Women Do It Better: Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh on Creating Iconic Characters From Roles Written for Men
Michelle Yeoh & Cate Blanchett
December 8, 2022
In their very distinct movies “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Tár,” Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett play characters whose worlds implode. In the case of Yeoh’s character, Evelyn Wang — a Chinese American immigrant who runs a family-owned laundromat — her life is turned inside out (quite literally) when she discovers during a tax audit with vindictive IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) that she must save her family by hopping through the multiverse, using powers she didn’t know she had. With Blanchett’s Lydia Tár, after her abuses of power are exposed, the famous conductor’s carefully constructed life falls apart.
Blanchett and Yeoh discuss playing roles originally meant for men, working with auteur directors (Todd Field on “Tár,” and Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, better known as the Daniels, on “Everything Everywhere All at Once”), and that “Carol” meme, as enacted by Yeoh and Curtis.
Cate Blanchett: I’m really nervous.
Michelle Yeoh: You’re nervous? I’ve been having nightmares since I knew that I was doing this with you.
Blanchett: I think we met in Hong Kong. We met, and I felt you before I saw you. But not in an inappropriate way. There’s something about your presence. You just have this aura. And I turned around, and there was Michelle Yeoh. I was quite overwhelmed.
Yeoh: Oh, my God. I have loved you from your first film and followed you all the way across — all with deep respect and, OK, envy.
Blanchett: Envy’s a good motivator. You’ve just done something which seems to be a synthesis of everything that you’ve done over the years, which is one of the greatest movies of all time, “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Did it feel like you were bringing to bear decades’ worth of work onto that experience?
Yeoh: It started with these two crazy guys — they had the courage, the audacity, to say, “We love movies, and we want to do this.” They initially wrote it for a man. I think it’s the norm, because it would be easier to finance. It would be easier to understand that a guy would multiverse jump. But then they changed it into a mother role, which actually suits the Daniels so much more, because they’re surrounded by very strong, smart women.
I’ve been in the business for a while now, and the opportunities get a little narrower and narrower with time because you’re getting past your prime time. I turned 60 this year, and it’s been a while since I was offered the lead role. I have amazing supporting roles, like in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Shang-Chi.”
Blanchett: And have also made some of the most memorable scenes in cinema, sometimes with no words at all.
Yeoh: I think that’s really important, right? Your performance in “Tár” has that energy — so dynamic and so real, that you feel it has to come from all the way inside. It’s like it’s coming from here. You’re like a chameleon that goes from this to that: You’re an elf and then you’re a queen and then you are this.
With this performance, it takes your breath away. Tár, she’s not the most likable character. When you don’t have the confidence as an actor, you stay away from those roles, because it brings up a lot of questions. Why would you try and portray someone like that? At first, I thought it was based on a real character.
Blanchett: But it’s funny that you say Evelyn in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was originally written for a man. When Todd was thinking about it, “Tár” was originally a male role. Because the film is a meditation on power, you would’ve had a much less nuanced examination of that. We understand what the corruption of male power looks like, but we need to unpack what power is itself.
From the moment I first met you socially, you could feel that power. And I don’t know whether it’s from years and years and years of doing the most incredible, iconic stunts. It’s sort of gobsmacking, what you’ve done physically. But then you’re able to distill that volcanic energy into a close-up, which happens in close-up after close-up in your film. You make the psychological turmoil so visceral and tangible.
Yeoh: Actually, what you’re saying, I learned from when I was doing “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Because that character was very still. You have to figure a way: How do you make her be felt, even though she doesn’t say anything? I think it’s the years of training as a martial artist. And what we talk about chi is that inner energy that is there, and you have to emanate it somehow. But, my God, just looking at you, you’re, like, luminous. It’s like someone follows behind you with a light.
Blanchett: I’ve just stayed out of the sun. I’ve always found it interesting when journalists — it’s usually journalists — ask actors about the way they’ve prepared. And you think, “Well, you can do all the homework in the world, but you don’t get a great performance unless you have a great scene partner.”
Yeoh: But when you do a role like Tár, how can you not do homework?
Blanchett: Oh, no, you do it. In the way that you must physically over the years have trained and brutalized your body to achieve what you’ve achieved. But for me, even if you are No. 1 on the call sheet, I think it’s the Hamlet principle: You see many, many great actors play a Hamlet, but if you haven’t got an extraordinary Gertrude and Ophelia and a wonderful Claudius, you don’t receive the play. And so I got to work with Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant and this wonderful young cellist, Sophie Kauer, who had never acted before.
And everyone leaned into it, so it becomes an ensemble. All of the homework gets thrown away, and all you’re doing is responding to these really interesting, often left-of-field suggestions that other actors make that chip everything off its axis. And then, hopefully, the camera captures that surprise.
Yeoh: Yes. God. Because you had really, really long takes.
Blanchett: “Tár” begins with a really long interview. When I first read it, I thought, I do not understand three-quarters of the reference points. It was a steep learning curve for me. Then there was a scene very quickly where she’s giving a master class at Juilliard, which is also very long. And Todd said a week before shooting, “I think we need to do it in one shot.”
Blanchett: I had exactly that reaction. But then it’s thrilling, because then you are really dancing with the crew and with the other actors, and you’re on that tightrope. Which I guess must be similar to doing a stunt.
Yeoh: It’s like theater. I don’t do theater. I would never do.
Yeoh: Oh, no, I have stage fright. I would forget my name.
Blanchett: When you read the Daniels’ script, how did you start to tackle it?
Yeoh: I always want to work with younger directors. Because they throw challenges at you that don’t come your way often. I was very gratified that finally I was getting a script with a very nondescript woman, immigrant woman, and she’s been around us for the longest time, trying to live the American dream — and so have I. And to make such an ordinary woman be extraordinary, it’s very fulfilling, because I think that is all of us.
There’s so many of us out there who are very quiet and think they’ll just go along their way and maybe nobody will notice them. They’re not successful enough, and they’re not well-to-do enough. It was such a joy to say, “No, look at what we can do for her,” and give her that loud, strong voice. The core of the story is about family. It’s about the mother and daughter. It’s about her and her father. And all the culture of the Asians is very patriotic.
Blanchett: I’m going to sound like the supreme narcissist I am. I was working with Jamie Lee on a film, and she was showing me the strangest pictures I have ever seen in my life of her in this bizarre gray wig and you in the little black bob. And you had frankfurter fingers, and you were standing behind her, caressing her lovingly in these pictures. I thought, “That really looks like a scene from ‘Carol.'” And I said, “Are the Daniels trying to say that Carol had sausage fingers?” Did you talk about it? Or is that just me reading everything that I do into everything that you do?
Yeoh: The Daniels have this way of paying homage to people they love, films that have touched them. Across our movie is “In the Mood for Love,” and then a “Pulp Fiction” kind of energy and the Stephen Chow kind of over-the-top comedy. But you’re right, because I saw a photo of that, and I was like, “Wow” — except for the hot dog fingers and Jamie playing the piano with her feet.
I think what we were trying to say in the scene was these two people love each other. And I’m not surprised if they took inspiration from “Carol.” It would not surprise me.
Blanchett: Was the structure of the movie — it was on the page, literally as … ?
Blanchett: The butt plug goes in?
Yeoh: Yes, literally.
Blanchett: Because Jamie Lee told me she didn’t even know it was a butt plug.
Yeoh: We never changed anything. It was written; stuff was edited. A couple of the universes were taken out, but they were not major ones.
Blanchett: That amazing sequence. No one could have played the role but you. There’s a series of close intercuts, where you go through all of it.
Yeoh: This is like a roller coaster, right? Put away your phones, put on your safety belts. With the Daniels, I had to see if they were certifiably insane, in the best possible way. It’s very important that I feel the director is a visionary and I’m one of their tools. The only thing I said to them was, “The character cannot be called Michelle Wang.” They’re like, “But why? It’s so you.” I’m like, “No, I’m not an Asian immigrant mother who’s running a laundromat. She needs her own voice.” That was the only thing. I’m like, “If you don’t change the name, I’m not coming in.”
Yeoh: The rest of it was easy. I didn’t understand the hot dog fingers at all. But I thought when we get to there, I’ll try to figure it out.
For Lydia Tár, she was very clear with who she was. What was her goal?
Blanchett: The character of Lydia — even though there’s a very clear understanding in the community in which she moves of who she is and how she thinks and what she’s achieved — she’s someone who has become estranged from herself. Being at the head of a major institution and therefore being in a position of being able to, and expected to, wield a certain level of authority, that has separated her from not only her craft and her creative instinct, but also from who she is. She’s about to turn 50: I mean, there used to be a huge birthday party sequence. I’m sort of loath to talk about it, really, but there was a sequence where her mother came to a book launch and you realized that her mother was …
Yeoh: They didn’t have a good relationship.
Blanchett: Well, no. I think they did have quite a moving relationship, though there was a lot of guilt there, because her mother was deaf. And so here she is born incredibly gifted — she has misophonia, so she’s got an acute sensitivity to sound. Her hearing is so excellent that it’s almost an impediment to her being socially functional. And yet her parents are deaf. I thought, “Wow, what was her school time like? What was she running from?” And, of course, that scene didn’t make the movie.
Yeoh: I was wondering! I don’t remember that.