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ELLE March Cover Story: Michelle Yeoh

Malaysia's silver screen goddess is in the prime of her life. She speaks to Andrea Wong in our exclusive March cover story

By Andrea Wong | Published: 20 Mar 2014

Michelle Yeoh
Photo: Mark Pillai

It’s a bitterly cold February day in Paris. Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh is posing outside the Saint James Hotel in a strapless Dior gown, while the photographer and crew huddle in coats and scarves, shivering and puffing into their cupped hands. On the photographer’s instructions, Yeoh walks through the hotel doors again and again, smiling all the time and without a word of complaint.

Then again, what’s five degrees without a coat to a woman who has built a career on her ability to withstand pain?

“You had to be a little bit fearless, and a little bit crazy,” she laughs as she recalls her time as the first lady of Hong Kong martial arts movies, whose calling card was doing all her own stunts. “You learn to focus. We learn to be very disciplined, we channel things... We block it out.”

Michelle Yeoh is in the prime of her life – her many lives, really. In her five decades she has been a ballet dancer, a beauty queen, a kung fu film star and now, at 51, she is a producer, a philanthropist and most clearly a woman in love.

She could quite justifiably, if she so chose, start easing her foot off the accelerator and still she would have lived more lives than most of us do. It would be perfectly understandable if she retreated into the role of the wealthy ‘wife’ – shopping, lunching, and trailing her partner, Frenchman Jean Todt, director of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, around the Formula 1 circuit. And yet within minutes of meeting Yeoh it is blatantly apparent that while she may have lived many lives, she could never be wholly content with that particular one.

That we are meeting in Paris is testament to just how busy she is. Between filming an undisclosed project in Bangkok – all she will say is that it’s a first for her – travelling for her charitable work as a road safety campaigner (Washington and Brisbane in the last few months alone), and helming new projects for her production company, The Next Star, Yeoh is rarely at home in Geneva for more than a few nights at a time, so we must catch her on the run during one of her regular Paris pit-stops.

Of all her many irons in the fire, the 2014 project that will most excite Yeoh’s fans is undoubtedly Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Destiny, sequel to the Ang Lee film that put wuxia on the Hollywood map and won four Oscars in 2001. The follow-up is being produced by Harvey Weinstein and will see Yeoh reprise the role of Yu Shu Lien, with filming due to start soon.

“This is purely a Mr Weinstein baby,” she says. “I’m purely in there as an actor. We work very closely with the writers, the directors, and Harvey, because he believes in our vision as well, because we’re the originals! It’s something that’s so precious.”

For now, she’s busy with work a little closer to home, serving on the board of Pinewood Iskandar Studios in Johor and pursuing projects for The Next Star. “I’m planning a TV show in China and around Southeast Asia,” she says. “I want to be the next Attenborough, I want to do a lot of documentaries. That’s all in the planning.

“I want to be in Malaysia a lot more... My family are there, that’s one of the reasons, but I see great potential and I think that’s one way I can put my money where my mouth is.”

Although Yeoh hasn’t lived here for several decades, she returns often to see her family in Ipoh. She was last in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks before we meet, for the opening of the Louis Vuitton global store at Starhill Gallery, where she was honoured along with Marina Mahathir, Tom Abang Saufi and five other high achievers in an exhibition called ‘Malaysia’s League of Extraordinary Women’.

While all the women named are the biggest luminaries in their fields, it was Yeoh who received the evening’s most vocal applause, who was afforded a level of deference to what she’s accomplished, to what she’s helped her country accomplish. For Yeoh, at this stage in career, is the only Malaysian woman to have broken into A-list Hollywood and made a name for herself on the world stage that’s as fluidly remembered as Nicole Kidman or Natalie Portman.

In 1997, the same year she played an against-type Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies, People magazine listed her as one of its 50 most beautiful people, and in 2009 she was the only Asian on its list of 35 all-time screen beauties. Two years ago, the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy made Yeoh an officer in the Legion of Honour, the highest award a civilian can receive in France. And last June, she became the only living actor to receive the title of Tan Sri, a bestowment that still makes her marvel.

“I think the first time you hear, you go, ‘Is he talking about me?’ And you feel very honoured. Very grateful. You’re already so blessed that the work you do has given you such immense satisfaction, and then to be recognised like that by your country, your government, it’s very special. And I think it’s also amazing for my family, especially my parents. They are very proud.”

For a woman so accustomed to support at home it must have been an unwelcome surprise to face public censure during the 2013 Malaysian election campaign, after appearing at a Barisan Nasional rally in support of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. “I’m always surprised when…” She trails off. “I think that’s what democracy is, right? Everybody has their view, their right to voice, or not, what they feel or who they choose to support. And I was just simply exercising my personal right.” At this point Yeoh’s assistant interrupts – “no politics!” – but Yeoh tells her it’s okay.

“My dad was a politician, so he always taught us that there’s nothing wrong with saying what you believe in.” That lesson has clearly stayed with her into adulthood. “I’ve always been opinionated and, as years go by, I’m very honest, above all, with me. If you can’t be honest with yourself, how are you going to accept it when someone tries to be honest with you? It doesn’t mean that I want to listen to whatever I say,” she laughs. “But at least I know what’s going on.”

She certainly does. The common thread between Yeoh’s diverse roles is the strength of the women she chooses to play, although her career started out very differently. In her very first kung fu movie, The Owl vs Dumbo, she played a typical damsel in distress, but it was to be the first and last time. “I wasn’t happy to just sit there and be rescued the whole time,” she says. “When I watched the guys when they fought, it looked like a dance piece, it was almost choreographed. And I thought, ‘I’d like to try that.’ Because I come from a background of dance and athletics I was pretty coordinated, and I learnt very quickly.”

Jumping a motorbike onto a moving train, as she famously did alongside Jackie Chan in Police Story III: Supercop, is one thing, but it was her portrayal of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011’s The Lady that she is most proud of.

“I read in the newspaper that this Italian director was going to do the movie of Aung San Suu Kyi. So I called up my agents right away and I said ‘You track them down, because that is my role. I don’t care what happens, you go find them, otherwise we’re going our separate ways.’”

In fact, there were two different Suu Kyi films being mooted, and both parties wanted Yeoh for the lead. She chose the British scriptwriters, and then determinedly pursued director Luc Besson for the project. “It was one of those instinctive things, you know, when you think, ‘No, nobody is going to get this, this is mine.’”

She laughs, but it’s obvious she has an iron fist inside that velvet glove. Given what she has accomplished in a male-dominated industry, what she has set out to change, does she consider herself a feminist?

“No. Not really. I am definitely for equality. I always believe that whatever it is, the job or whatever it is, should not be dictated by your sex or your age, it should be dictated by your ability to do it. I’m not going to go and burn my bra. I enjoy being very feminine, and all the perks that come with being the lady,” she laughs again. “But I think, of all these kinds of things, it depends on the individual. I’ve always been very moderate, very respectful of how we are all different.”

It’s a stance she also takes in her relationship with Todt. “We have great respect for each other’s work. He adores what I do. He doesn’t try to make me be something that he wants. I love him for exactly who he is. And I think the biggest mistake people do is, when they meet someone or fall in love with someone, they start trying to change that person. Then, there must be something amiss, right?”

It’s hard not to interpret this as a veiled reference to Yeoh’s first marriage, to Dickson Poon, boss of Hong Kong’s D&B films. She gave up acting after their marriage in 1988, but returned three years later when they divorced.

Now, after almost a decade with Todt, she can’t avoid the inevitable questions about marriage, whether from journalists or her family. “I think I will. I think I will,” she says. “I always said that a piece of paper does not keep two people together. Two people should be together because they really love and respect each other. I think that the sanctity of marriage seems sometimes important not just to the couple but to the people around them, the family and all that…” She pauses and smiles. “It can be very romantic and fun. I’m definitely thinking about it.”

She’ll need to find the time first though. That busy schedule has her rushing back to Bangkok in the morning. As she gathers her belongings and says her goodbyes, she darts a wishful look at her assistant. “We don’t have time for a quick drink?” It’s a no. Michelle Yeoh has things to do and places to be. 

See Michelle in action for the ELLE March cover shoot


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