Michelle Yeoh Finally Loses Her Cool: “What Have I Got to Lose?”
The ballerina who became a beauty queen who became a Hong Kong martial arts star lets loose onscreen and gets the Hollywood top billing she’s long deserved in the madcap metaphysical romp 'Everything Everywhere All at Once.'
Early in 2020, just before the onset of the pandemic, Michelle Yeoh was in an IRS building in the Valley, shooting a fight sequence with a couple of stuntmen. It was just another day on the job in her nearly four decades of kicking ass in action classics — save for the makeshift butt plugs in the scene.
“Andy has his pants halfway down and he’s jumping around, and then I turn around and there’s his brother without pants, with the thing hanging …” Yeoh dissolves into chuckles, still in disbelief as she recalls fight choreographers Andy and Brian Le’s unorthodox but totally plot-motivated use of office accessories as sex toys. “I was on the ground, like, ‘This is just too much. What have I gotten myself into?’ ”
That record-scratch, freeze-frame moment “was the day that really broke her,” says Daniel Scheinert, one-half (with Daniel Kwan) of the filmmaking duo Daniels, whom Yeoh calls the “evil geniuses” behind her new, genre-breaking movie. “She started giggling and couldn’t stop, and then she started shouting at us: ‘What are you making me do?! What is this?!'”
This would be Everything Everywhere All at Once, the sophomore film from Scheinert and Kwan, a high-concept, Stephen Chow-esque existential trip about a laundromat owner undergoing a tax audit while her relationships with family members fall apart. The A24 release, which opened SXSW and goes wide April 8, is also the first Hollywood theatrical feature that Yeoh, 59, has toplined after more than 20 years working on this side of the Pacific.
“She’s number one on this call sheet,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays Yeoh’s tax auditor (and more). “She’s been working hard in this industry all over the world for a very long time, showing us all these colors. I hope people understand what an expansive talent Michelle Yeoh is. This is the perfect confluence of a part and a movie being released with an actress who’s been waiting patiently for us to pay fucking attention.”
Adds Scheinert: “I feel like this will prove that she should have been toplining so many movies all along. I also think she’s not interested in having the most fame. The vibe I get from her is that she just does things that seem fun and interesting to her, and she’s very ego-free.”
Stephanie Hsu, who plays Yeoh’s daughter in the movie, had the same revelation about working with her. “Coming from an Asian family, they have no Hollywood idols, but they all worship Michelle Yeoh,” says the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel supporting player. The first scene they shot together called for Hsu to wield a pair of dildos like nunchucks, and she was initially terrified of freaking out the iconic actress. “But she’s seen it all, and she’s so down to earth that you can forget you’re in the presence of the Michelle Yeoh. She trusted all of us around her [so much] that she completely gave it her all and went on whatever ride for the day, even if she didn’t understand why she had hot dogs for fingers.”
At this point, it might be helpful to explain a little more about Everything Everywhere. In the mythology of the movie, multiple universes exist, each one spawning from big or little forks in the metaphysical road. If Evelyn Wang the laundromat owner (Yeoh) hadn’t defied her father (James Hong) to marry the seeming beta male Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and immigrate to America, she could have gone on to become an internationally famous movie star specializing in martial arts flicks. Another series of twists of fate would have led to a career as a hibachi chef. Rewinding further back in time, if our primate ancestors had lost the natural selection coin flip to a sausage-appendaged rival, well, that’s how you get a world with hot-dog fingers.
The existence of all the universes is under threat from an omnipotent figure with a personal connection to Evelyn, and the bedraggled laundromat version is informed that she is the only one who can save them all. Because each decision in her life has resulted in the worst possible outcome, she ironically possesses infinite potential.
Having Michelle Yeoh play the multiverse’s biggest failure is a conceit that perhaps could only come from the visionaries who imagined Harry Potter as a sentient, flatulent corpse in their 2016 directorial debut, the Daniel Radcliffe- and Paul Dano-starring Swiss Army Man. Yeoh’s role was initially conceived for Jackie Chan, and it’s easy to picture the rubber-faced action-comedy superstar pulling off the confusion of an everyman exploring his newfound powers. Yeoh was always part of the original dream cast too, as the wife.
“At first we were like, ‘Action movie, going to star a dude,'” Scheinert admits. But, Kwan adds, “We were having trouble figuring out the casting for the father figure, and one of us started wondering what happens if we take Michelle’s character and flop it and she becomes the protagonist. And the film just opened up in a completely different way.”
The story suddenly felt more personal to the directors, both 34. “We have these very strong moms and grandmoms, and we’re also both kind of dopey, gentle guys ourselves,” Scheinert continues. “As soon as we switched it, we were like, ‘Oh, now the husband and wife characters are more relatable. Why on earth didn’t we write it this way from the get-go?'”
With the revised screenplay in place, Daniels reached out to Yeoh. “It felt like a bit of a pipe dream, really thrilling and really scary,” Kwan says, “because we were like, ‘No one else in the world can play this role. If she says no, maybe the movie dies.'”
Yeoh was understandably baffled by the script, yet intrigued. “I love working with young directors because they bring a different energy,” she says. “That’s what I need: to be challenged, to have directors look at me in a different way.” She watched Swiss Army Man and was “completely blown away. It’s so outrageous, but you cannot stop watching because you are so drawn in. So I said, ‘I need to meet these two guys.'”
They sat down at the Beverly Wilshire in the summer of 2018 while she was in town for the Crazy Rich Asians premiere. “She immediately teased us for writing something so weird, and it was so lovely that there was not this kind of standoffishness, but she wasn’t fake nice either,” says Scheinert. “It was like she was our aunt right away.”
Kwan agrees, “She has a very familial energy. Everywhere she goes, she’s very nurturing, and she feels very much like the matriarch of every situation she’s in.”
To create Evelyn, Yeoh had to deconstruct herself from the inside out. The actress may be much more down to earth than the stoic characters for which she is best known, but she carries herself with the same graceful bearing in real life. So to embody a woman with a collapsing small business and a cargo hold’s worth of emotional baggage, she transformed her posture, obscured her petite dancer’s frame with some light padding (just enough for a middle-aged woman who has no time for the gym) and forwent makeup save for some applied age spots. “I must say, the first time I saw myself on the screen, I was like, ‘Holy shit. This is scary,'” Yeoh says. “And then I’m like, ‘Good, because it’s not you up there.'”
The dowdification also called for a different style of combat than what she — and her audience — is used to. “You still have to do the moves quite cool, but your face has gone wonky. They were like, ‘Can you do it not looking so cool?’ That’s probably the first time I ever heard that,” she explains. “Because in all my movies, I’m always the one in control. People could be doing comedy around me, but I’m always the serious one. This is really the first time I’ve been doing such physical comedy.”
Even for someone who has suffered broken bones on set, Everything Everywhere posed new, daunting challenges. “I’m not a comedic actor. I don’t know how to ad-lib,” she says of enviously watching Hsu improvise with the directors. Curtis says neither she nor Yeoh was versed in improv, but both gave themselves over to the process, bringing each other to tears during one sorrowful scene. “It was a very emotional and beautiful experience for both of us,” she says, “even though we were using our feet to express ourselves.”
Daniels recognized that their signature gonzo trappings were a risk for their actors to take on. “We wrote things that were like, ‘I don’t know if Michelle’s going to want to or be able to do this,’ and every single time, she blew our minds. She’s legitimately funny and legitimately heartbreaking in this movie,” says Kwan.
Yeoh found exhilaration in exploring new terrain as an actor. “It’s like when you get hit for the first time,” she explains. “In a way, it was very liberating. I had all these fearless people around me, so what have I got to be afraid of? Let’s all just dive in and see what happens.”
That game-for-anything, “why not?” ethos is what governed the series of choices that have led to Yeoh’s life as she knows it. “I came into this career by accident; I never once thought, ‘Oh, I want to be an actress.’ I always thought that one day I would have my own ballet school,” says the former ballerina, who moved from her native Malaysia to London at 15 and enrolled in its Royal Academy of Dance. But a back injury while she was in school required a shift in her studies. She switched to a creative arts major with a minor in drama — and hated the latter.
“I never understood stage fright until I had to do drama,” she says. “It was only when I started having to learn lines, do a monologue onstage, that I could literally hear my heart beat. I used to try to skip whatever classes I had. If you had told any of my drama professors, ‘One day this girl Michelle is going to be an actress,’ they would have bet their last dollar that it never happens.”
After graduation, a friend recommended her for a TV commercial with Jackie Chan in Hong Kong, and the spot’s production company, D&B Films, offered the 22-year-old an acting contract. “I didn’t read or speak [Cantonese] very well,” says Yeoh, who grew up speaking English and Malay, “but I’m a bit of an adventurer. The easiest thing is to say no. For sure, you won’t fail, but you won’t get anywhere either.”
Yeoh — who debuted under the D&B-appointed stage name “Michelle Khan” — didn’t have much of a game plan. When her company asked her what kind of movies she’d be interested in making, she observed that action felt the most familiar. “To me, it was like a big dance piece. It’s all choreography, and that I understood,” she says. “They looked at me like I was completely insane because I had long hair, I was a little chubby, I was the demure beauty queen [she won Miss Malaysia, among other pageants] — so cliche.”
But because D&B was a fledgling banner seeking to make its stamp on Hong Kong’s booming film industry, it figured it had nothing to lose by putting a woman in the action hero role. Who knew? Maybe it would birth a subgenre. Yeoh’s second movie was her first starring one, 1985’s female buddy cop actioner Yes, Madam, considered the first in the territory’s “girls with guns” cinematic trend.
From the start, she learned to do her own stunts. “The first hurdle I had to go through was the guys accepting me to the boys’ club,” she says. She went to the gym where the stuntmen and actors trained and introduced herself, asking them, “I want to learn; can you teach me?”
“I think it was quite refreshing for them,” Yeoh says. “Humility goes a long way.” After a few weeks of training, she met Yes, Madam’s helmer, the legendary action director Corey Yuen, and she could tell he wasn’t impressed by her résumé. She dutifully demonstrated the kicks she had learned. “OK, now do a roll on the ground,” he replied. That was a move she hadn’t learned, but she tried her best to mimic the stuntman’s demonstration.
“He didn’t know whether to laugh or what,” Yeoh says. “But then he realized, ‘OK, this young girl is not going to not try.’ “
Yeoh’s perseverance earned respect from the industry’s close-knit and fiercely loyal stunt teams. “If I’m going to cry every time someone hits me, then I’m going to be in the corner for a very long time,” she says. “I have to show the other person that I deserve to be here.” Her filmography in the ’90s — Supercop with Chan; Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio; Tai Chi Master with Jet Li — reinforced her standing as the first lady of Hong Kong action cinema.
“The first thing I do when I get on an action film is befriend the stunt team because they will be the ones watching my back,” Yeoh says. “When I’m up there on the wire, they are the ones who literally have my life in their hands. And over the years, so many have still remained friends. They are the ones who taught me how to protect myself.”
But Yeoh’s drive could also push her into dangerous territory. While filming 1996’s The Stunt Woman, born out of her admiration for the unsung work of stuntpeople, she suffered one of the most horrific injuries of her career. “Everybody thought I broke my back,” she says. Her friends urged her to consider her limits: “You like to work, but this is insane. We feel so bad, but only you can help yourself.”
With her neck and torso in braces, she fell into an existential depression, questioning the decisions that seemed so thoughtless in hindsight: “Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? If I really got hurt, then what?”
Of all people, it was Quentin Tarantino who snapped her out of it. The martial arts aficionado was in Hong Kong and had just three people on his wish list to meet: Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. After much wheedling from the American, Yeoh finally granted him a five-minute audience. She was propped up on her couch, unable even to turn her head when he arrived. Undeterred, Tarantino plopped down on a pillow at her feet. “I’ve watched all your movies,” he told her, proceeding to recount his favorite action sequences frame for frame.
“The next thing I knew, we were talking and I was coming back to life,” Yeoh says today. “I’ll never forget it. It was like, ‘I do love what I do.’ And that was a turning point where I felt, ‘I’ve paid my dues.'”
Just in time, the rest of Hollywood came calling, and it was on her first such film, 1997’s James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, that she felt like a proper actor — and reverted to her real name — for the first time. Although Yeoh considers drama an inherent part of every action sequence she’s filmed, she characterizes her early Hong Kong work as mainly going with the flow: “I had no script. I just went there on the day, learned my action. You don’t think of it as, ‘Am I acting?'”
The Hollywood system — and its insurers — functioned differently, and Yeoh was discouraged from doing her own stunts. “Yes, you have extra skill, which I hope we can incorporate in your work,” said Tomorrow Never Dies director Roger Spottiswoode, whose teenage nephews had recommended her. “But you should be confident that you are here as an actress.”
Ang Lee admits he wasn’t quite as certain when he cast her in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. “I just had that feeling, because she has that very soulful look,” he says. At the time of the 2000 movie, Yeoh wasn’t yet a Mandarin speaker, so the director initially sought to dub her with a top Chinese star until his own recording engineer talked him out of it. “The way she performs, you cannot duplicate that,” he says. “And of course, the good news is she’s a very good actress.”
If multiverses exist, there might be one in which Yeoh is known only as Michelle Khan and remembered only by Hong Kong cinema buffs as one of a number of contemporaries — Brigitte Lin, Joyce Godenzi (Sammo Hung’s wife), Joan Lin (Chan’s wife) — whose impact burned bright and fast before they voluntarily faded from the limelight in favor of a domestic life.
When Yeoh was 25, less than five years into her screen career, she married D&B head Dickson Poon and left the industry. The plan was to dedicate herself to the role of wife and mother, a plan Yeoh says would have meant true retirement, not a hiatus.
“I made a choice,” she says. “If I want to do something, I feel you can only do it if you give it your all. I look at some of the actresses who juggle having a baby and having this job, being away from home, and I don’t know how they do it. It’s amazing.”
But Yeoh discovered that certain physical capabilities were beyond even her reach, and fertility was one of them: “I love kids,” she says. “I really, really wanted to have a family, but unfortunately that did not smile upon me.” She and Poon split up after three years — the two remain good friends, and Yeoh is godmother to one of his daughters — and she returned to acting. “I didn’t know I was going to go back into film, because our industry, especially then, can be very fickle,” she says. “But it was really the journalists who said to me, ‘You know, your audience is still waiting for you to come back.'” She did so in 1992 with the action classic Supercop, the third film in Chan’s Police Story series.
Although Yeoh says that the themes of Everything Everywhere have helped her to reflect on the decisions and happenstances in her life, she isn’t the type to dwell on what-ifs. Not that she has much time to. “I haven’t stopped working,” says Yeoh, who on the verge of turning 60 has a fuller slate than ever. Both The Witcher prequel series Blood Origin and Paul Feig’s fantasy film The School for Good and Evil are scheduled for release on Netflix this year (and the Avatar sequels in theaters starting, apparently, this December) and Yeoh, who officially divides her time between Kuala Lumpur, Geneva and Paris but in practice mostly lives out of suitcases, is back in Los Angeles shooting the Disney+ series adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s acclaimed graphic novel American Born Chinese.
And at some point this year or before the pandemic ends, she and her longtime partner, French motorsports executive Jean Todt, are hoping to squeeze in time for their long-postponed wedding: “The worst was one time he said to me, ‘Let’s look at our calendar,’ and I said that was so unromantic. But this year we were like, ‘This is getting ridiculous.’ So we are going to do it. We’re definitely going to do it.”
Yeoh allows herself one bit of wistful speculation when it comes to Everything Everywhere, a rhetorical question she has often posed to Daniels: How different would her life and career look had she been given an opportunity like this role, this movie, a long time ago?
“As a director, that’s just the biggest compliment,” Kwan says, “but after doing a lot of thinking about it, the takeaway for me is that she has found all the success that she’s found and yet is still so playful and grounded enough to say yes to something like this, and push it to 110 percent. The takeaway is how much of a miracle it is that Michelle Yeoh exists.”
This story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.