Celeb Interview: Michelle Yeoh
Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Michelle Yeoh has been a pin-up heroine here at Ahlan! Towers. Before that she was the toughest Bond girl ever in Tomorrow Never Dies and in Memoirs of a Geisha she showed she could rock a period drama too despite “two hours in makeup every day!”.
Now in her latest role in Luc Besson’s The Lady, in which she plays the legendary Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi who was recently released from house arrest in Burma, Michelle has cemented her status as one of the big screen’s most powerful leading ladies. A fan of doing her own stunts, now aged 50 she could give the likes of Madonna a run for their money (and muscles), but don’t expect to see her on the celebrity promo circuit any time soon. Though not one to court the tabloids, she’s quietly lived the sort of life that would make a great autobiography, if she were that way inclined. She’s been a ballerina, a beauty queen (as Miss Malaysia she went on to compete in Miss World) and the wife of a billionaire. But her love of telling other people’s stories is what drives her these days, and the story of The Lady is one that needed to be told. Ahlan! met Michelle to find out more...
How did you prepare for your starring role in The Lady?
Probably the most challenging aspect was the story we were telling. It was a story of 10 years of someone’s life, from the minute we meet Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988, until her husband dies. Plus I had one dialogue coach in English and one in Burmese, and another coach in piano and I had to lose some weight. There was a lot on my plate as an actress, but these are the tools of the trade.
You actually lost 8kg for the role, despite already being very slim anyway. Why was that?
I remember the first time I met [Suu Kyi’s son] Kim and he said, “She is thinner than you”, and I was like “No, you gotta be kidding me!” – I am thin and I’m aware of that. But then I thought, OK, if you look at all the photographs of her, it’s true, because she is so very slim. Now I understand how difficult it is to lose weight.
How did you do it and what was the impact on your health?
I had four months before we were starting the movie, so I cut down food – I was dieting, but in a safe way. It’s just about understanding your body shape and how to cut down carbs and increase exercise, which is cardiovascular, like running and anything else that makes you lose weight faster. But keep it consistent because you can’t lose it immediately and gain it back because it’s very bad for your system. So, I lost it gradually and by the time we started the film, I was down to the right weight. Of course we had a hunger strike scene and that was pretty dramatic. When I look at the pictures of myself now I’m literally shocked; I didn’t eat for two days, but you should have seen me eat the day after the shoot! But, you know, it pays off because it’s very important to look like her for the role.
Despite her slight frame, filling Aung San Suu Kyi’s shoes must have been a mammoth task – were you intimidated at all?
Being an actor is very interesting and challenging, but to try and portray someone who represents so much hope to the people of Burma, or anyone suppressed, was probably the most challenging role of my career. It was such a commitment and I think it was very intimidating. Everyday I woke up and hoped that I had given the respect and the love that she has for her husband and family that’s due to them. It was such an important story to tell, because we hoped it would inspire a lot of people to learn more about Burma and to understand what the fight is all about.
It sounds intense. What did you do to escape the role?
I didn’t want to get away from the role because I learned a great deal. Also, I’m from a neighbouring country. I grew up in Malaysia, and for us she represents democracy and human rights. Suu Kyi is particularly inspirational to Asian women.
So, did you know much about Aung San Suu Kyi’s story before you started filming?
I knew that she was this iconic Asian woman, because, as I said, Burma neighbours Malaysia. I was living in Hong Kong in 1988, which is the year the film begins, and I was still there when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. We were like, “Wow! An Asian woman receiving that award!” Of course, you’re driven to find out more about her, but after she was isolated under house arrest, people started to forget, and new generations didn’t really know about it. But, of course, that was the whole point.
We heard you were actually granted permission to meet her after you finished the movie. What did you talk about?
Everything, but I wasn’t there to interview her. It was like a family gathering because I was there with my brother and her son Kim was there. So it was very nice, very intimate – she makes you feel at ease. Not even for one moment do you feel like you are in the principal’s office or think that you have to say the right thing.
Of course, I was very nervous about meeting her – I wanted her to like me, but when I arrived, she just opened her arms and gave me the biggest hug and even though she’s a very slender woman, you can feel her strength. You don’t see a fragile person, you see a woman who is elegant, poised, with hints of mischief and quick to laugh, and then she makes you feel at home right away.
We talked about Burma, food, friends… She’s the one who asked the most questions. I had to stop her for a moment and say, “Sorry, what about you? You spent 11 years under house arrest and now you’re free, how are you?” She just said, “I am quite fine”, she never complained or anything. You know, it’s such a lesson.
Looking back, was this is the toughest role you have ever played – not physically tough like with Crouching Tiger, but emotionally tough?
Yes and no. Yes, because it was an emotional ride over a very short period of time. We were living a life of 10 very specific years and we had to demonstrate that in just over two hours. No, because when you’re very committed and when it’s coming from the depths of you, and you know that this is something you have to do, it all becomes easy.
She is my heroine and it’s a privilege to play someone like her, not just to show her like a saint but to give a glimpse into the unique experience that she had, how her family was literally torn apart, but their love was so powerful that she drew strength from her family, and particularly from the most loving husband in the world who did everything possible, but always from the sidelines. When we first came to the story, we didn’t know that part, so I think it’s important for us to get that – it moves you. It makes you really empathise with her.
Finally, the film was first shown at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival last year – you looked amazing on the red carpet. Who were you wearing?
Elie Saab. His dresses are absolutely wonderful.