The 95th Annual Academy Awards provided a rare occurrence when two comeback stories reached their Oscar crescendo to the applause of film fans all over the world.
Brendan Fraser and Ke Huy Quan, who received Academy Awards for their performances in The Whale and Everything Everywhere All at Once (respectively), clawed their way back from near Hollywood oblivion to the podium at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles where they each delivered heartfelt, emotion-laden speeches.
Ironically, Fraser and Quay both featured in the 1992 comedy Encino Man, yet their respective paths to Oscar glory couldn’t be any different. They do share, however, personal and professional heartbreak in a film industry where dreams can turn into nightmares, and success one day can never be guaranteed the next.
“Stories like this only happen in the movies!” Quay proudly exclaimed as he clutched his Oscar. Let’s look at how the stories for these once-disregarded actors turned Oscar winners came to be.
Brendan Fraser resurfaces with The Whale
Throughout the 90s to the mid 2000’s, Brendan Fraser was an in-demand leading man who was able to star in a wide range of movies. Whether it be dramas such as coming of age film School Ties (his breakthrough role alongside Matt Damon and Chris O’Donnell); family adventure comedies like George of the Jungle; or as an action star in The Mummy franchise, Fraser delivered the goods with consistency and nought a scandal to his name.
It was after starring alongside Harrison Ford in the 2010 medical drama Extraordinary Measures that the tide turned for Fraser, with a succession of forgettable roles along with a notable gap in production from the usually prolific star. As a big man standing at 190cm and built like a brick outhouse, Fraser insisted on doing his own stunts, a practice that paid a strong toll on his body.
“By the time I did the third Mummy picture [released in 2008] in China, I was put together with tape and ice,” said Fraser in an interview with GQ. He explained he then got “just, like, really nerdy and fetishy about ice packs. Screw-cap ice packs and downhill-mountain-biking pads, ’cause they’re small and light and they can fit under your clothes.”
“I was building an exoskeleton for myself daily.”Brendan Fraser
Fraser would go through a succession of surgeries over several years. After undergoing a laminectomy (a surgery that creates space by removing bone spurs and tissues associated with arthritis of the spine), Fraser would also need a partial knee replacement, more work on his back in which various compressed spinal pads were bolted together, and even had his vocal cords repaired.
On top of this, Fraser’s personal life would begin to crumble, leading to a loss of confidence and crippling depression. There was his 2007 divorce to former actress and mother of his three children, Afton Smith, from which the actor had to pay $900,000 in child support while making no money from his stalled acting career.
Before this, though, was an incident at the Beverly Hills Hotel during the summer of 2003, where Fraser attended a luncheon hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organisation that hosts the Golden Globe Awards. The former president of the HFPA, Philip Berk, reached out to shake Fraser’s hand, and – according to Berk’s own memoir and Sharon Waxman of The New York Times – pinched Fraser’s ass.
Berk said it was a joke, but Fraser says that Berk went further. “His left hand reaches around, grabs my ass cheek, and one of his fingers touches me in the taint. And he starts moving it around,” Fraser explained.
“I felt ill. I felt like a little kid. I felt like there was a ball in my throat. I thought I was going to cry… I became depressed. I was blaming myself and I was miserable, because I was saying: ‘This is nothing; this guy reached around and he copped a feel’. That summer wore on, and I can’t remember what I went on to work on next”. Berk, for his part, denies the allegation.
Fraser said the experience made him retreat from the public and turned him into a recluse. Slowly, though, Fraser started making appearances in TV. First, there was the History Channel series Texas Rising. Then came the Danny Boyle-directed TV series Trust about the abduction of John Paul Getty III, in which Fraser played a prominent role. Fans dubbed it the “Brennaissance”.
But Fraser was a movie star and was looking for that role back in film, which he found in The Whale, the Darren Aronofsky-directed film in which Fraser portrays Charlie, a morbidly obese teacher who is facing his last days as a recluse. “He’s in bad shape,” said Fraser in an interview with NME.
“And comparing that to myself, yes. I feel a great deal of empathy for somebody who would be going through that. So, it’s a little woo-woo. But to put myself in that man’s shoes… I understand how he feels.”Brendan Fraser
Ke Huy Quan: the 51-year-old comeback kid
Asian American actor Ke Huy Quan first came to prominence with movie audiences in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as Short Round, the pint-sized sidekick to Harrison Ford’s adventuring archaeologist. It was a role that the 12-year Quan nabbed accidentally since he was initially providing support to his brother David at an audition in Los Angeles. As Quan was coaching his little brother, he caught the eye of none other than director Steven Spielberg himself, who cast him in the role.
Quan would work for Spielberg again on The Goonies, the 1985 adventure film directed by Richard Donner (Superman), in which Quan would play Data, a James Bond fanatic who is armed with his own DIY gadgets that would often fail on him. “I was so well protected. I was allowed to be a kid,” said Quan to Variety when reliving his child acting experiences.
“I thought that the road (to acting) would be that easy. But boy, was I wrong.”Ke Huy Quan
Quan quickly found out that roles for Asian-American actors were few and far between. After finishing high school, Quan faced a constant stream of rejections and even less work. After 10 projects in 16 years, the last straw came in 1993 when Quan found himself auditioning for no-name parts against a roomful of Asian actors.
“I remember sitting at the edge of my bed for an hour. I didn’t move. I was just thinking, ‘Wow, what am I doing?’” said Quan in an interview with Variety. “I decided that this was not the way to live.”
Quan would go on to work behind the camera in Asia, where among his many jobs he would choreograph stunts and fight sequences with Hong Kong film director Corey Yeung on films such as The One starring Jet Li, and the superhero movie X-Men.
Quan, who terribly missed acting in front of the camera, would often be reminded of his childhood fame from numerous fan encounters. “People would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so iconic!’ or, ‘How come you aren’t acting again? You were so good at it when you were a kid’,” Quan explained. “And then I’d go, ‘No, it’s done, I’d rather work behind the camera.’ Those were my go-to answers, and I said it so many times for so many years, I actually believed it.”
After the success of Crazy Rich Asians, Quan decided that now was the time to get back into the acting game. At that same time, filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (also known as ‘Daniels’) were casting their film Everything Everywhere All at Once, a sci-fantasy comedic drama that would star Michelle Yeoh in the lead role as an overwhelmed Chinese-American mother who comes to find out she is the saviour of a collapsing multiverse.
A part they were struggling to cast was that of Waymond Wang, the husband of Evelyn who would appear in multiple incarnations in the film, including that of a martial arts super-agent.
“I read the script and I thought the role of Waymond was written for me,” said Quan in an interview with W Magazine.
“I read it until, like, 5 a.m. I looked out the window and the sun was rising, and I was just imagining all these things I wanted to put into this character. I was scheduled to go audition for them that afternoon, so I had to go to sleep. But right before I went to sleep, I thought, ‘There’s no way they would offer me this role. It’s too good to be true’.”
“But after two auditions, I got the phone call, and I heard the three words every actor wants to hear, which are, ‘We want you’. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I screamed and I jumped so high,” Quan shared.
The path to Oscar glory
Both Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Whale received high notices when released on the festival circuit of 2022, especially towards Quan and Fraser (respectively) who both found themselves as betting favourites as award season kicked into gear.
During an Oscars roundtable for The Hollywood Reporter, Quan and Fraser would reunite for the first time in over 30 years. “We go way back on a movie called Encino Man back in 1991,” said Quan to his shocked peers, which included fellow Oscar nominees Colin Farrell and Austin Butler.
“We saw each other out there for the first time after all of these years, we gave each other a hug, and he said ‘Ke, we’re still here!’”Ke Huy Quan
Quan and Fraser would continue to see each other at numerous awards ceremonies, as both men racked up awards on their way to the Oscars, where these two actors who shared the highs and lows of working in the film industry, would go on to win Oscar gold.
“Please keep your dreams alive!” Quan exclaimed during his exuberant Oscar speech. If Quan and Fraser’s stories are any indication, it’s very sound advice.