vietnam war, Quan found himself tagging along with his brother to an open audition for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The casting director overheard Quan, then 12, practicing lines with his sibling and asked him if he also wanted to give it a shot. He booked the part.

"Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would end up being an actor," Quan, 51, tells PEOPLE in the latest issue. "But I fell in love with it. That movie changed my life and my entire family's life."

Despite feeling slightly intimidated at first, playing Indy's intrepid sidekick Short Round and working with director Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, Quan says he learned so much being on that set.

"They were so kind, and humble, and down to earth," he says. "Just loving people, human beings, that treated each other with nothing but kindness. I have such fond memories of working on it. We spent three weeks in Sri Lanka. We'd hang out by the pool. Harrison taught me how to swim."

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Ke Huy Quan rollout

After making his big-screen debut in the 1984 hit, Quan landed his second role in another beloved fan favorite, 1985's adventure-comedy The Goonies, playing gadget-loving Data. That early, one-two punch of improbable success made Quan think "that I was going to have this amazing career," he says, but aside from a few minor TV and film roles that followed, the acting opportunities quickly fizzled. Not to mention the fact that there were few parts for Asian actors, which were usually small and stereotypical.

"It was tough," he says. "I was waiting for the phone to ring, and it rarely did." In the early 2000s, Quan says he made the "very difficult decision" to step away from acting. After graduating from film school at USC, he turned his attention behind the scenes, becoming a successful assistant director and stunt coordinator.

Twenty years later, after watching 2018's Crazy Rich Asians, Quan decided it might be time to return to his first love, acting.

"I was happy working behind the camera but I had serious FOMO," he says with a laugh. "I wanted to be up there with my fellow Asian actors!"

Similar to his beginnings in the business, Quan booked the first role he auditioned for, in the critically acclaimed genre-bending fantasy Everything Everywhere All at Once opposite Michelle Yeoh, in which he plays three versions of one character.

Ke Huy Quan rollout
Everything Everywhere All at Once. Allyson Riggs

"When I read the script I thought it was written for me because they are me. I understood every single one of them," he says of Waymond Wang, a loving husband who hops through multiple universes trying to help his wife (Yeoh) save the world. It's a deeply personal role for Quan, and one that he feels is right on time, despite his acting hiatus.

"I don't think I could have played Waymond had you given me the role 10, 15 years ago," he says. "Looking back upon my life, all the highs and lows, I reached deep within me to pour my entire life into these three different characters."

In addition to showing off his acting chops again, Quan's martial arts skills are also on display in the film, during a particularly intense and unique "fanny pack fight scene" which he practiced at the L.A. home he shares with Echo, his wife of many years.

"I kept swinging it in my house, everywhere I went, and I was constantly breaking things," he says with a laugh. "She wasn't too happy about it."

In addition to mastering a unique type of fight choreography for the role, Quan quickly bonded with costar and now friend, Yeoh.

For much more on Ke Huy Quan, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, now on newsstands

Ke Huy Quan rollout
Allyson Riggs

"He's the most wonderful on — and off camera husband," says Yeoh. "He's loving, charming and funny, and his wife is now my good sister-friend. We are very blessed that he's back on the big silver screen."

And although Quan knows he'll always be recognized for his two massive 1980s hits, he's energized by this second act.

"For many, many years people recognized me only as a child [actor] because that was pretty much the last time they saw me up on the screen. I'm hoping when people see me now they go, 'Oh my God! You're Waymond from Everything Everywhere All at Once — and you were also in Indiana Jones [and] Goonies!' "

Speaking of which, Quan is still close friends with several members of the Goonies cast like Sean Astin and Corey Feldman, but primarily Jeff Cohen, who fans know as "Chunk." Cohen is now a successful entertainment lawyer who represents Quan, and was of course involved in his contract for Everything Everywhere All at Once.

"We'll be friends for life. He's my Goonies brother," says the actor. "In fact, my [Everything Everywhere] producer told me a really funny story the other day. He said never in his life did he think that he would have to talk to Chunk to get Data to be in his movie. I thought that was hilarious."

Everything Everywhere All at Once is now playing in theaters.

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