Ke Huy Quan Reveals He Initially Passed on ‘American Born Chinese’ Role: ‘It Scared the Hell Out of Me’
Hollywood has had considerable feats of Asian representation this year: “Everything Everywhere All at Once’s” historic Oscar wins, Netflix’s “Beef” and, on May 24, “American Born Chinese.”
However, despite the nuanced portrayal of the Asian American identity within the phantasmagorical world of Chinese mythology, Ke Huy Quan was hesitant about joining the series’ Asian-led ensemble.
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“I remember when I first heard about this character when I was offered the role, it scared the hell out of me. In fact, I actually passed on it because I told our creative team that this is the type of portrayal that we do not want to see in 2023,” Quan said during a post-screening Q&A at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night.
Quan plays Freddy Wong, a gawky fictional character from the ‘90s sitcom “Beyond Repair” who embodies several stereotypical Asian tropes.
“After having a creative conversation with them and knowing that, in later episodes, you will get to meet the actor who plays Freddy Wong and understand the struggles that he went through — and also what it means to have this type of stereotypical portrayal of Asians, and what is does to a normal kid like Jin Wang (Ben Wang) — to his own identity, to his own values and his sense of worth — I just thought it was interesting,” he continued. “I guess, in a lot of ways, they chose me because it’s like art imitating life.”
Based on Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel of the same name, “American Born Chinese” follows average teenager Jin Wang, who becomes entangled in a battle between Chinese mythological gods when he befriends new student Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu). The series also stars Michelle Yeoh, Daniel Wu, Stephanie Hsu, Ronny Chieng, Poppy Liu, Lisa Lu and James Hong.
“The first time I read the graphic novel was right after I got the audition. I never knew about it growing up, and I wish I had because when I read that graphic novel, it was like, ‘Did Gene stalk me? Was he hiding in a bush?’” Wang told Variety with a laugh. “It was like a perfect one-to-one of almost every single moment in my life, and I’d never experienced anything remotely close to that before.”
Although Yang “was really stunned” that veteran actors like Yeoh and Wu were starring in the series adaption of his novel, he also praised the up-and-coming Asian talent in “American Born Chinese.”
“I remember entering into that search, wondering if we would actually be able to find what we needed to find, and we totally did,” Yang said. “I think that those two characters especially are so well embodied by these young actors, [Wang and Liu].”
Additional cast and creative team members in attendance included Chin Han, Yeo Yann Yann, Rosalie Chiang, Sydney Taylor, Daniel Wu, Mahi Alam, VFX supervisor Kaitlyn Yang and costume consultant Phillip Lim.
Asked how this series compares to the ones he watched as a child, Wu, who plays the Monkey King, replied: “It was nothing like what I watched growing up. ‘Sixteen Candles,’ Long Duk Dong, that wasn’t me. So to see and work on a show that really knows the intricacies of what it is to be Asian American — not a caricature — is pretty amazing. This is a story from us, by us, for everyone else.”
“American Born Chinese” premieres May 24 on Disney+.
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