The Year of Yeoh Master Class Series - October 16th, 2022 (Michelle Yeoh)
October 27, 2022
Googly eyes are scattered across the foreheads of students in the Folino, ready to re-watch Everything Everywhere All At Once or experience its beauty for the very first time. Not only would they be seeing Michelle Yeoh’s remarkable acting on screen, but she would be gracing the stage after for a live Q&A.
Yeoh is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination this season for her portrayal of Evelyn Wang, a Chinese immigrant who is swept into an adventure where she must save the world by exploring the many lives she could have led in other universes. Her interview with Scott Feinberg on October 16th will go down as one of the best master classes Dodge College has ever had.
Part 1: Everything
When she was a little girl, Michelle Yeoh dreamed of being a ballerina. She pictured herself growing up and running her own dance school. At the age of 15, she moved to London and attended the Royal Academy of Dance. She came to school two weeks late in her second year, missing all of the warmup weeks. She said by the end of the week, she was crawling around the school her body hurt so much. A specialist told her that she had to get minor surgery on her vertebrae, meaning she would not be able to do the physical sides of the dance courses she was in. “I am [now] going to minor in drama. I will take a drama course which will help with my body language and be able to tell stories in a different way. And I discovered stage fright. It was the worst thing ever. If at that time, you said to my professors then [that I] would one day be an actress, they would say, ‘I bet my bottom pound that would never happen!'”
A little down the line, Yeoh returns home to find her mother has entered her into a Miss Malaysia competition, which she won! She traveled around the world as an ambassador for her country, which caught the attention of some high-profile people. Her friend happened to be having dinner with businessman Dickson Poon. He told her friend they hadn’t found the right girl for a certain commercial. “These are where good friends come into play.” Her friend pulls a photo of them together from her wallet and shows Dickson Poon. Yeoh’s first tv appearance: a Guy Laroche watch commercial with Jackie Chan. Dickson Poon also offered to put her under a film contract.
The roles she was being offered right out the gate were the stereotypical “damsel in distress” characters. After staring in such a role as Ms. Yeung in the martial arts film The Owl Vs. Bombo (1984), she decided to immerse herself in martial arts training. She was soon offered the role of Inspector Ng in the award-winning action film from Hong Kong Yes, Madam (1985).
Yeoh retired for the first time in 1987 after marrying Dickson Poon. “I am terrible at multitasking. And I also believe that when I do something, I have to give it my 150%. At that point, I felt that if I continued to be an actress, I would be away from home three-quarters of the year. That is hardly the marriage life that I had envisioned. I come from quite an old-fashioned, traditional family, especially my mom. I felt that if I wanted to start a family, I would have to be able to be there to start a family, right?” The two divorced three years later, and Yeoh found her way back to Hollywood. Her returning act: Inspector Jessica Yang in Police Story 3 (Super Cop 1992), starring alongside Jackie Chan for the second time.
Her biggest stunt in the film: riding a motorcycle off of a building onto a moving train. “I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle before. We don’t really rehearse for fight sequences. We literally get on the set, and the amazing stunt coordinators will look at the set and say, ‘What can we break here? Where can we jump off.’ And then they will start choreographing. Then you watch them. Learn it. Then you do it.'”
The next action-heavy film she worked on was Stunt Woman (1996). In a particular scene, Yeoh’s character Ah Kam was jumping off an overhead bridge onto a moving truck. Stunt Coordinator Sammo Kam-Bo Hung pushed her off the bridge more aggressively than planned, and she toppled. She hit the bottom hard. All she felt was her feet hit the top of her head. “We got to the hospital. We were waiting to do all the MRIs and X-Rays – they had the TV on. The news had come out to say that Michelle Yeoh had been in an accident and now she’s in the hospital. The first thing I was thinking was, ‘Oh no, my parents are going to hear about this. This is bad!’ I called my mom. I said, “If you hear [anything] on the news, don’t worry about it. We are just doing some publicity.'”
At this point, she was considering retiring for a second time, but she got a request to visit from, of all people, Quentin Tarantino. Yeoh was a huge fan, and even though she probably wasn’t wanting any visitors, she said yes. “He could recite [my movies] frame for frame. Before long, I was getting so enthralled and excited, my assistant and fiancé were like, ‘I think you better calm down. You are not supposed to be doing all these movements. It was like rediscovering: I do love what I do. I do love it. Why should I not continue to have this kind of passion? But I will promise myself and all the people who love me that I will take it, and I will learn to protect myself in a much better way.” The two never made a movie together, but one infamous question still floats around Hollywood: Why did Quentin Tarantino not cast Michelle Yeoh opposite Uma Thurman in Kill Bill? Quentin’s response: Nobody would believe that Uma Thurman could kick Michelle Yeoh’s ass.
Part 2: Everywhere
Not long after her recovery, she got a call from Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, who both oversee the James Bond films and are also big admirers of Hong Kong cinema. They offered her a role as a Bond girl in the newest installment Tomorrow Never Dies. Bruce Feirstein, Dodge Professor Madeline Warren’s husband, wrote the film, and was determined to make this Bond girl very different from the rest. “She was fantastic. I have one funny story about her. We were shooting at Pinewood, shooting nights. It was three in the morning, and on the next stage over they were shooting The Avengers. We look at each other and go, ‘We got to go kick their asses.’ So much of what made that movie great is the person you are listening to tonight.” This film was her first introduction to American audiences, and she has come a long way since then.
It would be another three years before she made another movie. “The roles that were coming, because now I was a better-known actress, were very stereotypical/token roles. Why would I want to do this?” Director Ang Lee requested to meet with her when she was doing press for Tomorrow Never Dies. “When he talks about film, I felt like I was watching an artist doing watercolor.” It took them a year and a half to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including best picture, but Michelle Yeoh was not nominated for Best Actress. She had received a Best Actress BAFTA nomination but not an Academy nomination. A similar thing happened with Parasite, Memoirs of a Geisha, and other non-English films that have been well-received as movies. “At a certain stage, I think you keep going forward, and hope that things will change for the better, and that people will understand that you can’t have the Best Picture without the Best Actress and the Best Actor and the Best DP or the Best Director…”
Does everyone remember The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor from 2008? The cast of that movie is making a comeback this year at the Oscars. With Everything Everywhere All At Once and The Whale sure to sweep this upcoming awards season, we can only hope that Michelle Yeoh and Brandon Fraiser lead the pack. If anyone deserves an Oscar, it’s these two stars.
The first Hollywood studio film with an all-Asian cast and Asian American lead in 25 years since The Joy Luck Club 1993 was Crazy Rich Asians, which grossed more than $200 million. Yeoh plays Eleanor Young in the film, a mother who is skeptical of her son’s love interest taking him away. “When I got the script, I passed on it. I literally said no, I am not doing this, because the script read like The Hangover. The worst was the mother (Eleanor) was written like a villain. She was the meanest.” Then Yeoh looked at the other work of Director Jon Chu and saw that he had directed the Justin Beiber Documentary. Behind all of the things that she saw with the media and paparazzi, the documentary showed a sad man. Yeoh knew she could trust Jon Chu to show the true motivation and feelings behind Eleanor’s actions.
Part 3: All At Once
The Daniels – directing duo behind Swiss Army Man starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, put all the complex things into Everything Everywhere All At Once that they were not allowed to do before. It was originally written for a man. That man was Jackie Chan. They wanted Michelle Yeoh to play his wife. However, they went back and wrote a different story, this time from the perspective of Evelyn Quan. “They came back and said, ‘You know, why are we doing the same thing over again? Everybody does this.’ We keep looking for the original story, but sometimes we are too afraid to tell it because we think nobody will accept it. But if you don’t take the risk, how do you know?” They rewrote the entire thing with Yeoh in mind for Evelyn.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is A24’s highest-grossing film of all time, earning over $100 million at the box office. It is also the first film where Michelle Yeoh was #1 on the top of the call sheet.
“What is so special [about this film] is to be able to reach out to this generation and to be able to start the conversation,” she says as she points to the audience of college students. “What I loved most was that a lot of the young people who have seen it, when they leave, say, ‘I am going to go call my mom.’ It means so much to me. We never give up on each other. The movie is about love, kindness, and never giving up on your family, because we will always be there.”
Yeoh’s name is everywhere in the trades this year. She is starring as Dr. Karina Mogue in the highly anticipated sequel to Avatar titled The Way of Water and will be appearing in many more Avatar films in the future. The Witcher: Blood Origin is coming out on Netflix this December. She is voicing the character Airazor in the newest Transformers film Rise of the Beasts. Upcoming AGBO production The Electric State adds her to its stacked cast. Kenneth Branagh adds her to his Agatha Christe adaptation A Haunting In Venice. The list goes on and on.
There were multiple times in Michelle Yeoh’s life when she almost retired for good. Scott Feinberg asked her what she would have done in life if she had retired. “I don’t look back and think, ‘I should have done that.’ I look forward to see where am I going to go and what can I do better. When they ask, ‘Which is your best movie?’ I hope it’s the one that I have not done yet.”
If you haven’t seen Everything Everywhere All At Once, not only is it a must-watch of the year, but a film I think everyone in the world should watch. It is a genre-bending spectacle to be watched with friends, family, and the people you love. Michelle Yeoh is a star, and everyone at Dodge is excited to see what she does next. In another life, I really would have just liked doing laundry and taxes with Michelle Yeoh.