What do Malaysians think of Michelle Yeoh
Actually, she should be tired. The evening before, she presented her film "Far North" at the festival in Tromsö, Norway. Then she danced into the night with enthusiastic guests and thus cemented her reputation as a buddy wonder woman even at the Arctic Circle. Nevertheless, Michelle Yeoh appears in time for breakfast in the café of her hotel.An energy point in a bright red turtleneck in front of a panoramic window that reveals a dramatic fjord landscape. She only touches her three croissants to explain the many injuries in her career. "That's my back now," she says - and bends the ends of the croissant together until the puff pastry crumbles.
SZ: You look so fit, wasn't the evening very exhausting yesterday?
Yeoh: Oh, that's wrong, I'm tired. I'm usually in bed before midnight. That's why I like to get up at six in the morning. But yesterday it didn't work because the film didn't end until one o'clock in the morning. It was strange: when we slipped back into the hall shortly before the end to answer questions from the audience, someone laughed. I really hope that was a nervous laugh.
SZ: You just strangled your daughter in the film in order to snatch her husband.
Yeoh: Yes, that can overwhelm mentally healthy people. The script is based on an Inuit myth about an outcast woman. The result is a story about the dark side of people, which we never understand on normal days over a cup of cappuccino.
SZ: Why do you of all people play this role? Usually your characters are very positive. Often times you save the world.
Yeoh: That was a main reason I wanted to do the film - the dark side.
SZ: Director Asif Kapadia only wanted you for the film. Like Danny Boyle in his last thriller. He said: Take the role you want, the main thing is that you are there. We adapt the script.
Yeoh: Typical Danny! But he could also say that because the book wasn't finished.
SZ: The interesting thing is that people react to you that way. Many who speak out about you seem downright euphoric.
Yeoh: Oh really? It may sound strange, but I didn't notice it that way.
SZ: It's extreme: you are obviously a great friend, down-to-earth and unpretentious. You are considered ageless beauty, "Grace Kelly of Asia". With "laser eyes, steel muscles, silk hair" and an allegedly "inexplicable depth".
Yeoh: That's very cute, keep talking.
SZ: You have to explain that! You never read anything negative. If a film with you fails, is it called: the director? A bungler! The yeoh? Once again great!
Yeoh: I think I'm very direct and honestly say what I think. I love my work, only do projects when I'm convinced. And I am very positive. I try to enjoy every moment.
SZ: That sounds now ...
Yeoh: ... too banal? Because it's just as banal!
SZ: When you were recently knighted in the French Legion of Honor, you said in your acceptance speech: I'm still the simple girl from Ipoh.
Yeoh: Yeah, you should be honest with yourself. You can't pull out roots. Especially in Hollywood it is so easy to take off, some stupid camera brushes you over and over again. But you can't let yourself be carried away by all the glamor. Being an actress is a normal job to love. If you can see it that way, you will be saved.
SZ: You grew up as a Chinese in Malaysia in the 1960s. Do you have to imagine your surroundings as conservative?
Yeoh: More liberal, but very traditional at the same time. For us Chinese, the focus is on the family. The liberal thing was that my parents gave us a completely free hand in choosing a career. When I wanted to go to Hong Kong for my first film offer at the age of 21, after some hesitation I showed the contract to my father, who is a lawyer. He only looked at it for a moment and said: This is a shitty contract with which you are completely exposed. Then he asked: when do you start? And I said: next week. That was all.
SZ: You liked to do "boys' things" and played rugby, for example. Were you an assertive girl?
Yeoh: Yeah, the only "girl thing" I did was ballet. But at home I didn't want to wear a tutu, I wanted to play with my brother and his friends. I was a girl who loved nature, was outdoors a lot and who often went fishing with her father. I later played squash and competed in swimming.
SZ: You are such a competitive guy, aren't you?
Yeoh: No. More of a guy for sporting challenges. And I guess I got that from my mother. She is a sportsman and still plays badminton a lot. At 68, she looks like she is in her mid-40s. And she's a rampant who sings great and still likes to appear at charity shows today. She used to kick us children hard in the buttocks. In 1983 she registered me for the Miss Malaysia election without asking. She would have loved to take part herself, but of course she was far too old for that. I thought that was absolutely crazy.
Read on the second page how Michelle Yeoh deals with fear.
"If there is a threat, I will run away"
SZ: Is it a matter of honor that you still won the Miss Crown?
Yeoh: Once I start something, I go through with it. Which was difficult because that was the first time I understood what stage fright meant.
SZ: Michelle Yeoh was scared?
Yeoh: Oh yes, big ones even. I especially hate speaking in front of an audience on stage. Then I shiver all over my body. It's horrible.
SZ: You don't make that impression at all.
Yeoh: It's true. And guess what? You never get rid of it no matter how much practice you have. It's like my fear of heights. What floor are we on here? In the fourth, right? If you're going to torment me, ask me to lean out of this window now.
SZ: The most expensive stunt woman in the world has problems leaning out of a window?
Yeoh: Yes, but only privately.
SZ: Oh, come on!
Yeoh: Really, it's all just training. At work I learned to be in complete control of my body and mind. My knees can be like pudding and my hands tremble, when I do a stunt I know: it has to be now. A kind of meditative tunnel thinking in which all fears dissolve. A test of courage. When it's over, I immediately escape to safe terrain.
SZ: The attack as a principle of life?
Yeoh: That might sound a bit over the top. But you should never give up. Not even in a very tough situation.
SZ: For example?
Yeoh: After studying dance at the Royal Academy in London, the frustrating diagnosis was: combined misalignment of the pelvis and spine. From the dream of a ballerina career!
SZ: How did you deal with it?
Yeoh: The director of the academy took great care of me. She said to me: There are many other ways that have to do with dance. It was then that I learned that an obstacle only becomes a problem when you allow it yourself.
SZ: Isn't that a bit too wise for a 16-year-old?
Yeoh: It has nothing to do with wisdom. It's a question of character. Even as a child, I was an incorrigible optimist. After a defeat, I collect myself and ask: Okay, what alternatives are there?
SZ: The alternative then was kung fu. Isn't that much harder than ballet?
Yeoh: My orthopedist from back then has to think I'm insane. But you can retrain the body after an injury. When you train a broken leg properly, it often becomes more resilient than before. It took years to work on my body.
SZ: Why do you have to do kung fu?
Yeoh: My first film was one of those action comedies, the big thing in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Comedy was out of the question, I had to learn Chinese first. I then watched these guys doing fight scenes on set and thought: It's like jazz dance. Fascinating!
SZ: So you tried it out?
Yeoh: The girls on the set were typical: long hair, delicate, puppy. Fortunately, the wife of a producer interfered and said: Listen guys, first you hire this girl from Malaysia who is completely different, and then you put her in a drawer with all these Barbies? So the guys said, okay, what do you want to do? And I said: fight. They thought I was kidding. They laughed: Uuhhii, Miss Malaysia wants to fight! Then let the baby show what she can do.
SZ: Sounds like tough times.
Yeoh: It wasn't hard, it was hell. The most brutal thing I've seen. And on set, it didn't matter that I was a girl. Which was good too. Because the situation was so clear.
On page three, read why Michelle Yeoh is fascinated by suffering
"If there is a threat, I will run away"
SZ: Please no special treatment, never?
Yeoh: No. The fighters were professionals who loved what they were doing. Artists to be respected. It took a while before I was accepted. Another year later on "Yes Madam" ...
SZ: ... the film that made you famous ...
Yeoh: ... did the director lament: Shooting with a woman? This is my death! Then he said: There are two options, little one. Either you pack this. Or you just stand up, make a few hand movements and yell Hua! and Haa-Iiih! We'll double the rest.
SZ: You then strapped two pump guns and a fire thrower to your back and went to war.
Yeoh: Something like that. It was a matter of honor. You don't run out crying when you're kicked. We beat each other's hearts out for weeks. In my first film, I stumbled around with a giant gun that I could barely hold. I looked impossible. The director once grabbed my arm and said: Man, girl, are you dirty. He tried to wipe the dirt away, but it couldn't: it was bruises. He then showed me tricks on how to avoid injuries.
SZ: What does hardness actually mean to you?
Yeoh: Seriousness, being honest with yourself, pulling one thing through, that's it.
SZ: And why did this tough girl, who was so quickly successful across Asia, go out of business to marry her producer, billionaire Dickson Poon?
Yeoh: My boss. The classic! In the end, I'm just a traditional girl.
SZ: He wanted you to play a housewife?
Yeoh: No, you have to be fair to Dickson. I chose to retreat myself because I loved it. And I don't do things by halves! The marriage failed because it didn't really fit in the end. Not because I felt locked up.
SZ: You have now become Asia's most expensive actress. The first woman accepted by action star Jackie Chan.
Yeoh: Jackie always says: There are only two women I'm afraid of: my mother and Michelle Yeoh. Although this macho thing also has a loving side. They want to protect us. You have to tell them briefly: Darling, don't break my head, I'm fine.
SZ: You seem to be fine when you suffer for movies, whether you're learning to jump on ropes on houses or tie your legs for weeks to walk like a geisha. What makes you do it?
Yeoh: Maybe I'm fascinated by suffering because it makes me feel like I'm learning something. In real life I would never take it upon myself, for a good film I would. In "Far North" I play an Inuit. To do this, I learned how to skin reindeer. I've never been prouder than the moment the same seed that taught me said to me: You do it like one of us. In my private life I can't cut up a chicken in the kitchen. Whatever helps you understand a role: do it!
SZ: The consequences of this posture for you were: broken ribs, spinal column sprains, torn arteries and ligaments, concussions, knee operations.
Yeoh: It was worst in 1995, doing a stunt for the movie "Ah Kam". I was supposed to jump onto a mattress from a height of six meters. Which I unfortunately missed. I hit the pavement headfirst, and the impact caused my back to arch so that I kicked my skull backwards with my feet.
SZ: Damn it! How does a person like you behave after such an accident?
Yeoh: Pragmatic. First you need a good doctor. In the hospital I was restrained up to my head, neck and spine were affected. But I was able to move my fingers, which reassured me, everything was obviously working.
SZ: Quentin Tarantino was incredibly fascinated by this accident at the time.
Yeoh: Yes, he wanted to visit me at the hospital right away. The sisters talked to me: Tarantino! You have to meet him! I said no way, I can't even raise my arm. Two weeks later, Tarantino checked into my home. When he came I was lying on the sofa with a frame for my arm. A giant I had never seen pounded up the stairs, crouched on the floor, and began to recite lines from my films.
SZ: Passages from fighting films?
Yeoh: Yeah, he knew them all by heart. And each of the stunts that were later the role models for his "Kill Bill" films. To reproduce the scenes, he kept shouting: Huuaa, hoo and Iiiihhh. We had a lot of fun. I was overwhelmed by its liveliness. He lifted me up.
Read on the fourth page how Michelle Yeoh felt as a Bond girl.
"If there is a threat, I will run away"
SZ: You are a role model for Asia. The Times wrote: "Yeoh's career has forever shattered every stereotype and stereotype about Asian women in the minds of Western Europeans."
Yeoh: I'm glad. In older films, women are mainly staged as China dolls. As ethereal beings, also as prostitutes. When you take on such a role, you're cementing stereotypes. I think it would be nice if my roles helped change that. It was obviously fascinating to see a woman fight for the first time. The women loved it, and the men found it sexy.
SZ: You once said that there are no bigger machos than Chinese men. . .
Yeoh: And they're proud of it!
SZ: ... and that you enjoy fighting films because there is no other opportunity to hit five of them in the face at the same time.
Yeoh: fun? I don't know if I would still say that today. It was sport. A game that has just as little to do with the battle of the sexes as it does with reality. In real life I would never use kung fu. When threatened, I run away. There are no winners in a fight. Only injured.
SZ: If the gender battle was so unimportant: why did you refuse to become a Bond girl for so long?
Yeoh: I thought that was unimaginable. A colleague once said to me: Michelle, you'd be a great Bond girl. I threw a pillow at him! Do I look like Barbie? Like someone who yells "help me James"? When I used to imagine myself to be in a Bond movie, I was always James Bond.
SZ: Okay, let's say that's at least an interesting idea.
Yeoh: Yeah right? He's having all the fun and all the toys. In the end, of course, it was nice to play a Bond girl.
SZ: Anyone who read reports about the filming of "Tomorrow Never Dies" had the feeling: Michelle Yeoh was once again the only real guy on the set.
Yeoh: There were rumors that I do my own stunts and Pierce Brosnan doesn't, but that wasn't true, he even got a bloody lip. I think the debate was sparked by this scene in which we cross a 100-meter-deep gorge on a motorcycle on a narrow bridge. Pierce was doubled because it was safer for me too, he would have been the driver. I rode the bike because I was just the mouse that clung to him from behind. To be honest: I enjoyed it! By the way, I also like it when a man holds the door for me.
SZ: Why do you often appear so much softer in your later roles? In "Tiger & Dragon", for example, you renounce the love of your life because of tradition.
Yeoh: I think roles also look for actors. In "Tiger & Dragon" my role followed the dreams of Ang Lee. His film was waiting for me. My birth as an actress! Ang brings characters to life like no one else. These characters can hold back feelings, and you can still register them!
SZ: Ang Lee said he loved most of all the point where the facade crumbles and strong women surrender to their own vulnerability.
Yeoh: Yes, we pull ourselves together for a long time so as not to look so fragile. Sometimes we seem to exaggerate. It is amazing how precisely Ang works towards such points. You get very vulnerable on your set. That was new to me.
SZ: Since "Tiger & Dragon" you have embodied the globalized actress like no other. What is the difference between living as an American, European, and Asian star?
Yeoh: There is no qualitative difference. I am grateful that what I do is accepted in different cultures. In the past, I would have been limited to the role of the Chinese in the USA or Europe.That has changed. Many have criticized "Memoirs of a Geisha" because three Chinese women play Japanese women there, but that's what actors do: play a role. In my next film, Babylon AD, I play a French nun alongside Gérard Depardieu. As a Chinese! This is exactly how it should be!
SZ: Where is Michelle Yeoh in ten years?
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