Michelle Yeoh is ‘The Lady’

The glamorous actress talks about her new Oscar contender with Luc Besson, and whether American audiences will appreciate a film where she doesn't kick everyone in the face.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I’ve had the opportunity to interview Michelle Yeoh a few times in my career, but every time I do I think you can see animated hearts shooting out my ears. She plays real life Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson’s film The Lady. The Lady had its U.S. premiere at AFI Fest, which brought Yeoh to L.A. for interviews.


CraveOnline: As a fan of your Hong Kong movies, of course I’ve seen your dramatic work too. Are you hoping the international audience will embrace more of your dramatic work?

Michelle Yeoh: Of course. I think as an actor, you would like that your audience gets a variety of your performances so that they can not only be stuck watching you do one kind of films or one genre. So I hope that every time they walk into the cinema, they’re not quite sure what I’m going to present to them. This time, particularly with The Lady, it’s very close to our hearts. There’s a very important message that there is an awakening. I hope that people who do not know about Aung San Suu Kyi, about the plight of the Burmese people, will now have an option to see whether they want to do something because now they know.


You’re playing Burmese, you’ve played Japanese and Chinese. Is that a sensitive thing as an Asian actor, because maybe you’d like people to distinguish between different types of Asians?

No, I think as an actor, you don’t play the role with your passport. If I only get to play Malaysian roles, there wouldn’t be very many roles for me to play. I think it’s like Europeans and Americans cross between, like Liam Neeson playing German or Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi. I hope that we are not limited. We do look alike in many ways. It’s just the way we speak, the language of course, the mannerisms. When we play Burmese, yes we go in and immerse ourselves in that culture because it’s the nuances that make the biggest difference. As an actor that’s part of your job description to be able to project yourself and portray all these different roles.


You’re still making Hong Kong movies, as recently as 'Reign of Assassins.' Is it easier to make movies in Hong Kong without actually getting hurt anymore?

You know why, because the wires that we use now are much thicker because of the special effects. You can have them erased. In the old days, they didn’t have the luxury of having special effects. I remember very clearly when Jackie and I were here to do the promotion for Supercop and the final sequence when we’re on the train, we’re fighting on the train. During the Q&A, someone said, “Wow, the green screen from Hong Kong films is amazing. How did you get it to be so real?” Jackie and I looked at each other, “There was green screen?” We didn’t know about it. What green screen? That nowadays is safer because in the past our wires used to be as thin as a toothpick. Any sudden movements, you’d be flying and boom, you would just fall to the ground. Now they are thick so we can do a lot more, we can fight a lot more and it’s much safer. So it is safer and I’m very, very grateful because people don’t deserve to be hurt because they are doing a stunt for a film, especially the stunt boys.


One of my favorite Michelle Yeoh movies is 'The Heroic Trio.' One of your big scenes is when the skeleton has control of you, but really that’s just you acting like it’s controlling you. Do you remember filming that?

Of course, I remember that well. We had so much fun in that film. I was there with my two best girlfriends, Johnnie To as director. We never wanted to leave the set.


It was so fun, so why was the sequel, 'Executioners,' so dark and serious?

That’s the thing. When you’ve done something the first time, how do you make it completely different? I guess that’s the way they decided because Johnnie was going through a dark period. You know he’s done more film noir now.