It’s not a typical morning routine: “Roundhouse kicks, the sidekicks, the back kicks. And just do the shadowboxing by myself, every morning before I go to work,” said actress Michelle Yeoh. That work showcases Yeoh’s physicality, be it mesmerizing battle scenes in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” or daring stunts as a “Bond Girl” in “Tomorrow Never Dies”; yet she can pack that intensity into a simple line of dialogue, as in “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Now, after decades of acting, she’s getting more recognition than ever. Time magazine named Yeoh Icon of the Year. She’s been nominated for a Golden Globe, and is a frontrunner for an Oscar nod, for her performance in the trippy “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
To watch a trailer for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” click on the video player below:
It’s a role that was originally written for a male lead. “Yeah, it was written for Jackie Chan,” she said. “He texted me and he said, ‘Hey, congratulations on your film. Do you know your directors came to look for me first?’ I said, ‘Yes, bro, I know! Your loss, bro, thank you!'”
It’s quite an odyssey for a ballet dancer from Malaysia who saw parallels between her dance training and martial arts. She found a way to cut her own path into film via 1980s Hong Kong martial arts movies. Now, in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” she plays an unlikely universe-hopping superhero. “I hadn’t read anything that was so original,” she said. “It really had everything and everywhere I wanted to go as an actor.”
“You play so many different parts in that one role,” Doane asked. “How is that as an actor? What are the mechanics of switching like that?”
The film requires both mental and punishing physical acrobatics. The actor famous for doing her own stunts starts each day with a sort of meditation/apology: “‘Please forgive me. I’m sorry. Thank you. I love you.’ This body takes a lot of bumps and bruises. So, that is my way of saying thank you to it.”
She showed “Sunday Morning” her stretching routine, which starts before she get out of bed. (“You must know your body,” she explained.) At 60, Yeoh seems to defy aging, but was still surprised to get this role: “It was amazing to think that at this point in my career, because, you know it’s like, the older you get, they see you by your age rather than see you by your capability.”
But, she said, the directing duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known as “the Daniels”) saw it differently: “They thought, you know, she can do this. If anybody can in our industry, who can fight, who can be funny, who can, you know, be dramatic and sincere and all those kind of those things, we believe Michelle will be able to do it. And to receive that? You don’t know how joyful.”
“It touches you?” Doane asked.
“Why so deeply?”
“It’s like, when someone gives you the opportunity to show what you are capable of.”
She explained that she did not think that would happen at this point in her career. “You’ve had a rich career,” Doane noted.
“Oh, I had a spectacular career,” she said. “But, you know, you don’t want it to just slow down or end because you have gotten to a certain age and, you know, you start getting scripts where the guy, your hero, is still in his fifties, sixties – some even more! – and then they get to go on the adventure with your daughter! And then you go like, ‘No, come on, guys, give me a chance, because I feel that I am still able to do all that.'”
Yeoh also pushed back against being cast as the “damsel in distress” early in her career.
Watch Michelle Yeoh in the Jackie Chan action film “Supercop (Police Story 3)”:
“Oh, God!” she laughed.
“I kind of wince sometimes when I’m watching you do these things,” said Doane.
“Me, too. I go, ‘Oh, what was I thinking?'”
There were close calls, injuries, and in 1988, after marrying movie producer Dickson Poon, a brief retirement. “I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to be a good wife, and find something else that I could embark on. But then I think the biggest issue was, because I couldn’t have kids and I knew that this was a family who needed kids, it was a choice.”
A choice to leave the marriage.
How hard was that? “Well, it’s devastating, you know, but it is life. Now I have godchildren. I have beautiful godchildren. They’re like my extended family.”
“Friends, kids, family is important to you?”
“Oh, the most important,” she said.
Yeoh’s partner of 18 years, Jean Todt, is a prominent French motor sports executive and former Ferrari CEO. Together, they champion road-safety programs for the United Nations.
Doane said. “You both have big careers. It must be hard to intersect?”
“No, I think you find time, and it becomes more precious, right? So, when you are together, it’s fabulous.”
Todt, who was traveling, video-called several times while we were shooting. “What I love is, he is what you see is what you get,” said Yeoh. “He’s very straightforward. He’s very honest. He’s one of the most loyal person I have ever met.”
Yeoh had just flown to Paris from L.A., but we never saw the star fuss over lighting or makeup. She calls her schedule “insane,” but “good.” “You go where the work takes you. And I think that has always been my wish as well. It’s like, I want to have a kind of job that takes me and let me visit new places, meet new people. And I guess I got my wish!”
Another wish is to carry others with her, which made this latest role of Evelyn Wang in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” so appealing. “What I found so beautiful was, it was giving a voice to a very ordinary woman, aging immigrant woman, who’s never really had a voice before.
“You know, it’s hard being, looking like this, because I have a lot of Asians who come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for doing this, because now I see it’s possible for us to be there.’ So, it is very important because what we are giving to all the Asian faces is that we’re not invisible.”
She’s hardly “invisible” today. That’s both a responsibility, and something to relish: “It’s so fun; now, when I go on the streets and the younger kids, they’re shy, but they’ll walk up and say, ‘We think you’re cool. Can we do a picture with you?’ And I’m like, Yessssss!“
For more info:
Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Brian Robbins.