"Blatt Lerret": Meeting with Michelle YeohSpecial "Blatt Lerret" session with Michelle on Friday January 18th during the Tromso International Film Festival, organized by RUSHPRINT.
Watch Video: Meeting with Michelle Yeoh   (15:21, "Blatt Lerret")
Download Video:  HQ (44Mb),  LowQ (15Mb)     * Avi/DivX videos can be played by DivX Player.
Host Kjetil Lismoen: I was thinking of asking you, you are a girl from the tropics.
Michelle Yeoh: I am! I'm from Malaysia! What am I doing here? I'm freezing to death!
Host: Exactly. What was it about this project that made you want to do it? What was it that drove you to do it?
Michelle: When I first heard about it, my agent -- you know, us actors, we have agents in Hollywood who sit there in their cushy offices -- and he called me and said, "I just read a very very interesting, a very well written script, and I think you would be very interested because the director is young and brilliant and from London. So he sent it to me and I read it. The opening few pages was about this man who was running through the snow naked...and I'm thinking, "Wow, this is really rare! Who would be running naked in the snow?" I mean, you'd die right away! So I was completely fascinated and I kept reading. By the time I got to the end, I called my agent and said, "Is there a reason why you think I'm very suited for this story?" Because it was a really bizarre tale, and I could not understand right away. I had to read it again, and then I had Asif's "Warrior", the movie he directed, and I was completely taken by this very talented director. I think as an actor I would love when I see a movie where it's not always talking. (gestures) Now someone walks through the door, then I'm going to go out with him and guess what? We're going into the car and we're going to drive round the corner and we're da-ta-da-ta-da. It's very brave to allow your actors to express the nuances, the details, with gestures, looks. And sometimes, that's where you get the best emotions. I think, as an audience, when I look at it, you feel what your actors are feeling, and if they don't feel it, obviously you're not going to get it. So I said to my agent, "You are right -- I am fascinated by this because for me, a script can be very well written and good but for me the director is really the soul of the film because they are the ones who are really telling the story. Because as an actor, you come to the set, you come to the environment, you come to the great script, you say your lines, you do all the things that you think are the right thing to do. At the end of the day it's how the director perceives and is going to tell the story, and I had great confidence that Asif would tell it in a very, very interesting and very emotional -- you know, something that would grab you by the balls -- uh, I mean...and then we met (at) Sundance. I was at the film festival there. He was very smart -- he came with his laptop, he said, "Hello, how are you?" and he opened up his laptop and said, "This is where I'd like to film this, this is where I think the story should take place. And he had the images of Norway, of Svalbard, of Longbyearen, of the glaciers. And immediately, as an adventurer, as someone who loves these kinds of characters you are transported into that, you are mesmerized. And the next thing I was like "Okay, when are we going to do this?" And I had a very small window. And he had a very small window because of the weather and things like that. And if we had not been able to make that 2006 date, it would have been very very difficult. So, fortunately for us all the right things came together and we are here!
Host: There is one thing looking at the picture and another thing getting there. Asif, yesterday, talked about the hardships and the cold. If you'd like to, you battled with reindeer, with glaciers, with the weather and the ice. What was the most challenging?
Michelle: The character. The darkness, the depths of where this character went to. As a person, I would say I am very fortunate. I've never had this kind of experiences, and God willing I will never have these experiences. But as an actor, this is where you are privileged to be able to step into lives and places where you normally would not venture. I mean, sometimes Asif and I would look at each other after watching film and go, "Why did we do this? It's really really dark isn't it." And we go, yes it is, but that is what is motivating, you know. It's very challenging in that aspect. The cold, Norway, the environment, was very much part, a big character in the film. I think it made us feel the desperation, the sense of survival. Like you say, I am a girl from the tropics, step up to the glacier and go, "I'm gonna die!" There are parts of me saying "I'm hanging up my booties and and say bye-bye to the world -- I just don't know how to deal with it! Then, we went...as the days go on, this was something we all -- everybody as a team began to appreciate. The beauty, the clarity, the simplicity of what we had been missing out. I think because we live in the city, we're so used to having all the modern amenities around us we'd forgotten to look at the sky. I'm very happy -- the Northern Lights were dancing outside just now and I ran out to see them once again. And those are the amazing things that have affected us, those who have been on the film from London, myself, from England, from Los Angeles, from Asia, were very taken by the people, by the place, and then by the sense of reality.
Host: Because you said it yourself, you're a city girl, and the character in this film is linked with the nature, with different body language. How did you prepare for that part of it?
Michelle: As an actor...I'm not a method actor, in that sense of the word. But I do feel that you have to be able to understand, or be, the character that you are trying to portray. As a city girl, we all have very modern gestures. You know, we cross our legs, we sit there and we pose, we're talking. But when you look at, for example, Memoirs of a Geisha, as you see me talking now, I'm very animated. I talk with my hands, I'm almost Italian in that sense. But then in that movie everything was contained, everything was very upright. But in Far North, I found the people were very real, very grounded. Everything was very low. Maybe it was the tent. So it was coming here and working with the Samis. I had a great guide, and I think my proudest moment was when he turned around to me and said to me, "You're Sami," and I went "Yeah! Yeah! Now I think I've done the right thing!" When you get down, you think, I had to learn -- they live, they survive in the wild. They're trappers. They need to know, understand, how nature can nurture them or you would be destroyed and killed. Then you go back to where you came from. But to learn that was by observing how they behaved, how they used their knives, how to do this, and we had very little time. I wish we had more, but we had a week in FilmCamp here in Tromso where I learned how to skin the reindeer. What I do is I put my mind in a sort of blinkered way and focus and say "I'm going to survive. I can do this, yeah, I can do this!" I rolled up my sleeves, took my knife, went "Yeah!" and...it was hard work. It really was hard work. You need these kinds of skills because when you are doing, when you are cutting or moving things around, you have to look the part. You can't be the city girl. And that is out of respect to Asif, out of respect to the people here, and out of respect to the writer.
Michelle: You're lost now (smiling). (audience laughs)
Host: Actually, I was going to ask you about, because they say out there you actually prefer to do all your own...
Michelle: Stunts. Yes, that's the time when you have the most fun! Why let everybody else do it?
Host: But doesn't it worry you sometimes that you might get hurt? Because you have quite a lot of injuries...
Michelle: Unfortunately. Now, when you do a stunt, nobody is out to see that someone gets hurt. When a stunt is choreographed, they try to make sure that it is in a very contained and safe environment. But there is always the risk factor. I mean, if you were to go out on your bike or your Skidoo, there is always a chance that something might happen. That's what they call accidents.
Host: But yours are always more dangerous.
Michelle: Yes, I know (sheepish). You know, it's for your art. You have to do some things like that. And yes, I have had my fair share of injuries.
Host: But at the same time, you seem to be moving away from the action movie...
Michelle: (vehement): No no no no no! Last year, I did a movie with Vin Diesel -- Babylon A.D., which will be coming out. And then I did Mummy 3 with Jet Li, and we would bash at each other in the deserts. I am very privileged to be able to hop, as I say, from an action orientated role to a much more dramatic role like in Sunshine or Far North. And it's very satisfying as an actor whereby you can use your physical sense but at the same time not be stereotyped into thinking "oh she can just do action movies, let's just keep her there" or vice-versa.
Host: You are also moving into production more...
Michelle: Oh man!
Host: I thought you'd gotten used to it.
Michelle: I did. I produced two movies. And one was at the worst of times -- you remember SARS in Asia, and we were doing this movie called Silver Hawk. And I really, truly discovered that as a producer, it is all about crisis management. Because as an actor you are so pampered...do you need anything? How about a chair? You know, is it warmer? is it cold enough? Everybody looks after you. As a producer, everybody attacks you. So I was thinking...actor, producer...actor, producer...oh yeah actor. But I love the movies, and as a producer, what you do is you're able to start from seed. What kind of role, what kind of story you want to tell. As an actor, a lot of the time the story or the role comes to you and already it's almost finished as a package in that sense. As the director or as a producer, you go out and you find the idea, you seek the people and you put them together.
Host: We saw a clip from Crouching Tiger here and that was the breakthrough when it comes to being a household name in the West, in Norway and Europe and the US. But you've been a huge star in Asia for, I don't know, quite a long time.
Michelle: (faking modesty) No, not at all...
Host: I just read you are the biggest star, one of the biggest stars in Asia.
Michelle: I paid that magazine a lot of money to say that! (audience laughs)
Host: Is that something you don't care about or think about...?
Michelle: I think the only reason why you care about or it does give you a sense of achievement is that you must attain a certain kind of box office or attention or audience or box office pull. And I think, for a lot of us, you don't make the movie for yourself. You make it for your audience. And the only way you can bring the audience in is either it is a good director or good actor or something that attracts them. I think we work in the sense that it's fantastic to be able to do commercial movies -- you know, very very commercial movies like The Mummy, Tomorrow Never Dies, something like that. But then that gives us the ability and the opportunity to turn around and say, I want to do a gem like Far North. If it wasn't for actors or directors who believe that our art form is not just about the popcorn movie. Yes, there is the balance of the two, but it cannot just only be about the Spiderman or the sequels or the prequels, all those fun movies that we watch. We need these kinds of films to give us a jolt of reality, or darkness, or something that makes us feel and think in a different kind of way.
Host: But making a film under quite harsh conditions in Svalbard, is that something agents warn you against?
Michelle: Oh, my agent was terrified that I was coming here. I was going to live on a boat! Like this time I was coming -- he didn't know until I got here: You're in Tromso? Why are you in Tromso? You're there already!? I was, yes, there's a film festival here. There's a film festival in Tromso!? Yes, you should come out here. You know, I must say, Norway is one of the most beautiful places in the world -- and I have traveled my fair share. There is something about this place that is very, very, very attractive. As a person, as an artist, I think sometimes we artists like to put ourselves in a place of suffering. You know, when you suffer for your art, so much more meaningful. Well, maybe that's part of it. But I love when we came here and we were "come and get with the program, man!" and the logistics guys and girls, they are hardy and they're, like, "You have a problem?" and you're like, "No, no, no problem! (aside) It's minus 20! Yes we have a problem!" But when you see, I think it inspired a lot of us. It's about doing the job, getting on with it, and then along the way let us hope you love what you are doing. It's nice to be reminded once in a while.
[Many thanks to BAM for converting the video and Dean for the help with the transcript]
[Photos from "RUSHPRINT" and video scans]