Moriarty’s MUMMY 3 Interviews, Pt. III: Michelle Yeoh!
Published at: Aug. 1, 2008, 4:23 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Michelle Yeoh is grace and dignity incarnate, and I will thank you to remember than before you start talkbacking. I’d hate to have to banhammer someone for disparaging her and messing with the high I’ve been on since we spoke. She is sunshine and rainbows and lollipops and that’s not an opinion... it’s a goddamn medical fact.
I think what I love most about Yeoh is the way she has always been an adult in an industry made up almost entirely of children. Even our “grown-up” movie stars these days seem to be in some sort of arrested adolescence, so it’s fairly striking when someone’s persona is all about an adult composure, a serene maturity. Even in her earliest films where she was “the girl,” there was always just that little bit of extra depth to her personality, and over the years, it’s just crystallized into the regal presence she brings to movies today.
And have I mentioned she was robbed for CROUCHING TIGER? Because she way. For shame, Oscar. For shame.
Here’s our brief chat from last week. She was the third interview of the day for me, and perhaps the one I was most looking forward to:
Michelle Yeoh: Hello, Drew!
Moriarty: Hi, how are you?
Michelle Yeoh: I’m very well, thank you. And how are you?
Moriarty: Thrilled to be speaking with you.
Michelle Yeoh: Thank you.
Moriarty: I am a huge admirer of your work over the years.
Michelle Yeoh: Oh, thank you. That’s very sweet of you to tell me that.
Moriarty: So how did you come to be involved in this film? How early in the process was it, and was this something that they tailored to you specifically?
Michelle Yeoh: Well, I was involved purely because Rob Cohen came calling. I think when he did his script he wrote me a note, saying “You’re the only person I can envision being my Zi Juan. Would you please join our family?” At that time, I was filming in Prague on the Mathieu Kassovitz movie with Vin Diesel, and you know we were quite overwhelmed with work and all those kind of things. But I have always been a big fan of Rob’s, and I believe that whenever I do a movie it has to be about the director, apart from the character I’m going to play.
Because I think the director is the one that is going to tell the story at the end of the day, and what is the story that he is going to tell? And besides for that, I’ve always been a big fan of the Mummy franchise, and the thought that they were going to take it to China was very, very exciting. I wanted to share China with the rest of the world and I thought that this would be the perfect showcase for it, you know: it would show the landscape, a little bit of the history, a lot of fantasy in a different period as well. So there were a lot of different elements, and I guess I don’t know how early on in the production. Hopefully it was right from the word go.
Moriarty: It does seem like, culturally-speaking, it’s a moment right now for China. Like we’re focused on China because of the Olympics, obviously this summer. And then this film plays with both real history and some of the ideas of Chinese mythology, and was even a co-production with China.
Michelle Yeoh: Oh yeah, yes. I think this time, first it was the studio wanting to tie the franchise to China. I think also there’s been a big curiosity, wanting to learn more about it, you know, refusing to let it be an enigma that you didn’t understand but you needed to, because it was the time. Plus, with so many happenings over the Olympics, and now finally coming to the point where it is, after so many years and so much turmoil, something that the Chinese are very proud of. So this was the perfect opportunity.
Moriarty: I think in a lot of ways, having you and Jet both in this film is important. The two of you are standard-bearers for Hong Kong cinema, I think, in a lot of ways. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, for much of the mainstream here in America, was a movie that changed the way they thought of Asian cinema. And then Jet has sort of been able to move back and forth between American film and Chinese film fairly effortlessly. And so it is important to bring you guys on board. In a lot of ways, that’s the sign of approval, the “Yes, this is a genuine Chinese co-production,” not just an American film that just sort of takes it and does what it wants with it.
Michelle Yeoh: I think you’re very right on what you just mentioned there. I think this also stems from an amazing director. We were kidding about this, Jet and I, saying “Rob Cohen looks like an American on the outside, but actually inside, he’s Chinese.” [Laughs]
Moriarty: Rob spoke to me quite passionately about how fond he is of the region and how his son is going to school there.
Michelle Yeoh: Yeah, and he does have a great knowledge about the Chinese history, he has a great respect for it. And I think nothing is worse than when you see your culture or historical facts being ridiculed, or you’re made fun of, and I don’t think anybody ever enjoys that. And we had great confidence even at that time that Rob Cohen would never do something like that. That he would treat whatever historical facts with… and yes, this is a fantasy, it is a fantastical journey and adventure, but still there was, you know, great décor in spades.
Moriarty: I spoke with Maria a little earlier, and I talked with her about how, as an actress in America, as you get older, you really have to start to look for roles. It’s not really something where a lot of writers go out of their way to write strong roles for actresses after a certain age, and I think it’s just one of those things where it’s the experience of the writer. So many writers are younger men that it’s not really something they have the experience with or the voice for. And I see that you’re still working as hard as you ever have, and you’re able to work in English-language films, still able to work in Chinese films. How do you find it in the Asian industry, or in the international industry, as you mature?
Michelle Yeoh: Well, to start off with, finding good roles at any age for a woman, and as a Chinese woman, was difficult. In Asia I do enjoy more of a luxury because when you have a certain box office, when you have movies that have spoken for themselves before, it’s slightly easier. But here, it is harder and much more difficult, in the sense that there are even less roles that are written for an older, Asian-faced actress.
Moriarty: Well, in the last few years, you’ve worked with Danny Boyle on SUNSHINE...
Michelle Yeoh: Yeah, but when he first had the script, there were no Asians in his film.
Moriarty: In a case like Danny Boyle or Mathieu Kassovitz, are these just film fans who respect your body of work, and whether the role was written for you expressly or not, they like your presence, and that’s what draws them to you?
Michelle Yeoh: Yes, I think that was what happened. With Danny Boyle that was definitely what happened, and then with Mathieu Kassovitz, he basically turned around to me and said, “Don’t read the first draft of the script, because it was written for a 60-year-old, short, fat, fierce French nun.”
[Laughs] I was like “Hey, I have no problem with that. As long as you’re going to change it, I’m pretty cool with that. I don’t know which part of me you recognized in that character, but I’m happy to be working on the movie with you.”
Moriarty: I think the thing that defines so many of your roles, even when you were doing the earlier action films, there was always sort of a poise about how you handled yourself in the action that was not like many of Jackie’s co-stars. You always seemed his equal in the movies.
Michelle Yeoh: Yes, I think I went out of my way to make sure that always was the case, because you know, I’m a big fan of Jackie’s work, but I said to him that the girls are not always going to be going “Jackie! Jackie! Jackie!” Come on, give me a break. [Laughs] But it is, you know, and I said this to him, that he’s a male chauvinistic pig, you know? He thinks of women that, well, they’re women, they should be protected, they should be in the kitchen, they should look after those things. And I was like, “Darling, you live in the old ages, we have to live in today.”
Moriarty: But some of the greatest moments in the movies you did with him were stunts that you did. I still can’t believe some of the things you’ve done.
Michelle Yeoh: I know. When I look at that film, I still can’t believe I did that.
Moriarty: The motorcycle onto the train, Michelle.
Michelle Yeoh: [Laughs] I know, it’s crazy, really really. Well, you know, that’s what Hong Kong cinema was.
Moriarty: Now looking back on that, is that an amazing experience to carry with you, that you did something so unbelievable on film?
Michelle Yeoh: Yes. It really is. I mean, crazy as it may sound, I’m glad that I did it because, you know, I don’t think I’d ever do that again.
Moriarty: I think it informs the other action films that you’ve done because, you know, a lot of our actors, they always have the stuntmen, and they’re sitting in the trailer while the crazy stuff happens, and you kind of walk the walk. You did it, you’re the real deal.
Michelle Yeoh: Also in Asia, we did not have the luxury of doing that. The actors had to go out and carry the roles. That’s how Jackie, Jet, Sammo... they’re well-known for what they do. Their fans know that this is what they can do, and nobody else can do it. And that was sort of the standard that we as women had to live up to, or else you would never have been able to join that club.
Moriarty: Now I know that with Jackie in particular, he was trained in the Peking Opera while growing up. Your background was dance?
Michelle Yeoh: My background was ballet, was dance, was sports. So for me, the first time I was involved in a movie, it was an action movie, but I didn’t do any of the action. But as I looked at the choreography, it was like a very elaborate dance piece. You know, everybody had their moves, their steps. The only thing they didn’t have was the music in the background, but there was a sense of rhythm, a sense of dynamics being moved. So I learned to adapt to that.
Moriarty: And now, you have your own production company, and you have developed your own material that has ended up on film, as with THE TOUCH. Is that something that you continue to work on?
Michelle Yeoh: Yes, it will be something that I will continue to work on, because I really love the movie business. I just recently started a management company with Terrence Chang, and another partner from Taiwan, David Hang, because I truly believe that we need the talent. We need to nurture them, help them develop and grow, or find more exciting things to do with themselves, and what they learn. Because even today, I would love to have had... you know, fortunately here, you have your agents who help guide you in your career path, and so that’s what we decided to do.
Moriarty: You’ve done science fiction, you’ve done a James Bond movie, the martial arts films, you’ve done the epics like CROUCHING TIGER...
Michelle Yeoh: MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA…
Moriarty: You’ve pretty much done it all. Is there anything you feel like you still want to do on film that you haven’t yet?
Michelle Yeoh: Many... I haven’t done a musical!
Michelle Yeoh: Yeah. [Laughs]
Moriarty: I always hear John Woo says that he wants to do a musical, and I know Spielberg said that he wants to do a musical. When are these guys gonna really do it?
Michelle Yeoh: I know, I hope soon. You know, a musical is very similar to an action movie, except instead of dance, it’s got song-and-dance. Hopefully MAMMA MIA, you know, that’s gonna do really well, so...
Moriarty: I’m taking my mother-in-law to that tonight.
Michelle Yeoh: Oh, I’m dying to see it!
Moriarty: She’s a huge, huge ABBA fan, so yeah, gotta take her.
Michelle Yeoh: No, that’s fantastic, because then you can sing with it. Oh, it’ll be such an experience.
Moriarty: I hope so. And I think we’ve seen a resurgence in it in the last few years.
Michelle Yeoh: Well, hopefully I will be able to be participating in one very soon. [Laughs]
Moriarty: I have to say, it was a treat to speak to you, and I know that you had a long press day, but thank you for taking the time this afternoon.
Michelle Yeoh: It was my pleasure, Drew. Hope to talk to you again soon.
Have I mentioned that Michelle’s laugh is like sunshine, and that even though we did this interview on the phone, I am confident she smells like fresh-baked cookies?
She may never get a role like CROUCHING TIGER again -- they don’t come along often for anyone -- but as long as she’s making films, I’ll be seeing them, and my shameless crush continues unabated.
UP NEXT: My final MUMMY interview, with the man who killed one mummy... twice! Brendan Fraser!