The Year of Michelle Yeoh
August 17, 2022
She’s been a beauty queen and an action hero, but now with the awards buzz of Everything Everywhere All at Once and that Avatar sequel on the horizon, Michelle Yeoh finds herself at the zenith of the Hollywood firmament. It’s no surprise if you’ve been paying attention.
Michelle Yeoh strides through the world like a woman who has never been hurt. This is not the case. In her nearly four decades as an actor Yeoh has been punched and kicked, and bruised so badly that one time a director thought she had smudged her hands with dirt. She has dislocated a shoulder, fractured a rib, ruptured an artery, and ripped her ACL doing a highwire stunt. Once she leaped from a speeding van onto a convertible, bounced off the windshield, and nearly died tumbling onto the pavement. What happened after that? She got up and did the stunt again.
For Yeoh life isn’t so different from a stunt. Planning helps, but the unexpected still happens. So every morning in bed she performs a gratitude ritual: She stretches every muscle in her body, notes the day’s creaks and throbs, and apologizes to it for the joy she takes in challenging her limits. I’m sorry, please forgive me, I love you.
“To good health!” Yeoh says, hoisting a spicy margarita. It’s a Friday afternoon in Beverly Hills, and the 60-year-old actress is easing into a relaxing weekend, a luxury she hasn’t enjoyed in a while. That Yeoh is toasting to health could be seen as a sign of humility. She could have raised a glass to her pick of successes: the TV show she wrapped earlier this week, the new series she started today, her several major movies on the horizon (including James Cameron’s long-anticipated sequel to Avatar), sitting front row at Balenciaga and Schiaparelli during Paris Fashion Week, or her astounding star turn as multiverse-jumping laundromat owner Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The indie sensation has earned more than $90 million at the box office so far and was met with a critical response that can only be described as rhapsodic. The film is guaranteed to stay on people’s lips through awards season—along with the name of its lead.
“I go forward, because life is about moving forward. Failures make us stronger.”
Yeoh has had to get comfortable being called an icon, a legend, a queen. (A prince of Jordan once saluted her.) But such compliments imply a coating of dust. What makes this moment matter is that the industry is finally keeping pace with her quest for excellence.
This frenzy of activity has a price. Lately Yeoh is beginning to feel too far away from home. Not from her houses in Paris, Geneva, and Ipoh, Malaysia, where she was born, but, she says, “wherever the people that I love are. Wherever Jean is.”
Jean is Jean Todt, the recently retired president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, which oversees the Formula One World Championship. The couple met in Shanghai in 2004 and became engaged the next year. Yeoh doesn’t drive (“I’m hopeless. I’ve taken my own license and put it in the safe”), but she adores Todt’s stealthy sense of humor and blue eyes. Rumor has it they’re thinking of getting married this year.
“Thinking!” she says with a snort. For nearly two decades they’ve been too busy to plan even the simple ceremony both say they want. “He counts the number of days rather than the years,” Yeoh says. “I’ll ask him, ‘What is the present for 6,725 days?’ ”
The first thing that registers when you meet Yeoh in person is how startlingly small she is, stacked against her imposing onscreen presence. She has built her career playing women poised to stab their rivals with a sword—or, in the case of her Crazy Rich Asians character, grande dame Eleanor Young, a cutting remark.
“I was terrified,” the director Paul Feig says of his first dinner with Yeoh. “I expected this stoic person who could beat me up.” To his surprise, Yeoh made him giggle so hard that he cast her in his next two comedies, Last Christmas and this fall’s subversive, star-studded fairy tale, The School for Good and Evil, in which she delivers some of the movie’s zingiest punchlines.
They’ve become close friends who delight in sending each other bottles of bubbly. “Insanely expensive,” Feig notes of their shared taste in good champagne, eye-catching outfits, and the cocktail they invented together, the “Five Yeoh-larm Margarita,” which features muddled jalapeños, hot sauce, and pepper on the rim. “We love to step it up.”
That’s clear in everything Yeoh does. Every inch of her is expressive. She laughs with her full body, clapping to punctuate a joke. Yeoh claims to speak only “one and one-fourth” languages (for Todt she has tried to learn French, but she struggles with the genders and pronunciation), but after a few minutes with her one becomes aware that she has invented her own nonverbal language: continual interjections of “Pyongow!” and “Gwarghhh!” and “Kadada-tadata!” that, in the moment, make perfect sense.
At 16 Yeoh moved from Ipoh, a former tin-mining town, to England to study dance. She dreamed of a career in ballet, but shortly after she arrived, the school she was attending measured her limbs and declared her hopelessly stubby. “It’s very brutal,” Yeoh says. Fine, she thought, I can teach. Then she injured her back, and that plan too slipped away.
Yeoh’s father Yeoh Kian Teik, a lawyer and politician, trusted his daughter to follow her own desires, but her mother Janet, a showboat herself, thought her daughter should be famous. Growing up, Yeoh would open a magazine and be stunned to see her own face: Janet had a habit of secretly mailing in her photograph. So Yeoh was dismayed but not shocked to learn that her mother had entered her in the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant. She was more surprised when she won. “I’m a little competitive by nature,” she admits. Then she shrugs and says, “I think the judges were blind.” Her second pageant was Miss World, where she walked across the stage wearing a traditional gold and green costume, but she never competed again. When asked if her mother takes credit for her career, Yeoh says, “All the time! She always tells me, ‘It’s me, I created her, I gave her this,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, Mom.’ ”
Shortly afterward, a friend showed Yeoh’s photograph to a producer looking for a girl to co-star in a Guy Laroche wristwatch commercial alongside Jackie Chan. Yeoh got the gig. “I don’t think I was even paid,” she says. But her smile as she rode a horse next to the biggest star in Asia landed her a movie contract in Hong Kong.
Yeoh was out of her element. She had never intended to act. She didn’t even speak Cantonese. (Luckily, back then most Hong Kong films didn’t have scripts. Actors lip-synched their lines and the voices were dubbed in later.) Back in Malaysia, her childhood friends were becoming doctors and lawyers; meanwhile, in her first movie, she played a social worker menaced by juvenile delinquents. “The damsel in distress,” she groans.
Yeoh gave in when the film’s distributors credited her as Michelle Khan, which would be easier for Western audiences than her birth name, Yeoh Choo Kheng. (She had suggested Sheryl but lost.) However, she was determined to fight for better parts, especially since she was beginning to fall for her producer, Dickson Poon. “I didn’t want anybody to say, ‘She’s there because he’s the producer,’ ” she says, “so it gave me more incentive to say, ‘I’m here because I deserve to be here.’ ” Since she didn’t know the language and didn’t fancy herself much of an actress, she figured she wasn’t ready for dramatic roles or quippy comedies. But action choreography didn’t look much different from dance, and that she could do.
Yeoh began to spend hours every day working out at a gymnasium for stuntmen. She was fast and flexible, with a ballerina’s tolerance for pain. In her second film, 1985’s Yes, Madam!, she was bumped up to playing a detective. The film was released on a Thursday at midnight in front of a bellwether crowd that could make or break its reputation. “They expected that I would just pull a gun and say, ‘Stop or I’ll shoot,’ ” Yeoh says with a chuckle. When the audience saw her flip backward, shatter glass, and leap across an escalator to kick a goon in the sternum, it burst into applause.
That enthusiasm would make its way around the world. A few years later a video store clerk named Quentin Tarantino trekked to L.A.’s Chinatown with a handwritten list of movies he wanted to see. He handed the slip of paper to a pharmacist and waited among the ginseng and herbs until the man returned with a tape of Yes, Madam!. Tarantino watched in amazement as the lead swung head over heels into plate glass.
“She parts her hands just before she breaks through the glass so you can see that it’s her,” Tarantino says now. He went back for more movies starring this daredevil Michelle Khan. “I was just a huge, huge fan of hers. There was always a twinkle in her eye.”
“I was just a huge, huge fan of hers. There was always a twinkle in her eye.”
By then, after starring as a thrill-seeking heiress in Easy Money and as an Indiana Jones–esque WWII resistance fighter in Magnificent Warriors, she had retired to marry Poon and settle into domesticity. However, the pair divorced (amicably; she’s godmother to one of his daughters), and Yeoh made a triumphant return to the screen alongside Jackie Chan in Police Story 3, better known in America as Supercop. (According to Tarantino, that’s the movie that motivated Uma Thurman during the filming of Kill Bill.) Then she fractured some vertebrae plummeting from a bridge for The Stunt Woman and decided to retire once more.
“I thought I broke my back. I thought I was paralyzed,” Yeoh says. Trapped in a brace and wincing every time she breathed, she had the opportunity to consider safer work options. Meanwhile, Tarantino’s career had taken off, and he was in Hong Kong to screen Pulp Fiction—and to meet Michelle Khan, who was in no mood for visitors.
“I must say, Quentin, he’s persistent,” Yeoh says. “He is who he is today because he’s full of passion and love, so he wore me down.” She allotted him five minutes. He sat on a pillow at her feet and began to recite each of her stunts in detail. “Suddenly we became animated,” Yeoh recalls, dabbing a tear. “So then I thought, Maybe I’m not ready to give up on this.”
Tarantino’s admiration encouraged Yeoh to once again get back to work. A year later she signed on to her first English language lead, in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, and in 1997 the world was officially introduced to Michelle Yeoh—her actual last name. Why wasn’t she in Kill Bill? “I asked Quentin the same question,” she says. “He’s very smart. He said, ‘Who would believe that Uma Thurman could kick your ass?’ ”
Still, Yeoh doesn’t dwell on what hasn’t come her way. “I go forward, because life is about moving forward,” she says. If she hadn’t lost ballet, she would never have landed in the movies. If she hadn’t retired and come back twice, she would never have had a career that she loves or the adventures it has brought. “Failures make us stronger, and they make us understand the path,” she says.
Very little about Yeoh overlaps with Everything Everywhere’s embittered Evelyn Wang, a part that has positioned her as a major player in this year’s Oscar race. “God forbid I want to play someone like me! That’s so boring,” she moans. Hoping to flatter her into taking the role, the filmmakers, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, named her character Michelle. She recoiled.