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Interview: Michelle Yeoh Memoirs of a Geisha

By Paul Fischer Saturday November 26th 2005 05:24PM

She may be one of China's biggest stars, but Michelle Yeoh, former Bond girl, is going onwards and upwards as one of the stars of Memoirs of a Geisha. Hailed by producer-director Oliver Stone as "my all-time favorite actress", Hong Kong film star Michelle Yeoh (a.k.a. Michelle Khan) has no counterpart in Hollywood. She is a woman who has gained fame and fortune by starring in action films. Like leading male action hero Jackie Chan, Yeoh has been celebrated for performing her own death-defying stunts and handling her own fight scenes. Moreover, she has cultivated this reputation without compromising her femininity.

Born Yeoh Chu-Kheng in Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia, the ethnically Chinese Yeoh received her primary and secondary education in her homeland. She displayed an early propensity for things physical, even competing nationally in squash, swimming and diving in her teens. Her true love, however, was dance. Moving to England, Yeoh earned her BA at London's Royal Academy of Dance with a dance major and a minor in drama. After a serious ballet injury derailed her postgraduate studies, she briefly shifted her focus to choreography. Yeoh tried her hand at acting in stage productions but did not particularly enjoy it and decided to return to her native Malaysia. Arriving home, Yeoh was dismayed to learn that her mother had entered her in a beauty pageant. Nevertheless, she decided to follow through with her mother's brainstorm and went on to be crowned Miss Malaysia in 1983.

While in the midst of her beauty queen chores, Yeoh took a vacation in Hong Kong where she was approached by D and B Films to make a commercial with action-comedy star Jackie Chan. This lead to a commercial with the ultra-cool Chow Yun-fat and a contract with D and B Films. Urged to try her hand at features, Yeoh made her film debut in "Owl vs. Dumbo" (1985), an action comedy starring (and directed by) Samo Hung. Beginning with her next film, "Yes, Madam!" (also 1985; retitled "Police Assassins 2" for UK release and "Super Cops" in the USA), Hung and D and B Films began grooming her to become Asia's foremost female action star. Yeoh was teamed with blonde American martial arts champion Cynthia Rothrock playing female "buddy" cops for that maiden action outing. Not yet capable of doing all her own stunts, she had veteran stuntman Stanley Tong (who would subsequently direct some of her features) doubling for her in some scenes.

Though she had no prior martial arts training, Yeoh proved a natural--and a quick study. Her extensive background in dance and movement gave her the strength and agility needed to appear credible in her action scenes. Yeoh's dedication and willingness to work through pain and injuries quickly won her the respect of HK action producers, directors and stunt men. She made four more films in the ensuing four years--all profitable except for the globe-trotting caper flick "Easy Money" (1988)--and became a beloved movie star. This was doubtlessly abetted by her characters' tendency to rely more on resourcefulness and intellect than on brawn. At the (first) peak of her success, Yeoh stunned her fans with the announcement of her impending marriage and retirement. At the request of her husband, billionaire studio head Dickson Poon, Yeoh left acting for the three years they were married.

After divorcing Poon, the former action diva made a resounding comeback opposite Jackie Chan in "Police Story 3: Supercop" (1992). Playing a mainland Chinese policewoman aiding HK cop Chan on an undercover mission in China, Yeoh was the first female co-star to receive equal footing with Chan. Indeed she even received more positive notices with her breath-taking stuntwork. Highlights included dropping off of a bus and onto a car driven by Chan. In the first take, Yeoh slid off the hood and over the side of the car; only her co-star's quick reflexes prevented her from cracking her skull. Another memorable sequence had Yeoh using a motorcycle--a vehicle which she had never before driven--to jump onto a moving train. This risky stunt required five takes.

Yeoh's renewed popularity was even more impressive than her initial success. Now the highest paid actress in Hong Kong, she appeared in ten films over the next four years. Her follow-up, "The Heroic Trio" (1992) was a distaff action classic of sorts. Yeoh joined forces with Anita Mui (as the masked heroine Wonder Woman), Maggie Cheung (as the motorcycle-riding mercenary Thief Catcher) to play the Invisible Woman, a heroine who receives the power to turn invisible with the aid of a special suit. She was also effective playing a down-on-her-luck street person who regains her self-respect with the help of Buddhist monk-turned-adventurer Jet Lee in the rousing "Tai-Chi Master" (1993). She shone on her own in "Project S/Once a Cop" (also 1993) which culminated in an awesome fight scene wherein she battles a man twice her size.

1996 proved a noteworthy year for the HK action star. On the advice of her manager Terrence Chang, she adopted the last name Khan as part of her assault on the English-speaking film market. "Supercop" was released to healthy US box office in a dubbed (Yeoh dubbed her own voice) and slightly edited form. She also incurred her first serious injury making "Stunt Woman/Ah Kam/The Story of Stuntwoman Ah Kam", a reflexive story about the travails of a stuntwoman in HK action films, falling 18 feet and landing on her head. Worse yet, Yeoh heard what she thought was the sound of her back snapping in the process. Though she was sidelined for awhile, Yeoh's injuries were not quite that dire. Still, her doctors were reportedly amazed that she could walk at all. Confounding the experts, Yeoh was soon not only back on her feet but ready to pursue a film career in America. She next turned up (again using the name Michelle Yeoh) in the 18th James Bond feature, "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997). opposite Pierce Brosnan. Yeoh seemed well-suited to support an action hero even more iconic than Jackie Chan. The actress rose to further prominence in the internationally acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger and returns to Hollywood as the eloquent mentor in Memoirs of a Geisha. She spoke to Garth Franklin in New York.

Question: What was the attraction of this particular character to you? Yeoh: Oh, God. I think first of all, the greatest attraction to this movie was Rob Marshall. I had initially been a big fan of the book and I guess there wouldn't be a lot of people who hadn't read it and loved it, and in their mind, they had already visualized what each character and the place looked like. When I heard it was Rob Marshall going to direct the film, I really felt that he was the perfect guy, because he had that sense and sensibility, the masculine and very feminine side of him, and what appealed to me tremendously was because he came from a dance background, he was a choreographer, and it felt like this movie really needed that fluid side of it, the rhythmic dance to it where the girls, the geishas, really had to flutter about. Why Mameha appealed to me, was I think to date, one of the biggest challenges as an actress, not purely just on the physical side, because the physical side, I had been trained for years to be a dancer, to be a martial artist, so moving from one movement to another, it was a familiar background. Still, it was a very specific style of movement that I had to learn from scratch. Mameha is the sensei, the epitome of the geisha, and I had to teach on-screen Sayuri what to do, how to bow correctly, how to kneel, how to get up, how to walk, everything, and if I didn't do it well, it would be a disaster and I think Rob would have drawn me out and shot me on the first day. Then, it was the very emotional side of it because geishas had very strict rules that they lived by, and Mameha followed those rules religiously. It was like during the times when we were putting each layer of the kimono, the hair was going up, the make-up was being put on, I also felt all those restrictions come on. There is no love. You do not talk about love. You only think of you as the artist, your music, your dance, your calligraphy, your rituals, all those kind of things. You're not a wife. There are so many rules to obey and observe, and what I think was the most difficult was Mameha really, truly denied herself all that. In the movie, as you can see, love is the biggest theme and love is a theme that we all live by and we passionately need and want, and it was very hard as a woman, and then as a character to say "No, does not happen" even though she wanted it and had it deep inside her, it was that sheer "I am the perfect geisha and it's not there." I think that to me, was the most difficult part.

Question: What about getting into the mindset of a Japanese character, and your own cultural differences? Was that a challenge? Yeoh: I think once you approach a film, you know very clearly what you're going to be playing. At the end of the day, I hope that we're good professionals and once you attach yourself to that and have the mindset, I am playing a Japanese geisha, and I think the most important thing for me was I am playing the vision of Rob Marshall. He is celebrating what it is like to be a geisha, and I think it was very important for us to have that mindset, and to play with him and to realize his vision. And I think he has an amazing vision.

Question: Should it be an issue whether three Chinese actresses, famous worldwide, are playing Japanese geishas? Yeoh: I sincerely hope that it is not an issue, because this is a fairy tale. This is an amazingly beautiful love story, and I hope that we have done a good job, that we take you into this world, where you're breath will be taken away and you will appreciate what we have done in there. Honestly, in Asia, in Japan, it's never been an issue, so I don't see why it should be made an issue and take away from the greatness of the film itself.

Question: Having worked with Ziyi before, did you two have a shorthand that made it easier to play two other characters? Yeoh: It definitely makes it much easier, because when we did "Crouching Tiger", that was at least four or five years ago, and from then, we already had this bond. I think in my eyes, she's always going to be my little sister and in her eyes, I am the big sister. The first time she sees me again...we don't see each other that often unfortunately, because all of us make movies around the world at different times, but I can see from her eyes I am big sister that's what she calls me. And I think Rob saw that right away and it's very important that these two characters have that bond. You know what sisters are like, it's that love/hate relationship. I am big. You listen to me. It's like "No, I am young but I have my own dreams and way I want to do things."

Question: Most of the Asian actresses I know are in this film. Yeoh: Yeah! Maybe we should hope that there will be more movies that will allow us these wonderful, amazing Asian actresses to have bigger participation.

Question: Why do you think it is? Yeoh: Seriously, I think it's been a long time coming that it's come to this but it's taken a long while. Hollywood America is the biggest market, and you have movies that cater to your own stories, and your own lifestyles and your own culture, and it's taken a long while where you suddenly realize, "Hey, guess what? In your society, there are so many of us Asians." We're here. But in a lot of the stories, it seems like it's an afterthought that we should have that. Thank God on TV now you have the newscast reader who is Asian, and then on TV, you see more Asian faces, but it's taken time, and thank God this time Sony said "Guess what? We have to be the leaders in saying we are confident enough that an all-Asian cast can do very well in the American market" then it's really good for us, because you know, we seriously need this. I mean, our world is not that big.

Question: Are perceptions of you changing because you've done so many physical roles? Is this a film that might open doors a bit wider to you in terms of the depth of roles? Yeoh: I think "Crouching Tiger" did that a little. Then, I remember when I was doing the circuit with Ang Lee, and he was always the first one to get very flabbergasted when someone said "Oh, you know, we really appreciated that you could act." And Ang Lee was like "I don't understand. Why would they something like this?" and I was like "Ang, it's okay." Because you're right, I've always been better known for my physical abilities, but I also choose to think that if you do not have the drama, you do not have the character that supports a great action sequence, your action movie falls flat on its face.

Question: What would you say was the most difficult or challenging in the geisha style of movement and secondly, how do you characterize the essence of that movement, if you could? Yeoh: We used to laugh about this, but it's actually not that funny. We called them the 7 Rooms of Torture. During the practice, rehearsal period, we had a room very specifically for learning how to do the shamisen because that is a musical instrument that to be a true geisha, you had to do that perfectly. And to be Mameha, I had to play that for Sayuri when she did her performance at the tea houses. Then, the second room was where we learned how to do all the rituals of pouring sake, handing the cup which was very specific, and I think we needed to do that so that it was second nature to us, so that by the time we got onto the set, we put on our kimonos, we've done this millions of times, but it was not easy to do, because the three steps, the three cups, how you place it. Everything had its own particular place and we had to do it effortlessly, so that you didn't feel like "Oh, she's remembering that she has to do this particular thing." And then the other room was when we had to learn the dance. Just walking in kimono was a different thing, because once you had the kimono on, you had to make the tail flutter, and you had to glide across the room, so to first learn how to walk, we had to tie our knees together, and then the next step was to just put a thin slip of paper in between, so that if the paper fell, you failed, and you had to get to the back of the class. It was embarrassing, because there were a lot of us and we were trying to outdo the other one. And then t he next was to put a sake bottle on top, so you didn't bob down, you glided down, so this stayed on top. And then to do that with the fans, so every day was something new and something to learn. And we had an amazing geisha consultant, who was there. I think the essence of being the geisha is her understanding her place and what a geisha is about. That she believes that a geisha is about truly being an artist, so that's why she spends her entire life, all her time, practicing her skills, so that when she's out there, she is on show. She's literally a moving piece of art with her kimono, the way she is dressed, her make-up, her hair, so when she dances or even she talks to you, it is a moving art form. For me, it was not just the mental side, but also the physical side that embodies the different parts of being a true geisha.

Question: Was Rob Marshall surprised by your work ethic? Yeoh: That we're so disciplined? I think Rob Marshall didn't look at any of us where we came from, different cultures or whatever it was. Rob Marshall, from the very first stage, said to us, you are the people that I have chosen, because I believe that you are the character I have chosen you to play, and when he spoke to us, it was purely about how we could make his vision come true. He was relentless. It was very clear in his mind, and we needed a director like that, because you're talking about a big ensemble cast. You're talking about two of the best Japanese actors around, then there's Gong Lee, Ziyi Zhang, and then there's myself, and everybody wanting his time and energy. But he was very focused and would remind each and every one of us, because our paths differ, but it still had to converge and meet correctly at the right time and then go off on its own again. I remember one time, when I had this scene with Sayuri after when I felt very betrayed and he would come up to me and say, "Remember, you are Mameha". And all he had to do was say that, because it means that "You're not Michelle Yeoh, the actress, or a woman trying to express your feelings, how you would feel in a situation like this. You are my Mameha". And that was it. Okay...I'm Rob Marshall's Mameha.

Question: Do you have any personal opinion about the sexism that obviously underpins frankly everything you see on screen? Yeoh: You know, honestly, doing this movie was already such a privilege and an honor, and I think what we tried to do was try to celebrate a culture that we really are learning about. It's not so open that we can say this is right or wrong or this is black or white. Also, this culture descends from a period of time when parents were trying to do the right thing for their kids and people were trying to survive. I think it's also a culture that's been elevated to an art form, so for me, I don't look at it and try to say "Oh, well" I look at it and at the beautiful side of it. I come from a dance background. When I first learned about geishas, it was about their dancing. It was like seeing this amazing doll that had this white face, and all their movements were so exquisite and it was almost unreal, very mythical, so for me, that was what I wanted to portray, even though there are so many different interpretations of how it's going to be. I hope that people will go in and just really have their breath taken away and for a moment have a glimpse into a part of a world that we don't really know that much about.

Question: So you don't think it's sexist? Yeoh: No, honestly, I don't.

Question: Are you focusing your career in Asia at the moment? Yeoh: Ah, from the looks of it, it looks like it's very bright and shining. (laughs) And I'm having such a great time so honestly I don't choose the place that I work. I really choose by the character and the director. The director, for me, is very important, because I really truly believe that he's the soul of the film. You can have an amazing script, but if you don't have a director that has the passion, the dedication and the vision for that, it would go a little soft, and I think a lot of you could understand that, and I don't choose to say that I'm only going to concentrate on working in America or just in Asia. I hope to find a balance where I can go where the best character and the best director.

Question: Are you working with Ang Lee again? Yeoh: I hope so. I'd do anything to work for that man.

Question: And you did the new Danny Boyle movie also? Yeoh: Yes, and it was such a contrast, because at the beginning of last year, I was the geisha, right? Four hours of make-up and every day walking around like a supermodel. This movie, I'm the astronaut fifty years ahead in time, fifteen minutes in hair and make-up where she comes up and goes... "Okay". And I'm like "Wait a minute. What about my eyebrow?" and she's like "No, you're a real character, you're an astronaut, you're a physicist, you're a scientist. Get back to your lab." It's fantastic.

Question: It seems like an odd film for Danny Boyle so what was that experience like? Yeoh: That's where Danny Boyle is amazing, because if you look at his films, you don't know what to expect from him. Just like 28 Days Later. There are so many zombie movies out there, so why did he make it different? Because he had an edge. Yes, this is like...8 astronauts going up to save the world. We've heard that so many times before, but you have to see it. It's got an edge. I loved it. The first week of filming, he said to me "You know this is not a family movie, right?" "Danny, I know your films, it's okay."

Question: Do you have any intention of being a director? Yeoh: No. Sorry. Being a director is a job where you have no life, you only have the movie. It's like 24 hours whether you're awake or asleep, and the details and the going back, cause I watch directors work like Ang Lee and Danny Boyle and Rob Marshall. I don't have that kind of energy that they have. I have another kind of energy. I'm very dedicated to my life, but once I put it down, I'm like "Hey, I'm a free spirit. I'm going out there and have a good time" but these people don't, and they have to be like this. Ang Lee was in a wheelchair when he wrapped "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Danny Boyle I'm sure is going to have a nervous breakdown when he gets done with us. And Rob Marshall, when he was on the set, seriously, you know, the hours, it's grueling...and he was there with a fever of 104 and losing his voice. It was a night shoot, and people were at the side, you can see them going "Oh god....we're dying, we're dying" but we'd go on because we have a director there who is "Come on! We can do this!" and he's always gentle and never short. He wants to hear your opinion because he appreciates what you want to bring to the movie, but then at the end of the day, he knows very clearly what he needs from you, so it's hard to be a director. I have too much of a life.

Question: What is your secret for looking so amazing? Yeoh: Oh, thank you! I was thinking "Oh, jetlagged, blurry eyed, you are going to see through me right away" I think it's just trying to be happy, cause with our kind of work, sometimes you take things personally, and you never should, and then you think "Oh, well, if this doesn't work out" and then at the end of the day, you think "Hey, you did your best. You had a really good time, and today is such a gift"

Question: How do you have time for a life? Yeoh: I think you just try to be normal. I mean, I think I'm very grounded and normal. I have my workout, I have my godchildren, I have my family and my friends, and then when I'm not doing a film, I'm not doing a film. I don't sort of think and agonize about it. I think I've learned to just let go of things.

Question: Would you appear in other kind of films? Are you looking for a Hollywood career? Yeoh: I hope I already have a Hollywood career. I think when you're an actor, your dream is to be able to reach out worldwide internationally, and at the present moment, it seems like to be a Hollywood actor that would be the fastest way that would be the surest way that you do reach out to the most people. I hope that in time, the Asian productions or the Chinese productions will catch up, but until our markets are as sophisticated as the American market, it will take us a lot of time. It's like India has an amazing, huge, film market, but it's really basically for themselves, because they make movies very close to what they like and they don't have the illusion that they can export it outside because they don't have that kind of contacts, but I find with the Asian films right now, they are crossing. Even whether it's just remakes or coming across here or getting straight into DVD, but it is reaching out, and it's no longer just the people who have the interest in watching European films or Asian films. It's more general right now, so hopefully, as an actor, yes, if it's to be working in Hollywood films that I get to show my work to the world, then yes, I would do it, absolutely.

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