Michelle Yeoh: ‘Good story transcends race’

Michelle Yeoh is 59 years old and still making new breakthroughs. The Malaysian star has been at the vanguard of female action heroes for nearly 40 years, from gravity-defying elegance to her Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for violent daredevils in classic martial arts such as ok madam and super police. Along the way, he’s won admirers including Quentin Tarantino (who claims to know the film was originally frame-by-frame) and frequent collaborator Jackie Chan, who credits him with performing the most daring stunts.

Now, still doing his own stunts, he’s playing the lead role in the hit US film—though not in the role many expected. In Everything Everywhere All At Oncethe maximum storm of a film, he’s called upon to duel enemies using sex toys, navigate a heartwarming family drama, and deliver wacky surreal humor.

Wearing electric blue glasses on a Zoom call from Los Angeles, Yeoh talked about the $25 million indie film that’s quickly become a phenomenon (already spending over $40 million at the US box office alone) and how it propelled him as an actor. “I was so freaked out,” he said of approaching a world role far from his usual stoic screen persona. “But I like it because it’s challenging. I would be walking on set and not know what I was doing that day and I thought it was great because it keeps you on your toes.”

Yeoh plays Evelyn, a laundry owner who faces unexpected tax and family problems — her daughter has left and her husband wants a divorce. Then another version of his partner emerges from a parallel universe and things get weird. The anarchy that follows almost defies description but despite the finger-turning frankfurters and bagels that destroy the nihilistic world, Yeoh says the film is ultimately about “love and family and how we don’t give up looking for each other”. There is also a subtext of the generation gap between immigrants to the US and their children. “It highlights the miscommunication we have with our parents and how we feel when we can’t please them,” she said.

Yeoh with Harry Shum Jr in new movie ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ | © Allyson Riggs

Co-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as “Daniels” and affectionately referred to by Yeoh as “my evil genius”) wrote the role of Evelyn for her and did the old-fashioned thing by simply sending her a screenplay and hoping for the best. He read it and thought it was “crazy” but exciting. Knowing nothing of the duo, he seeks out their only previous feature, the 2016 scatological comedy Swiss Armystarring Daniel Radcliffe as a bloated corpse used as a makeshift jet ski.

After watching it, he knew he had to meet them, thinking: “If you can hold my attention for so long with a farting corpse across the ocean, there must be something unique about you.” He also admires the two for writing their second script “about an aging Asian immigrant woman. She was a mother you would pass by when you went to the supermarket and would never glance at her again, but they gave her such a powerful voice.” The fact that this is a demographic rarely seen in US films is not lost on Yeoh. “When was the last time you saw a middle-aged Asian woman in a leading role in a Hollywood film?” he asked.

Gravity defying elegance: Zhang Ziyi and Yeoh in ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ © Alamy

The representation of Asians and Asian-Americans on screen is slowly expanding. In 2018 comes a hit comedy Crazy Rich Asians and last year Marvel’s first Asian superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (both featuring Yeoh). But Yeoh, who made his Hollywood debut in 1997 and has appeared intermittently in English-language films since, knows this isn’t the time to sit back and celebrate the small steps. “Representation is a relentless battle,” he said. “In the past, [Hollywood producers] very flashing. It’s like: we have this formula and it always works. I was like: OK, but that’s in the past, our society has evolved and we have to see that reflected on our screens. Good storytelling transcends race.”

Yeoh wonders how it happened Crazy Rich Asians bombed and showed the double standard at play: “If the movie doesn’t do well, could it be the end of the [American-made] Asian movies? Another movie with a megastar [from non-minority backgrounds] failed much more dramatically and they continued to make films.”

It’s well known that people of color have to fight twice as hard in Hollywood, but what Yeoh has always done better than anyone else is fight. She broke the glass ceiling of Hong Kong action cinema to become one of its biggest stars, captivating audiences with her willingness to push her body to the extreme. Remembering his first major stunt — throwing himself and a cadre of bad guys through the glass pane in ok madam — he happily repeated from his chair, bending his body backwards to demonstrate the skill required to perform the movement in one fell swoop.

Yeoh and Pierce Brosnan in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ from 1997 © Alamy

Yeoh also helped redefine Bond girl in 1997 Tomorrow Never Dies. Her skilled Chinese spy Wai Lin is more than just another beauty for British agents to glance at — she changes the way viewers perceive the women in the series. “Bond is ready to be kicked by a girl,” he said. “He’s grown and times have changed. The girls were no longer content to be just eye candy. They want to be counted.”

With Bond entering a new era following the departure of Daniel Craig, there have been calls for spy Ian Fleming to be played by a woman, especially after Lashana Lynch took on the 007 moniker in No Time to Die, but Yeoh wasn’t one of those people: “There’s only one James Bond. That’s why his name is James.” This is a definite answer — and one that fits. Who would want to be James Bond if you were Michelle Yeoh?

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is in UK theaters from 13 May and in US theaters now

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