Starlog Interview with Bond Girl Michelle Yeoh, circa 1997.
Hong Kong Heroine
As 007's Chinese counterpart, Michelle Yeoh punches up the Bond-girl role when Tomorrow Never Dies.
By MICHAEL GINGOLD
While 1997 will go down in history as the year the Chinese reclaimed Hong Kong, it will also be remembered by film fans for marking the continuing takeover of the American movie industry by Hong Kong talent. Director John Woo had a smash with Face/Off, while Jackie Chan collaborator Stanley Tong made his U.S. helming debut with Mr. Magoo (due out next month). Chan himself was gearing up for his first American production in over a decade, Rush Hour, and Chow Yun-Fat completed his initial English-language project, The Replacement Killers. Vaulting past these performers, however, is Michelle Yeoh, the first of the new breed of Hong Kong action stars to hit screens in a major Hollywood feature. And not just any feature, but Tomorrow Never Dies, the eagerly awaited follow-up to Goldeneye, which re-ignited the James Bond series in 1995.
Playing Chinese security agent Wai Lin, Yeoh breaks the mold of the typical Bond girl, along with the heads of a number of adversaries. In one scene previewed for the press, she takes on a half-dozen thugs in a warehouse, and wipes the floor (and walls, and most of the furniture) with them single-handedly. Far from the usual Bond damsel in distress, Wai Lin is a woman who's more than capable of taking care of herself, and thus follows the trend of Yeoh's previous roles. "Action movies are something I'm well-known for, in Asia especially and also in America recently, so this is a great opportunity to capitalize on that," the actress says. "It's a great role for me, and I think it's time we had an Asian female getting a lead role in a big Hollywood movie."
Yeoh has been busting heads and winning fans in Hong Kong for more than a decade now. Born in Malaysia, she originally trained in ballet at London's Royal Academy of Dance before an injury forced her to drop out. She was subsequently awarded the crown of Miss Malaysia in 1983, which led to her casting in a Hong Kong commercial starring martial arts megastar Chan. This resulted in her first feature role, a non-action stint in the comedy Owl vs. Dumbo (1984), directed by frequent Chan collaborator Samo
Hung. It was only her second film, 1985's Yes, Madam, directed by martial arts movie specialist Yuen (Fong Sai-Yuk) Kwai, that pointed her toward stardom.
Cast alongside Cynthia Rothrock as a policewoman who takes on a vicious underworld gang, Yeoh made quite an impression with her hand-to-hand combat and stunt-work—even though she was a complete neophyte in terms of Far East fighting skills. "I actually started doing martial arts when I made that movie," she reveals. "I was literally thrown in the deep end, and I swam very hard." She also dropped off a balcony and through a sheet of glass in her first stunt scene, one she still remembers vividly today.
"The director said, 'Don't worry, this is sugar glass, it's not going to cut you,' " Yeoh recalls. "There was another stunt going on [nearby], with a stuntman going through a big piece of glass, so he said, 'Come over and watch this, because I want you to see that it's very safe.' This guy was wearing a wig, because he had just done a period movie and had shaved his head, and he went through the glass and the whole thing shattered; it was very impressive. Everybody ran over and said, 'Are you OK?' and he said, 'Yeah, I'm fine.' Then he crawled out, and there was blood all over his face. The glass had obviously cut through his wig, and into his scalp! And my director was like, 'Oh, don't worry, this never happens!' " she laughs.
Yeoh survived her baptism by glass to star in David Chung's Royal Warriors (1986) and Magnificent Warriors (1988). After a four-year hiatus from acting, she returned to appear in one Hong Kong classic after another. Holding her own alongside male co-stars (and frequently billed above them), she combined a strong performing presence with breathtaking physical ability, continuing to perform all of her own stunts.
Among her movies from this period were The Heroic Trio (1992) and Executioners (1993), which contain the heaviest SF/fantasy elements of her work to date. Set in the future, the films team Yeoh, as Invisible Woman, with fellow Hong Kong stars Maggie Cheung as Thief-Catcher and Anita Mui as Wonder Woman (no relation to the comics heroine). "Those were two of the only movies in Hong Kong at the time that concentrated on just the girls, and the guys were in the background," says Yeoh. Although it centers on a supernatural villain who kidnaps babies and features some intense violence, Heroic Trio generally maintains a comicbook tone; Executioners, set in a water-depleted future, is much more somber and downbeat.
However, the actress couldn't have had a better time working with her co-stars. "If I had to name my two best friends in the movie industry, it would be those two," Yeoh says of Cheung and Mui. "They're very dedicated to their work, and extremely talented. All three of us are very confident and comfortable with who we are, and there were never any rivalries. In fact, we would be telling each other how we could improve what we were doing. It was like a girls' day out that lasted for four months." A formidable team on screen, the trio were a force to be reckoned with behind the scenes as well. "Every time [director] Johnny To saw us coming, he would try to run away," Yeoh laughs. "We would say, 'Why are we doing this; why can't we do that?' and he would say, 'Oh God, you three go direct the movie!' But he did allow us a lot of input."
Photo: Though she receives assistance from Pierce Brosnan as 007, Michelle Yeoh carries plenty of Tomorrow Never Dies herself.
Yeoh also enjoyed working with martial arts master Jet Li when they teamed in Tai Chi Master (1993), one of two films she has starred in for popular director Yuen Woo-Ping; the other is Wing Chun (1994), based on a real-life character from Chinese history. "It was a great learning experience," she says of Tai Chi Master, "and I enjoyed working with Jet Li tremendously. We became very, very good friends. Jet is always acting very cool and quiet, like in the Once Upon a Time in China movies, but we had a blast. We were always cracking up, and Yuen Woo-Ping had such a hard time keeping us under control, because we would be laughing for half an hour doing one serious scene. He would say, 'You two go out. I don't want to see you laughing.' Then, we would come back in and look at each other and go [mocks cracking up]. Jet is an awesome fighter; in Tai Chi Master, there's one scene where I've been knocked over the head, and he rescues me. And every time he grabbed me on the shoulder, it was like being hit by a ton of bricks. When he threw a punch, I could hear, literally, [makes a whooshing sound], and I'm thinking, 'Don't hit me, whatever you do! ' "
Photo: There was good reason to tell Yeoh "Yes, Madam" in her first major action role.
Photo: In films like Magnificent Warriors, Yeoh enthusiastically put herself in situations most American actresses wouldn't dare.
Photo: Once assured she would be allowed her share of the action, Yeoh leaped into the fray in Chan's Supercop.
Photo: Working with Jet Li on Tai Chi Master resulted in many more light moments on set than there were in the movie.
Photo: "I think it's time we had an Asian female getting a lead role in a big Hollywood film," says Yeoh.
Her most famous collaboration, however, was with Chan in 1992's Police Story III, released in the U.S. as Supercop in 1996. The film casts her as a Chinese policewoman who teams with Chan's Hong Kong detective to bust a drug kingpin, and contains some of the most startling stunts either of them has ever performed. Yeoh's most memorable moment comes when her character jumps a motorcycle onto a moving train, a daredevil act she had to execute "one too many times," she laughs. "That is a stunt that I shouldn't have done. But now I'm very glad I did it, because it's a big talking point for everybody. I think I did it three times."
Much less intimidating was working with Chan—"He's a real character; he's very much what you see on screen," says Yeoh—despite his reputation for not wanting any of his co-stars stealing the spotlight, as Yeoh does in several Supercop scenes. "Well, if I were Jackie Chan, I would want the same thing," she reasons. "If it was my movie. I would like to be at the center of attention and doing all the great stunts. When [director] Stanley Tong was talking about the helicopter stunt [in which Chan hangs from a rope ladder hundreds of feet off the ground], I told him I wanted to do that. And he said, 'If I let you do that, what's Jackie going to do, go to the Moon?'
"To be honest, when Stanley approached me to do Supercop, that was the first thing I said to him; if you look at Jackie's movies, all the women end up going. 'Jackie, Jackie, save me!' And I'm not very good at saying lines like that. But I've always admired Stanley's work, and I have great trust in him, and it was our friendship at stake, you know? If he messed up with my character in Supercop, he would have messed that up very badly. So that was the reason I took on that movie; it was a great opportunity to put a woman against Jackie, finally—and I don't think he wants to do another one!" Yeoh's Supercop character proved popular enough for Tong to direct her in a follow-up, 1993's Project S, in which she investigates a bank robbery ring whose mysterious leader, unbeknownst to her, is her own boy friend. (As a favor, Chan lent his name to the film and makes a cameo appearance—in drag!) And when Supercop hit U.S. screens—with Yeoh, like Chan, doing her own dubbing—she was suddenly exposed to a whole new audience. But this also led to some confusion back home, since this version bore the "Michelle Khan" monicker used in overseas prints of her movies. "When we came to do Supercop in the States, we had a discussion, and they said, 'Well, you have a following here as Michelle Khan from the previous movies shown here, and maybe it's a good idea to continue using that name. And then, when the movie came out and the press started getting back to Asia, everybody was like, 'Who is this Michelle Khan?' I had relatives calling up, asking if I got married. It was getting too complicated, and since Michelle Yeoh is my real name, this year my managers and I decided, why change it [outside Hong Kong]?"
Prior to reporting for Tomorrow Never Dies duty, Yeoh made two films in 1996: the historical drama The Soong Sisters and acclaimed director Ann Hui's Stuntwoman. While the latter is not strictly autobiographical, it is derived from true stories of many of Yeoh's fellow actors and actresses. "I've worked in action movies now for 12 years, and I've always wanted to do a movie that tells a story from a stuntperson's point-of-view," she says. "We were trying to make a movie to show what goes on behind the scenes, so the audience could have a little bit of understanding of the people who play these roles. Stunt people always get overlooked. Nobody knows who they are, and they don't realize the pain and hardship they go through to make a Hong Kong action movie."
The actress experienced some of that pain herself while filming one scene. "It was on Friday the 13th!" she exclaims. "It was a stunt where I fall off a bridge onto a moving truck on a highway, and we had to do a close-up. I was lucky, because it was only about 18 feet that I had to fall down. I hit very quickly.
I remember going down and boom! My head hit the mattress—actually, we used cardboard boxes—and I heard my neck just go [makes a cracking sound]. Before I could recover from that, because of the angle I was coming down at, my legs came down behind me and I felt my back just go [claps her hands], like two planks of wood. When I flipped over, I thought, 'This is it!' Ann was petrified, because I landed right in front of her. After that, she said she would never do another action movie."
Yeoh survived with only torn ligaments and a fractured rib, and looks forward to continuing her action career, wherever it may take her—including back to Hong Kong. "I don't think that door is closed to me, and I don't expect to close that door to myself either, because Hong Kong is like a second home." She's not concerned about changes that the recent Chinese takeover might wreak in that country; nor is she worried about the typecasting that can result from co-starring with 007. "I don't think anyone's going to be able to stereotype me as a Bond girl," she states. "I'm already a Michelle girl."
I'm the character who has all the good stuff!" laughs Michelle Yeoh, regarding her role as Wai Lin, agent of the Chinese People's External Security Force and James Bond's female counterpart in Tomorrow Never Dies.
Yeoh's character breaks the mold of the traditional Bond girl as a beautiful damsel in distress. "That's what they wanted to do," she agrees. "In Goldeneye, M suddenly became a woman. A few years ago, people would have said, 'A woman? No way!' But when the movie came out with Judi Dench, everybody said, 'That should have been done a I long time ago!' Also, you have to give each Bond movie a different dimension, something exciting, because exotic locations and beautiful women still are just exotic locations and beautiful women. You see them in other movies as well, so what is Bond going to offer? It needs a different twist, so I'm the new lime twist!"
According to Yeoh, director Roger Spottiswoode was looking for a very '90s woman. "He wanted someone on the same level as James Bond, someone who would be able to do all the things that he did action-wise, and who was just as smart as him. Then, the writer and the producer who were in on the meeting said, 'We have just the right girl for you, Michelle Yeoh; you should see her work!' The next thing I knew, I got a call in October 1996, so I met up with [producer] Michael Wilson and Debbie McWilliams, the casting director, here in London. Roger and Barbara [Broccoli, producer] were location scouting, so I met them in Milan. I did a screen test with Pierce Brosnan, and by January, I knew I had it. I feel very lucky, because many people say you have to spend so much time getting people to know you and to understand that you're right for these kinds of things." Yeoh has a very firm idea of Wai Lin in her head, having worked closely with Spottiswoode during the early lensing to flesh out this action heroine. "Roger has helped tremendously in building this character. The first thing that people always ask is, 'Are you a goodie or a baddie?' so it's very good to be able to say, 'James Bond and I are on the same side. We're from different cultures, but we're working for the same end result.'
"One of the reasons I was keen to do this movie, apart from it being a Bond movie, is because Roger has done action movies and very human movies, which makes his characters very sensitive. Even if it's a Bond movie, it's not just about action. You want to care about the characters, so he has helped me develop her in many ways. You can see how a relationship develops between Bond and Wai Lin.
"I almost see her as a female version of Bond, except that she comes from a very different culture, so she holds things back a little bit, whereas he's more outgoing, suave and charismatic."
But when it comes down to doing her job, she's very focused on how it should be done, and very patriotic to her country. That was a good way to start working into it. When the story begins, you don't know what she's doing there or why Elliot Carver [Jonathan Pryce] is interested in her. Then, she and Bond are drawn in together, finally having to work with each other."
While it's far too early to tell what effect Tomorrow Never Dies will have on her rapidly growing career, Michelle Yeoh has enjoyed the experience of being Bond's new lime twist, so to speak. "The most important thing about every movie is [being able to] learn something from it. I'm learning a lot from Roger, Pierce and Jonathan. It's a learning process, rather than thinking it's going to be a stepping stone to the next bigger and better movie. If you really want it and work hard and do your best, it will come if you're given the chance, so that's how I handle it.
"Somebody asked me, 'What are you planning five years down the road?' I don't even know what's going to happen next year. If you can live in and enjoy the moment, what's the point of thinking about what's down the road? I just go with the flow, and have a good time doing it."
[Source: Starlog Magazine # 245, December 1997, P68-71. Copyright © 1997 O'Quinn Studios, Inc. All rights reserved. Starlog is a registered trademark of O'Quinn Studios, Inc.]