10 Actors That Enjoyed Career Reigniting Roles Like Ke Huy Quan

Has there been anything more satisfying to watch than the long-overdue career resurgence of Ke Huy Quan? If there is, we don't want to know about it. Returning in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's mind-bender "Everything Everywhere All At Once," the former child star famed for playing Indy's kid sidekick Short Round in 1984's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and the gadget-wielding Data in 1985's nostalgia classic "The Goonies" had all but disappeared from screens — and movie fans were worse off for it.

However, cut to today, and he's back with a bang. Following a supporting role as Evelyn's (Michelle Yeoh) multiverse-hopping husband Waymond, Quan now finds himself in high demand. With two Disney+ shows on the way, including graphic-novel-turned-TV series "American Born Chinese" and the hotly-anticipated second season of Marvel's "Loki," 2023 looks set to be a busy year for Quan. Throw his recent Golden Globes win and Academy Award nod into the mix and it could also be one that starts with even more awards season gold.

While Quan's return is beyond welcome, it's far from the only time a familiar face has revitalized their career with one key role. Over the years, there have been plenty of actors who have enjoyed career-reigniting performances — and while not all of them have been quite as dramatic as Quan's recent experience — they each earned their own later-in-life renaissance. Here are 10 stars that returned to remind us they're great.

Brendan Fraser - The Whale

Perhaps the only thing more exciting than watching Ke Huy Quan's return has been witnessing the late-career revival of Brendan Fraser. It began gradually with spots in films like Steven Soderbergh's "No Sudden Move," and while his appearance was notably different from the chiseled hero we all remember, this ultimately worked in his favor for the role that brought him to the front of viewers' minds.

His emotional portrayal of overweight and reclusive online teacher Charlie in Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale" has "awards fodder" written all over it, primarily thanks to Fraser's bleary-eyed delivery and powerful focus on redemption as he tries to repair a strained relationship with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Having already received lots of critical acclaim, the role earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor, marking the cherry on top of his own personal restorative tale.

Fraser's career looks set to continue on an upward trajectory. While his performance in DC's canned "Batgirl" movie will sadly never be seen, audiences will soon get a chance to watch him again in Martin Scorsese's "Killers of the Flower Moon." Combine this will all the comeback publicity that he's receiving in the wake of "The Whale," and we're sure he'll have no shortage of interesting scripts to choose from when selecting his next project.

Robert Downey Jr. - Iron Man

It's hard to look at Robert Downey Jr. and not think of Tony Stark and Iron Man. However, back in the early noughties, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was nothing more than a hopeful glimmer in Kevin Feige's eye, he was hardly the go-to name for this key role. Son of counter-culture filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., Downey Jr. grew up with access to drugs at an early age, later admitting that his father first introduced him to weed when he was only six years old. Unsurprisingly, this led him to form an unusual relationship with substances that eventually spiraled out of his control and impacted his career.

However, by 2004, he was back and ready to work — and filmmaker Jon Favreau had just the role for him. With billionaire playboy Tony Stark, Downey Jr. was able to inject all of his wildcard off-screen persona into a fictional character, giving this 2D comic book creation a dose of 3D believability. The end result was something that not only worked but became the glue that held much of the wider MCU together, helping it achieve greater success.

"Downey wasn't the most obvious choice," explained Favreau, "but he understood what makes the character tick. He found a lot of his own life experience in Tony Stark." Wasting no time, Downey Jr. used his renewed star power to bring another much-loved character to life in 2009's "Sherlock Holmes," and he's been dishing out interesting leading performances ever since.

Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

Brendan Fraser isn't the only celebrity with Darren Aronofsky to thank for a career resurgence. Back in 2008, it was "The Wrestler" that helped revive the career of '80s icon Mickey Rourke. Like many on this list, Rourke has been working steadily throughout his three-decade-plus career, and apart from a brief stint in the early '90s where he pivoted to focus on becoming a professional boxer (a goal he ultimately achieved), he's never really disappeared entirely from our screens. 

That said, his star power has certainly fluctuated. While filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez used Rourke to good effect in 2003's "Once Upon A Time In Mexico" and 2005's "Sin City," it took Aronofsky casting him as grizzled, aging professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson to really catch critics' attention. A gritty drama about a guy holding onto his former glory at the expense of his health and personal life, "The Wrestler" blended elements of Rourke's off-screen passion for hand-to-hand sports with a very down-to-earth performance. It was enough to earn him a BAFTA and Oscar nomination; the former he won, the latter he lost to Sean Penn for "Milk."

Not long after, Rourke followed this performance by appearing as MCU villain Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash in 2010's "Iron Man 2." With his star reignited, many other roles have steadily followed — including an appearance in "The Expendables" and another "Sin City" outing — but we're still waiting on the Rourke role that'll get awards circles chattering once more.

Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers Club

In addition to a 'Brenaissance,' cinema also got a ”McConaissance' when actor Matthew McConaughey turned the tables on his own career throughout the 2010s. While steadily working, McConaughey became Hollywood's go-to leading man for some pretty throwaway rom-coms in the 2000s. During this time, he appeared in films like "The Wedding Planner," "How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and "Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past," which while fine, hardly seemed to stretch him creatively.

Thankfully, this began to change when he played a deranged hitman in William Friedkin's 2011 thriller "Killer Joe," a role that switched the gears on what audiences expected from a McConaughey performance while queuing him up nicely for his 'McConaissance.' This arrived in earnest with 2013's "Dallas Buyer's Club," a film in which he plays an everyday guy who contracts AIDS and works to help others suffering from the virus get the medication they need to survive, in whatever way he can.

The role won him a best actor Oscar a year later and flung him headfirst into a range of exciting roles packed with way more substance than any of the films from his rom-com days. A now-iconic, chest-thumping turn in "Wolf of Wall Street" was first up, followed swiftly by the gritty small-screen drama "True Detective" and Christoper Nolan's mind-bending space thriller "Interstellar." Both of these were released in 2014, by which point the 'McConaissance' was well underway and McConaughey was officially one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Drew Barrymore - The Wedding Singer

Drew Barrymore is the queen of the career revival — and when you consider how long she's been in the business, it's a skill that must be second nature to her by now. After stealing scenes in Steven Spielberg's 1982 heartwarmer "E.T the Extra-Terrestrial" as Elliott's 7-year-old kid sister Gertie, Barrymore managed to navigate her young adult years and a turbulent early battle with alcohol and substance abuse to emerge on the other side as a successful adult actress. 

The role that was largely responsible for this later-in-life career realignment was 1998's Adam Sandler comedy "The Wedding Singer." Here, Barrymore plays Julia, a woman who's due to get married to fiancé Glenn (Matthew Glave), but remains oblivious to the fact that he's secretly a sleazy cheat. While she's busy planning for her big day, she meets heartbroken wedding singer Robbie (Sandler), and the pair inadvertently fall head over heels for each other, creating one of the '90s' finest rom-com offerings. 

Charming and funny throughout, the film set her on the path of becoming a leading lady, with roles in 2000's "Charlie's Angels" reboot, spots in cool cult hits like 2001's "Donnie Darko" and 2004's Sandler comedy "50 First Dates," making good on that promise. Cut to today and Barrymore's still reinventing herself, with small-screen horror "Santa Clarita Diet" running for three seasons and "The Drew Barrymore Show" currently on the air.

John Travolta - Pulp Fiction

John Travolta started strong with "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease," movies that by today's standards are considered classics. However, after the critical panning of 1983's "Staying Alive," cinema didn't seem to know what to do with him. It wasn't until a then-unknown filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino fancied him for a role that was drastically against type — a heroin-addicted hitman named Vincent Vega — that audiences were truly reminded of just how deep his acting ability goes. 

"I wanted John," Tarantino told Jamie Foxx in 2018 while discussing the casting process for "Pulp Fiction." "His career was not in a great place at this time. Harvey Weinstein said 'we don't want him ... he's doing 'Look Who's Talking 3' — but I remembered what a great movie star John Travolta was." Ultimately, Travolta bagged the role, earned a best actor nomination at the Oscars, and helped secure "Pulp Fiction" a place in movie history. "He became one of the commercial motors of the film," explained Tarantino, "because there's nothing more commercial than a comeback."

In fact, it was Tarantino who was also responsible for helping to keep Travolta's resurgence going strong after "Pulp Fiction" debuted. "Travolta turned the movie down twice until Quentin Tarantino intervened," recalls director Barry Sonnenfeld while speaking to The Guardian about casting Travolta as Chili Palmer in "Get Shorty." "He called John and said: 'This is not the movie you pass on.' Travolta said he didn't get it, but Quentin said: "Trust me and do it."

Winona Ryder - Stranger Things

For many, Winona Ryder will always be the gothic emo kid at the heart of Tim Burton's macabre comedy classic "Beetlejuice" — but she's appeared in a host of other films since then, enough to keep her in the public consciousness for more than 30 years. Like Mickey Rourke and Matthew McConaughey, she's another name on this list that hasn't had a period where she's completely disappeared from cinemas. However, like many actors, Ryder has experienced various highs and lows while waiting for the perfect role to materialize. 

Thankfully, that perfect role rolled around in 2016, with Netflix's mega-hit "Stranger Things." She plays Joyce Byers, the concerned mother of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), the poor kid who's been swallowed up by the sinister Upside Down in the show's first season. Strong, resilient, and resourceful, audiences relished watching her harness the power of Christmas lights in order to communicate with her son who was trapped in an otherworldly realm. Three seasons later, it's still a role that Ryder is continuing to pursue and will presumably conclude with the show's reportedly final fifth season

Having Ryder around in a show full of young kids is handy too, especially considering the knowledge she has to share about growing up in Hollywood. "She's talked to the kids about what celebrity is like and how the press can be and the anxiety and confusion that comes along with celebrity," show co-creator Ross Duffer told Harper's Bazaar. "I think she's really helped them."

Rob Lowe - Parks and Recreation

First appearing on screen at age 15, Rob Lowe graduated to roles that would long associate him with "The Brat Pack," a term designated to the group of bright-young-thing actors that frequently collaborated in various movies throughout the 1980s. Despite a slight career dip following a much-publicized sex tape scandal, he was a steady face in the early '90s, delivering smaller roles in comedies like 1992's "Wayne's World" and 1995's "Tommy Boy." His turn in the political series "The West Wing" catalyzed his popularity further, but for many, Lowe will always be known as the cheeriest resident of Pawnee's Parks Department.

Joining "Parks and Recreation" in its second season, Lowe's portrayal of the perpetually optimistic auditor Chris Traeger gelled seamlessly with the goofy world created by Mike Schur and star Amy Poehler. Health-focused and always smiling, Traeger's dependence on his right-hand man, Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), typically involved using him to deliver bad news that the employees of Pawnee's Parks and Rec office typically wouldn't like. As the show went on, he became a quick fan-favorite and a character that was particularly fond of the word "literally" and Leslie Knope's (Poehler) best pal Ann Perkins — happily saying her full name at any available opportunity. 

Thanks to the binge-ability of "Parks and Recreation," Lowe was undoubtedly introduced to a whole new generation of viewers who in all likelihood have little idea who or what the "Brat Pack" even is.

Ryan Reynolds - Deadpool

Like Matthew McConaughey, there was a period in the 2000s when Ryan Reynolds was churning out largely forgettable rom-coms. In 2011, a chance to redefine his reputation arrived with DC's "Green Lantern" movie, but that didn't exactly work out as planned. Falling short of financial expectations and criticized for its CGI suits, Reynolds later admitted that "after Green Lantern, I was pretty much unhirable." Today, that thankfully isn't the case. So what (or more accurately who) restored his leading man status?

We'll give you two hints: He's red and loves breaking the fourth wall. It took a few leaks before the powers-that-be gave Wade Wilson his own movie, but when they did, 2016's "Deadpool" was not only hugely successful, it made Reynolds box office catnip. Perhaps its secret weapon was letting the star be himself. Clearly a naturally funny guy, it's this loose-lipped style that Reynolds has used to fuel his career post-red jumpsuit. Films like 2017's "The Hitman's Bodyguard," 2021's "Free Guy" and even 2019's "Pokémon: Detective Pikachu" all harness a comedic style that is distinctly Reynolds — and use it to great effect. 

Today, Reynolds is working at the top of his game. Having starred in Christmas musical "Spirited" alongside Will Ferrell, all eyes are firmly fixed on Deadpool's hugely anticipated third outing, a movie that'll not only place him within the official MCU — but also feature an appearance from Deadpool's BFF aka Hugh Jackman's Wolverine.

Michael Keaton - Birdman

He may be Batman and Beetlejuice, but as many stars have proven, it's tricky maintaining a career working steadily at the top of your game. Like others featured here, Michael Keaton has always been around, appearing in films in a range of genres. A gifted comedian (See: 2010's "The Other Guys"), a fine dramatic actor (See: 2016's criminally underrated "The Founder"), and a sometimes sinister presence (See: "Spider-Man: Homecoming"), you get the sense that Hollywood isn't quite sure of the best way to harness all of Keaton's many gifts.

That said, it definitely came close with Alejandro González Iñárritu's 2014 dramedy "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)." Here, Keaton plays an actor famous for portraying the film's titular superhero who now finds himself old and is staging his own Broadway play in the hope of potentially reigniting his fading career. Lightly mirroring Keaton's time spent under Batman's cowl, his performance in Iñárritu's movie earned him Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, while shining a renewed light on his many talents.

Perhaps this success was a byproduct of Keaton laying everything on the line and simply playing the long game. "I'm just shocked and thankful that I've gotten away with everything," he later told The Guardian, reflecting on his eclectic career. "Experimenting here, trying at this, failing at that, being good in some things, not so good in others. It's kind of amazing that people are still sticking by me."