Michelle Yeoh’s Multi-Universal Appeal
Michelle Yeoh is her own special effect. With no more than some wires and a background in ballet to guide her, the 59-year-old Malaysian actor has been at the center of some of the most astonishing martial arts sequences to ever make it to the big screen, including her early days in the Wild West of Hong Kong action cinema, and her star-making role (at least in North America) in Ang Lee’s watershed epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. All of it has led up to Everything Everywhere All at Once, a mind-bending sci-fi flick that showcases what makes Yeoh an indelible performer. It left her friend, the actor Paul Giamatti, breathless.
PAUL GIAMATTI: So, I saw Everything Everywhere All at Once (1) last week. I had absolutely no idea what I was about to see, which is the best way to see this movie. It was amazing. I’m not just saying this to kiss your ass, but it was one of my favorite things that I’ve seen in a long time. You were incredible in it.
MICHELLE YEOH: I’m blushing!
GIAMATTI: You were really funny.
YEOH: And I’m not known to be funny.
GIAMATTI: Maybe not, but I had a feeling that you could be.
YEOH: The big fear in the back of my mind was, can I actually pull it off ? But what I love about the character is that she’s funny without trying to be funny. She’s taking it all very seriously.
GIAMATTI: It’s that deadpan, downbeat person who’s funny just because they are that way.
YEOH: You’ve played many characters like that.
GIAMATTI: Oh, yes. I thought, “Wow, she’s playing a character like I play all of the time. That’s fantastic.”
YEOH: I haven’t played roles like this before. When I read the script, I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to do this ‘hotdog fingers’ thing. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what the Daniels are trying to say here.” (2) But they moved me so deeply with their passion, their commitment to pop culture.
GIAMATTI: There’s an incredible improvised feel to the movie, like it’s making itself up as it goes along. Random shit is happening, and you’re like, “Where the hell is this going to go next?” But it was obviously tightly controlled. It must have been like that on the page.
YEOH: It was. It was set in the minds of these two evil geniuses. They knew where they were going and each move was critical to the next step. There was no chaos or randomness about what they were doing.
GIAMATTI: It still feels so random and chaotic, in a great way.
YEOH: They want to throw the audience off balance. I said to them, “I’m entrusting myself to you completely,” because there were some scenes where I was going, “Where am I? What am I doing? How?”
GIAMATTI: Did somebody have to remind you which reality you were in?
YEOH: The Daniels were constantly reminding me of stuff like that. But one thing that was very clear from the beginning was, in whichever universe I was in, it was the same Evelyn. That was the consistent element I could hold onto like a life buoy.
GIAMATTI: At a certain point, there’s a reality in which you’re almost Michelle Yeoh. I’m a sucker for a movie that suddenly pulls in actual footage of you walking a red carpet.
YEOH: In the beginning, the character was originally called Michelle Wang instead of “Evelyn Wang,” and I said,“No, no, no.”
GIAMATTI: Why didn’t you want it to be your name?
YEOH: Because I don’t want you to watch the movie and see Michelle Yeoh. If the character is called Michelle, you’ll be constantly thinking,“It’s Michelle up there.”
GIAMATTI: That’s smart. In the movie I’m doing now, my character’s name is Paul. I get very thrown by it. But there’s just the right amount of references to you being a martial arts star.
YEOH: I love the martial arts we did, but I’ll admit, when I had to do that butt-plug fight—oh my god.
GIAMATTI: That was insane. The second I saw that, I was like, “It looks like a butt plug. Something’s going to happen with this thing.”
YEOH: I know! When my character is going through the multiverse and trying to learn all these skills, the one thing the Daniels told me was, “Don’t look like you know what you’re doing.” I was like, “I’ve spent years mastering that calm, serene look. Now you want me to look confused while I’m fighting?”
GIAMATTI: That’s got to be a funny thing to have to try to unlearn. Did you improvise any dialogue?
YEOH: A little with Stephanie [Hsu], who is so brilliant. She’d do one thing, and then she’d do something completely different, which was great for my character, because she’s always confused. She’s like, “What the hell are you doing?” And that’s supposed to be her daughter, so that relationship was quite poetic.
GIAMATTI: It was. Her being this chaotic element, a daughter that you don’t understand. A child that is a mystery to you.
YEOH: It’s so prevalent in our society, especially with my generation and the next generation. With the internet, the gadgets, the games they play. I don’t understand it at all.
GIAMATTI: Do you have kids?
YEOH: I don’t, but I have six godchildren, so they’re pretty much like my kids. I see how they are with their mother. They always say, “You don’t understand us.” And in a way, we don’t, because they live in a world that moves so fast. It’s overwhelming.
GIAMATTI: And the opportunity to live in unreal places—these simulated realms—is off the charts.
YEOH: They have avatars, and that’s something that I don’t understand.
GIAMATTI: Nothing like this has ever existed before. But you put your finger on the thing that’s really true—how fast everything’s happening.What people are consuming and the amount of it isn’t necessarily great, but the speed that it’s coming at people is really bad.
YEOH: It’s kind of scary.
GIAMATTI: You can lose touch, for sure. Are you still doing most of your own stunts?
YEOH: Yes. I love it. I train every day. I make it part of my life so I don’t feel like, “I’m going to do this movie, so I better get back into shape.” I’ve always enjoyed the discipline of it, so it’s very much part of my routine.
GIAMATTI: You started out as a dancer, right?
YEOH: A ballerina. My dream at the time was to have my own ballet school back home in Malaysia.
GIAMATTI: When did martial arts become a thing?
YEOH: During my first action movie back in Hong Kong (3).
GIAMATTI: I’m guessing the transition probably wasn’t as hard since you were already an athlete.
YEOH: It’s all about movement and the transition of energy. So going from one form of movement to another took a little bit of adjustment, but it was relatively easy because I’m used to remembering steps and motion, and then it was just learning how to transfer the energy differently. With ballet, everything’s very graceful. It looks effortless. But with martial arts, it has to look powerful. It can be effortless, but at the same time you must feel the pain. Or the punch. So I loved learning that. In fact, for the first few years, I walked around thinking I was invincible. It went to my head.
GIAMATTI: Well, I sure look at you and think you’re invincible. Did the transition to being an actor feel natural, too? You were already a performer, and I feel like for people who come from the discipline of dance, there’s a natural path because you already have a mastery of expressing yourself, body-wise.
YEOH: It was the worst transition.
YEOH: When I was doing my degree in dance, for one of my credits, I took drama. I thought, “This will help with my body language.” Then I discovered stage fright, which I never thought I had. When I expressed myself through movement, I loved performing. But the minute I had to open my mouth and say words, I lost it. I started sweating profusely, my legs lost control. I was so bad!
GIAMATTI: I don’t believe it.
YEOH: Just thinking about it is scary.
GIAMATTI: You wouldn’t go on stage?
YEOH: Oh, no.
GIAMATTI: Was acting on film less terrifying because there’s no audience?
YEOH: Yes, and in Hong Kong at that time, nobody knew their lines because there were no scripts. It was like, “Just go in there, and they’ll tell you what to say.”
GIAMATTI: That’s fascinating. So the fights were the focus, and then they told you what to say in the moment?
YEOH: On the day. Sometimes we’d have someone shout out the lines, or we were just like, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H.” Literally, I had scenes where I’ve said things like that, because at that time, it wasn’t recorded. They’d dub whatever we shot, so none of us used our own voices.
GIAMATTI: Somebody else did your voice?
YEOH: Yeah. The first time I recorded my own voice was Supercop, the movie I did with Jackie [Chan].
GIAMATTI: Did you ever improvise fights?
GIAMATTI: How far ahead of time are fights worked out?
YEOH: It was on set. Even for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (4), none of the moves were thought out until I came on set. They’d say, “Okay, now you’re going to run across the wall and jump down there.” You’d learn like ten moves, do it well, and then move on. You didn’t have to remember the whole fight sequence.
GIAMATTI: Wow. That’s interesting, because I never do this stuff. I usually sit behind a desk. [Laughs]
YEOH: I’m so envious!
GIAMATTI: It makes sense. You can’t know what you’re going to do in the space with the cameras until you’re there.
YEOH: In the old days, we didn’t have the luxury of time. We just did it. Now, you can think it out. It’s much improved in many ways, especially for actors who don’t know martial arts as well. I’ve mostly worked with actors who know martial arts really well, and when you fight with those people, they’re so well equipped. There’s very little error. But it can be dangerous when you work with someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
GIAMATTI: There’s an interesting clip from a long time ago of Jackie Chan working with this guy who was just a beat off, and I could tell Jackie’s worried that this guy’s going to punch him in the face.
YEOH: That’s the truth. When I was doing Star Trek: Discovery, there was an actor who loved doing his own stunts, but he was always just a little bit off. I had to remind him, “You’re too close, and you don’t need to be so close.” And sure enough, when I stepped away from that set, he punched a double right in the face.
GIAMATTI: It’s such a drag when I hear that kind of thing.
YEOH: Yeah. There’s a sense of control and discipline you must always maintain when you’re fighting. It’s a respect that you give to your fellow actor or to your fellow stunt person. And when you can find that mutual respect, that’s when you can see these incredible motions lit on fire. When I was fighting with the brothers in that butt-plug scene, we had so much fun. But I spent like five minutes on the ground laughing hysterically, because I was like, “How am I going to explain this to my mom?”
GIAMATTI: Is your mother going to see this?!
YEOH: She’s my biggest fan. But I’m going to have to find a way to distract her when Stephanie is flinging the dildos around.
GIAMATTI: Is there anything that you wouldn’t do?
YEOH: There are some stunts where I remind myself, “You’ve been there. You’ve done that. You have nothing to prove, so get off that ledge.” With all the effects and the much better wire work, it’s a lot safer. But it gets to a point where I have to remember, “You’re not Superwoman.”
GIAMATTI: Do you like those kinds of movies? Science Fiction action stuff ?
YEOH: When else do you get a chance to beat up five bad guys at the same time and still come out on top?
GIAMATTI: Absolutely. I never get that chance.
- In the sci-fi action movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, Yeoh plays a Chinese immigrant who travels through the multiverse and meets different versions of herself in a quest to save the world.
- Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are the directing duo known as the Daniels. Their previous movie was Swiss Army Man.
- Yeoh shot to fame in the ’90s after starring in a series of Hong Kong action movies where she did her own stunts.
- The movie that made Yeoh a star in the United States.
Hair: Yumiko Hikage using Hair Rituel by Sisley
Makeup: William Bartel at Artlist
Production: Cinq Etoiles Productions
Tailor: Marion Robillard
Photography Assistant: Lisa Marleen Müller
Fashion Assistant: Camelia Tlemçani
Location: Hôtel De Berri Paris Champs-Elysées.