The creative team behind the new Disney+ series “American Born Chinese” had a wish list of actors they wanted to use in bringing Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel to life. They not only got the performers they wanted but ended up with the bonus. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan were honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year for their work in the Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
They join a cast that includes Ben Wang, Daniel Wu and Sydney Tylor to tell the story of a regular American teenager whose life is forever changed when he befriends the son of a mythological god and becomes entangled in a powerful battle. The eight-episode series will debut May 24 on the streaming service.
Yeoh and Quan play very different characters in the series. She takes on the role of the all-powerful and mystical Guanyin, an unassuming auntie who helps her nephew Wei-Chen navigate the challenges of American high school while maintaining her secret identity as the all-powerful Buddhist bodhisattva of Compassion. Quan plays Freddy Wong, who as a young actor was the star of a very politically incorrect television comedy called “Beyond Repair.”
Quan had been away from acting for several years before “Everything” brought him back into the global spotlight. That was one reason he was nervous in regard to taking on the comical character. He told the producers that if the series launched and everyone hated his character, they had to promise to give him another job.
“Through the lens of 2022, that character becomes very controversial. And for me to step into that character scared the heck out of me. In fact, I was so reluctant to take on this role just because of what people would think about it,” Quan says. “But I realized that it was important to show the audience today what it was like to be an Asian actor back in the late ’80s and the early ’90s. And it’s practically putting a mirror up to yourself and showing the audience what that was like.”
Quan was only 13 years old when he landed the role of Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” He had some acting success early in his life but that was followed by a long period of not being able to land roles. He continued to work in the film industry by moving behind the camera.
He credits Yoeh with inspiring him to get back into acting. Quan was content with his work in production until he noticed the landscape had dramatically changed in terms of opportunities for Asian actors.
“When I started out as a kid, it was very difficult to be an Asian actor at that time. There was just not a lot of opportunities. Honestly, I’m very thankful, very grateful to what Hollywood has been doing for the last five years. There’s a lot more progress,” Quan says. “I’m very excited to be doing this again. I never thought I would get this opportunity, honestly.
“What Michelle Yeoh has done, Daniel Wu, they’re the ones that really gave me the courage to dream again, to give voice to this dream that I had for a long, long time – for two decades actually – it didn’t work out. But I’m grateful to be here.”
Quan not only is excited to be acting again but the pleasure is doubled by the historical nature of the Disney+ series. He doesn’t recall there ever being a television series like “American Born Chinese” that features an entire Asian cast.
Yeoh agrees with Quan in how the industry has been changing in recent years with the adaptation of “American Born Chinese” being a prime example of growing opportunities. She agreed to be part of the series because it feels like the right time to be sharing more of her culture.
Quan is certain that once “American Born Chinese” launches, the audience will experience a range of emotions when it comes to his character. He anticipates some are going to be very angry while others will find it to be funny.
He knows this because while he was on set playing the character, he went through that range of emotions.
“It’s okay, because that is something for us to talk about today and to make progress, to be better. But it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Of course, a lot has changed, but I want the audience to see it,” Quan says. “And there is a big reason why I was very enthusiastic about this character after the discussion, and it doesn’t come until later in the episode.
“So, for the audience watching, please be patient, and you will understand why we want this character to be in the show.”