Michelle Yeoh: ‘I waited a long time for this. I was patient. I was resilient’
Twice, Michelle Yeoh thought her career was over. In 1995, working on The Stunt Woman with Sammo Hung, she hurtled from an 18ft overpass onto a moving truck. Yeoh misjudged the jump, fracturing a vertebra and several ribs on impact. It wasn’t her first injury; by then she was approaching nearly a decade working as one of Hong Kong’s high-kicking action stars alongside Jackie Chan and Jet Li. But it was her worst accident yet. Yeoh was immobilised in a neck and back brace, wondering why on earth she did what she did. “Back then, the fights were insane. No CGI. It was dangerous and risky. Insane,” she repeats, a little wistfully. “And amazing to watch.”
Yeoh, 59, is now one of the most recognisable Asian actors in the world, owing to a prolific few decades during which she became a mainstay on the big screen. Filmgoers have Quentin Tarantino to thank for that, a diehard Yeoh stan who persuaded her during a chance meeting to stunt another day. The universe rewarded Yeoh’s mettle when she landed her first Hollywood gig shortly after, and in a James Bond movie at that.
After cruising on a motorcycle while handcuffed to Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh took the lead in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, embodying the film’s balletic beauty. In more character-driven fare, she proved her acting skills to be as sharp as her daggers, playing a courtesan with a heart of gold in Memoirs of a Geisha and a Starfleet captain in Star Trek: Discovery. More recently, she portrayed the fiercely protective, impossibly chic mother in worldwide smash Crazy Rich Asians.
Over video, Yeoh radiates the regality she has perfected in movies. Time has sharpened her cheekbones to fine points so high you could hang off them; her hair is pulled off her face in a low braid swung over her shoulder, evoking the classic style worn by martial arts fighters. But her latest role, in the new multiverse-hopping film Everything Everywhere All at Once, directed by the duo known as the Daniels, plays against her usual type. She stars as a woman who doesn’t always have it together; a woman who doesn’t have perfect hair; a multifaceted woman who I discover, over the course of this conversation, is closer to the real-life Yeoh than her previous roles have ever been. Minus the hair thing; Yeoh has great hair.
In Everything Everywhere, Yeoh is Evelyn Wang, an overstretched Chinese American immigrant whose problems are personal (her husband is about to file for divorce), professional (her laundromat business is being audited) and cosmic (her universe faces an all-encompassing evil that only she can defeat). Evelyn grants Yeoh the opportunity to embrace a messier version of the ultra-composed maternal figures that populate her CV.
“It was liberating,” Yeoh says of the switch-up. In Evelyn, she recognised a certain type of woman that she sees daily. “These mothers, aunties, grandmothers who are there in Chinatown, or in the supermarket, but nobody ever notices them. They just walk straight past them. I wanted to give them a voice. I wanted to make them the superhero.” She gestures through the screen. “Someone like your mum or your grandmother!”
Yeoh has been playing someone like my mum or my grandmother for decades now. It is somewhat mystifying that this is her first time topping a Hollywood call sheet. Her Everything Everywhere co-star Jamie Lee Curtis recently said Yeoh was someone “who has been waiting patiently for us to pay f***ing attention”. Yeoh cackles at this, visibly embarrassed by the compliment. “You know what, I did. I waited a long time for this, and luckily it came. Some people wait their whole life and the opportunity might never come. I was patient. I was resilient. I never stopped learning. And so I was ready when the opportunity did present itself.”
People are certainly paying “f***ing attention” now. Everything Everywhere – a gonzo action-comedy that flits between alternate universes – is rapidly becoming a phenomenon, and is earning Yeoh the best reviews of her life. This is perhaps less a testament to how great she is in the film (although she is) than evidence of how underappreciated she has been in others.
Yeoh was born into an upper-class family in Ipoh, Malaysia. She moved to London at 15 to study ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance, though a back injury stamped out those dreams and she pirouetted into drama instead. When Yeoh returned home after graduating, her mother entered her in the Miss Malaysia beauty contest. She won. By way of fate, Yeoh soon found herself filming a watch commercial opposite Jackie Chan. Her first film role arrived shortly after, in 1984’s The Owl vs Bumbo. She was cast as the damsel in distress; a surprise to no one – least of all to her. “Action movies in Hong Kong in the early Eighties were very much a boys’ club. The women? We were always protected and defended.”
Between the pearl-clutching and swooning required for her part, Yeoh watched the fight sequences eagerly. “It was like an elaborate, choreographed dance piece, except there’s no music, and OK, given they have weapons instead of tutus...” she laughs. “But I knew I could do it.” For her second film, Yeoh told the producers that she wanted to try fighting. “They thought I was mad, or crazy, or both!” But the studio took a chance and got her training with the industry’s top dogs. Here she was, an ex-ballerina and beauty queen wishing to rough-and-tumble with the boys.
“I cut off my hair and I trained hard. I would run on the promenade with them in the morning, and then,” – cue the Rocky Balboa montage – “we’d work out in the gym until seven in the evening.” Within a year, Yeoh was the lead in her own kung fu movie, Yes, Madam!, and over the next three, she became prolific on the Hong Kong action scene.
In 1988, Yeoh married Dickson Poon, the co-founder of D&B films, one of Hong Kong’s major studios at the time. This was the other time she thought her career was over. Yeoh decided to retire from acting to be a wife and hopefully a mother. “I’m in awe of women who can juggle an amazing career, motherhood and family. I cannot. At that point I realised that if I was getting married then that’s what I wanted to focus on,” she says. “I’m a very, very committed person, and I knew I couldn’t be the best wife – and hopefully mother – if I was away months on end shooting. I didn’t know how to balance that. I wanted to be able to travel with my husband. I wanted to be a part of his life and make it our life.”
From the outside looking in, it seems like an absurd decision; she was only 25 and just getting started. But to her, it was an easy call. “It was not a difficult choice. It was a choice. It was my choice.”
Yeoh was sadly unable to have children. Within four years, she and Poon divorced. It was the media that pulled her back into acting, she says with glee – and a hint of disbelief. “It’s never easy when you’re going through a divorce, especially if you’re a public person, but journalists were so respectful. They said my fans were waiting for my next film, and I said ‘What fans?!’” She makes a funny face, eyebrows arching high above the blue rim of her glasses. Yeoh got back to work, fighting crime alongside Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung in the beloved 1992 film Supercop.
She came to international attention thanks to her sidekick role in Tomorrow Never Dies. I ask Yeoh if she had been apprehensive about accepting the part, given the fate of previous Bond girls. Sparring with 007 was going to be less likely than shagging him. “No! Looking like me, I don’t think sexualisation was going to be a big problem!” she laughs, displaying a rare lack of self-awareness. Yeoh counts herself “blessed” to have entered the franchise when she did. “Bond was ready for change. Bond had to evolve because the fan base was also evolving. Women were choosing the movies to go and watch, and we don’t always want to watch ones where we’re being sexualised.”
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ didn’t change things for us
At the same time, Yeoh, who I figure has fielded her share of questions about Asian stereotyping, maintains that Bond’s racist past also failed to put her off. “I think every film should have the right to speak for itself on its own merit,” she says, adding: “It’s only when you are given the opportunity to participate that you can make a difference.” I tell Yeoh that Wai Lin was one of two actors who graced my bedroom walls when I was growing up; Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels was the other.
She grins in response. “Yes! Because you were seeing someone who looks like you on screen doing these amazing, fascinating, badass things. It’s like an endorsement that says...” – here she puts on a stern voice that reminds me of my mum – “Hey, you can do that! You can do anything!”
Now, a new wave of fans is being introduced to Yeoh’s star power. “The young kids don’t know me because they didn’t grow up watching Tomorrow Never Dies or Memoirs of a Geisha. Now I’m suddenly known by the younger generation, and they can relate to me suddenly, and I think that’s a great achievement,” she beams. “I am very grateful that Everything Everywhere is making a difference in their lives.”
It isn’t the first time Yeoh has been at the centre of a film credited with moving the needle for Asian visibility in cinema. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 was the first foreign-language movie to break $100m in the US – but Yeoh brushes aside presumptions that box office success translated into meaningful change. “No,” she says with conviction. “Since it was a period piece, the audience couldn’t relate to it. It’s a beautiful movie – it’s like watching poetry – but it didn’t change things for us.”
She reminds me that for all the Oscars acclaim Crouching Tiger garnered, no actors were recognised. “Were we not participating? Are we invisible?” She waves her hand at the camera to illustrate her point. “It’s very interesting. And it’s happened again and again” – as with Bong Joon-ho’s thriller Parasite, which in 2020 became the first foreign-language film to take home a Best Picture Oscar. Although the film was universally praised, none of its stars received nods in the acting categories, as if rewarding the actors was just a step too far in the Academy’s diversity bid.
“Even with all the Asian movies coming out, that has been the norm,” says Yeoh. “So I think we need to do more to say, ‘No, if you love this movie, there is a reason why. There are real people in there who make you feel the way you do.’”
In terms of the number of films led by Asian actors, however, the tide is beginning to turn. All released in the past five years: a Marvel blockbuster (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), a romcom tentpole (Crazy Rich Asians), and an indie darling (Everything Everywhere). “It’s an evolution,” says Yeoh. “We don’t want to be unnoticed anymore. We’ve waited for such a long time, there are so many stories to be told. We want to see our faces on screen and – ” As if on cue, my own camera cuts out.
“Oops! There is no more picture!” Yeoh exclaims. I reassure her that she’s still visible to me. “But how come I lost you? That’s not fair!” Still, she forges on. “But yes, with all minorities – it’s taken a while to get to where we are. But we’re here. We have to take this responsibility very, very seriously, and make sure that the stories coming out are not rushed, and have been nurtured and continue to be told in the best way.”
Hollywood has changed in the decades since Yeoh began her career. And though she’d never dream of saying it herself, the actor played no small part in helping it evolve. But for all that progress, there remains a sense around Yeoh that she is exactly where she has been since the Eighties: leading the charge, waiting for the world to catch up.
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ is in cinemas now