Dubbed the ‘greatest action hero of all time’, Michelle Yeoh is not one to take on tasks and causes half-heartedly.
Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh was wearing an elegant, green cocktail dress during her interview with the press in Indonesia recently, her already slender frame accentuated further by the successful weight-shedding efforts for her leading role as pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady.
Her watch, however, hinted that this is indeed the woman famous for performing her own stunts in action flicks and recently took the risk to visit Myanmar for a second time after filming a movie containing scenes telling of the government’s past human rights violations. It was a solid, prominent-looking black watch, albeit chicly decorated with sparkling studs.
A few seconds after she began speaking, Yeoh’s assertive gaze and passionate tone further revealed her character. The woman dubbed the “greatest action hero of all time” hardly appears as one to take on tasks and causes half-heartedly.
Of course, that includes acting, despite her somewhat unplanned introduction to the silver-screen industry.
According to a website dedicated to Yeoh, michelleyeoh.info, a spinal injury that befell her during her college years prevented her from further pursuing one of her foremost artistic passion of ballet.
The holder of an undergraduate degree in the creative arts then found her way into showbusiness perhaps incidentally. With Yeoh unaware of the process, her mother entered her into a national beauty contest, and in 1983 she was crowned Miss Malaysia.
She went on to play roles in commercials and, subsequently, movies. Although her first role was said to be one of the typical damsel in distress, the next ones were far from stereotypical, as she continued to play strong characters and even became an inspiration for the Girls With Guns movie genre, which features formidable female characters.
But Yeoh goes beyond displaying on-screen toughness, she is also famous for performing her own stunts. Just how intense that can be is seen in movies such as Yes Madam, the award-winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and her international debut, the James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies.
She also starred in dramatic roles, such as 2004’s Memoirs of a Geisha and, more recently, The Lady, which led her to Indonesia for the charity premier event.
Yeoh recalled herself seizing the chance to play the democracy icon Suu Kyi.
“It all started when I saw an article in the newspaper about four years ago that someone wanted to make a movie about Aung San Suu Kyi. When I saw the article, I called my manager in Los Angeles right away and said, ‘You find (the people making the movie) because I want to play Aung San Suu Kyi.’ I have been in the business long enough to understand by instinct, by experience, that this story is very important on a personal level. As an actress, I am always looking for remarkable women, women that inspire us. Suddenly there she was right in front of me, so once I got my hand on it, I just could not let go,” she said.
The filmmaking experience was an intense one, filled with various emotions and incidents. The period coincided with Myanmar’s political development, which included the release of Suu Kyi after years of house arrest in 2010.
Yeoh said she spent hundreds of hours watching the documentaries of Suu Kyi, trying to read everything the latter read and to discover more about the activist.
Yeoh’s role in The Lady also required her to memorise speeches in Burmese – a language completely foreign to her.
During the making of the movie, she met Suu Kyi’s son, Kim Aris, whom she described as a “very honest young man”. She recalled his first words to her were “You know May May (mother) was a lot slimmer than you.”
“I said ‘I thought you were a big fan of mine,’” Yeoh laughed.
Suu Kyi’s house arrest was lifted during the The Lady’s production process, and the moment led to an emotional experience for her and some of the film’s crew, including director Luc Besson, who were watching the news of the release on television in the same room, along with Kim.
“We were very emotional because (we were) very happy for Kim, because finally he sees his mother was free. The expression on Luc’s face was priceless.
“He looked so confused because that very morning we had just shot the scene where I come up the gate and wave and Luc went ‘They stole my footage’ and we went ‘Luc, it says CNN on the bottom.’” Yeoh recalled, laughing.
She emphasised that playing Suu Kyi provided her with “a good life lesson” and that now she even feels she has “a little Jiminy Cricket in the form of Daw Suu (Kyi) sitting on my shoulder going ‘No, no, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’”
Weeks after Suu Kyi was released, Yeoh had a chance to visit “The Lady” herself, and although the first time was successful, she was denied entrance to Myanmar the second time in June of last year.
“It was actually a very sweet affair because the girl at the immigration actually turned out to say ‘Can I take a picture of you?’ and she was a fan,” she said of the incident.
Moments later, an officer came to apologise for the “immigration problem” that prevented her from entering the country.
Yeoh said she still wants to visit Myanmar again, to see Suu Kyi as well as to explore the various parts of the country.
Although hardly one to be seen as picking easy paths to success, Yeoh still considers herself lucky not having to make choices the way Suu Kyi did.
“It’s a very different world for us and we are very lucky in many ways because we can choose, we can speak, we can think, we can make the choices that we believe that are right for ourselves, our country and our family. I can understand why Daw Suu (Kyi) did what she did because I have travelled her path. Can I myself be as committed? I hope I am never tested but I don’t know and that’s the honest truth,” she said.
Yeoh does, however, see some similarities between Suu Kyi and her as having a supportive partner.
“All of us women want a husband like that (Michael Aris, Suu Kyi’s deceased husband) and I will let you know that I have someone like that at home. I truly believe that if you love someone you want them, you enable them to realise their potential and that is what Jean (Todt, Yeoh’s partner) does for me,” she said.
Todt is the president of Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). During the interview, Yeoh broke out in enthusiasm, “Oh right, it’s the Grand Prix right now. I wanted to watch the opening,” suggesting a shared passion with him.
Her career and personal life led her to a home in Hong Kong and a base with Todt in Geneva. She is still holding on to her Malaysian passport and currently living a life with Todt “on the plane”.
However, Yeoh still has time to support various causes, including AIDS and road safety. Her recent visit to Indonesia also saw her supporting The Learning Farm and the Karang Widya Foundation, which has a centre for organic farming training for street children.
“I think (supporting causes) is important because I have been so blessed. The society has given me so much and I am where I am today because of the world,” she said. — The Jakarta Post / Asia News Network
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