Yeoh on fe­ro­cious moth­ers, heart­break­ing lead­ers

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Celebrations - BY CARA BUCK­LEY

Michelle Yeoh was an es­tab­lished mar­tial arts star in Asia by the time Western au­di­ences came to know her, first as a Bond girl and then a bal­letic war­rior in the 2000 hit “Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon.” Dur­ing Yeoh’s ac­tion-hero days, she per­formed her own stunts – like launch­ing her­self and the mo­tor­cy­cle she was rid­ing onto a mov­ing train – and at one point, she said, was unin­sur­able. Lit­tle won­der, then, that Yeoh’s por­trayal of im­pe­ri­ous mother Eleanor Young in the sum­mer smash “Crazy Rich Asians” was so fe­ro­cious. Now she and her co-stars are nom­i­nated for the top prize, out­stand­ing per­for­mance by a cast, at the Screen Ac­tors Guild Awards on Jan. 27.

Dur­ing a re­cent trip to New York, Yeoh – who is 56 – met me at the Four Sea­sons for cof­fee and a con­ver­sa­tion about the film, the racism she en­coun­tered dur­ing her ear­lier years, and her heart­break over Myan­mar’s re­pres­sive gov­ern­ment un­der Aung San Suu Kyi, the No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Yeoh played in the 2012 biopic “The Lady.”

Here are edited ex­cerpts.

Q: It is al­most un­fath­omable Q: that “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first Hol­ly­wood movie with a con­tem­po­rary set­ting and a ma­jor­ity Asian-Amer­i­can cast since “Joy Luck Club” in 1993.

A: Asian com­mu­ni­ties are so A: hun­gry; they never see them­selves on the big screen. Hon­estly when I first came out here, sud­denly to be told I’m a mi­nor­ity was a big shock. I came from China – how did I sud­denly switch to be­ing a mi­nor­ity? We want to be rep­re­sented, we don’t want to be in­vis­i­ble, we don’t want to be told that we’re not good enough to be on the sil­ver screens. You don’t have to treat us spe­cial. Just treat us as equals.

Q: Was your mom like Eleanor? Q:

A: Oh no. My mom is not Eleanor A: at all. She’s not a hip­pie, but she’s very care­free, very out­go­ing. Eleanor would be truly my homage to the moth­ers that I know in Asia. A lot of my friends or my friends’ moth­ers.

Q: Your crazy rich Asian friends? Q:

A: Ha ha. Yes. And their moth­ers-in-law. A: Or their moth­ers. Be­cause I drew a lot of in­spi­ra­tion from them.

Q: Eleanor was up to the last Q: mo­ment try­ing to please her mother-in-law. She wanted her son to look good be­cause she wasn’t good enough.

A: That was the one thing A: we re­ally, re­ally worked on. We needed Eleanor to be vul­ner­a­ble to make her more hu­man. In the book Eleanor was black-and-white-movies mean. I didn’t want her to be a vil­lain. I wanted her to have very high stan­dards, to be very el­e­gant. But the most im­por­tant thing, what we re­ally worked on, is the love be­tween the mother and son.

Q: The mah-jongg scene was Q: great. I take it you know how to play.

A: Yes, it’s my sort of spe­cialty, A: I had no prob­lem in that scene at all. It was the show­down, right? And the movie could’ve ended there. At the end of the day it wasn’t a prince-Cin­derella movie. If you look at all of the women, they all were stronger. They weren’t wait­ing to be res­cued.

Q: Eleanor had a very in­tense Q: pres­ence.

A: Eleanor was very com­posed. A: She didn’t talk with her hands. She was very con­tained. For a char­ac­ter like that, she has to com­mand a lot of at­ten­tion, with the still­ness. That I worked on.

Q: “The Lady” was quite con­tained. Q:

A: “The Lady” is. But “The A: Lady” is also very emo­tional on other lev­els. Q: How are you re­act­ing to Q: news about the atroc­i­ties against Ro­hingya Mus­lims un­der Aung San Suu Kyi’s lead­er­ship?

A: I feel very against of course A: what is hap­pen­ing to the Ro­hingyas. We do have a foun­da­tion in­side Burma. We felt when the coun­try opened up, it’s not the top layer (of so­ci­ety) that needed help. It’s the rest. But they adore her. Be­cause they re­ally be­lieve that she’s try­ing to do what­ever she can for the lower peo­ple.

Q: They still adore her?

A: Q: They still feel like that. A: But the thing is, it’s so com­pli­cated. I don’t be­lieve she has the power. Maybe she’ll hate me for say­ing this. She has no power. The power is still with the mil­i­tary.

Q: Are you in touch with her? Q:

A: We are in touch with her. But A: re­cently it has been very dif­fi­cult be­cause of all the things that have been go­ing on. But she knows that I have been a lit­tle bit out­spo­ken about the fact that I’ve been so dis­ap­pointed. It’s tragic.

Q: It must be very strange for Q: you, hav­ing played her. Do you think she should lose her No­bel?

A: I think we should re­ally A: take a step back and try and un­der­stand. What they are con­demn­ing her for is for not speak­ing out. For not turn­ing around and say­ing, “You are wrong, you shouldn’t have.” Yes, maybe she can do that and be thrown out of the coun­try again. I feel that she’s try­ing to keep the door open so that there’s still di­a­logue within her coun­try and she still can have some kind of say. What I fear is with­out the sup­port of the in­ter­na­tional peo­ple, it’s easy for the mil­i­tary to just dis­re­gard her. So I think she’s in a re­ally, re­ally rough place.

Q: It’s been over a year since Q: news about Har­vey We­in­stein broke. You have said you never had any trou­ble with sex­ual harass­ment, and if you had, you would have de­ployed your mar­tial arts skills. What do you think about men hop­ing to come back?

A: It was an ad­just­ment. Some­thing A: that we needed to clean up. We needed skele­tons to come out from the closet. The most im­por­tant thing is that the per­son has changed and un­der­stands that all that is bad. Q: With “Crazy Rich Asians,” Q: were there re­ac­tions to the film that sur­prised you?

A: Asians are quite re­served, A: but after the movie they’ve come up to me on the streets to say “Can I give you a hug? I just want to say thank you.” The first open­ing week­end, I was on my knees, be­cause God for­bid, if it didn’t work, it could’ve set us back 20 years.

Q: I was shocked by the open­ing Q: scene, the in­tense dis­crim­i­na­tion aimed at Eleanor’s fam­ily. I thought it couldn’t have been like that in the ’90s.

A: (Yeoh arches a brow and shoots A: me a pierc­ing “Girl, you’re so naive” look.)

I re­mem­ber when I first went to Paris, in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Ev­ery time I walked into a store, the women would fold their arms. They wouldn’t even speak to me. So the next day, my ex sent his de­signer to go shop­ping with me, and doors flew open.

Q: Just like “Pretty Woman”! Q:

A: You’d be sur­prised how A: racist peo­ple were at that time, it’s a shame. But I’m glad it’s not like that now. I work with the (U.N. De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram) as a good­will am­bas­sador, to pro­mote gen­der equal­ity, all these things we (need) to have a bet­ter world, more peace­ful world. If we don’t we’re not go­ing to be able save our world. We have to work to­gether, start di­a­logue to­gether and have no judg­ment. Why are we so judg­men­tal?

Q: Twit­ter. It’s all Twit­ter’s fault. Q:

A: I don’t know. I don’t know A: how to twit.

CE­LESTE SLOMAN NYT

Michelle Yeoh, who played an im­pe­ri­ous mother in “Crazy Rich Asians,” hailed how much the film meant to Asian movie­go­ers. “We don’t want to be told that we’re not good enough to be on the sil­ver screens,” she said.

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