There could be a college course just to look at all the individual movies Malaysian actor Michelle Yeoh has played over her almost 40-year career. She went from playing martial-art films, to reaching international stardom in the smash hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Since then has appeared in dozens of Hollywood productions, including “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” and many more. She’s also had supporting roles in several TV series, with the latest being Netflix’s “The Witcher: Blood Origin.”
And, she’s now filming “Wicked” in London, has a role in “Avatar” three, four and five, plus, she is finishing production in “American Born Chinese,” and “The Brothers Sun.”
Despite her extensive and successful movie and TV roster, nothing could have prepared her for her Best Actress Oscar nomination for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
In this extended conversation, she talks about making “Everything Everywhere” and its success, then she delves back into her life-long career spanning from her aspirations to becoming a ballerina as a child, to the evolution of acceptance for Asian-represented movies.
Playing the leading role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”
When Yeoh first got the script for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” she “almost couldn’t believe it.” She had been waiting to play a lead character in a movie for quite some time and was frustrated those roles were not coming her way.
“Unfortunately, as the years go by, your numbers go up, the scripts that come along your way, the roles get smaller, and they're not as fulfilling and challenging,” she observes.
At the same time, she didn’t know what to make of the off-the-wall script detailing hot-dog fingers, dildos flying around, confetti man, talking rocks, and butt clogs. It was a strange proposition: “Whatever you saw, basically, it was all on paper.”
Yeoh took a step back and thought, “this is going to be strap in and [you would] have a ride of your life because this is the role that you've been waiting for.”
Once she was done reading it, she went to see the directing duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s “Swiss Army Man,” and thought, “if they can capture my imagination with that corpse (Daniel Redcliff), fighting across the ocean with a man who was suicidal (Paul Dano), and still be so touched by that story, [it] has so much more to tell.”
The 2016 comedy-fantasy film “was a done deal” for her. Yeoh decided she needed to meet the “Daniels” to discuss “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
Its lead had initially been written for a man – a more logical choice to sell an action movie. But Yeoh says she teased the directors about them taking the easy route, so they decided to change it to a woman lead, making it more original.
“I have to be so grateful to them, that they wised up,” Yeoh remarks. “These two brilliant, crazy, wacky, weirdos of mine just poured their heart and soul [into it].”
The Daniels had been working on TV series, indie films and making music videos, so they had “all these brilliant ideas,” Yeoh says. “When you don't have the money, your creativity is much stronger sometimes because you have to find ways and means to do it.”
With A24 backing the project, and a group of people who had worked with them for the last 12 years, they set out to make the film.
“I was so grateful to these two crazy Daniels, my geniuses [who] had the courage to write this story in the first place. If they didn't do it, I wouldn't be sitting here today,” Yeoh states.
“They came out with this incredible story. It's one of the most authentic immigrant stories that incorporates everything:” generational divide, LGBTQ+, a struggling working family, a woman lead.
The action-adventure-fantasy tells the story of Yeoh’s character Evelyn Wang, a beleaguered wife and mother, struggling to manage her relationships with an amiable but passive husband (Ke Huy Quan), a disapproving father (James Hong), and a rebellious daughter (Stephanie Hsu). While Wang is struggling to juggle her ordinary life, she is given a chance to be a superhero in a multiverse, and “reconcile with the people that she loved the most, and the [person] that she's been having the most misunderstanding with, her daughter, Joy.”
The film has become a hit with young people. “It just blew their minds,” Yeoh remarks. She attributes that to the way the film was shot.
“It is so fast. This is exactly like how they live their lives with Instagram, TikTok,” she says. “With a flick of a finger, they are seeing, they're going places and they're taking in so much information.”
Yeoh also says the film – part family drama, part science-fiction thriller, part martial-arts flick – was “so relatable on many levels to so many women, mothers and wives out there… it resonated very strongly with me.”
She adds, “It felt like there was a movie [as] weird, and wacky, and crazy as it was on the surface, [and] at the core of it was this very deep, emotional beating heart of unconditional love, willing to just embrace with kindness and compassion.”
The film cost about $20 million and has pulled a worldwide gross of $106 million. It has received 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
And, it is currently back in 1,400 theaters nationwide, which Yeoh says is the best way to watch it.
“Please go to the cinema because the magic of cinema is a shared experience,” she says. “When the lights dim, you switch off the rest of the world, and you let yourself go on this crazy roller coaster ride with us. That's when you really get the true experience.”
An interrupted dancing career
Growing up in Malaysia, Yeoh aspired to be a ballet dancer. She started at the age of four, and as a teenager, she moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dance where she majored in ballet. That resulted in a brief dancing career, interrupted by a spinal injury that changed everything.
After the setback, her mother – who loves performance, sings and dances herself – entered Yeoh in the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant in the early 1980s.
“I did it, so she would get off my back. The condition was, if I did this, [she] would never ever, ever in my entire life ask me to do something like that again,” she recalls. “And then, I won.”
Yeoh went on to represent Malaysia at the Miss World pageant in London, followed by a trip to Australia where she won the 1984 Miss Moomba International followed by the Miss International Tourism Quest pageant.
“What my mother was right, was that, that's the only time you can actually go out and see the world in a different way, to be in the company of other young ladies from all around the world, meet more people, and hopefully make more friends,” she says. “So, I do have her to thank for that, but I wouldn't do it again.”
A beginning in action films
Her pageantry led to a television commercial with actor Jackie Chan in the mid-1980s. That appearance caught the attention of a fairly new Hong Kong film production company, D&B Films, which offered her a role in “The Owl vs. Bombo.”
“There, the norm was the women always played the damsel in distress, and the guys – Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen – they were the heroes. They were the ones who would come swooping down and rescue us, poor little girls and women.”
Though it was Yeoh’s first film, she started to watch the action sequences and thought, “This is exactly like dancing… and it is a big giant movement, or a dance choreography for me.”
Being new to the business, and without the pressure to perform, she asked to do her own stunts. “So [D&B] allowed me to do it,” then gave her first lead in the martial arts-crime “Yes, Madam!”
Adopting an English-sounding name
In order to have her movies marketed to Western audiences, Yeoh’s name morphed over the years. Born Yeoh Choo Kheng, at school and old friends call by her first name Choo Kheng, but once she moved to Hong Kong, she was advised to adopt an English-sounding name.
By the late 1980s, after appearing in half a dozen movies, she was credited in many of them as Michelle Khan. After some confusion among family members, it eventually became Michelle Yeoh, “because Yeoh was so easy. It's just one syllable.”
A set injury and a visit by Quentin Tarantino
In 1996, Yeoh was making a movie called “The Stunt Woman.” “It was my homage to stunt people because generally… you never see their faces. They are totally unsung heroes, and they are the ones that get hurt and beaten up and battered and bruised.”
The movie was directed by Ann Hui, and Yeoh played Ah Kam, a stunt woman who tries to change careers, but returns to the stunt world in order to make ends meet.
In one of the scenes, Yeoh’s character Kam has to jump off a bridge into a moving truck, which is filled with boxes and mattresses. When Yeoh jumps, her head goes in between two boxes, gets stuck, her legs come from behind her back and hit her right on top of the head. She then heard a snap sound.
Yeoh knew something was wrong because when she turned around she saw Hui crying and the crew rushing to aid and take her to the hospital.
“At that time in Hong Kong, where stunts were done, they were very risky. They literally were dangerous,” she recalls.
Yeoh was eventually released from the hospital, but remained motionless for a while. Slowly, she started walking like a robot because she couldn’t move arms and legs, and she was in excruciating pain.
As she started reflecting on her friends and extended family’s concerns about her career choices, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino – who’s a martial arts fan – came to Hong Kong to meet Chan, Hung, Li, and her. At first, she refused.
“I don't know what to say. I don't have to pretend to make small talk,” she says.
But Tarantino was relentless, and she finally agreed to a 15 to 20-minute visit over tea. “All I remember is this big giant… man bounding down the stairs, and he says, ‘Michelle!’ throws his arms wide, picks up a pillow, puts it at my feet, sits on the ground and he starts talking about my movies.”
He knew every frame of her scenes. “He's mesmerizing. I was just sitting there going, ‘Oh my god, he knows more about me than me.’”
From that very animated conversation, Yeoh realized that she wanted to go back to making action movies.
“This is what I love. This is why I do it because I feel so alive,” she recalls. “So it was straight back to the drawing board.”
She made her Hollywood debut in the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and two years later, she rose to international stardom in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Learning Mandarin for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”
To play Yu Shu Lien, the love interest of Master Li Mu Bai in the action-adventure film “Crouching Tiger,” Yeoh had to learn to speak Mandarin. She also couldn’t read it, so she used Pinyin - a system that transliterates Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet – in her scripts, which became very convoluted.
“There's the English dialogue, then the Chinese dialogue, and then there's the Pinyin dialogue. Then I have to - on top of the Pinyin - remind myself what word that is because it's not the language that you use often,” she explains.
It was a long but worthwhile process, which Director Ang Lee was supportive of.
“Lee was relentless. He didn't care if you did not know the language. ‘You are going to learn and you're going to learn it well. Period. End of story,’” she recalls him telling her.
Working with Ang Lee
Even before they started shooting “Crouching Tiger,” Yeoh started shadowing Lee, whose work “is so mesmerizing, he’s so engaged on so many different levels… [he] invests his soul into his movies.”
She explains that Lee didn’t send his assistant directors to find a location, he would do it himself. He also knew all the nuances of each character and he would go through the whole scene being shot the next day, so the actors could sleep on it. Then, he would tell the actors to pace their emotions.
“That's a very valuable lesson because you have to know your character so well that when you [redo a scene], then you have to step out of it,” she notes. “You have to live that character's journey so that when that happens to that character, the real emotions will come out, you will become that character, and it comes through.”
That’s what happened in the last scene of the film. Lee told Yeoh the night before it was shot that Yu Shu Lien needed to let the man she had loved all her life go, and the sense of loss for herself is what made her cry.
Once the scene was shot, Yeoh looked across the water and saw Lee with “tears streaming down his face.”
Though the scene captured their emotions, the shooting site didn’t reflect that. Yeoh was recovering from a knee surgery from an injury suffered after her first action sequence, so she couldn’t bend or crisscross her leg. If the camera panned out, she explains, the audience would be able to see her leg sitting on a box while she cradled Chow Yun-Fat’s face.
A new remastered version of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” will be released in theaters on February 17.
“Crazy Rich Asians” and representation
From there, Yeoh went to play dozens of “good” and “meaningful” supporting roles.
More recently, she played Eleanor Jung, a stern mother in “Crazy Rich Asians,” “an unforgettable character because she balanced the story.”
When “Crazy Rich Asians” came out in 2018, “there was so much riding on that film.” That’s because, since the 1993 drama “The Joy Luck Club,” which has an almost complete Asian cast, there hasn't been another movie with such Asian representation.
On “Crazy Rich Asians,” Director Jon M. Chu fought it to have “an all-Asian cast because that was how the story was written,” and it broke down barriers in terms of Asian representation in Hollywood.
“I was so grateful for [Chu]’s absolute insistence that this was how it had to be made,” she notes. “It lit the fire, and that fire caught on.”
An evolution of acceptance
After “Crazy Rich Asians,” Yeoh went to do Mavel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which made younger generations think of her differently. They went from, “‘Wow, that's scary mother. But she's pretty cool. She can do martial arts. Nice Auntie who helped Simu Liu.”
For Yeoh, that is this evolution of acceptance for Asian roles and films in Hollywood.
With “Crouching Tiger,” the ground was broken “slowly, it was there, it was melting in, it was being massaged in, and we never gave up, we just came from all the different directions.” “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ managed to make a foothold, then ‘Shang-Chi’ solidified and ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’... broke the mold. It's like five genre films. Anything goes,” she remarks.
Now, Yeoh feels there’s room for Asians in films because the audience is thirsty to see authentic and original stories.
“We are being told, ‘Hey, your culture is really cool, and everybody wants to learn more about it.’”