Martial arts film star Michelle Yeoh on ballet, babies and Brosnan
February 18, 2013
Actress Michelle Yeoh talks about martial arts, ballet and kicking ass in Reign Of Assassins.
‘The female James Bond.’ That’s how Pierce Brosnan respectfully described his Tomorrow Never Dies co-star Michelle Yeoh. And she very much earned those stripes. ‘I was not just a spy but physically doing all those action sequences,’ the martial arts star recalls of her time spent machine-gunning baddies in a leather catsuit.
‘Pierce is always going to be my darling because he understood that audiences want to see women, strong women, as equal to the guys.’
When it comes to kicking ass and performing death-defying stunts, the elegant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress more than holds her own against the boys. But she reveals that even her most enlightened A-list male co-stars struggle with such on-screen sexual equality.
‘Jackie Chan is like a big bro to me,’ she says fondly – it was Chan who gave this then 21-year-old Miss Malaysia her big acting break when he starred in a TV commercial with her. ‘There was this one movie we did together, Supercop, and he says: “Hey, can you stop doing all these crazy stunts? Because if you’re going to do a motorcycle jump on to a moving train, I’m going to have to jump off a moving train on to a helicopter or something just to keep on a par with you!”’
Now 49, Yeoh shows no sign of slowing down. She demanded to do all her own stunts in her latest action film, Reign Of Assassins, a wuxia (fantasy fight flick) in which she plays a deadly, sword-wielding master.
‘I love my martial arts and action movies,’ she says. ‘They give another dimension to the acting world: the emotional plus the physical. But I choose them carefully – this is the first one I’ve really done since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’
Though she hasn’t taken on an action role for more than a decade, Yeoh was still on fighting form, thanks to her daily exercise routine. ‘I think it’s essential, it’s like hygiene. And when you incorporate it into your lifestyle, you don’t even think about it anymore. In many ways, I feel I’m still as physically fit as I was 20 years ago, because I’ve always been athletic.’
Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, Yeoh Choo-Kheng (as she was then known) came to England aged 15 to train as a ballet dancer, until she suffered a serious spinal injury.
‘I was told I could never dance that way again,’ she says. ‘It was one of the worst times in my life. You know how they say your dreams shatter? I literally saw like a mirror going “crrraaccck” in front of my eyes.’
However, the young Yeoh’s ingrained discipline and resilience – plus a supportive headmistress – saw her retrain as a choreographer. Through this, she gained skills she soon incorporated into her fledgling career in Hong Kong martial arts movies, evolving a trademark balletic fight style, which reached its pinnacle in the jaw-dropping aerial acrobatics of Crouching Tiger.
Even the non-action roles she’s recently favoured, such as playing Burmese democracy pioneer Aung San Suu Kyi in recent biopic The Lady, or a prostitute in the Hollywood adaptation of Memoirs Of A Geisha, are distinguished by a distinct physical poise.
‘I gravitate towards roles where women find strength in very difficult, uncompromising situations but maintain clarity in mind, discipline at heart and a certain strength in spirit,’ she says. ‘I find that so necessary in the world today. We need heroes like this – and heroines, especially.’
That sounds inspiringly feminist, yet when Yeoh’s first husband, Dickson Poon, asked her to give up acting in 1987, she did. ‘When I choose to do something, I always completely commit to it’ she explains.
Luckily for her fans, she divorced him after three years, declaring: ‘If I cannot have a happy marriage and a thriving career at the same time, I would definitely choose my career.’
She’s now engaged to her long-term partner, French motorsport boss Jean Todt, but they are yet to set a date. They don’t have any children; Yeoh unsuccessfully went through IVF six years ago. Adoption is an option but… ‘The problem is, I’m on the road the whole time,’ Yeoh says, matter-of-factly. ‘One day, when I’m ready, I would love to be able to do that but having a child is a lifetime commitment and now is not the time. I’m still learning to look after myself!’
That much-anticipated sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is finally on the cards.
‘It’s early stages,’ tuts Yeoh. ‘It still depends on the script and who the director is, and it’s never easy to make another movie after such an incredible classic but Crouching Tiger is a gem in my heart and always will be. So we will see.’
Fingers crossed, Michelle – us girls need you.