‘I Don’t Like to Endorse Clichés’: Leading Lady Michelle Yeoh
By Feliz Solomon 30 May 2015
Best known in Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi’s body double, Michelle Yeoh is one of Asia’s most prolific and popular film stars. Hailing from Malaysia, she has played leading roles in films produced all over the world, often as characters that challenge stereotypes about women. She’s been a geisha, a warrior, a Bond girl.
Yeoh starred in Luc Besson’s 2011 drama “The Lady,” which told the story of Suu Kyi’s return to Burma, her time under house arrest and her marriage to British academic Michael Aris. The Irrawaddy recently spoke with Yeoh about what it was like to play the role of the Nobel laureate, her impressions of Burma and her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
The actress has been to Burma several times, and returned this week to attend the Memory! International Film Heritage Festival, a 10-day program on view at the Nay Pyi Taw Theater in Rangoon. On Sunday she will attend a screening of the wuxia blockbuster “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” in which she played a female warrior. All festival events are free of charge and open to all.
Obviously, we want to know what it was like to play The Lady.
It was an amazing experience. To be able to walk in the shoes of someone who is so dignified, so disciplined, you walk away from the character hoping that you bring a lot of the goodness with you. It makes you a better person. It definitely made me stronger, and made me sit up more straight! It was a beautiful experience.
It was quite tough some of the time, because, as you know, at that time, Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest when we started the research. Rebecca [Frayn, who wrote the screenplay] took about five years to write the script and do the research. By the time I received the script, they had Luc Besson on board [as the director], and it was three years before we started to film. We came in with a camera and we did some of the shots here, but then of course we made the movie in Thailand, where we built the house exactly the way it was. Even which way it faced the sun, because the house was very much a part of her character; during that time, she spent all of her time in that house.
Have you asked her what she thought of the film?
I never did. Honestly, we didn’t make the movie for her to watch, we made the movie for the rest of the world, to get to know Burma at that point in time, and what happened to a couple. I mean, it was an incredible love story. It wasn’t so much about politics, but really about her and her husband, and what they were willing to sacrifice. It’s a very sad story, and when I was playing that role I understood: you know the pain but you have to keep it inside to inspire others to be strong, rather than just give up or collapse into tears. I would think it would be painful [for Suu Kyi to watch] because it would bring up a lot of memories. So I never asked her. I wouldn’t dare.
When the movie was released in 2011, it was right around the time Burma was changing politically. Have you been surprised by what has happened here in the past few years?
I’m not. I would have been surprised if it didn’t open up, if [Burma] remained stoically in the past. It’s obvious, times have to change. You also have a new generation growing up, are they willing to stay in the dark? I don’t think so.
But I must say it has opened up in a gradual way, and I think it’s very healthy when that happens. If you open up your doors too quickly and everything comes charging in, I think it can destroy a lot of good things here. Like all emerging nations, it’s not easy. There will be times when it will get harder before it gets better.
What are some of those good things, things you like about this country?
The place is beautiful, and there are so many places I haven’t had a chance to visit. I want to go to Inle Lake, last summer I went to Bagan and Mandalay. I like to go the more historical, the older places, where you see the culture and the heritage. I have some very good friends here, so I get together with them when I’m here. It reminds me a bit of Penang, it has that sort of colonial heritage.
And the food is also so good. I don’t know what it’s called, the noodley, soupy…
You often play strong, subversive, but elegant leading roles. What kind of characters do you like to play, and what roles do you avoid?
It’s true. I don’t like to endorse clichés. For example, in the old days, if you did an American movie, if you took a role of a Chinese woman she would either be a waitress that works in a Chinese restaurant or a prostitute, something like that, with a really funny accent. I don’t like to endorse that. So in the past I’ve been very conscious about only choosing roles where women are strong. They don’t have to be bitchy or dominating, they just have to be smart, respected, not treated like objects.
Do you face challenges as a woman in the film industry, and, if so, are those challenges the same in the West and in Asia?
All the time. I think all actresses will say the same thing. They never get the good roles, because the roles are predominantly written for men. There’s also a big gap in the salaries. Even in Hollywood, and that’s a market that’s extremely developed. But the next big market will be China, and so far there seems to be more equality over there.
What’s the film culture like in Malaysia?
It’s hard. The language, Malay, is only spoken in Malaysia and Indonesia, not anywhere else in the world, so the industry is small, but our government is trying to support it. I’m trying to do my part, we just started a production company there. It’s hard in a place where the box office is small, you have to hope [your films] will get picked up in Singapore, or hopefully in China, to get into the market.
Can you tell us a bit about your martial arts experience, and what it’s like to train as a fighter?
Well, I’m a movie martial artist. There are people who have trained since they were four years old, getting up at five in the morning, training for championships. But I was a ballerina before, so when I went into the movie business I used my dance training and kind of converted it for use in the martial arts. So I don’t have the traditional training of a martial artist, but I know how it works. My dance background has helped tremendously, and it’s made my style a little different from the boys, a bit more fluid.
I do train very hard, every day. You have to know the basics: the front kicks the round-house kicks. The only way you can do it is by staying in shape, because on set it’s not just one take. You have to do it over and over until you get the perfect shot.
Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring actresses and female filmmakers in Burma?
They have to just keep going at it. Raising funds and making movies is hard anywhere in the world, there’s just no easy way. It’s very important to have film festivals like this, to get the exposure. Something like this brings in directors and producers from the outside world, and they can meet and learn about aspiring actors and filmmakers here.
The Memory! International Film Heritage Festival will continue through June 7 at the Nay Pyi Taw Theater on Sule Pagoda Road between Bogyoke and Mahabandoola roads in Rangoon. All events are free of charge, and the full schedule is available at www.memoryfilmfestival.org.