Michelle Yeoh’s Quantum Leaps
March 15, 2022
For her new sci-fi comedy, the martial-arts star had to attempt a more psychological kind of acrobatics.
In 1995, many years into working as an action star, Michelle Yeoh plummeted from an 18-foot overpass and nearly ended her career. It was her first role in a character-driven drama, playing the lead in “The Stunt Woman,” directed by Ann Hui, a prominent filmmaker of the Hong Kong New Wave. The script called for her to channel nearly a decade of experience as a martial artist into the character of Ah Kam, a stunt woman working her way into the film industry. This scene was crucial: As Ah Kam hesitated over the performance of a daunting on-camera stunt, the character played by Sammo Hung, a legend of kung fu cinema, would push her, and she would fall over the ledge onto the bed of a passing truck. “When it’s an easy stunt,” Yeoh says, “that’s when things can really go wrong.”
There’s a certain way to protect yourself when doing a stunt fall: You remain aware of both your body and the layers of cushioning waiting to receive you below, planning your landing as you descend. Yeoh’s first attempt at the stunt went perfectly. But she had to shoot it again, so the moment could be captured from a different perspective, and this time, instead of readying herself for the impact, Yeoh was immersed in her character’s reluctance and uncertainty. In the United States, the scene might have been shot with large, puffy airbags to pad her fall, but in Hong Kong the norm was mattresses and cardboard. Yeoh took a nosedive into the assemblage below, where her head lodged between two mattresses and her legs carried the momentum past the axis of her spine. As her torso folded in half, she felt her own legs hit the back of her head.
“I know I’m in serious trouble when Sammo calls me by my real name: It’s like, ‘Choo Kheng! Choo Kheng!”’ she recalls. “And I looked up and there was Ann Hui. She was right next to the boxes. And she was looking at me with tears just rolling down her face.” Yeoh worked to calm herself, concentrating on the fact that she could still feel her hands, as members of the crew placed the mattress (with her still on it) in a van, and drove her straight to the hospital, where she was placed in a body cast and treated for several cracked ribs.
The accident illustrated the special risks involved in moving between different modes of filmmaking, from the slapdash and high-energy environment of Hong Kong action movies — often shot without a script and choreographed on set — to more staid, introspective films that prioritize psychological depth. Yeoh was being asked to consolidate all that she knew about falling into a character who knew much less — and bridging the difference required a new sort of agility.
Now that Yeoh is 59, decades into a series of performances that have made her one of the most recognizable Asian actors in the world, it’s clear that what might have been a career-ending injury was, for her, just another obstacle to vault over. Since her first starring role as a high-kicking police inspector in “Yes Madam!” (1985), Yeoh has performed in dozens of other action films, from fast-paced Hong Kong martial-arts films to wuxia features — Chinese historical epics set in a time of warriors and warlords — to more contemporary Western fare. She fought alongside Jackie Chan in “Supercop” and took the nimble, lightning-quick combat style of Hong Kong cinema to the James Bond franchise in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” in which she rode a motorcycle through the streets of Bangkok while handcuffed to Pierce Brosnan.
Over the years, Yeoh has cemented her image as a self-assured combat expert, the serious and confident counterpart to whoever is at her side. In Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), she soared across courtyards and rooftops while subtly articulating the feeling roiling within the Qing dynasty warrior she played. As the star of more character-focused films like Luc Besson’s “The Lady” (2011) as well as international blockbusters like “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), she embodied refined self-containment.
But in her latest turn — as the multifaceted star of this April’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a mind-expanding, idiosyncratic take on the superhero film — Yeoh draws from previously unknown emotional and comedic reserves, bringing the full force of her physicality to the portrayal of a middle-aged woman whose ordinariness makes her the focus of a grand, multiversal showdown. “The work she does,” Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays a supporting role in the film, told me over the phone, “it shows her incredible facility as an actor, the delicacy of her work as an actor, and her absolute beastly work as a physical martial artist.” It’s also the first time audiences will see Yeoh play someone whose movements are uncertain, someone with abundant gray hairs, someone whose body struggles to do what she asks of it — and the first time she’s been called upon to loosen the elegance and poise that has defined her career so far and let her own electric, slightly neurotic personality slip through.
The film follows Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American immigrant mother who made a key decision decades ago to leave her judgmental father behind and follow her boyfriend, Waymond, to America. Years later, Evelyn is living out the underwhelming consequences of that decision: an unexceptional life taking place above the laundromat they operate at the margin of financial failure; a strained marriage to Waymond; a daughter whose Americanized feelings are illegible to her.
On top of all that, their business is being audited. While Evelyn is at the I.R.S. with mounds of receipts, she is pulled aside by a dynamic, take-charge version of her husband, who tells her that he’s from a parallel universe under siege — and that she’s the only one who can save them all. What follows is a wild, absurd romp through alternate versions of Evelyn’s life, ranging from the glamorous (in one she’s a celebrated actress trained in martial arts — basically, Yeoh) to the hilarious (a hibachi chef) to the profane (an alternate path where people have hot dogs for fingers).
Approaching a role that bounds gleefully across so many modes and genres put Yeoh to the test. She showed me a photo of her script, dutifully flagged with adhesive tabs that denoted the genre of each scene she appears in (action sequences, comedic scenes, heavy-duty drama): The stack of pages bristled with color, like a wildly blooming flower. She experimented with different kinds of sticky notes. “With the fat ones, they were overlapping so much. So, I had to get the skinny ones,” she told me. “Oh, my God, it was a whole creative process. And then when I finished, I looked at it and go, Oh, my God, I’m in serious trouble.”
It was a quiet, blue-tinged morning in Paris, where Yeoh lives much of the year with her partner and fiancé, Jean Todt, a longtime motorsports executive. We were sitting at a large table in the penthouse suite of a hotel not far from her Eighth Arrondissement home; she divides her time among France, Switzerland and Malaysia. Yeoh wore a cream turtleneck sweater, and there was a refined quality to her high cheekbones and smooth brow that reminded me equally of the ancient Chinese lady warriors and ultrawealthy socialites she has played, though with her subtly cat-eyed glasses and the way she kept urging me to eat — the table was blanketed in breakfast pastries — she also reminded me of my most elegant auntie.
Yeoh promised to take me through a bit of her daily fitness routine, so I had come to the hotel expecting to watch her do the elliptical, her favorite mode of exercise, in the guest gymnasium. Instead, she asked me to follow her to the hotel suite’s bedroom, where she took off her shoes and lay down on the pillowy bedding — then mimed waking up. (She had decided that a basic workout would be “too boring.”) She stretched her body as far out as it could go on the vertical axis, pointed her toes downward and let her fingertips brush the headboard of the oversize bed. Next, she shifted into a series of reaching, grasping movements, which she described as “climbing an invisible wall.” Her light, wiry body lengthened as she pulled against an imagined resistance. She softly chanted, Om mani padme hum, a Buddhist mantra that she invokes to keep herself safe and blessed. “And the other one I say to myself is: ‘Please forgive me. I’m sorry. Thank you, I love you,’” she said, closing her eyes for a long moment. “Because, you know, I hurt myself doing some things. So I say it to my own body before I do anything.”
Yeoh struggles with jet lag, often finding herself alert at 3 a.m. Her waking routine is designed to create a bubble of mindfulness that she can transport wherever she goes. Still lying on her back, she showed me how she begins loosening her hips, swinging a leg in the air in large, graceful circles, first turning the hip inward and then shifting it out into a position used for ballet. She extended the leg in a lift, then ended with three small, controlled kicks. Common wisdom holds that the body can’t easily be conditioned for both ballet and martial arts at once: The physical orientation required of one would seem to be in direct opposition to the needs of the other. But Yeoh has defied this, cultivating a sort of full-body ambidexterity, shifting at will between modes of movement that have lived in her for years.
Born into an upper-class family in Ipoh, a tin-mining city in Malaysia surrounded by limestone caves and steep mountains, Yeoh spent much of her childhood in motion. She took ballet; played basketball with her mother, brother and cousins; and boated and swam in the sea on weekends. Her father, a lawyer, spent his free time tending to his kelongs — traditional wooden structures used for fishing. When she was a teenager, her parents sent her to Britain, where she continued to pursue ballet in boarding school and college. But a back injury derailed her training. When she returned home after graduating, her mother entered her in the Miss Malaysia competition, which she won. It was a victory, but also a detour from a path that until that point pointed decisively toward dance. “My dream really, at that time, was to teach ballet,” she said.
One day in Hong Kong, a friend was having dinner with the entrepreneur and film producer Dickson Poon, who told her that he was short on actresses. Her friend took a photo of Yeoh from her wallet and started singing her praises. Yeoh got on a plane to meet with Poon, and the next day she was shooting a wristwatch commercial with Jackie Chan, outbiking and outriding him through a lakeside landscape. In 1984, she was cast in an action film, “The Owl vs. Bumbo,” as a damsel in distress. As Yeoh watched the fight sequences, she recognized the underlying movements. “It’s rhythm,” she recalled thinking. “It’s choreography. It’s timing. But at the end of the day, it’s like a tango on steroids. You know, boom, boom, boom!” She was demure, longhaired, a more obvious candidate for a love interest, but the action attracted her. “So, I said, ‘I would love to try.’” The studio set her up in a gym frequented by stuntmen and action stars, where she trained with actors she would later go on to battle in-scene. Within a year, she was the lead in her own kung fu movie, “Yes, Madam!”
Andre Morgan, an American film producer, recalls attending a dinner organized by Poon around that time and meeting Yeoh — a sweet, charming young actress who focused on strengthening both her acting and her martial arts. She was frequently covered in bruises but remained undaunted. Doing martial arts is one thing, he explains, but on camera you’re expected to pull your punches and subtly avoid other actors’ strikes, while making it all look real. “When you’re learning as a young trainee, as hard as you try, your timing isn’t perfect, so you get kicked, and you get punched, and you get hit,” Morgan says. “She was brave enough that she was willing to take the punches and the kicks while she was perfecting it. That was the definition of somebody that was really seriously devoted to mastering the skills of being an on-camera martial artist.”
In 1988, after Yeoh starred in a half-dozen action films made with Poon’s studio, D&B Films, she married Poon and retired from acting to start a family; she didn’t think she could juggle being an actor, wife and mother. She wanted children badly but was unsuccessful. It was a heartbreak, for which she partly blames the shame and opacity that surrounded reproductive health at the time. Within four years, she and Poon divorced, though they remain friends, and Yeoh is godmother to Poon’s daughter.
After the divorce, Yeoh was surprised to find that she was still in demand after several years away from the industry, and she leapt back into acting with renewed purpose. In 1992, she starred alongside Jackie Chan in the internationally distributed “Supercop” — a milestone in the mainstreaming of the martial-arts film in the West — followed by major roles in nearly a dozen other action-heavy titles. By the end of the decade, Yeoh had mastered Hong Kong cinema, in which quickness and precision blend with flashy, playful daring. But it was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that made her a superstar. In it, she had to achieve an ethereal, almost immaterial quality very different from the rough-and-tumble choreography of street fighting. Yeoh trades intricate volleys of strikes and blocks, at one point even running down and across a vertical courtyard wall in pursuit of her masked opponent. She does all this with an unfurrowed brow, giving the impression of a fighter immersed in a battle so demanding that it consumes her every movement, with nothing left over for theatrics — of a person who has sublimated her body into pure, almost transcendent gesture.
Yeoh helped to animate Lee’s vision of a graceful, aestheticized, classical kung fu, but the production was a much greater challenge for her than it may appear onscreen. Neither Yeoh nor her co-star Chow Yun-Fat spoke Mandarin fluently, and both, she recalls, had to learn the complex lines, written in a historical style, phonetically. Nor was Yeoh practiced in the traditional martial-arts style used in the film, combining influences from Peking Opera and acrobatics. Early into shooting, she tore a knee ligament while filming the pivotal courtyard scene. She had one shot remaining in the scene, in which she was supposed to be running toward the camera at high speed — so they placed her in a wheelbarrow and pushed her toward the camera, filming her from the waist up as she churned her arms furiously. Then she left for surgery and was off set for weeks as she recovered. “It was really tough,” Lee told me over the phone. “That was supposed to be her strength.”
When Yeoh was able to walk, she returned and shot her remaining scenes while wearing a brace. But when it came time for the film’s emotional climax, with her character saying goodbye to her poisoned beloved, cradling him in her arms, she nailed it. “I knew those were real tears,” Lee remembered. “A lot of pressures gushing out, months of repression, and perhaps a lifetime of hopeful thinking. All that effort comes up.” After watching, he had to go off and cry for about 15 minutes. “In Chinese we call it xiang you xin sheng — your countenance, when the way you look comes from the heart.”
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” led to a new set of internationally minded dramatic roles, in which Yeoh tended to embody beautiful, polished women. She played the largehearted elite geisha Mameha in “Memoirs of a Geisha”; the now-fallen Burmese leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson’s biopic “The Lady”; a mystical warrior master in Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”; and the chilly Eleanor Young in “Crazy Rich Asians,” a future mother-in-law bound by custom and propriety, whose rigidity masks her own struggle with what’s expected of her.
Yeoh continued to tell her characters’ stories through their physicality: There’s a hint of the grandmaster in the grace with which Mameha, the geisha, closes her umbrella, and in the matriarch Eleanor Young’s perfect posture. But in the more psychologically focused world of Western drama, she could delve into her characters’ psyches at an even deeper level, exploring the complex ramifications of their self-restraint. Yeoh won high acclaim for these performances, with the critic A.O. Scott calling her “one of the great international movie stars of the past quarter-century.” But bending her deeply ingrained poise into a more ungainly, everyday shape — while continuing to kick ass — may be Yeoh’s most complicated assignment yet.
The flustered, disheveled, curmudgeonly heroine of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would seem to bear little resemblance to the practiced martial artist from “Supercop” who can knock out two bad guys at once with a single airborne split-kick. But Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (the directing duo best known for their feature from 2016, “Swiss Army Man”) wrote the part of Evelyn exclusively for her — in the earliest version of the script, the lead character was even named Michelle. “Our producers were like, What do we do with it if Michelle can’t do it?” Kwan told me over the phone. “And we were like, I don’t know — maybe make a different movie?” Scheinert, also on the call, jumped in: “Yeah, who else can do the action? Who can nail the drama? There’s no one else who does what she has done and has that history and that experience. And that being said, even still, she surprised us.” Yeoh was open to the wide-ranging role and enthusiastically supported the movie after signing on; later, the Daniels learned that she had been very unsure, early on, about some of the crazier parts (the hot dog hands, for example), but that their confidence had persuaded her.
“She’s the queen of martial-arts movies,” says Ke Huy Quan, Yeoh’s co-star in the film. A former child star who appeared in “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” Quan retired from acting for more than 20 years, working as an action choreographer behind the scenes, before returning to the screen just recently. Having once watched Yeoh act alongside other legends of Hong Kong cinema, he found himself looking to her for guidance as they filmed. “And she is just this amazing, generous, very giving, very patient person.”
It was rigorous, nonstop work, filmed largely in an office building in California’s Simi Valley, leaving little time to rehearse. Yeoh had to improvise, testing out various approaches in real time. Embodying Evelyn also meant shedding a certain amount of hard-earned expertise. Back at the Paris suite’s dining room, Yeoh stood as she told me about figuring out how her character might inhabit her body — a slightly stooped shuffle with her hands held low but not hanging. From that off-kilter center of gravity came Evelyn’s way of scolding, fighting, even dancing: index fingers up, poking lightly at the air. Yeoh put her hands up in tight little fists, the wrists bent at an amateur’s angle. She had to relearn to fight in a way that showed Evelyn’s body language and inexperience, she told me. At first, she said, the Daniels kept telling her: “Don’t do it too well. That’s looking too good!”
In one sense, the character was familiar to Yeoh. “If I go into Chinatown or whatever, you see these housewives or mothers who are there,” she said, “who are so frazzled because they’re trying to keep the family, and all they do is go and do the shopping, the grocery shopping, then they have to go home and clean.” After Yeoh played the matriarch in “Crazy Rich Asians,” people told her that her performance helped them better understand their own mothers-in-law; part of what drew her to “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is that she wanted to tell more stories about people the audience could feel for.
What’s especially startling is the vulnerability Yeoh brings to off-kilter action sequences, with characters unused to combat. When Evelyn tries to fight for the first time, in the I.R.S. office, she has no special abilities: She punches a nemesis, and her fist crumples; she pulls her hand back and cradles it against her chest. But when, at last, she succeeds in employing a high-tech earpiece that lets her channel the martial-artist version of Evelyn, she is flooded with expertise. She turns toward the fight, her eyes expressing bewilderment but her body demonstrating honed skill. Her fingers extend toward the camera in an open-palmed, defensive position, their tips trembling. Having previously turned movement into an ideal, almost abstract form, Yeoh is now bringing it back to the specific — a particular aging, female, Asian body housing a human being with complex emotions.
The effect is liberating, cathartic; it feels as if Yeoh, this Swiss Army knife of actors, has unleashed in herself the ability to inhabit each of her diverse modes of performance simultaneously — to be everything all at once — as she stakes claim over a space that has traditionally been designated for the celebration of young, muscular, male bodies. We feel her exhaustion in her shuffling gait, but also the thrill of that same body spinning sharply to block a strike. “There’s a calcification that takes place as we get older,” Jamie Lee Curtis says, “and I mean literally, you get your bones, your arthritis — it’s all calcification, all hardening. The hardening of the arteries, the heart.” Ideas, too, can harden — “binary, rigid, calcified imprints of our parents and our ancestors” — she continues. “Our jobs as human beings is to break free of them and create new ideas, and the Daniels, through the brilliance of Michelle Yeoh, have done so.”
As she has grown older, Yeoh has given up doing some of the stunts that she blithely attempted when she was still proving herself — and when she watches her early films, she thinks of all that could have gone wrong. “We knew that we could do it, and we did it,” she said. “I swear, sometimes I look at a movie and go: Oh, my God. What the hell was I thinking then?” At one point, I asked whether she still remembered how to fight with the ancient weapons she used in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and she got to her feet and began lunging, thrusting an imaginary weapon. The key when mastering a new one, she said, is to spend time before the scene carrying it around everywhere, moving it constantly, making it an extension of your body. Wielding the pizzeria advertising sign she used for one of Evelyn’s alternate lives as a sign-spinner, for example, was “a little bit like using a spear, except it’s wider.”
She had me follow her to the bathroom, where she did several pull-ups while gripping the overhanging edge of a marble doorway, transitioned to an ethereal sequence of tai-chi-inspired motions she learned for “Shang-Chi” and then moved into a series of deep squats while miming brushing her teeth in the bathroom’s mirror.
The routine was a little bit daffy — a wuxia grandmaster with a hint of Lucille Ball. It was also strikingly original, a spontaneous yet fluid choreography that turned the surfaces of this fancy hotel room into a jungle gym. It showed how Yeoh’s body has stored all the different forms of expertise that it has absorbed, all the injuries and victories, and metabolized them into deep bodily wisdom. As she spoke, she casually executed a famous kick that I had seen her do countless times to knock out someone directly behind her — flinging her leg up until it was completely vertical. She repeated it again and again, switching from one leg to the other, until it seemed more like an ecstatic dance, light and free and frictionless.