Michelle Yeoh Talks ‘Marco Polo,’ Her Favorite Fight Scenes, And If She’d Play A Female Bond
July 6, 2016
Michelle Yeoh is an international superstar. She’s been a Bond Girl, a Hong Kong action heroine, a beauty queen, and the beating heart of one of the best films ever made: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She’s also the newest addition to the Marco Polo empire.
Yeoh plays “The Handmaiden,” a mysterious martial arts master, in the decadent drama’s second season. “What drew me to Marco Polo? The truth is John Fusco,” Yeoh told us. The actress has now worked with Marco Polo producer John Fusco on two Netflix projects: Marco Polo and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny.
Fusco kept trying to woo Yeoh to sign on for the first season of Marco Polo, but scheduling wouldn’t allow it. Finally, he figured out a way to get her interested in Season Two. “He said, ‘I established at the end of Marco Polo [Season] One, the Handmaiden, which really…is you. If someone says something like that to you, aren’t you intrigued?”
The Handmaiden is tasked with protecting the child emperor of the fallen Han dynasty, but her backstory is tangled up with one of the show’s most popular characters: Hundred Eyes. As we learned in the standalone special, Marco Polo: One Hundred Eyes, the martial arts master was in love with Yeoh’s character before being tamed by the court of Kublai Khan. Now, the two former lovers must face the fact that they are fighting on different sides.
“For me, that love story was so tragic and yet at the same time so powerful. The action sequences that we did were so amazing because of that contradiction,” said Yeoh.
At the beginning of Season Two, we see The Handmaiden fail to protect the young child emperor from falling into the Khan’s hands. Marco Polo and Mei Lin are able to bring the boy to the imperial capital — and then Ahmed convinces Kublai Khan that the boy must die. We watch The Handmaiden stare in silent horror as the boy’s lifeless body is shown to a crowd. We asked Yeoh what was going through her character’s mind at that devastating moment.
She said, “At the end of the day, that has to be your own failure because that was the task that was given to you that you had to protect the future, the emperor of China. And for you to not be able to do that, it’s a great failure; it’s a personal failure. And then how do you redeem yourself? It’s almost impossible to.”
Yeah continued: “When you see a child who is so helpless, you feel a great anger towards the person who would take it out on a little child. This Mongolian Khan is not even worth your time of day if he can do that to a helpless child.”
Marco Polo follows the complex father-son relationships that define Kublai Khan’s court, but its stars are its strong leading ladies. Yeoh told us that she wouldn’t have signed on to the project if she didn’t feel that women were accurately represented as formidable personalities.
“You know, the men were powerful, but they did not become who or what they are without the support of the women,” she said. “And the personal sacrifice, and how they showed it or did not show it, is exactly how it should be done, and it has always been like that — not just in the royal courts, but in families as well. There are always these very strong women behind the men.”
Yeoh started her career in the 1980s when she appeared opposite Jackie Chan in a popular commercial. After that, she became an international action film star. So, looking back, which was her favorite fight scene?
“Oh! Now you’re getting me all worked up!” she said with a laugh. “It’s very hard. It’s like saying who is your favorite child, your favorite diamond.”
“This time, with Marco Polo [Season] Two, I was dancing and fighting at the same time which is actually kind of unusual. We have a shadow action sequence where we don’t touch and it was very, very emotional, so it was kind of sexy! It was like a dance between two lovers. It was very tragic. Like a dying swan kind of thing. It was kind of cool.”
So what else has been different about her Netflix experience? “To be honest, it was fabulous working with them!” she enthused. “I think what is most important about Netflix is that it’s also giving movies that would generally not be seen in the cinemas or in so many countries a chance to be seen. Whenever we create something, whether it’s a TV series or a movie, it’s for the audience. And that’s what Netflix is giving us an opportunity to do: have a really global audience.”
Yeoh also reiterated how great it was working with John Fusco. “When you’re a creative person, that’s what you need in your life: people who will listen to you, people who will understand you, but at the same time, who will convince you that what you think is not always right. Otherwise, you will be doing exactly the same thing, regurgitating the same things you’ve been doing for years.”
Michelle Yeoh has spent her decades-long career evolving onscreen. So, we had to ask, with all the rumblings of a possible female version of James Bond, would the former Bond Girl be game to take over the mantle of 007?
“Yeah! Why not?” she laughed. “You know, actually to be fair, we thought about it, but then the differences… You know, James Bond has this thing with the ladies, but it’s not as cool when the ladies have this thing with the guys. You know what I mean? It’s not the same kind of set up. I don’t know why, but it’s a cultural thing.”
“But I think Wai Lin was very cool in James Bond. We always tried to have a spin-off with that character.” She then added mischievously, “It could still happen…”