Michelle Yeoh Conquers the Universe(s)
Somewhere, in one of the gajillion strands of the cat’s cradle of multiverses, there is a world in which Michelle Yeoh does not start ballet lessons at the age of four. The Malaysian actor decides not go to England to study dance, with every intention of becoming a prima ballerina one day, and avoids suffering a back injury that forces her to abandon her dream. The alt-universe Yeoh in question then does not enter a beauty contest and win. A good friend of hers doesn’t bother to pass Michelle’s picture to a producer. No one offers this version of Yeoh a contract. Hence she does not become an action-movie icon during Hong Kong’s wild-and-crazy gonzo-cinema Golden Age. There are no late-’90s Bond movies, no instant-classic turns in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, no scene-stealing turns in Marvel movies or as future mother-in-laws armed with withering put-downs. And definitely, most definitely, no projects that would involve the star engaging in elaborate combat scenes involving googly eyes, dildos and butt plugs.
Luckily, we have been blessed — a verb you’ll hear Yeoh say more than once if you talk to her for a while — to exist in a here and now in which everything, everywhere has gone exactly as it needed to. Every personal and professional domino has fallen, one right after the other, each knocked down in the proper succession so that the actor finds herself sitting outside on a breezy March day in Austin, Texas, wearing an impeccable camel-colored coat and baby-blue cat-eyed glasses, eager to acknowledge that fate has been extremely kind to her. And, should the gods continue to smile down on this universe’s Yeoh, she will very soon be sipping the spicy Margarita she just ordered, please and thank you.
It’s the day after the opening-night premiere of her new film, Everything Everywhere All at Once, at the SXSW Film Festival and she’s been doing press all day; this is her last interview, Yeoh says, so she’s treating herself to a cocktail. “It’s the exact opposite of what Evelyn would do,” she jokes, referring to her character: a dowdy, despairing owner of a dry-cleaning business in Los Angeles who, once upon a time, defied her parents by marrying a young man they disapproved of and left China for America. Now, Evelyn finds herself on the verge of a divorce from her husband (Goonies actor-turned-action-co-ordinator Ke Huy Quan), estranged from her twentysomething daughter (Stephanie Hsu), taking care of her elderly father (James Hong) and, to add insult to injury, is struggling to get through the worst tax audit in the history of the IRS. She is a woman teetering on the edge of a profound mid-life crisis.
Or rather, a mid-lives crisis — seconds before her audit is about to begin, her beta-male spouse suddenly morphs into an alpha-male resistance fighter and informs Evelyn that there are, in fact, millions of versions of her inhabiting millions of multiverses. Only she, however, can prevent an apocalyptic end to all time, space and existence. What follows is an absurdist comedy, directed by the duo known as Daniels (Swiss Army Man), that defies easy description. There are parodies of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ratatouille. One timeline involves an evolutionary leap forward in which fingers are hot dogs. There are old-school kung fu fight sequences that involve fanny packs, office furniture and the aforementioned sex toys. A villainous Jamie Lee Curtis does flying-dragon kicks. A bagel doubles as a black hole. (It opens, well, everywhere on April 8th.)
And standing at the center of Everything‘s whirling vortex is Yeoh, who somehow both grounds all this ridiculousness and amplifies it, all while getting to portray several radically different Evelyns — from a master chef to a wuxia warrior to a glamorous movie star who bears a striking resemblance to Michelle Yeoh. It requires her to play broad comedy, melodramatic pathos, and every other emotional state under the sun, as well as tapping into her well-honed martial arts skills. Even if you’ve spent decades watching Yeoh spin tofu on her fingers, and engage in wire fu fights on the tops of trees, and jump a motorbike onto a moving train (an actual stunt that Yeoh did herself in 1992’s Supercop), it is safe to say that you have never seen her do anything like this.
“Oh, I didn’t understand it at all when I first read the script,” Yeoh says. “I mean, I understood the big picture. But there were so many things in there that were just…” She makes a noise that resembles a cartoon car engine trying to start. “You know: ‘I don’t get the hot dog fingers and dildos and butt plugs!’ It’s just like, it’s over my head! This is all over my head.”
Both Daniels, i.e. writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, had written the role of Evelyn with Yeoh specifically in mind; it just wasn’t quite the Evelyn that she’d eventually ended up playing. “Basically, from the very first draft, we knew we wanted her in the movie,” Kwan says, on a Zoom call prior to the festival premiere. “It’s just that the focus was going to be on the male character, and the husband would be the one struggling through all of this. It was his story. And then a bunch of stuff got reshuffled, and we each realized that it’d be a lot more interesting if you made it her story instead. Then it became potentially very exciting to us because we knew Michelle could pull off all of it, and potentially very devastating if she says no, because no one else could play this role. It was very much formed around her identity, her being.”
Still, while Yeoh may have been slightly confused by some of the more outré aspects of what the two Daniels had written, she was intrigued by what was underneath all of the wackiness: a sincere story about an everyday woman in a life that hadn’t turned out the way she’d planned. So she watched Swiss Army Man, the duo’s debut. And once she saw what they did with a story about two men marooned on a desert island — one of which happens to be an extremely flatulent corpse — it was like the key turned in the lock. “It really was that sensation of, ‘Oh, now I get it!’ I like working with new, or relatively new directors, because: they’re hungry. They have something to prove in a lot of ways. They’re fearless. And I need that. I feel that if I am not hungry, if I am not fearless, then I should retire and just go away quietly.”
Yeoh set up a meeting with them while she was in Los Angeles, “at this fancy restaurant in a fancy hotel,” Scheinert says. “We’re expecting the woman from Crouching Tiger, or maybe the mom from Crazy Rich Asians. We sort of timidly asked her, ‘Well, what movies have you seen recently that you’ve loved?’ And she replied, “Deadpool 2.” We’re like, who the fuck are you?! She was the least intimidating, most likable person ever.”
“From the very first moment, she just treated us like we were her goofy nephews,” Kwan says.
“She was the opposite of a fancy-restaurant-in-a-fancy-hotel person,” Scheinert adds.
“The question isn’t ‘Why did I agree to do this?’ It’s ‘Why did I have to wait 40 years to get here!'” Yeoh says, laughing. “All this time passes, and then someone says, ‘Oh, you know what? I think Michelle can do all of this kind of things.’ Because you rarely see me in a comedy, or at least a physical comedy. Physical roles, sure — but not physical comedies. And this is like the first of so many things that I’ve been experiencing recently and working toward, in my view, and … “. She stops herself, lowers her head and peers over her glasses before continuing. “I’ve waited so long in my career to do something like this, [and] to get it right.”
In a different era, at a different fancy restaurant (possibly in an equally fancy hotel), a Chinese film producer named Dickson Poon mentions to his guest that he needs an actor. He’s dining with a good friend of the then-21-year-old Michelle Yeoh, who had been reluctantly entered into a beauty contest by her mom and walked away with the title of Miss Malaysia. The woman pulls out a photo of Michelle and shows it to Dickson. Several days later, Yeoh finds herself in Hong Kong, shooting a watch commercial with Jackie Chan, who is already one of Asia’s biggest superstars. The producer is so impressed that he calls her a week or so after the shoot. He and the martial arts actor/director Sammo Hung have founded a production company called D&B Films. They would like to offer her a contract. She isn’t particularly interested in becoming an actor, not really. Still, this seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and appeals to her innate sense of adventure. She is at a crossroads, looking left and right and wondering which path takes her where.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘What is my dad going to say?'” she remembers, as her eyes widen and her lip faux-trembles. “It’s one thing, going to study in England. This was…bigger than that. The plan was, I’d eventually go back to Malaysia and start my own ballet school. Everything would be normal, calm. My father is a lawyer, but he’s also a man of very few words — so when he does say something, it counts for a lot. I kept thinking, all he can do is say ‘No.’ And if I don’t show it to him at all, that’s already a ‘No,’ so either way….
“I show him the contract,” she continues. “I wait for him to tell me I’m crazy, that I should go be a teacher and live a normal life. He looks at it and goes, ‘This is like a slave contract. You do what they want and they’ll give you whatever they want, then they can choose to terminate the contract for no reason at all without paying you. Let me help you amend a few things here.’ I’m in shock. And then he says, ‘So when do you want to go?’ I started packing my bags right then and there, before he changed his mind. Or told me my mother had to go with me.” She laughs. “That would have been worse than a no!”
If you’ve seen Yeoh’s first movie, when she was still going by her stage name Michelle Khan, the only thing you might remember is the name: The Owl vs. Bumbo. (“I love Hong Kong film titles,” she says, cracking up. “What the hell does it mean? Who cares? It’s hilarious!”) She plays a teacher who’s trying to help reform a group of juvenile delinquents and has to help turn two criminals into social workers. Her description of the role, however, is a lot more concise: “The damsel in distress.” There’s a slight sigh in her voice when she says the phrase. “By my second film…someone came up to Dickson on the set and said, ‘You guys are really weird, you know? You bring someone from abroad, she’s very exotic — and then you put her in the same boxes as all these other actresses. Why do you do that? Why not do something different?’ So then they said” — Yeoh adopts a deep, dimwitted male voice — “‘Oh, uh, interesting. Yeah, ok, we’ll think about it.'” A pause. “You know how guys are.”
The question wasn’t whether they needed to find something better for Yeoh to do than play the stock damsel-in-distress roles, but what. The fact that she admittedly spoke very little Cantonese limited her choices. “I couldn’t read Chinese either, ” she notes, “but that wasn’t really an issue, because in those days, we didn’t really have scripts!” And the exotic good looks that had made Dickson take notice of her meant that she couldn’t get girl-next-door roles, “because I didn’t look like a local at all. I stood out like a sore thumb. At the time, you could describe Hong Kong movies as: action, comedy, action-comedy, action with a bit of comedy, or a comedy that had some action in it. I had a certain look and feel, and it wasn’t the movies were looking for at that moment.”
One thing that had caught Yeoh’s eye while she was on set, however, were the action sequences. The more she watched the stunt choreographers stage the knock-down, drag-out fight scenes that was a signature of a lot of Hong Kong cinema, the more she began to pick up on the rhythms behind every punch and kick. “It was like watching someone choreograph a dance,” she says. “I could hear the music underneath those scenes, you know — like bom, bom bom bom, bom bom bom, bom.” She hums an almost waltz-like tune, then begins moving her arms in a series of light blocks and jabs to the beat. “It was a revelation.”
Yeoh had also noticed that, across the street from the apartment they set her up in, was a gym. All of the stunt co-ordinators and the action-movie supporting players — the folks who’d play the henchmen and thugs and crooks that trade blows with the bigger stars — were working out there a lot. She eventually began to ask some of them to show her the ropes. “Some of them were not just ‘movie’ fighters, mind you — they were hardcore fighters,” she says. “There was one stuntman, who was also an actor and always ended up playing the bad guy, who told me, ‘Ok, go at me as hard as you can.’ I just gave him this side swing” — she moves her arm wide before quickly twisting her open palm, the blade of her hand facing inward — “and he blocked me. He didn’t hit me back, just blocked me. And I could feel my entire arm just go brrrrrrrttttttt. It was like hitting solid iron.”
Still, she persisted, and Yeoh began to wear the bruises on her limbs like they were badges of pride. They took her under their wing, and slowly, she began to earn their respect. When Cory Yeun, the director of 1985’s Yes, Madam!, showed up, Yeoh said he was excited to make an action movie, “‘but why do I have to do it with this Malaysian beauty queen?! Just teach her one pose, and I can do the rest.’ They had this guy who could do a double-flip off of a wall in a blink, he was so good. He’d demonstrate stuff to me so fast I’d just be left going, ‘What the hell.’ But I thought, I have nothing to lose. I would do the roll and fall flat on your face, but eventually, everyone realized: This is a spirit that won’t quit. They realized I wouldn’t say. ‘I can’t do this.’ And I learned very quickly, if you every time you get hurt you cry, you’d better just stay in that corner and cry all the time. These guys had to suck it up. You had to suck it up too if you wanted to learn.”
Yeoh spent the next few years working her way up the Hong Kong cinema ladder, before marrying Dickson and saying she was quitting acting in 1988 to start a family. After she and the producer divorced in 1992 (they’ve remained close friends), her first film back was Supercop — which gave her equal billing with Jackie Chan and featured the motorcycle stunt that instantly coronated her as action movie royalty. For the next five years, she was on a roll; ironically, it was a film called The Stunt Woman, the story of an immigrant who breaks into the Chinese film industry by becoming an actor who does all her own stunts, that would slow her career down. Executing a drop off an overpass onto mattresses in a passing truck, Yeoh hit the padding at the wrong angle, and ended up hospitalized with cracked ribs and a fractured vertebrae. It was a far more serious injury than the one that had stopped her budding career as a dancer, and prompted her to once again consider hanging things up altogether. Legend has it that a visit from none other than Quentin Tarantino, who proceeded to quote her filmography back to her while she was recovering, that made her think she was not quite done yet. By the time the producers of Tomorrow Never Dies, the 1997 James Bond film, came calling, Yeoh was ready to return. She was told she could do her own fight scenes, but not her own stunts. She was perfectly fine with that decision.
This next chapter of Yeoh’s career is what she sometimes refers to as her “acting” phase, which isn’t to suggest that she wasn’t performing in that run of mid-Nineties martial-arts period pieces and kinetic, go-for-broke blockbusters. “You asked me before if I wanted to pivot to action movies out of desire or necessity and survival,” she says. “Remember, I couldn’t speak Chinese very well, but I knew body language and movement. My logic as a 22-year-old in over her head was: So if I’m fighting and running and jumping off things and doing stunts, I don’t have to be talking as much! It also meant the roles were basically, ‘You’re a cop.’ Pow, bam, pow! That’s it. Ok, pretty black-and-white. I can do that.
“But once Crouching Tiger came around,” Yeoh adds, “there was the sense that I had to tap into something else. It was a very physical role, but it wasn’t just that.” Working with Ang Lee on his poetic 2000 crossover hit required her to supplement her decades of experience as a fighter onscreen — it’s still an old-school, swords-and-wires wuxia epic, after all — with psychological depth. It changed everything, she now says. You can practically see Yeoh bloom onscreen, especially in her more dramatic scenes with costar Chow Yun-Fat. She began keeping something akin to makeshift diaries about her characters thanks to Lee. She was already an international star. Now she was finally, in her own eyes, an actor. “It wasn’t until later when I was able to go, ‘Ok, I know what this person does for a living. What does this person want?'”
For the next few decades, Yeoh seemed, all at once, to be everywhere. You could find her in prestige-lit adaptations (Memoirs of a Geisha), cerebral sci-fi (Sunshine), animated kids’ flicks (Kung Fu Panda), studio tentpoles (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), biopics (The Lady), rom-coms (Last Christmas), TV shows (Marco Polo), and, of course, the occasional movie involving furious fists and flying feet. Her line reading of “You will never be enough” in the hugely successful Crazy Rich Asians is enough to chill anyone’s blood. She’s logged in not one but two characters in the Marvel Cinema Universe, courtesy of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; has become a major player in the Trekkie galaxy, thanks to a starring role in Star Trek: Discovery; and will be part of James Cameron’s perpetually in-progress Avatar-osphere. (She’s credited to appear in the next four sequels to his 2009 movie.) Yeoh had done virtually everything except play the sort of anonymous woman she’d see shuffling down any big city’s Chinatown streets. A script and some hot-dog fingers would change that.
Before our time is up, Yeoh wants to show me how Evelyn Wang walks. She wouldn’t walk like a peasant or a royal in 19th-century China, or someone who commands a Starfleet vessel, or an alien, or a wing chun expert. Yeoh does not even need to get up to demonstrate. “Evelyn seems incredibly burdened,” she notes, ” because, like a lot of women, she is very stressed out, working very hard to keep the family together, to make sure the children are taken care of.” Her posture gradually goes from ramrod-straight to slightly slumped. Her shoulders droop. Her arms seem very loose, and Yeoh starts to sort of shuffle in her seat — a pantomime of movement that suggests both great purpose and the weight of the world on her back. The light fades the actor’s eyes as she stares off into the distance, or maybe she’s gazing inward, distracted and lost in her own head. Then Yeoh’s eyes suddenly light up and her face goes from blank to to borderline mischievous and she claps her hands together. Her spicy Margarita has finally arrived.
When Yeoh first met with Kwan and Scheinert, she told them she loved what they’d written and was interested in playing the role. She just had a single request. “The character was originally named Michelle,” Kwan says. “And she requested that we change it. That was her one note.”
Yeoh confirms that yes, her character originally shared her name, and yes, she asked them to change it. “Look, if every time you heard someone say Michelle onscreen, and you’re seeing me, there’s a thing that’s happening in your head,” she says. “It’s ‘Michelle Wong, Michelle Yeoh…Michelle Wong, Michelle Yeoh.’ I pictured someone in audience sitting in the theater, someone on screen yells ‘Michelle,’ I turn around and the first thing they think is, ‘My god, why does Michelle Yeoh look so old!?'”
She then lets out a long laugh and explains that it’s not out of vanity that she asked them to switch the name. (One multiverse version of Evelyn is a globally recognized action-movie superstar, and when those sections aren’t borrowing real-life footage of Yeoh on the red carpet, they allow her to look as dolled-up as any human being has ever looked. Should you have dreamed of a Wong Kar-Wai film starring Yeoh as a glamorous celebrity, you are about to be have your dreams come true.) She wanted to honor the people like Evelyn who struggle to keep things from falling apart. Yeoh was ready, willing and more than able to embrace the crazy scenarios and the wacky detours and the outrageous fight scenes that, she said, made her feel like she was briefly, blissfully reliving the heyday of bonkers Hong King cinema. More than anything, she wanted to be truthful to this woman.
“And that required some separation,” she says, taking a big sip of her cocktail. “Look, movie stars — we are pampered. It can be a lot of duh-duh-duh.” She replicates the sound of flashbulbs going off, she pretends she’s exiting a limo and waving to an imaginary crowd. “I work out. Evelyn’s workout is hauling groceries across the street and up flights of stairs. She doesn’t have time to go to the salon and get highlights, or whatever. We got her a wig that says, ‘I have no time and no money to worry about my hair.’ Our costume designer went to Chinatown and got her a bunch of $2 clothes, because that’s what she’d wear. All those reds and crimsons — they’re good luck colors in Chinese culture. Evelyn would be very dedicated to wearing those colors, right?” Yeoh takes another hearty sip, before joking that “Michelle would not be caught dead in those colors!”
So while Yeoh was excited to get to play any number of roles in Everything Everywhere All at Once, the starlet and the Shaolin warrior and the long-fingered, futuristic lover and the piñata Evelyn (don’t ask), it was the ordinary Evelyn that drew her in. Extraordinary women? Her IMDb page is filled with them. The “invisible women” who do not usually get their stories told — that was a role she’d never had a chance to play before.
“You know, they wrote the original lead for Jackie,” Yeoh says, as in Jackie Chan. “The part that Ke [Huy Quan] plays, that was going to be Jackie’s role. And look, I love him — he’s great in these kind of comic roles. But we’ve seen him do these things. We’ve seen that movie. We had not seen this one. When they [Daniels] switched the script around, it felt like this great opportunity.
“And not just for me,” Yeoh adds. “I have been lucky. Extremely lucky. There’s always the idea of, ‘I’ll leave it to fate.’ Bullshit. You need to work hard and the harder you work, the luckier you get. Opportunities present themselves if you’re lucky. If you don’t work hard, they go some place else. But sometimes, you work hard and they still go away. For Evelyn, she finally has an opportunity to realize that, there are all of these universes out there, but you live in this one — and you’d better appreciate what you have in it. And I got to help her realize that.”