They are two of the most formidable Asian action stars in Hollywood, but as they revealed to Paul Fischer, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, who are adversaries in the China-set Mummy film, have different priorities in their lives.
Question: You had done a movie together 15 years ago. What had changed in fighting each other now versus then?
Michelle Yeoh: Before we were on the same team. This movie we were fighting each other. But it’s not difficult when you have to fight with someone like him.
Question: A lot more special effects now.
Michelle Yeoh: Actually for our fight scene there isn’t, right. If you think about it, ours was probably the one that was with a real person and going at it, because it was more an emotional fight. But what was beautiful was because I had an amazing dress that, you know, was part of the…that seemed like it was part of the weapon itself.
Question: Why were you interested in this movie?
Jet Li: For me? The Mummy. (laughing)
Michelle Yeoh: I thought he was saying money.
Jet Li: Studio is money. I was mummy. Because I play a lot of good guys before and Mummy, of course, the first one, second one was great. I always like it this time when they say Mummy 3 in China and they say, ‘Jet Li, you are going to be the mummy.’ I say, ‘Okay, fine,’ because I like the director. We talked about making a movie together before but it didn’t happen.
Question: Is it fun being the bad guy?
Jet Li: Oh for actor you always play good guys very heavy, because the good guy has the responsibility of taking care of his family, wives, children, neighbors (laughing). Being good is not easy. The bad guy is straightforward selfish. I like the girl. It belongs to me. I like his car – give to me.
Question: American movies have cast you as a villain more than Asian movies…
Jet Li: Oh, Asian, never, never. If you find Jet Li playing the bad guy in China, in Asia, it wouldn’t sell in the theater. They cannot make the movie.
Question: Is Hollywood the only place you’re allowed to do that?
Jet Li: Yeah. You can make some movies and play the bad guy. Maybe even Asian audience still doesn’t like it.
Question: What was the makeup process like for you?
Jet Li: I just watched that last night for the first time also. It’s okay, fun to play. A lot of the details were special effects where on site it was like a normal movie.
Question: A lot of what you did required CGI and special effects. Did you find that really challenging?
Jet Li: Not really because it’s the biggest Hollywood movie shooting in China. Even with not having so many soldiers on site, we’re still having 3000 group of people working. 3000, yeah, only the makeup, we had a hundred make-ups, make-up people for the Chinese site. Even the Shanghai street and a lot of makeup there, so you’re standing there become a king, not a soldier, but you still have a lot of people – 3000 people – in front of you so it’s easy for an actor to imagine a lot of soldiers in front of you.
Question: Why did you want to do this movie?
Michelle Yeoh: I think the first attraction was Rob Cohen because we love the Mummy franchise to start off with. And then was very excited when he said we’re going to take it to China. It was a perfect opportunity to have the young kids learn a little bit about China, whether it’s a little bit of fact and fiction fantasy all mixed into one. And then having spoken to Rob, because I think it’s very important because the director really is the one with the vision, with the story to tell. I was very impressed with his Dragon, the story of Bruce Lee, because from that you can see that he had a great respect for Chinese culture. He understood it and he did not have a romanticized Caucasian male image of what the Chinese icon or what the culture should be about. Then when he was talking about the character, I found her very interesting because you know she’s very magical. You’re not quite sure what she is or where she really comes from. She lives out in the remote place but she has certain powers, but you’re not quite sure what they are actually. And then to be part of this franchise was…it was a no-brainer, it was easy.
Question: While shooting in China did it feel like a Hollywood movie or did it feel like a big Chinese production?
Michelle Yeoh: You know what? Rob really works very much like a Chinese director. He’s very well-prepared. He knocks off like 30 shots a day, right? If you went to a Hollywood production, they’d be like 30 shots two weeks. He’s like fast. He knows what he wants and in China that’s how it works. But prior to that we were in Montreal where the sets were just simply spectacular. And the way people worked was like there was no more feeling of whether it was a Chinese or whatever production. It seemed like they all melt into one. Because when we were in China, we had a lot of the crew coming from Canada, you know, Australia, from America as well, so there was a nice mix continuously.
Question: Rob’s a big fan of your movies. Would he ask you to give him specific moves from specific movies?
Michelle Yeoh: (Laughing) No, he doesn’t work like that. I think when he does something it’s very much a Rob Cohen vision of what the move is. It’s not like something that he’s done or what I’ve done before, but a feeling of what we are. And then he’s… We’ve got like Vic Armstrong which was fantastic for me because I worked with Vic Armstrong in Tomorrow Never Dies so you know walking onto the set and then suddenly go, ‘Oh my god, the Bond people are here!’ And then you know with Master D, can’t find who this could be, he’s worked with Jet and I since Tai Chi Master, continuously with Jet. So it’s more important that they understand what we can do and then what Rob wants.
Question: What is the state of the Chinese film industry and how important is it for you to work and develop that industry?
Jet Li: In China? I think the Chinese industry is improved a lot. Every year 35% box office go up, now you can see $30 million US dollars, $35 million US, a big movie, and everybody guessing that in the near future, maybe next 5 years, 8 years, you can see similar $100 million US for a movie. Maybe 15 years, maybe less than that. The Chinese market is bigger than American. At that point, I believe a lot of American actors should speak Chinese because over there is big market (laughing). You want money or not. It’s big. 200 million, 300 million US dollars for movie in the market is huge.
Michelle Yeoh: Think about it. We do have a lot of people.
Jet Li: Just started, this year just started.
Question: So the piracy isn’t as bad? They’ve gotten it under control?
Michelle Yeoh: They’re controlling it. It’s not completely out of the picture.
Jet Li: I think the people who work for the government, work for the big studio in China, they’re very open. They don’t have a problem. The problem is the audience. A lot of movies they greenlight to the market, but when teenagers starts [posting], doesn’t like it on the internet, then maybe a million people follow them. They will make decisions, like Memoirs of a Geisha. Greenlight, but if the audience has a million people against the movie, that makes them change the decision to stop the movie. If the audience doesn’t want it, it’s not a studio argument.
Question: There was talk they had to go back and edit some parts of The Mummy for the Chinese release. Do you how different it will be?
Jet Li: There’s not much.
Question: They cut out Brendan Fraser completely. (Lots of laughing)
Jet Li: It’s only Jet. That’s a good one, exactly. It’s very standing on the studio side, but they just try to convince the teenagers how to make them work. A lot of things, the government wants to turn down, but it’s the audience. The audience is very strong.
Question: You have a built in audience.
Jet Li: But if they have three million against the movie, saying, “Jet Li plays the bad guy, we don’t want to watch it. We don’t want to insult the Chinese people,” then they have three million.
Question: What are you doing next?
Jet Li: This year I’ll do nothing. I turned down two movies. I will only do charity in China because I just started a foundation. for Philosophy, helping people.
Michelle Yeoh: It’s his own foundation. It’s called One Foundation.
Jet Li: One Foundation. We believe in globally we’re a big family, everybody supports each other. It’s very simple idea. Everyone, every month donate one yuan and we put out a pool to help people. A lot of major studio and big companies support it. A lot of actors and actresses in Asia support it. Like the Sichuan Earthquake, you know, what got a million people to support us so we take a lot of responsibility.
Question: Are you going to the Olympics?
Jet Li: Yes, I represent the martial arts so I need to go and see my art.
Question: What about you? What are you up to?
Michelle Yeoh: Well, we finish our press in Tokyo on the 6th and then I go home to Malaysia because I’ve been away from home for a long time. I need to spend some quality time.
Question: Are you turning things down or are you looking at scripts now?
Michelle Yeoh: Well, I have another movie coming out, Babylon AD with Vin Diesel directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, I think a few weeks after so I think the audience might have a good share of me already this year.
Question: How’s working with Vin?
Michelle Yeoh: Oh, it’s fantastic. We bonded really well. We had a good time on the set. It was rough going at certain stages but when you see the movie you’ll understand why.
Question: Is there martial arts in that?
Michelle Yeoh: Well, it’s not martial arts. Vin is not really a martial arts… It’s action. It’s like full-blown action.
Question: Are you good or bad?
Michelle Yeoh: I’m a good girl. I understand what he’s saying. You know when you’re playing the bad or the evil character everything that you think that you can’t do in real life you can get in there and go [chuckling manically], “Yes!” It will happen.
Question: Something that they’ve done in the past Mummy films is they bring people back. Do we see Jet Li coming back for more?
Michelle Yeoh: He already said 4 and 5. [lots of laughing]
Jet Li: I think it really depends on the audience, if they like the movie, of course. No studio, maybe they don’t like the actor but they still like the money. I’m looking forward to the money! It’s good money.
Michelle Yeoh: Yeah, right. Turn the tables on me now.
Question: Any injuries on set?
Michelle Yeoh: No. He’s so easy to fight with.
Jet Li: It’s most difficult to stop us from smiling.
Michelle Yeoh: I think the most difficult thing when we’re facing off is, “Okay, don’t make me laugh.” Because we stand there and go, “Oh god, no.” Because when we were working on Tai Chi Master, Yuen Woo Ping had to send us out of the room because we would giggle the whole time. Like Rob would come up to us and say, “What are you two talking about?” Because we would be like (talking super fast) and laughing. Not just (chuckling), but laughing. That was the most difficult part when it came to our fighting.
Question: What is daily martial arts practice for each of you now?
Jet Li: Daily?
Question: How do you keep in shape?
Michelle Yeoh: He was born in shape. (laughing)
Question: How do you maintain that level of skill?
Jet Li: Because martial arts is like a part of my life. Since 8 years old I’m learning until now. But recently I’ve, the past few years, I’m more focused on meditation. It’s not a physical part. It’s more mental part, to understand life, why we need to make movies, why people like the peace but always say to hit somebody else, beat up each other. We talk about something but we want to see something different.
Question: Have you found an answer?
Jet Li: Yeah. I think a big enemy is yourself, how to see the world, how to understand the people’s different angles, different cultures, to understand today’s universe today’s words of how to make them work.
Question: Michelle, what’s your daily practice nowadays?
Michelle Yeoh: Because you know you’ve had injuries over the years and you also understand what is necessary and what your body needs, because everyone is different, I have the normal every day the stretching, the core work is very important. But then you know you have to work on a movie, it’s just doing the basics. That’s the most important thing for me. And then I get on the elliptical and I love that, every day for an hour.
Question: Is acting the same priority for both of you that it used to be?
Michelle Yeoh: No, never has been I think.
Jet Li: After Fearless I didn’t pay too much attention to making movies. I changed my character in the daylight to helping people right now. Movies is my job but my dream is to build up the new foundation and China and Asia. So we started the foundation in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and China where we have a million people involved in it. I need to take more responsibility to pay back to the world.
Michelle Yeoh: He’s playing the good guy again.
Question: Is there a place for people to go to get more information?
Jet Li: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can go to OneFoundation.Cn. You can get everything. We have a lot of support like Microsoft, Starbucks, NBA, a lot of international companies.
Question: How important do you think the Olympics will be for China? Do you think it’s a good pr move?
Jet Li: Oh I think they don’t need it. Chinese today is much better than 30 years ago. Everybody had to try to draw in the Olympics, a bigger party, you know? But their maybe one too good and that’s why people don’t understand why everything has to be perfect. I believe it’s perfectly nice. It doesn’t matter, just do your best to show we can handle the party well and everything. It’s very comfortable for me, for a lot of people. China today, think about it, the government handled the earthquake, they are very confident.
Michelle Yeoh: I think there’s a great sense of patriotism as well. It brought the people together to believe that, more internationally because there’s a lot of Chinese who don’t live in China anymore. And there was sort of like a disconnection for a while.
Jet Li: I think in the old style a lot of Western people doesn’t understand the Chinese government. But today’s Chinese government is very open and confident, which is what the Western is. But normal people make a lot of decisions today. They’re online to make a lot of decisions. It’s not the government wants to change, it’s teenagers. [If you’re against the Olympics, I can see you, I can see you?] It’s normal people these days. It’s not the government. The government’s very confident and open because they have a real ??? education, a lot of professors.
Michelle Yeoh: Professors, well educated. [interpreting Jet now:] All the senior officials in the government are all well educated and studied all over the world, so they understand the international world. But the problem is in dealing with back in China in the general public, not everyone is as well educated and they still give the government a lot of pressure how they want to maintain things in China. So it’s not so easy as to say, ‘Well, we’ll just change and be more Western -like.’ The people would not come to terms with that.
Question: Do you think the Tibet issue will be eventually resolved?
Jet Li: They’ve already started talking about it, right?
Michelle Yeoh: They’re meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Jet Li: They’re having meetings. They’re talking about it because there’s a long journey to do it. Because in the past maybe 500 years, 1000 years already they’re sometimes together, sometimes they have different opinions. But I’m Buddhist. From my view Buddhist is Buddhist. It’s not politics.
Michelle Yeoh: Sports is sports.
Jet Li: Like American religion. It’s not a politics. Whatever your Buddhism, whatever people, when you put Buddhism and mix the politics together you miss out, you miss out on something. It’s two different things because the Buddhists know point, know their own opinion. They try to figure out, pick out for themselves.
Question: Do you want to stick to larger budget action pieces or do you enjoy doing the smaller movies? What kind of script would you turn down?
Jet Li: I turned down a lot of things I thought I did many times already. Just like a 30 million movie, beat up some guys on the street, beat them up. I just think what’s the meaning of making that movie? Just business, business.
Question: But you’re not looking to do another Kiss of the Dragon?
Jet Li: Yes, something I’ve never made before.
Michelle Yeoh: Like what?
Jet Li: I don’t know.
Michelle Yeoh: Like a romantic comedy!
Jet Li: Something I’ve never played before. And also a few months ago with Jackie Chan another movie, so there’s fun…
Question: Any progress on your Monk in New York project?
Jet Li: I still want to make it. Even 10 years already, I still want to make it one day. Nobody supports it. I really want to make the movie. It’s very important.
Michelle Yeoh: You should go make it.
Jet Li: There’s no studio support. They’ve turned down the movie many times. Every time they write a story and then they say, “Needs more fight scenes. More fighting and this and this…” I say, “No, no. It’s not about fighting.” Have you ever seen a priest down the street fighting with somebody?
Michelle Yeoh: He doesn’t want to be a fighting monk. He wants to be a philosopher, you know? You’re doing the teachings of Buddha.
Jet Li: Think about it. Everybody tried to get more and more things to protect our life, but one guy is coming and he wants to give everything. So it’s a big test. I still want to make the movie.