BBC "Woman's Hour"
"Memoirs of a Geisha"
Michelle YeohJanuary 11, 2006
Michelle Yeoh is classically trained in ballet and is a true action hero. She played opposite Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, flew through the air in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and is currently donning make up and Kimono to play Mameha in Memoirs of a Geisha.
Michelle joins Jenni to talk about her Malaysian-Chinese background, how her career has led her to the big screen and how filming Memoirs of a Geisha compares to the action films of her past.
Memoirs of a Geisha UK release date 13th January 2006.
Listen to RealMedia Audio   [10:17]
Women's Hour: (WH) Tonight in London there is to be the premiere of one of the most talked about films of the season. Memoirs of a Geisha began as an international best selling novel by the American writer Arthur Golden, and tells the story of Sayuri. She's sold by her parents into a geisha house when she is only 9. In her early teens, another geisha played by Michelle Yeoh bargains with her owner to take over her training.
(audio playback of the scene between Mameha and Mother)
Mother, played by the Japanese actress Kaori Momoi, and Michelle Yeoh as Mameha. Michelle, you were born in Malaysia of Chinese parents. How much did you know of the life of the Japanese geisha before the film?
Michelle: Honestly? Not much. Probably too little. I think it is also true for a lot of people. If you were to ask Kaori, who played Mother, she would tell you she knew nothing.
WH: So what did you have to learn to make the performance physically convincing?
Michelle: We had what we called a boot camp for six weeks before the filming of the film. And we had a geisha consultant, Liza Dalby, who is the only western geisha ever. She spent a few years in Japan doing the geisha thing. So she was with us for the six weeks. And I particularly think I had the most daunting task because I was the mentor to Sayuri. I not only teach her how to be a geisha but I introduce the audience to what the geishas are about. How they sit, how they walk, how they kneel. There were just so many things to learn in the six weeks, it was scary almost.
WH: You are a trained ballet dancer...how much did that help?
Michelle: Oh tremendously! I don't think I would have been able to do the task per se without the training as a ballerina or the training as a martial artist. With the ballerina, the geishas are very much like ballet dancers because they spend hours per day doing all these different dances, music, calligraphy...because everything was so ritualized and so stylized. And they make it look effortless, which is what ballerinas do. When they are on stage, you do not see the pain, you do not see the bleeding toes, the bad backs, all those trivial things.
WH: So what was involved in the makeup, the hair, the costumes? Because the costumes are incredibly intricate.
Michelle: Exquisite, aren't they? It took us three to four hours. If you were doing the maiko makeup, which is the apprentice, where it is the white makeup, the geisha makeup, it would take a much longer period of time. The hair as well. Then there is the six to eight layers of the kimono we wear, and each layer...in fact, it was necessary to go through the whole procedure of the makeup and kimono layers because it was a reminder of what you are. Every layer that went on was all the different codes of ethics that a geisha has to bear in mind. Because, you know, you do not fall in love. You do not marry. You do not have children. There were so many rules and regulations.It was very similar to a samurai almost.
WH: Much is made in this story of the fact that the geisha is not a prostitute, but she's an artist, she entertains with her exquisite talents. And yet her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. What were they?
Michelle: If you think about it, the geishas have evolved from a time and place where we are very fortunate we do not have to make those kinds of choices, nor parents have to make choices for their daughters per se. If they are not sold in commerce to the geisha house - they are lucky they get to a geisha house - if they were unfortunate, they would be on the streets or in the pleasure district, which is a horrible existence.
WH: That's what happened to Sayuri's sister...
Michelle: Correct. So if you had the privilege of going into a geisha house whereby your education as an artist would go on for the rest of your life but you have to remember there is a debt that has to be incurred. And one of the things as in the Japanese, the Chinese, the Asian culture, the most prized possession of a woman is your virginity. So that would help to pay off your debt. Today, the geishas do not have to go through that anymore. They can choose to be a geisha, they can choose to marry. They can do it for a few years and then afterwards turn around and say "I'm going to marry my boyfriend."
WH: Given that there are such enormous changes that have taken place, how concerned do you have to be, as a female Asian performer, that you're not dragged into what I suppose I would call the Madame Butterfly syndrome? This idea that the Asian woman, fascinating to Western men because she's so delicate...
Michelle: ...so fragile...oh yes. I think there will always...there is much much much less today, but there will always be that cliche, that stereotype of what the Western world perceives the Eastern girls to be. I think it is very important that we, as actresses or performance artists, stand by and stand firmly to show what we are really about. I think, particularly my own self, I've portrayed roles...I was the Bond girl, but it was a very different Bond girl.
WH: That was in Tomorrow Never Dies.
Michelle: That's right. I was definitely not the Ming vase, to be taken for granted and look fragile. I think it is very important because every role, every time an Asian actress appears on the screen, we do remind the audience of what we are. If we stick to this very stereotype and we endorse those kinds of characters then, yes, the audience will think "yes, the Chinese girls are like that" or "the Japanese girls are delicate little butterflies." We are delicate, but we are silk and steel. Put it that way.
WH: There has been some criticism of the fact that the main female roles are played by non Japanese. What was your response to that critique?
Michelle: We are celebrating a subculture of an amazing culture. I think it is very similar to filmmakers here in Europe or in America whereby we play each other all the time. Like, you would not question if Ray Fiennes played a German or an Irishman played an American. And we normally don't as well. I don't think what is written on your passport is what transcends on the screen. I think the most important thing is the actor can play the role, can step into the shoes of the challenges put ahead of her. I think we are Rob Marshall's chosen actresses.
WH: We mentioned Tomorrow Never Dies. The other film you are very known for was Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon where we saw you flying through the air, doing amazing things with a sword. This is probably a really silly question, and you're probably not going to answer it, but how did you do all that flying?
Michelle: With a lot of help! If I told the truth I'd have to kill ya, hehehe! We have amazing stunt people and they have, in the last hundred years of Hong Kong filmmaking, they've perfected the art form of flying in the air, through the trees, forests, up the walls, and I've been very privileged to work with them. Its really about twelve people that assist you.
WH: And strings - wires?
Michelle: Wires, yes. We used to work with wires that were very very thin. Any sudden movement would mean you would come crashing down to the ground, even if you were ten, twelve, thirty feet in the air. Today we are much more blessed with the computer graphics, which makes life much safer in that sense that we are able to scale up the walls and not come crashing down.
WH: You did have one accident I think. Hurt yourself badly. What happened?
Michelle: Ah yes...well, actually, when I did Crouching Tiger, I had knee surgery, because in the first big fight sequence when I'm scaling up the walls, up and down, I tore the tendon in my knee. And I went to Johns Hopkins for surgery. I came back three weeks later. I was on crutches for about two weeks, went straight back into training and when you see the end of the film where I'm fighting with Z again.
WH: You have your own film company. Why did you want to set that up?
Michelle: I'd love to be able to have a bridge between the East and the West. I think there are so many amazing talents from the East. And also there are so many locations to play with, to have that as your background. I think as an actor there are only limited things that you can do. A lot of the time a script would have been written or an idea thought of and then it comes to you. With having your own production company, it happens the other way around where you have a dream and you try to make that dream come true. But it is hard, because being a producer sometimes is a real thankless job. It is like crisis management more than anything else!
WH: Well, Michelle Yeoh, very best of luck with it and the film as well and thank you very much indeed for being with us.
(Thanks Dean for the help with the transcript)