Action star Michelle Yeoh couldn’t believe she was being asked to star in a comedy, let alone play the role of Santa, she tells Jonathan Moran
Michelle Yeoh was understandably apprehensive when Hollywood director Paul Feig asked her to play Santa in Last
Known for action roles in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or as Bond girl
Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies, the celebrated actor had never tried comedy in her nearly four decades on screen.
“This is my first serious try to make you laugh movie. I think Paul (Feig) saw a comedic element in me which I never fully realised before, no one else has,” Yeoh says.
“Have you ever seen me in a role like that? I was a little apprehensive, especially when Paul came to me and said he wanted me to play Santa. Did he mean Santa Claus? Would I have to put on a white beard?”
No red and white costume was required — the role of Santa in Feig’s film is a slightly quirky woman who loves all things festive and owns a Christmas store in London that operates all year round.
Feig says Yeoh was the first person he thought of when he read the script — and was so taken by the idea of her in the part he wouldn’t have done the film if she had not said yes.
The Bridesmaids director has been a long-time fan of the Malaysian-born dancer turned actor and was introduced by Henry Golding, who had played Yeoh’s son in Crazy Rich Asians and also stars in Last Christmas.
Golding and Feig had been shooting A Simple Favour in Toronto while Yeoh was making
Star Trek: Discovery in the same city and they all ended up having dinner together.
“I had been a fan of hers for 20 years but one of these people where you think ‘is she going to be really serious?’,” Feig recalls.
“And the minute you meet her, her face lights up and she’s funny and joking and I walked away thinking ‘I have got to get you on screen’. But she’s funny because she says ‘I’m not funny’. Now I have a whole movie to prove otherwise so she can’t say that any more.”
The script for Last Christmas was written by Academy Awardwinning actor Emma Thompson (who also stars in the movie) and her partner Greg Wise. “Of course when I read the script knowing it was written by Emma Thompson, I knew I couldn’t say no to it,” Yeoh says. “But it was a stretch because I hadn’t done a character like that before and I really thank Paul for having the confidence in me. He was just so insistent that I was the only one who could carry out this role.
“Paul brought the comedy out in me. As an actor, what I am constantly hoping to do is to challenge myself in roles with things I have not done before or have attempted before and for me that is always very challenging and is an opportunity to grow.
“In Santa, that is what I saw, a woman who was so passionate and who found her calling in loving Christmas and opened a store that sold Christmas all year round. That character just touched something in everyone that saw her.”
In real life, Yeoh agrees with Feig’s initial assessment that some might find her more intimidating than funny.
“People find me quite serious and then they laugh a little, sort of afraid,” she says. “I think I am quite funny but I am definitely not the Ken Jeong or
Awkwafina kind of funny. I have an interesting sense of humour and I enjoy a good laugh, let’s put it that way.”
Yeoh is a leader in the field, having won countless awards, including being nominated for a BAFTA for Courching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
She’s straddled both Chinese language cinema and Hollywood and paved the way for many to come behind her.
Yeoh has been ranked one of the greatest action heroines of all time and one of the top screen beauties. While those accolades are great, they are not the reason she gets up and goes to work in the morning.
“We don’t do it for those accolades,” she says. “I am very grateful for the things that I have done because it is part of your job and something you work so hard at. It is very gratifying and I am thankful for them because there are so many of us in the world, so to be put up there in that way is very touching.”
Most of Yeoh’s scenes in Last
Christmas are with Game Of Thrones star Emelia Clarke, who also gets to show off her funny side as the two trade barbs as boss and employee.
“I am very blessed with the roles that come my way,” Yeoh says. “Sometimes those amazing directors and roles, they come choosing you and you just have to make time. But choosing a role is very important because it takes me away from my family and I want that role to be meaningful. ”
At 57, she is proud to admit she still does her own action scenes. “I really do enjoy that very much and the only way I feel I can do it is if I keep up my end of the bargain and be diligent in being flexible, fit, on my feet and toes. If I didn’t have to be on camera, I might not be so diligent. ”
Coming up is a return to the world of Crazy Rich Asians with two sequels set to be shot backto-back next year.
And she’s also been busy with James Cameron’s eagerlyanticipated but secrecyshrouded Avatar sequels.
“Am I allowed to speak about them? Let’s put it this way, I am in the Avatar movies and I love working with James Cameron, he is a genius.”
WATCH LAST CHRISTMAS opens tomorrow
MICHELLE YEOH IN A SCENE FROM LAST CHRISTMAS, AND BELOW, WITH CO-STARS EMMA THOMPSON, EMILIA CLARKE AND HENRY GOLDING