Michelle Yeoh Web Theatre

Michelle Yeoh: "As soon as it is done, I escape immedeately onto safe ground."
(AFP photo)
Interview: Michelle Yeoh

"If I am theatened, I run away"

Since being the world's most expensive stuntwoman, Michelle Yeoh doesn't avoid any dangerous film scene. To us the former Bond-Girl spoke about training, "channel vision" and personal fears.

Interview: Marten Rolff
English translation: Joachim Schulz

Actually she is supposed to be tired. At the previous evening, at Norwegian Tromso's film festival, she'd presented her film "Far North". Afterwards she's danced with enthusiastic spectators until late night and hereby strengthened her reputation for being a good buddy-like wonderwoman at the polar cycle too. In spite of that she arrives in time for breakfast in the hotel's cafe. A ball of energie in a screaming red sweater, behind her a broad window which enables a view onto a dramatic fjord-landscape. She touches her three croissants only in order to explain the many injuries that occurred to her during her career. "This is now supposed to be regarded as my spine", she says- and presses the ends of the croissants together until the puff pastry starts crumbling.

SZ: You look in such a good shape... wasn't yesterday's evening very tiresome for you?

Yeoh: Well, that is only what it looks like, I am tired. Usually I go to sleep before midnight and like to get up at six o'clock. But yesterday that didn't work, because the film ended only at one o'clock a.m. . It was strange. When we sneaked back into the auditorium just before the end of the film to answer audience questions, someone was laughing. I very much hope it was nervous laughter.

SZ: That's the bit where you are strangling your daughter to get your hands on her husband?

Yeoh: Yes. It can be too much for emotionally healthy people. The script is based on an Inuit myth about a woman who was expelled from the tribe. It has turned into story about the dark side of human nature, which we will never understand on a normal day sipping our cappuccinos.

SZ: Why did you actually choose this role? Usually your roles are very positive. Often you are rescuing the world.

Yeoh: That was the main reason why I wanted to make this film- the dark side.

SZ: The director, Asif Kapadia, wanted just you for this film. Just like Danny Boyle regarding his recent thriller. He said: "Take whatever role you want, as long as you are in it. We can rectify the scenario later on."

Yeoh: Typical Danny! He could have said as well that the scenario hadn't been finished so far.

SZ: But the point is, that people react on you that way. Many, who talk about you, appear to be really euphoric.

Yeoh: Really? It might sound peculiar but I don't perceive it that way.

SZ: It is extrem: You are apparently a great buddy, earthy and uncomplicated. You are considered an ageless beauty, the "Grace Kelly of Asia". With laser eyes, muscles of steel, velvet hair and an inexplicable depth.

Yeoh: Oh, that is very sweet. Don't stop.

SZ: You've got to explain. Never there is anything negative published. Does one of your films fails, it is said: "The director? Incapable! But Yeoh? Once again great!"

Yeoh: I think I am very straight and honest to tell how I feel. I love my work and take only projects on, if I believe in them. And I am very positive. I try to enjoy every moment.

SZ: That sounds...

Yeoh: ...too simple? That's because it is that simple indeed!

SZ: When you recently became a knight of the French Legion of Honour, you said in you speech: I am still a simple girl from Ipoh.

Yeoh: Yes, we should be honest to ourselves. You cannot forget your roots. Especially in Hollywood is it can easily happen that you take off, because all the time some silly camera is pointed into you direction. But you mustn't let all the glamour take you away. Being an actress is just a job like others and one should love to do it. If one can get to that view, one is saved.

SZ: You grew up as a Chinese girl in Malaysia during the sixties. Must we regard you surroundings as rather conservative?

Yeoh: Rather liberal, traditional as well. For us Chinese the family is the centre of everything. The liberal aspect was that my parents gave me total liberty to chose whatever profession I wanted to take on. When I was 21 years old and wanted to go to Hong Kong for my first film, I showed my contract after some hesitating to my father, who is a lawyer. He glimpsed onto it and said: "This contract is simply rubbish, you give yourself completely into their hands." Then he asked: "When are you going to start?" I said: "Next week." And that was it.

SZ: You liked to do "boy's things" and played for example Rugby. Were you an assertive girl?"

Yeoh: Yes, the only "girl's thing" I liked to do was ballet. But at home I refused to wear a tutu and wanted instead to play with my brother and his friends. I was a girl who loved nature and outdoors activities, and who often went with her father onto the sea for fishing. Later on I played Squash and swam in competitions.

SZ: You are the competitive type, aren't you?

Yeoh: No. I am rather the type who falls for sporty challenges. And that it is certainly something that I inherited from my mother. She's smashing at sports and still play plenty of badminton. While being 68 she appears to be 40. And she's a real showgirl who sings wonderfully and still likes to participate in charity shows. She used to kick us children's butts strongly. In 1983 she registered me for the Miss Malaysia competition. She might have liked to compete herself if she had been younger. I considered it completely crazy.

SZ: Then you did retrieve the crown?

Yeoh: Once I start something, I pull it through till the end. It was rather hard because it was the first time I learned the meaning of stage fright.

SZ: Michelle Yeoh was scared?

Yeoh: Oh, yes, very much indeed. I hate it in particular having to hold a speech in front of a big audience. Then my whole body is trembling. It is terrible.

SZ: That is not at all the impression you provide.

Yeoh: But that's what it is. And do you know what? You never get rid of it, no matter how experienced you are. That is just like my vertigo. On which floor are we now? On the fourth, right? In case you want to torture me, just demand we lean out of this window here.

SZ: The world's most expensive stuntwoman is afraid to leaning out of the window?

Yeoh: Yes, but only in private.

SZ: Oh, come on!

Yeoh: Seriously, it is all about training. My work taught me to control mind and body completely. Even if my knees are weak and my hands are shaking, when I do a stunt I am fully aware: Now it has to be it. A kind of meditating tunnel vision that makes all fears fade away. A test of courage. As soon as it it over I escape instantly to a safe place.

SZ: Challenging as life principle?

Yeoh: That might sound a little exaggerated. But you mustn't ever give in. Not even in a particular difficult situation.

SZ: For example?

Yeoh: After my dance studies at the Royal Academy in London a frustrating diagnosis was: combined disfigurement of pelvis and spine. Perished the dream of ballerina career!

SZ: And how did you deal with that?

Yeoh: The director of the Academy, she was very caring. She explained to me: There are lots of other opportunities associated with dance. At those days I learned that an obstacle becomes only a problem if you indulge it.

SZ: Isn't that a too wise realisation for somebody by the age of 16?

Yeoh: That doesn't have to do anything with wisdom. It is just a question of attitude. Even as a child I'd already been a notoriously optimistic person. After a failure I used to to put myself together again and ask: Okay, what alternatives are there?

SZ: The alternative was then Kung Fu. But wasn't that much harder than ballet?

Yeoh: My orthopedist of those days must think I am insane. But after an injury one can rehabilitate the body. If you train a broken leg perfectly, it often becomes more stable than before. Working with my body took several years.

SZ: Why had it to be Kung Fu?

Yeoh: My first film was one of these action comedies, during the eighties a big deal in Hong Kong. Comedy was out of reach, I needed to learn more Chinese. So I watched these guys doing doing their fighting scenes and it crossed my mind: That's like Jazz Dance. Fascinating!

SZ: So you tried it?

Yeoh: The girls one the set were typical: long-haired, tender, girly. Fortunately the wife of a producer interfered and said: "Listen you guys, in the first place you engage this girl from Malaysia, who is absolutely different, and then you put her into the same drawer as all these Barbie dolls? So the guys said: Okay what would you like to do? And I said: Fighting. They were thinking I was just joking. They were laughing: Ueeeeh, Miss Malaysia wishes to fight! So let sweetheart bring it on then.

SZ: Sounds like hard times.

Yeoh: It wasn't hard, it was hell. The most brutal experienced I ever had. And on the set it was insignificant that I was a girl. Which was actually a good thing. Because that way the situation was clear.

SZ: Please, no special treatment, never?

Yeoh: No. The fighters were professionals who loved what they do. Artists, you ought to to pay them respect. It took some time until I was accepted. Even one year later while filming "Yes, Madam"...

SZ: The very film that made you famous...

Yeoh: ... the director was complaining: Filming with a woman? That's my downfall! Then he remarked: There are two options here, my petite. Either you get this here done. Or you are just posing, carring out some gestures with your hands while screaming: "Hua! Haa-Iiieh!" and leaving the rest to doubles.

SZ: So you packed two pumpguns and a flamethrower onto your back and went into war.

Yeoh: Something like that. It was a question of honour. You don't run away crying when you're hit by a kick. For weeks we have beaten the souls out of each other mutually. in my first film I was stumbling around with a heavy gun I could hardly hold. I looked unfit. Once the director grabbed my arm, saying Oh dear, girl, how dirty you are. He tried to wipe off the dust but failed. It turned out to be bruises. He then taught me some tricks to avoid injuries.

SZ: What is your understanding of being tough?

Yeoh: Sincerity, be honest to yourself, carry things to the very end, that's it.

SZ: And why did this tough girl who succeeded so quickly all over Asia, retire in order to marry her producer, the billionaire Dickson Poon?

Yeoh: My boss. The classic! So I am a traditional girl after all.

SZ: He wanted you to be a house-wife?

Yeoh: No, here we ought to pay Dickson fairness. It was me who decided to withdraw because I loved him and don't like to do things with less than my full heart! The marriage failed because in the end things did not work out. But not because I felt locked up.

SZ: Then you became the most expensive actress of Asia. The first woman to be fully accepted by Jackie Chan.

Yeoh: Jackie uses to say: There are only two women I am afraid of: my mother and Michelle Yeoh. Whereas this male chauvinist thing also has a loving side. They just want to protect us. One has to assure them briefly then: Darling, don't worry, I am fine.

SZ: You seem to be fine when you are suffering for your films, no matter whether you need to learn how to jump onto roofs by being pulled with iron ropes or tieing your legs in order to walk like a Geisha. What drives you to do these things?

Yeoh: Perhaps it fascinates me to suffer because it assures me I am learning. In true live I would never take such burdens, but for a film I do. In "Far North" I acted as an Inuit. For that purpose I learned how to skin a reindeer. I've never felt more proud than at the moment when my teacher told me: You look like one of us. In private life I cannot even chop a chicken. Whatever helps you to play a role: Just do it!

SZ: The consequences of your attitude were: broken rips, bruises of the spine, torn arteries and ligaments, brain trauma and knee operations

Yeoh: It hit me worst in 1995 while filming a stunt for "Ah Kam". I was supposed to jump from 6 metres onto a mattress, which I missed unfortunately. I crashed onto the street and as a result my back was bent so bad that I hit my head with my own feet.

SZ: Damn! How does one behave after such an accident?

Yeoh: Pragmatically. In the first place you are in need of a good doctor. in the hospital I was fixed up to my head. But I was able to move my fingers, which was comforting. Seems everything was still working.

SZ: Quentin Tarantino was incredibly intrigued by this accident.

Yeoh: Yes, He wanted to visit me in hospital. The sisters tried to persuade me: Tarantino! You must meet him. I said: No way, I cannot even lift my arm. Two weeks later he announced he would visit me at my home. When he came by, I was laying on my couch, with a stand for my arm. A giant who I'd never met before, trampled up the stairs, sat on the ground and started quoting lines from my films.

SZ: Lines from action films?

Yeoh: Yes, he had memorized all of them. And moreover all of the stunts that became later on models for his "Kill Bil" films. In order to describe the scenes he used to shout Huuaa, hoo und Iiiihhh. We had a lot of fun. His liveliness overwhelmed me. He really lifted me up.

SZ: You are a role model for Asia. The Times wrote once: "Yeoh's career has destroyed all cliches and stereotypes concerning Asian women in the heads of Western European for all times."

Yeoh: I appreciate that. In older films women are often portrayed as china dolls, aesthetic creatures, often as prostitutes. Taking on such a role means to straighting cliches. I would really love it if my roles should have helped to change that. It was obviously fascinating to watch a girl fighting for the first time. Women were elated and men found it sexy.

SZ: You did say once there weren't any bigger male chauvinists than Chinese men...

Yeoh: And they are proud of it!

SZ: ... and that you thought action films are fun to make because there was no other opportunity to kick five guys simultaneously.

Yeoh: Fun? I am not sure whether I would still say that. It was sports. A game, neither related to the battle of the sexes nor to reality. In real life I would never use Kung Fu. If threatened, I escape. In a fight there is no winner. Only injures.

SZ: If the battle of the sexes was irrelevant, then why did you refuse for so long to become a Bond-Girl?

Yeoh: I considered it impossible to imagine. A college had told me once: Michelle, you would be a great Bond girl. I threw a cushion after him! Do I look like a Barbie doll by any chance? Like a person who cries "Help me, James!" If I'd imagined acting in a James Bond film beforehand, I'd always be James Bond myself.

SZ: Okay, let's say it is at least a fascinating idea.

Yeoh: Yes, isn't it? He has all the joy and the marvellous gadgets. At the end, it was nice but it was the Bond girl I played of course.

SZ: Whoever did read news on the filming of "Tomorrow never dies" had the impression that Michelle Yeoh was the only real tough guy on the set.

Yeoh: There were rumours that I did my own stunts and Pierce Brosnan did not. That was not true. He even got himself a bleeding lip. I believe the discussion was initially started by the scene where we crossed a valley by bike on a narrow bridge. Pierce was doubled because of the concerns regarding my safety, since he would have been the driver. I was on the bike with his double because I was nothing more than the mouse who grabbed him from behind. To be honest: I enjoyed it. By the way, I also appreciate it when a man keeps the door open for me.

SZ: Why do you appear so much softer in your latter roles? In "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", for example, you abstain the love of your life because of the tradition.

Yeoh: I believe that the roles also look for actors. In "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" my role fit the dreams of Ang Lee. His film had waited for me. My birth as an actress! Ang brings the characters to life like nobody else did. His protagonists can suppress their feelings but they are nonetheless visible.

SZ: Ang Lee said that the point he loves most is, when the fassade crumbles and the strong women give in confronted by their own vulnerability.

Yeoh: Yes, we pull ourselves together till then, trying to not to appear fragile. Sometimes we might overdo it. It is amazing, how precisely Ang Lee aims for this point. You become very vulnerable at his set. That was a new experience for me.

SZ: Since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" you incarnate the global actress second to nobody. What distinguishes the life of an American, European or Asian film star?

Yeoh: Concerning the quality There is no difference. I am thankful for my work being accepted in different cultures. Previously I would be in the U.S. or European films only for roles written for a Chinese character. That has changed. Many people criticized "Memoirs of a Geisha" because three Chinese women played Japanese women. But that is what actors do: play a role. In my next film, "Babylon A.D.", I play a French nun at the side of Gerard Depardieu. As a Chinese! That's how it should be!

SZ: Where will Michelle Yeoh be after another ten years?

Yeoh: In a happy place. I live for every day. Perhaps you want to sail with me into the Antarctic tomorrow? I'm here!

SZ: I was thinking you are more interested in cars. You are now for four years with Ferrari's boss Jean Todt. When will you finally pilot a Formula 1 racing car?

Yeoh: I did once drive a Ferrari, which was amazing, but I swear: As a driver I am terrible.

SZ: Said by a woman who jumps with a Harley from a bridge and lands on the roof of Jackie Chan's truck.

Yeoh: That was film work, my dear. Illusion. It is easy to look good on a motor bike if the street is blocked for anybody else but you and a whole team is working on letting you look like a heroine.

Michelle Yeoh, 45, grew up as a daughter of Chinese immigrants in Ipoh, Malaysia. Because of a spine injury the the lawyer's daughter gave up her career as a ballet dancer. After being elected as Miss Malaysia she went at the beginning of the Eighties to Hong Kong where she learned Kung Fu in order to make martial arts films. At the side of Jackie Chan she quickly became the first female action film star, role model and most expensive actress of Asia. She had her international breakthrough in 1997 as a Bond Girl in "Tomorrow never die". Since then Yeoh is filming with directors like Rob Marshall, Ang Lee and Danny Boyle. Yeoh is engaged to Ferrari's CEO Jean Todt and lives most of the time in Paris.

Original article in German
English translation by Joachim Schulz