For years, Michelle Yeoh has lived and breathed the iconic Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi. In this exclusive interview, the actress speaks candidly to Mark Tjhung about how her controversial new movie The Lady changed her life forever.
As she swivels on her make-up stool while elegantly attired in a leggy champagne one-piece, Michelle Yeoh hardly resembles a kung fu movie star. She bubbles with an exuberant air, laughs in a way that shakes her tiny frame and, perhaps most strikingly of all, even at the age of 49, radiates a youthful grace – all characteristics that suggest ‘beauty queen’ far more than ‘stunt starlet’.
It was decades ago that the Malaysian-born actress was first branded with the ‘action girl’ tag. She’s since been labelled as ‘Hong Kong’s Martial Arts Mistress’ and even ‘Asia’s Queen of Action’. Indeed, her breakout movies, from 1992’s Police Story 3 to The Heroic Trio and Yuen Woo-ping’s Tai Chi Master, all possessed a combative twist; and the films that propelled her to global fame – her motorcycling Bond Girl role in Tomorrow Never Dies and Ang Lee’s elegant, wildly-acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – followed a distinctly ‘physical’ path. Yet in recent years, Yeoh has taken on more expansive, diverse roles outside the asskicking genre and, somewhat ironically, her latest role – easily the most important of her career – is about as non-violent as it gets.
In Luc Besson’s upcoming The Lady, Yeoh portrays Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered Burmese Nobel Peace Prize-winning freedom fighter who has led the non-violent opposition against Burma’s military junta. Yeoh has described this as the role of a lifetime. There have been whisperings about the potential for an Oscar nod, and The Lady, after debuting at the Toronto Film Festival last month, has already started making waves on both cinematic and political fronts.
In her first in-depth interview since the movie’s world premiere screening, the actress talks exclusively with Time Out about being deported from Burma and living, breathing (and then finally meeting) The Lady herself.
Congratulations on The Lady. We heard you’ve been working on this role for years – how does it feel to finally have the movie out there?
Sometimes, having a film out there is a little daunting. It depends on what kind of a movie it is. If it’s the Mummy 3 or Kung Fu Panda 2, you know it’s a fun movie. But this time, with The Lady, I’m much more nervous, very very nervous. I always put my best into all the films that I do. But this time, it’s become more than just a movie.
In what way?
You put a lot of pressure on yourself because Daw Suu is such an iconic figure, because of what she represents and how she has over the years carried herself. A lot of the time she was completely isolated. So you feel that, not just for her, not just for the people of Burma, also for anybody who believes that we should have freedom and the basic human rights. It sort of overwhelms you and you feel very humble. I think I’ve learnt a lot of things along the way about strength, about selflessness, about love. I think when you come into a movie like that, you feel like you’ve taken so much from it that you hope the audience would love the experience or get just as much as you have.
Spending so many years working on this role, how emotional was playing Daw Suu?
Oooh... I think it’s because of the emotional rollercoaster ride that she had to go through. Her journey was drawn out over 10 years, but when we filmed in Thailand, we had to do it over two and a half months. So it’s many years of very intense emotions – whether it was very happy moments to very sad, grief stricken moments. You had to really feel it before you can express it and be able to change over the periods of time. So it wasn’t easy. The camera doesn’t lie and that’s the trickiest part for us. You can only see the real vulnerability if you feel it.
How did you get to that stage?
Just doing it. Really, there’s no two ways about it. Before I even opened my eyes, I could hear myself speaking in Burmese. It has to be so ingrained in you, that it seemed that you are instinctively doing that. That you naturally would speak like this or behave like that, and the only way you can do that is to constantly do your research. I would watch her I don’t know how many hours a day. Read the books she would read, so you have an understanding of where she’s coming from. It’s one thing trying looking like her, with hair and great makeup and a little bit of prosthetics, but you can only do a pose, you can only mimic the gestures. At the end of the day, to be able to say the lines and for you to believe that it was her that was telling you all this, the only way to do it is to try to understand and go behind all that.
Before the filming, did you have any contact with Daw Suu?
Absolutely none. She was under house arrest at the time. But we had her blessing and managed to get a message in – I don’t know how. And she knew we were going to film it, [yet] I don’t think any of us would have wanted to expose her life. You did eventually meet her, just after she was released from house arrest late last year. Tell us about that meeting.When I first met her, you stand there and you go, wow. You are thinking ‘I’m going to meet her. What am I going to say and how am I going to say it?’ I’ve been living with this person for four or five years, with her every day. Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is listen to her voice, read her speech, read the books that she reads. And then I turn around and she was just standing there. You know when you are going to meet the biggest fan of yours, and you know how they must feel like [hits chest, mimicking heart beating]. And all she did was [gestures a hug]. I had spoken to her a few times before and she just gave me the biggest hug. You feel like, I know this person and she feels like she knows me.
What does one do when meeting Daw Suu?
We just sat and talked and she was telling us how she was so busy. Since her release from house arrest, everybody wanted to see her. She hadn’t had any contact with anybody in the last 10 years. She hadn’t seen Kim [her son] in 10 years, before they put her under house arrest again. She said ‘I’m so sorry, my place is such a mess. There is a cat here somewhere’. Someone had given her a cat as a gift and she said, ‘I literally don’t know what to do with this $6,000 cat.’ He was hiding in her bookshelf. She was surrounded by books and you feel that these have been her companions in the times that she had been by herself.
So you met her in the house?
Yes. And it was very surreal because we had built the house to scale. Luc [Besson, the director] and his team, from photographs and from Google Earth, they measured every detail. And then when you walk into the house, you think ‘how come her curtains are red. They’re not supposed to be’. But then you go ‘Oh my God, this is her place, this is not my place’.
What first attracted you to this role, this movie?
The interesting thing about this movie is don’t go in and think you’re going to see the killing fields, or that you’re going to see a true political struggle for democracy. Because I think, from TV, from newsflashes, you can see that struggle, that fight and the atrocities that go on. It was the love story that first moved me. Because with the political thing, what I thought most was ‘how does someone be so strong and be so filled with conviction’, because you take on the hopes of millions of people onto your shoulders. And the thing was, they were very happy if she left and the door was always open for her to say ‘I can’t take this any more, I need to get out of here’. But this whole family made the choice that this was the thing to do.
I understand you met her once with her son, Kim, and it was one of their first reunions. That must have been very interesting...
Of course. It was nice. I met Kim. The first thing he said, I will never forget is ‘May May is a lot slimmer than you’. [Laughs]
Yes. The first words that came out of his mouth. And the good thing is he loves action movies, so he knows who I am. I was thinking ‘it’s true.’ We had thousands of photographs of her and I would have them all on the wall, I could see her, the way she smiled, and she is very slight. I lost about 8kg to play her. And it was a lot because I’m about 47kg at best. So going down to that, I was shockingly thin. Of course, she had a hunger strike, so it was perfect. [Laughs]
You saw her right after she was released from house arrest in 2010. What kind of spirit was she in?
During house arrest, she had the barest of things. So she wasn’t in perfect health. But you feel a great inner strength. You feel that she is ready to meet the world and that she’s prepared for everything and anything that’s thrown her way. She’s very together and you feel a great sense of calm but energy.
After this intense role, do you feel inextricably linked to her now?
I don’t think I will ever be able to depart from that. Normally, after a role, you always have to know that when you walk into a character, you have to step back out. So when I did Memoirs of a Geisha, you walk into that world and you live that, and then afterwards it’s like a beautiful kimono and you fold it up and put it back in a box. It will always stay with you but it’s not you. But with this one, because the nature of the character is so different, you can learn so much to be a better person, there are many things that I will always try and keep, because it’s very inspiring.
By the time you met Daw Suu, you’d almost finished the movie. We heard about your deportation from Burma earlier this year, but how did you get into the country the first time?
I think when I was the only one who had the visa and was allowed to go, everybody was a little worried. The whole set – Luc, Virginie [Besson-Silla, one of the producers], all the French, everyone, had their visas rejected. They basically said no. Then we went back and Virginie said ‘everyone is rejected except for you’. We checked with the embassy in Thailand and then I asked my family to check with the embassy in Malaysia again, just to make sure and they said ‘no problem. You can go’. So Luc was the cutest. [Laughs] He said ‘maybe you should go next weekend, because next week we still have some scenes that you still need to do first, and then the week after that, in case you get delayed, we can always do that back in Paris’. And I’m thinking ‘you’re thinking I will get delayed or detained!?’
That’s quite prophetic, considering what happened to you later. Tell us what happened to you at the Burmese border earlier this June.
I got there. I had been there before and I loved the country. The people are so beautiful and the place is truly magnificent. We had already planned where we wanted to go, and Luc and Virginie had their visas, so we were all going to go and be one big happy family. In hindsight, a lot of my friends were very worried.
The first time when I went to see Daw Suu, there was no news that we were making the film. A lot of the people thought that we hadn’t even started and that we were thinking about making the film. I remember when I was leaving I bumped into a lot of reporters that immediately reported that I was there to see Daw Suu, we were going to make a movie together – and I was thinking ‘huh? No.’ This is the information they were spinning out. So everybody knew I was going to Burma and that we were making the film. In Thailand, it was front page that we had been filming there.
But the second time you went, filming had finished.
Yes, it was completely finished. Maybe I was just too foolish and naïve to think they would let me in. Honestly, [before that], I was like ‘yes, they’re ready for dialogue. They don’t have a problem with this. This actress is making a movie about our country and it’s about a past, it’s about a historical time and it’s not now’. We’re not talking about now, we’re talking about something that happened a long time ago.
So you went back…
So, in my naivety, I went back. I get off the plane, I march in and I’m happy. The girl was like ‘can I take a picture of you?’ because she was a fan. But then an officer came and I asked him ‘can I help you with anything?’ He said, ‘no no no’.
And the next thing I know, that turned into ‘no, no, no, no, no’
[you can’t come in]. They just said I’m sorry, no explanations. Nothing. I was very disappointed. I was thinking, ‘why would you deny me to go into your country?’
Was there any hostility?
No. At no point, honestly, did I feel that they are coming at me. They were always cordial, they always smiled at me. The only thing was that they couldn’t explain why and just said I’m so sorry.
So they never gave you any specific reasons?
No. No specific reasons, just kept on saying ‘we’re so sorry’.
How did you react?
I was like ‘oh come on’. There’s no reason for you not to let me in – I said I’m a very sweet person [Laughs]. They were actually very sweet. And then they escorted me out, back onto Thai Airways, and I was in the same chair.
With the film already finished, why were you going back to Burma on that occasion?
We were going to meet Daw Suu. Luc and Virginie, who had never met her, got their visas and were coming in. So we decided that we would go as her other family, to come and pay our respects. There were a few specific places that I wanted to visit as well.
Will you go back again?
I will keep trying. I hope that one day very soon, they will relax. None of us have any inclinations to say anything bad about them. We were just asking for things that any human being would ask for, like why are you keeping 2,000-odd political prisoners still in prison, with the elections over, to show a gesture of real goodwill and that you’re ready to have dialogue and talk and make sure that your country becomes better, nobody wants harm to come to anyone.
It’s an interesting symbolic gesture to ban you, an actor playing Daw Suu.
Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of people were upset about that. I think they just wanted to show how closed they were. Just as we thought that maybe they had opened up, they just go and do something like that. That’s why I was deeply, deeply disappointed. But I won’t give up hope. I will continue to try and go back again.
Do you have plans to return?
Oh yes. Yes.
I don’t know. I had better not tell you.
Do you think you’ll be allowed to go back?
I hope so. That’s one thing we all need is hope.
Obviously, it’s been a politically sensitive role. Did you ever have any reservations about taking the role?
No. Not for a moment. I think as an actor, when you are afraid to do things like that, I don’t think you’re in the right job. I think we have to use our medium as best as we can. And, of course, it depends on where you want to shoot and the stories that you want to tell. I think you have to be bold and brave, because you can’t live in fear and you can’t work in fear, to always do less than what is the right thing to do. There’s no way to tell the story any other way.
Presumably the movie will be banned in Burma.
Do you think it will be banned in Malaysia?
Absolutely not! We already have distribution. My government has been very supportive on this, together with the Singapore government. In fact, they wanted to plan a big premiere over there, and in Malaysia, where they would invite the ASEAN community. Because we are part of the ASEAN group, [and we want] to show that a movie is a way we creative people express ourselves. And we would love to invite the Burmese envoy to come and watch it.
What about mainland China? Do you think it will be banned there?
The biggest difficulty with mainland China is that if you’re not a co-production, you fall under the 20 foreign films category. But we are going to do all the right things, we’re going to hand it in to censorship, we will try our very best because I know that the interest has been very high. Phoenix TV did a very intense, in-depth documentary on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi I remember when I was doing my research. It was very well done and I honestly don’t see why [it would be banned]. We’re not trying to interfere with other people’s policies, we are telling the story from a more human side – more about the husband and what he tried to do while she was under house arrest. So it’s not one-sided. We will try our very best. As we were going up the red carpet, we actually had the Burmese community come to greet me and to thank us for doing the film, because it will raise the awareness to their plight. At least people will remember who the Burmese are, who Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is and why she’s in the position she is.
What do you hope the film does for Burma’s situation?
Right now, I think the more people that see it, the more talk there will be about it. And we hope that will just continue to grow and flourish and that will raise the awareness for the Burmese people. I think it’s a really beautiful story and if you don’t understand the story, you will just see the lady with the long name. You know some people don’t even know who she is, especially in certain parts of the world. In Asia, this is our part of the world, so these people are much more close to home. But we would like [people in other parts of the world] to know, because at the end of the day, it’s not just about her. It’s the general message about freedom, human rights and what we all have – and that what we have to do to protect it for our future generations.
Daw Suu has been released from house arrest now and she’s starting to make political appearances. What do you think is going to happen next?
Nobody knows. That’s the thing. Who is the adviser to them? You hope that whoever is the one that sits there and takes all of these decisions is a very smart person who has the goodness of his or her people at heart, not just for the specific few. It’s not to be afraid that they will be wiped out or anything like that. So that’s the biggest problem. Unless they open and come to talk. Every day you are hoping that there is the big news that says finally, they are going to meet and sit down and talk about how the future of Burma could be jointly [governed]. I’m sure both sides want the best for the country, because when things get better, it benefits everyone. It’s a simple equation.
But there have been some incidents in the past, such as assassination attempts on Daw Suu’s life. Do you fear for her safety?
That’s one thing that you learn from her. I think she is immortal. If you did something to her, that would be even more stupid than anything else. The thing is to sit down and talk. It’s so obvious she wants to help. But the people who are in power cannot be that silly.
There have been murmurings about an Oscar nomination. Do you pay any attention to that?
Ahhhh... No. You can’t because when you make the movie, that’s not why you start off doing that film. Of course, it’s very flattering and exciting for your friends. You feel very humble and touched that they would even think that you have a chance to be that. We were constantly in search of this role that was complex, that makes you feel, that kicks you in the gut, a role that will challenge you beyond things that you’ve done before, that you can be better at your craft. So you have no time, you don’t even think about that, because you are so relishing the opportunity…
How does you think this role fits within the context of your career?
If you look at all of my roles, they’re pretty [does snaking action] diversified. Even if it’s from action films to non-action films, one day I’m an astronaut with Danny Boyle, and then I’m a reindeer herder in the North Pole. All these characters are not me. But then suddenly, one comes along like this that is so inspiring and you know that millions have been inspired. And we don’t have that many iconic figures, particularly in this generation. So you feel so gratified that you have been given that opportunity.
A lot of actors have found it hard to go from action star to doing something more dramatic – particularly Chinese stars like Jackie Chan or Jet Li. How did you find that transition?
You just grit your teeth and do it. You just have to be bold. In Hong Kong, they put you in a box very quickly. It’s very simple and it goes by numbers. You’re a big action star and one of the highest grossing movies in Asia is action movies or comedies. So why would you be allowed to do something different if you have a guarantee of big, beautiful box office numbers. [In America] their scripts are so diversified, they don’t need you to be boxed in. I’ve been very lucky. I can choose. After I did the Bond movie, I didn’t do anything for three years, until I did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I could have had many roles, but you choose to make your roles different. And I think that’s what you have to do intentionally. So I think I’ve been able to have a more diverse [choice of roles]. It’s very strange because when I do an action film, people say ‘don’t you have to do a dramatic role?’ Or then I do a dramatic role and they go ‘don’t you like to do action movies any more?’
Working on this role for so long, have you had time to work on any of your other projects?
I’m not a great multitasker. So the good thing is I’ve been able to balance it with my Road Safety Work. When The Lady was waiting for her world debut, I’ve been travelling with Jean [Todt, Yeoh’s partner]. We were in Central America – we did eight countries in eight days. We launched the United Nations decade for action of Road Safety in May and it’s been a few years of work. It was very good because while I was doing that I was researching Daw Suu. It was a very good space.
It sounds like you’ve been travelling a lot with all of these projects. Where do you feel most at home nowadays?
Hong Kong is one. I started my career here and when I come back, everything is familiar. Malaysia is always going to be home, but now I’m getting used to being in Paris or Geneva.
Are you spending a lot of time in Europe now?
Yes, because of Jean. The FIA has headquarters in Geneva and Paris, so between the two of us, we spend most of our time on planes. We try to catch up with each other. I came from Paris to Beijing for the awards, then to Hong Kong, then to Malaysia, then I came back here to go to Toronto. We’ll meet in Singapore, and then after that we’ll go back to Paris.
So what comes next? What ambitions do you have?
I don’t. Some people think I’m very, very ambitious. But I think I’m just extremely lucky and hard working. And disciplined. And I find or choose to do a project, then I’m very committed, wholeheartedly. And I ensure that I will do my very best, for better or for worse. After that, I don’t sit and plan and go ‘the next one I’m going to do this, because it will make me that…’ Once you start making very definitive plans, you actually limit yourself. And if you’re going to do that, what if something else comes along?
The Lady opens first in France on November 30. Join Amnesty International’s Three Freedoms for Burma project at 3freedoms.amnesty.org