In the midst of a packed schedule in the run-up to Oscar voting, Michelle Yeoh is sipping two types of super-healthy juice at the Beverly Hills restaurant where we meet—green and lemon. After all, she has to keep up her strength, given the high stakes this season.
Asian actors have had precious little Academy-centric opportunities—or just onscreen opportunities—and Yeoh’s latest project, the box office-busting Warner Bros. hit Crazy Rich Asians, looks like it could upend the status quo at last. If Yeoh gets a supporting actress nod this year, she will be only the sixth actress of Asian descent ever to be nominated in the history of the Academy.
In Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling book about the internal struggles of an affluent—or ‘crazy rich’—Singaporean family, Yeoh shines as the prickly-but-complex matriarch Eleanor Young, who can’t accept her son’s choice to marry the ‘ABC’ (American-born Chinese) Rachel Chu (Constance Wu).
“It is very, very empowering,” Yeoh says of the film’s success, but she admits to being on the edge of her seat opening weekend, with so much resting on the reception for this mainstream studio film with an all-Asian cast. “The fear of it not having had that kind of success was very, very prevalent. It would have set us back another 25 years,” she says, referring to the 25 years it’s been since that other studio all-Asian cast film, The Joy Luck Club.
The industry has certainly not been generous in the past. Despite more than proving her acting chops in the Best Picture-nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon back in 2000, Yeoh didn’t get a nom. In fact, only one actor of Asian descent has been nominated in this entire decade–Dev Patel for Lion in 2017–there’s been just one female Asian winner ever–Miyoshi Umeki in 1957–and Merle Oberon’s nom for The Dark Angel in 1935 is the only time an Asian woman has ever made it into the lead actress category (she hid her Indian heritage throughout her career to avoid racism).
Yeoh is also dismayed by the lack of Asian films making the leap from the foreign language category to Best Picture. “You make all the excuses, like, ‘Oh OK, it’s because they only want American movies,’” she says. “But then you look at Life is Beautiful. It’s not an American movie and it was nominated [for Best Picture], and won for Best Actor. Why is that different? It’s like when I looked back at Zhang Yimou’s film Raise the Red Lantern, it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, but why was it not even a consideration? I mean for Crouching Tiger, yes we were considered, but somehow… I didn’t quite understand.”
Now though, she’s hopeful that change is here. “Perhaps it really took this movement,” she says. “This new generation stood up and said, ‘OK, that’s enough. Let’s not take this sitting down anymore.’ I’m glad when I look at the young generation. They’re so vocal and they’re not afraid. I’m so proud of them. I’m so glad I get to see it in my lifetime, and I’m very happy that I’ve been part of that movement as well, because we have been fighting to get to today.”
But despite seriously tough odds, Yeoh has crafted a stellar career, in films like Memoirs of a Geisha, the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Star Trek: Discovery. And all this, on the heels of a thwarted career as a ballet dancer.
Born in Malaysia, Yeoh went to school in England, and studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance in London. While she eventually quit dancing due to a back injury, she says it was never going to happen anyway. “You can’t imagine a Chinese girl being in the corps de ballet back then, doing Swan Lake. It just wouldn’t happen. That’s the reality.”
When, at 21, her mother entered her in the beauty pageant for Miss Malaysia, Yeoh was unenthused, since her lifelong shyness made it seem pretty unappealing. But still, she won, then was eventually put forward to shoot a commercial alongside Jackie Chan—her big break.
That shyness is actually still an issue today, Yeoh says. “If I know I’m getting an award, for the next two nights I won’t be able to sleep, because I know I’ll have to go on stage to say something.” And shooting movies is tough in the same way. “There’s a lot of people looking at you, and the lines sort of go. It takes a lot of focus and concentration.”
After that Jackie Chan commercial stint, Yeoh made her way into Hong Kong action movies, where she threw herself into doing all her own stunts, some of which sound fairly hair-raising—running along the top of a moving train for example—but Yeoh actually loved the power and equality that came from it. “I trained very hard to do that,” she says. “And I took great pride, because it was such a man’s world. It was all men. The girls were relegated to the damsel in distress, always needing to be rescued and helped out, running around going, ‘Save me! Save me!’ And I felt at one point I was invincible.”
Then, when Yeoh got the job on Tomorrow Never Dies, she was sorely disappointed to be told doing her own stunts wasn’t an option. “The director, Roger Spottiswoode, said, ‘You are not here because you can do the physical action. If you can’t act, I can’t cast you opposite Pierce [Brosnan]. Your acting is what got you here.’”
While the Bond movie shifted Yeoh’s career up a gear, it also gave her back her real name. In Hong Kong, while very young, she’d been pushed by producers into changing Yeoh to the supposedly more Western-digestible ‘Khan’. But it was producer Barbara Broccoli, grande dame of Bond films, who put an end to all that. “Bless her, Barbara Broccoli, I love her to bits,” Yeoh says. “She was like, ‘What the f*ck? Michelle Khan? Just go with your f*cking name!’”
These days, Yeoh brings with her all the expertise and quiet confidence of her storied career. Instinct and experience told her the ring the production had designed for Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians—which is at the center of the entire plot—was all wrong for the character. “I mean there’s a lot going on there about how she got the ring in the first place, and then, when—spoiler alert—at the end, you see the ring again, you understand totally how she’s accepted Rachel,” Yeoh explains.
“So when they brought out this tray of rings, fortunately Jon Chu was there, and I went, ‘Are you kidding?’ First of all, from the book, Kevin Kwan already had told us right away how classy this woman is, when she bought the hotel in the prologue. In my mind, Eleanor Young was very formidable, but at the same time, she was very elegantly put together. She was not ostentatious or loud. If she wore a ring it would be simple. It wouldn’t be a 10 carat white diamond. So I took a look at the rings and thought, ‘No way would Eleanor Young wear these.’”
As a solution, Yeoh simply brought in the perfect ring from her personal collection. “It’s a flawless emerald,” she says, “and the green color has the connotation of life, continuity, love—it’s very special to Asians. They were more worried than I was. They said, ‘What about insurance?’ But it was my privilege to be able to show it, and it really made the difference.”
Now, while Yeoh is hoping that equality for the Asian cast will feature this awards season and beyond, she’s not sitting back waiting for recognition. Instead, she’s steaming ahead with her new producing job. Having signed a deal with Ivanhoe Pictures—who financed and co-produced Crazy Rich Asians—she’s working on the adaptation of the book Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World, by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope. The true-life story follows Jho Low, the alleged mastermind behind Malaysia’s 1MDB money-laundering scandal.
The pull of producing for Yeoh seems rather like the same instinct that made her decide to run along the roof of a moving train rather than play the helpless damsel. “As an actor you sit there and wait for things to come to you,” she explains. “As a producer you are more proactive. You go out and find that stuff, and you choose the creative people you work with.”
Will the celebrities mentioned in the book—Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx, to name just two—be approached for cameos? “I would love that they would play themselves,” she says, “so we’ll see.”
Of course it’s certainly more than fitting that Yeoh should tell this story of Malaysia, and along with the smash hit Crazy Rich Asians, hopefully this signals that much-needed change is on the way. “It’s my home country. We’re not afraid to tell the story for what it is,” she says, “and I think we should have the privilege of doing that.”