"Memoirs of a Geisha"

"Prestige Hong Kong", September issue 2005

Interview with Michelle Yeoh on Memoirs of a Geisha (excerpts)
by Victor George Paddy


Over an island holiday weekend, Michelle Yeoh talks to Prestige Hong Kong editor Victor George Paddy, about Memoirs of a Geisha, perhaps her most challenging film in a career remarkable for bravura risk-taking, about Sunshine, now in production, and about her private life - that luxurious floating time between the movies


In Memoirs of a Geisha, you play Mameha, a star geisha living in Gion, Kyoto's famous geisha district. How did you work to become her?
First of all, you have to know your script. Then you do your research. In Hong Kong, when you're working in a film, it's very much being spontaneous, because the script is changing as you're filming. Sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes it's terrible, because the story doesn't gel. But when you're working in a more structured way, everything has to become second nature to you. So when you put on a kimono and you're walking onto the set, immediately you feel that you are that character. And the only way you can do that is by doing research. We were very lucky with Memoirs of a Geisha, because it's based on a novel.
       You start building a life, because if this character does not have a life, it won't mean anything to the audience. A lot of the time it's not just the big picture, it's the little details, the mannerisms. It's not just the way you hold a glass, but the way the Japanese speak, or the way they bow their heads, tilt their heads, lean forward or back, the way they walk across a room. If all Asians stood still, you would have a problem deciding who's Chinese, who's Japanese, who's Korean. The minute they start talking, from their accent or from their little mannerisms, you can tell right away: she is Japanese, she is Chinese. It's very subconscious, and this is what as an actor you try to bring forward. Because it's what is not obvious that has the best impact.

What do you feel you were more successful in bringing to the character?
The total sense of grace. She was so regal and contained. I think that was one of the most difficult roles to play. Because she was so contained. When you watch Sayuri or Hatsumomo [geishas played by Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li respectively in Memoirs], they have an opportunity to explode and slap.

I don't think your character ever did.
No. Mameha stays calm, because she knows her role in life. Particularly that generation and the very top geishas. This is a role they will always have to play. It's not for two years. It's committed like a nun. It's a total commitment.

I understand you trained in the arts of the traditional geisha. Learning to pour tea and sake, play musical instruments, move in full geisha dress, including shoes that were 6-8 inches high. What did you find the most difficult to learn?
Playing the shamisen. Oh my God, it's a horrible instrument. It's like a lute. A little Japanese guitar. And I've never been good with strings. (Jane's note: Michelle is a good piano player)

Who taught you?
Liz Dalby. [U.S. anthropologist and writer who became a geisha while researching her first book, Geisha]. One of the main reasons she was allowed in that circle, such a protective circle, is that she could play the shamisen.

Director Ang Lee was quoted as saying you had to learn to speak British English with a Japanese accent and that you were finding it difficult.
I've always had a British accent. Getting the Japanese accent was not so difficult. Remember, we had Chinese actors, Japanese actors, we had actors who didn't speak English and actors that did. Can you imagine how difficult it was for some of the Chinese actresses. Like for Gong Li, it was very hard work, because she was learning a new language.

She didn't speak English?
No, and I have such great admiration for someone like that, who's so dedicated to the art form. It's not easy. It's like asking someone to learn perfect Chinese.

And be creative at the same time.
(Michelle laughs.) Yeah, it's hard. But Rob [Rob Marshall, director of Memoirs of a Geisha] was very, very good. It was the same with Ang Lee, when we were doing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. [Michelle had to speak Mandarin in the movie.] You're not just talking day-to-day Mandarin, which I can get by with. You're talking Mandarin almost like Shakespeare. And I would sit there with Chow [actor Chow Yun-Fat] and go, "I have no idea what you are saying. Have you finished? Okay, is it my turn?"

Was Japanese dance easy for you to learn?
Yes, I know dance, but Japanese dance is very different from ballet, very different from jazz. The tilt of the head, the fans, the steps, how they move their bodies, their legs, the positions. When they pose, it's not like a normal pose, not like a strike-a-pose-supermodel-kind-of-thing. Attitude, but Japanese style.

What do you feel most proud of in your depiction of Mameha?
At the end of the day, it's not the physical things. It's like doing an action film. You've done an incredible stunt, and you go "waaah." But sometimes it's not the very visual or very stunning things, it's the little things. Something that you're in control of, that you reined in rather than you just had a wild time doing. The subtleties are the most difficult. I remember walking out of the scene, and it's only at the back that you cry your eyes out. But the good thing is that the people on the set, they know what's happening. They understand the intensity of it all.

Did the movie change you in any way?
Doing a movie like Memoirs was good in the sense that it tickled me into thinking, 'well, maybe I have to be a little more feminine.' But after two hours of that, I said, 'fine, okay, I did that.' [much feminine laughter from Michelle.]

How do you celebrate the end of a movie?
You don't celebrate, because it's almost always kind of sad. People you've been with for four months. Very intense. And I've made some really great friends from this film. How I thank them, we would have dinner parties. I would throw a night out, get a disco, a bar, a karaoke. Whatever hot joint. I'd take over the place, and our crew would come in and play. They just come and have a great time with us. You need to do that, because they work so hard for you to look good. And I feel that's our little way of saying 'thank you.'

Is Memoirs the best movie you've ever made?
No. Unless you choose to retire, you always think that the next role is going to be more challenging. You need to be constantly challenged into thinking, 'I've done this, I've not done that.' There are so many things I haven't explored or done.

As an actress?
As an actress. As a person. I want to go dog sledding. I want to go camping in the wind.

......... [SKIPPING]

There's a quote from Memoirs of a Geisha I like. 'We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction, until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course.' Does that describe you in any way??
In some ways. If I was honest. I'm not a structured person. I'm not an ambitious person. I very much go with the flow. If it doesn't happen, I go with another path. But then I always think, there are certain aspects where you have to make an effort. You can't just sit there and say, 'okay, I'm supposed to be lucky.' It doesn't work like that. 'I'm supposed to get that.' I will get that because...

Because you've put yourself into a position to get it.
Correct. So even if the river flows this way or that way, you must manipulate the river. So yes, I go with the flow, but I would steer myself to see the best I can.

Because you're a self-assured woman. You know who you are.
But I didn't start off like that. Nobody starts off like that. I've always been very gung-ho, but I've fallen flat on my face many times before. But that's part of it. I can lie down there flat on my face and make the same mistakes, but it's up to you. It's very easy to say, 'well, I tried, but it was because of this or this.' It's so easy to do that. It's true that sometimes you may do your best for certain things and you don't get it, but that is life.

If you had been born in the Japan of Mameha's time, would you have made a good geisha?
I would have been the best.

*for the full interview and photos visit YeohFanz.com.

** thanks Kityi for the picture scans and Dean for typing in the text.

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