If you told my lecturers at the time, 'Michelle is going to become a big movie star one day,' they would fall off their chairs laughing.
As part of Anthem’s Seoul International Women’s Film Festival coverage this year, we interviewed South Korean filmmaker Gina Kim and put the spotlight on her 12-minute virtual reality “film” Bloodless, which traces the last living moments of a real-life sex worker who was brutally murdered by a U.S. soldier at Dongducheon—often referred to as “camp town”—in 1992. Soon after that profile went live, in the Venice International Film Festival’s inaugural virtual reality competition, a jury led by John Landis awarded Kim’s immersive project the Best VR Story prize.
Reappearing on our radar as a result of that profile was Michelle Yeoh—Kim’s leading actress from her third narrative feature Final Recipe (2013). A pioneering Chinese-Korean co-production, Final Recipe is the first English-language film directed by an Asian filmmaker with actors and crew assembled from all over the continent, including China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand. Breaking the mold further, the transnational film was distributed in the German-language territories, Italy, Latin America, the Middle East, Spain, Switzerland, and the former Yugoslavia.
In a bold career that has spanned over three decades, Yeoh was most recently seen on the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery as Captain Philippa Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou. And although fans were sent into a tailspin when the actress was killed off in the two-episode premiere, producer Gretchen J. Berg confirmed during the show’s recent New York Comic Con panel that Yeoh will return in some capacity. On the film front, Yeoh will next appear in Yuen Woo-ping’s Ip Man: Cheung Tin Chi and Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, both scheduled for release in 2018.
Anthem sat down with Yeoh at this year’s International Film Festival & Awards Macao, while she was in Macau to receive a much-deserved tribute for her far-reaching contributions in film and TV.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.]
You really are someone who has transitioned extraordinarily in your stardom over the years. To start at the beginning, you trained in dance so there was an early commitment to performance. Then in ’83, you were crowned Miss Malaysia. Your career could’ve gone in a very different trajectory. Could you give me an insight as to how all of this happened?
We were just talking about this last night with Shekhar Kapur. He asked me, “Did you plan to be an actor all your life?” When I was young, I used to go to the cinema often. My mom was a big movie buff so I saw every kind of movies, from romance to Dracula films, from Indian to Chinese, and Malaysian movies. But I never thought one day I myself would be in the cinema because I always wanted to be in the world of ballet and in the world of dance. In fact, I started with dance and ballet in school and went on to England with that. Then I had a bad injury to my back and I was told by a specialist that dance was not an option anymore. He should see what I do now! [Laughs] So I went on to get a degree in dance because I could still stay in that world. I thought, “You know what? I’ll do a minor degree in drama and see how it will improve on my performance.” Then I learned I have stage fright when it comes to speaking. If you told my lecturers at the time, “Michelle is going to become a big movie star one day,” they would fall off their chairs laughing. How I came to be in the movie business was by chance. A girlfriend of mine was an actress in Hong Kong working with Dickson Poon, who was then just starting out as a movie producer. He was very, very special. He had signed on all the top actors like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat and George Lam. But he was still trying to find the right actress for a role. Lo and behold, my girlfriend took out my photograph from her purse and said, “This is my girlfriend—Miss Malaysia.” The rest is history.
In the mid ‘80s, Yes, Madam! happened. Then you moved into Heroic Trio, Executioners, and the Supercop movies. This is where we see your martial arts stardom come into fruition. It was also really apparent at the time that you wanted to do your own stunts.
I was a little crazy. [Laughs]
Presumably, as someone who was already developing a big profile as an actor, you could’ve acted and not done your own stunts. Why was it important to you at the time?
When I started doing action films my whole concept was, “If I fight, I fight because of a reason. Not for the sake of fighting.” Whether that was a mother protecting a child, protecting a loved one, or defending herself. The style of fighting was something that we choreographed together with my first director Corey Yuen, who did Yes, Madam! When we started, martial arts and comedies were the most prevalent in that era. I thought, “I can’t do comedies because my Cantonese is so bad!” And my Cantonese is still bad, just not as bad as it was then. I figured the easiest way for me to really relate to my own experiences was physical and, hopefully, I’ll be able to draw the humor out of that. But why did I choose to do my own stunts? Because I could. The most important thing is this: You don’t do it just because you want to. You can only do it because you can. Because I came from a dance background, my body was already very flexible. It takes command very well. I was good at mimicking them. I think they were very curious: “Look at this beauty queen. She wants to be an action star. Well, let’s show her a thing or two! She’ll be in the corner crying.” The next thing you know, they were like, “Oh wow! She can do that?” I understood the rhythm, the power, and the movement. One thing you hear them always say is, “More power! More power!” I’m already using my entire force. This poor guy is now taking all these punches really hard. It’s not about how much weight is in your punch. It’s where you exert it. Where is the power coming from? If you’re throwing punches like a Thai boxer, you can’t see the strength because they hit you where they make contact and then push in. On camera, it doesn’t work. I learned from the best people. The stunt boys were my mentors. They trained with me every day. I would be there at seven-thirty every morning and we would be in the gym the entire day. I would just watch them. They taught me how to survive on set. But the bad thing is, you start to think you’re invincible. You start walking around going, “My god. I can climb up that wall! I can do a somersault and land over there!” It was also exciting. Thank god I was younger then. Many years later when we had to redub Supercop, Jackie and I had to do the whole thing back in English. When I was watching myself doing those stunts, I went, “What were you thinking, woman?” I could’ve been seriously hurt.
And there have been some injuries, right?
Yes, there were. But those were the days, in Hong Kong especially. We didn’t have the luxury of special effects. When you do a stunt, the concept is that you’re doing the real thing. And we don’t rehearse. If you’re going to rehearse it, you might as well shoot it. That’s how we used to do it.
’97 was a big transition year for you. You did Mabel Cheung’s The Soong Sisters in a dramatic performance. That same year, you crossed over with Tomorrow Never Dies.
When I did The Soong Sisters, I was grateful because Mabel saw me as an actress. She didn’t just see me as an action-actress. In fact, when I went on to do Tomorrow Never Dies, it was the first time a director said to me, “I don’t need you to be here to just do stunts because I can always get a double to do that.” In Hollywood, they would prefer that you don’t do the stunts yourself because the insurance is crazy. If you get hurt, that means the whole production is in trouble. He said, “I need you to be an actress because I can’t get a stand-in for that.” They wanted me to act. The stunts were just a bonus. This was something that I always worked towards. I recognize the fact that when you do action, you also have to be able to act and be in that role. Otherwise, your action is meaningless. So many other people can do the action as I can, but to be able to communicate what I’m fighting for is much more important than the incredible stunts we end up showing you.
Do you regard the nuanced emotions and the action as separate things to master?
I hope it’s seamless. I don’t compartmentalize them. It’s not like, “I have to do action so let me go into that mode now.” I still put in many hours a day just to stay fit, just to be supple.
I wanted to ask you about that. It’s a life commitment. It’s a difficult lifestyle change.
It’s a choice. You have to make these choices. Your body is your temple, right? You’re the only one who can look after it and make these choices. I don’t make not going to the gym an excuse to not exercise. I will do it in my bathroom. I will do my jumping jacks. I will run on the spot for an hour if I can’t go somewhere else. It’s not an excuse to not do anything for yourself. I don’t like to take the escalator. I will walk the stairs. As you age, your body slows down. There’s just no two ways about it. There are certain things that I could’ve done when I was in my 20s that I can’t really keep up with right now. But I think it’s also in the mind: You should not allow the numbers to dictate what you can or cannot do. So as long as I enjoy what I’m doing, I’ll continue to do it. Maybe one day my body will say, “Guess what? I’m not getting off this chair.” Who knows?
The harder you work, the luckier you’ll be. Because chances are, things will fall into the right place. Especially with action, you can’t take even the smallest chance because that’s when accidents happen. That’s the last thing you want to happen to you because the recovery period is the most difficult, as we all know. So for me, the most important thing is understanding the character that I’m playing. In Reign of Assassins, she’s a swordswoman and a martial artist. The stunts for someone like that is different: the way she walks and the way she handles herself. When I did The Lady, which is a depiction of Aung San Suu Kyi, she’s a very slender woman, but you feel great strength in her. When you look at somebody who’s very slim, you always think, “She looks like she’s about to break in two.” But you know there’s no way she’s breaking into any pieces at all, at any time. So how do you make yourself fit into a physical role? I trained like a marathon runner so I would be very slim, but at the same time, I could feel the strength in my body. When I did Memoirs of a Geisha, to be Japanese, you have to understand them. It’s the little nuances, like you say. They’re very unconscious things—the things that you will take away with you the most.
You made some very interesting choices with projects like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Asif Kapadia’s Far North—international arthouse dramas, essentially. This is sort of a different moment in your career. Why did you want to stretch yourself in that way?
As an actor, you have to stretch yourself. It is always a learning process. The minute you turn around and think you know everything, that’s the time you should retire and sit in that rocking chair. If you don’t continue to learn, you’ll never continue to improve yourself or stretch yourself, as you say. I must say, I’ve been very, very blessed. Generally, the directors have come to me and I hope it’s because they recognized a certain quality that I could bring to the movies that they’re hoping to make. When I did Far North, Asif had only done one movie by that time. I was at Sundance and my agent said, “There’s this young director who would really love to present a movie to you.” So I said, “Okay, I’m here so I’ll meet up with him.” There are a few reasons why I choose projects. A great director is one—that is a no-brainer. If Ang Lee comes, you know he’s a visionary. Obviously, you still need to see the script and the role. With Rob Marshall and Memoirs of a Geisha, it’s how these visionary directors bring the movies to life, and you do need a good director to be able to tell the story. When Asif came to me, he was a very soft-spoken, young director. He was very smart, too: He started by showing me the landscapes where we would be filming. It would be filmed in the North Pole. I’m an adventurer. I love going to new places. The North Pole was somewhere I always wanted to go. The film was taken from a short story—it was very dark. I thought, “This could be interesting. I’m going to be an eskimo. I’ll be with reindeer. I’ll be living out in the wild.” We spent two months in an icebreaker with no telephones, no TV, no nothing. And I had the most amazing time. That same year, I met Danny Boyle. Sunshine is about all of us going to space to save the world, again, of course. When the script came to me, it really was about the Americans and the Russians going to space. I said to Danny and Alex Garland, his writer at the time, “Don’t you think there’s something missing here? If you’re talking about the future, where are the Asians?” [Laughs] I thought, “That seems so outdated.” Luckily, Alex and Danny looked at each other and said, “That’s a very interesting concept.” The next thing I knew, there’s a Japanese and two Chinese—it’s a real international crew in that sense. And Danny wanted me to play the captain. I said, “No.” I wasn’t ready for that at the time.
Well, you’re ready now, obviously.
[Laughs] See? It took me a few years. That’s the thing about me: I have to feel that I’m ready for a role instead of just acting the part. You can act the part of the captain, but to be a captain, you have to feel it coming from here, to take the helm and take charge. Hiroyuki Sanada was perfect for that.
Moving on to other new experiences, you were on Netflix’s Marco Polo and now Star Trek: Discovery. Can you talk about that shift for you and your interest in that format?
When I first started out, if you were a film actor, you don’t do TV, basically. We were such snobs. It was so bad. We were like, “I’m on the big screen. Why would I go into a little box?” [Laughs] The whole horizon, the whole platform, has changed tremendously. Look at the quality of work that comes from TV now, and it’s a different way of storytelling. I haven’t moved from one to the other. I do both and I’m very blessed to be able to do both. I don’t think I can handle the intensity of being number one on the callsheet on a TV show. When I did Marco Polo, it was good because I was a special guest star. I understand the urgency of work in that arena because sometimes you have eight days to film an episode or two weeks maximum to film one episode. One episode is like a mini film in many ways. Can you imagine doing ten months of that, or eight months of that continuously? When I was doing Star Trek, I felt like I was back in school studying for exams every week. They’re writing the script as you go along. One thing I’m not used to is, you have 10 to 12 directors on a TV series, whereas on a film you deal with one director and you have one crew all the way through. There’s a continuity. There’s a sense of being familiar and comfortable because you’re working with the same people, and you’re organized. So when you’re filming episode one and it’s a real big thing going on, then the next day you go into episode two it’s, “Who are you? You’re my new director? Oh, I’m sorry!” It’s a little discombobulating and disconcerting in some ways. But then you get into the flow of things and get a real sense of bonding. On Star Trek—oh, I can’t tell you. It’s a spoiler. No spoilers allowed! You just have to keep watching.
We’ll next see you in Crazy Rich Asians, which is the adaptation of the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan. You also have the new Ip Man film on the horizon.
I’ve been a busy girl! This has been an extraordinary and a really busy year, starting with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2—that was a surprise. Our director [James] Gunn said, “Just come and play!” How do you say no to that, right? So I went and it was hysterical. There was [Sylvester] Stallone and Ving Rhames. There was no script until we got on set because it’s so secretive, and it was an add-on. The director felt that we would make the ending of the movie so much more interesting. It was just crazy. So I started the year with that and then I went on to do Star Trek in Toronto and I filmed Ip Man by Yuen Woo-ping, one of my favorite directors and an old-time friend. I cannot say “No” to him. I do a special appearance in that. We really adore the star of that movie, Max Zhang, an amazing physical action actor and a really truly good actor as well. Then in the midst of that, I went to do Crazy Rich Asians. This is a novel that’s been out for a while now. Kevin just launched his third book. I guess it’s called Even Crazier Rich—I don’t know. Jon Chu is the director who did Now You See Me 2. He’s a young director. I remember when I first received the script: “A-ha… I have a lot of friends back in Hong Kong and in Singapore. I wouldn’t want to go back there after I’ve done this role if it’s going to be like this.” Because we have very rich Asians, but not all of them are crazy, right? We have to find a sensible balance. At the end of the day, it really is about the Chinese culture. You know when you’re born here in Hong Kong or in Asia versus if you’re born in America or in Europe, where we sometimes tease them: “You’re a banana. You’re yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. All of your values have changed tremendously.” I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that when you first migrate over to America, to fit in, the parents try to make their children not speak in their mother tongue. So after awhile, you lose sense of your traditions. So Crazy Rich Asians has become about that as well. It’s reminding us, “You might be born in America, but your roots are very, very important. Who you are is very important.” If you don’t upkeep these traditions, they will die. They will fade away and it will be a loss for our culture. It’s a hysterical film. The quality of the movie is really amazing. Some of the sets—we would walk in and think, “Oh my god, this really is crazy.”
You’re such a great role model. You embody that well.
With all the roles that I choose to play, I’m really inspired by the women I see around me. I don’t create them, to be honest. I’m inspired when I see all the young faces. Women at home are phenomenal. They’re the ones who have given me the concept, the strength, and the ability to portray them. I was nominated as the UNDP Goodwill Ambassador and one of our biggest issues is trying to raise awareness for one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. I bet you can’t name what those are! [Laughs] So it’s the eradication of poverty, gender empowerment… Star Trek was so important for the empowerment of women. To be honest, I’m not a feminist. I won’t say that I’m a feminist, but I believe in equal opportunities. If you can do the job, no matter what sex you are, no matter what color you are, you should just be able to do it. I work very closely with them on all the different issues. Obviously, road safety is one of the ones that’s closest to my heart because I’ve been working on that for almost ten years now. There are 1.3 million people dead on the road every year. 500 children die every day. Every day, we’re losing 500 children. Simply why? They’re just trying to get to school. We work from that point of view: They have the human right to be able to get to school safely. When we come up with laws asking you to put on your safety belts, to put on a helmet, it’s not there to inconvenience you. It’s really there to protect you. God forbid, if you get into an accident, you don’t know how much you’ll wish you had your seatbelt on or you had a helmet on, because it really makes a difference. So we campaign around the world to raise awareness. Educating is something we have to do nonstop. We have to engage with people to make them understand because if you don’t understand, you won’t go out and do it. With UNDP, I hope to do more work on gender equality, especially here in Asia. Also, we do work in Kathmandu, Singapore for the earthquake and all of that because I was there when the earthquake happened. It becomes very personal. I was very blessed because that big pagoda that crumbled—I was just in there the day before. If I had gone one day after, I wouldn’t be sitting here, would I? There are issues out there that you have to make personal. Every issue that we have in the world, including climate change, is personal. Don’t think, “It’s so daunting. What difference will I make?”
Do you have any regrets?
I hope that I live my life without any regrets. We all make mistakes and that’s just being human. But the thing is, I accept that things can go wrong. When things are tough, that’s when the tough gets going. I believe in myself. If I’m committed to something, I believe I will see it through. There was one time I remember saying, “I never want to do an action film again!” There was the one time. It was after I did Royal Warriors. When I filmed that in Taiwan, there was no script. You don’t really know what’s happening. My producer said, “We’re going to be filming in Taiwan for two weeks.” We didn’t come home for three months. We were in Hualien, far away from the city, and it was action nonstop. By the end of doing all the action sequences, I had ruptured an artery in my shin and I had a crick in my neck. When I left Taiwan, I literally limped off the plane. It’s like my whole body was down. I was crying. [Laughs] That was when my producers let me do Easy Money. That was the easiest movie I ever made. We went to Paris, Greece, and London. The most difficult thing I had to do was skydive.
That’s not an easy thing most people will do! How do you feel about the landscape of cinema and TV changing, in their inclusion of Asians outside of Asia? Slow? You’ve done a lot for it.
You know—it’s a long time coming. The last time we had an all-Asian cast was Memoirs of a Geisha. A Chinese story was Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club that Oliver Stone produced. That was 26 years ago. It’s a real shame that we have to wait so long before we can showcase Asian talent. This time, with Jon Chu, we made a very interesting choice because he used Asian talent from around the world: comedians from New York, talent working in L.A., from Singapore… He had a real good mixture. It was really interesting to see the cast come together. They had different values. When they’re in America, they’re regarded as a minority. When we look at that: “You’ve gotta be kidding. When did Asians become a minority? Hello? We’re half the people of the world. In no way are we minorities, okay?” But unfortunately, especially in the movie business, it’s taken a very long time for Asian faces to be there. It used to be the token Asian. I think Hollywood also made many mistakes: They will have big genre films where they use a token Chinese actor and they sometimes have no lines. You think, “Come on. Please be more respectful to our actors because they’re very, very good actors.” I hope with Crazy Rich Asians, you’ll be able to see the abundance, the richness, of the kind of Asian actors that we have. It will instigate more movies. But we also need the Asian audiences to embrace this and go watch and support these kinds of films. One of the reasons why in America the Asian films have not been so wildly popular is because, I find, there’s a great lacking in Asians embracing our own films. I can’t understand why. If you look at the African-American actors, when their movies come out, they go out to support their fellow African-Americans and they love it. We have to, as Asians, support our own films because if we only watch their movies, then why are we making Asian films? They’ll think, “Nobody wants to watch that. Not even the Asians!” Now that would be a big problem for us.