Michelle Yeoh: ‘Good storytelling transcends race’

Michelle Yeoh is 59 and still breaking new ground. The Malaysian star has been at the vanguard of female action heroes for nearly 40 years, from gravity-defying elegance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to violent daredevilry in martial arts classics such as Yes, Madam and Supercop. Along the way, she has won admirers including Quentin Tarantino (who claims to know her early films frame by frame) and frequent collaborator Jackie Chan, who credits her with doing the most daring stunts.

Now, still doing her own stunts, she is playing the lead in a hit US movie — though not in the kind of role many would expect. In Everything Everywhere All At Oncea maximalist hurricane of a film, she is called on to duel with adversaries using sex toys, navigate heartfelt family drama and deliver wacky, surrealist humour.

Wearing electric blue glasses on a Zoom call from Los Angeles, Yeoh talks about this $25mn indie film that is quickly becoming a phenomenon (it has already taken more $40mn at the US box office alone) and how it pushed her as an actor. “I was terrified,” she says of approaching a role a world away from her usual stoic screen persona. “But I loved it because it was challenging. I’d walk on the set and not know what I was doing that day and I think that is good because it keeps you on your toes.”

Yeoh plays Evelyn, a launderette-owner facing both tax problems and unexpected family issues — her daughter has come out and her husband wants a divorce. Then another version of her spouse appears from a parallel universe and things get weird. The anarchy that follows almost defies description but despite fingers that turn into frankfurters and a nihilistic, world-destroying bagel, 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 generational divide between immigrants to the US and their children. “It shines a light on the miscommunication we have with our parents and how we feel when we’re unable to please them,” she says.

Yeoh with Harry Shum Jr in new film ‘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 geniuses”) wrote the role of Evelyn for her and did the old-fashioned thing of simply sending her the screenplay and hope for the best. She read it and thought it “crazy” but exciting. Not knowing anything about the duo, she looked up their only prior feature, the scatological 2016 comedy Swiss Army Manwhich starred Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent cadaver used as a makeshift jet ski.

After watching it, she knew she had to meet them, figuring: “If you can capture my attention for so long with a farting corpse across the ocean, there must be something uniquely insane about you.” She also admired the duo for writing their second script “about such an ordinary ageing Asian immigrant woman. She’s a mother who you’d pass by going to the supermarket and would never give a second glance, but they give her such a powerful voice.” The fact that this is a demographic seldom seen in US movies 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?” she asks.

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

The representation of Asian and Asian-American people on screen has been slowly evolving. In 2018 came the hit comedy Crazy Rich Asians and last year Marvel’s first Asian superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (both of which featured Yeoh). But Yeoh, who made her Hollywood debut in 1997 and has appeared intermittently in English language films since, knows this is no time to sit back and celebrate small steps. “Representation is a nonstop battle,” she says. “In the past, [Hollywood producers] were very blinkered. It was like: we have this formula and it has always worked. I’m like: OK, but that’s the past, our society has evolved and we have to see that reflected on our screens. Good storytelling transcends race.”

Yeoh wonders how things might have turned out had Crazy Rich Asians bombed and points out the double standards at play: “If that movie hadn’t done so well, could that have been the end of [American-made] Asian movies? Other movies with megastars [from non-minority backgrounds] flop much more and they continue to make movies.”

It is well known that people of color have to fight twice as hard in Hollywood, but what Yeoh has always done better than anyone is fight. She broke the glass ceiling of Hong Kong action cinema to become one of its biggest stars, enamouring audiences with her willingness to push her body to extremes. Recalling her first big stunt — flinging herself and a cadre of bad guys through a glass pane in Yes, Madam — she gleefully re-enacts it from her chair, bending her body back to demonstrate the skill needed to pull off the move in one take.

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

Yeoh also helped to redefine the Bond girl in 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. Her skilled Chinese spy Wai Lin was more than just another beauty for the British agent to ogle — she changed how audiences perceived women in the series. “Bond was ready for a girl to kick ass,” she says. “He was evolving and the times had changed. The girls were no longer satisfied to be just eye candy. They wanted to be reckoned with.”

With Bond entering a new era following the departure of Daniel Craig, there have been calls for Ian Fleming’s spy to be played by a woman, especially after Lashana Lynch took on the 007 moniker in No Time to Die, but Yeoh is not one of those people: “There can only be one James Bond. That’s why his name is James.” It’s a definitive answer — and a fitting one too. Who wants to be James Bond when you are Michelle Yeoh?

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

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