Interviews

INTERVIEW: MICHELLE YEOH (CROUNCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON)

By • Dec 24th, 2000 •

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Fans of Michelle Yeoh’s action movies (including the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies) can rest easy-she has no intention of abandoning the genre. “People are constantly asking me, are you going to shift [away from action] now, because after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon people will see you’re actually an actress and have that range. But I love action movies. I love to be entertained,” said Yeoh. That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t like to try out some roles that aren’t quite so strenuous-she broke her knee during the filming of one of Tiger‘s exciting action sequences. “I’m dying to do a romantic comedy,” Yeoh admitted. “That’s why I started my own production company. I said if you’re not going to give it to me, I’ll do it for myself.” Yeoh spoke about the trials and triumphs of making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which opens Dec. 8.

Q: Was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a natural choice after doing the James Bond movie

YEOH: I think I was very lucky. The first time I had met Ang I had a retrospective in New York, and my manager called and said ‘Ang Lee would like to come and say hello to you.’ I was totally honored because I’ve seen all his films and love his work. Then we met again in Los Angeles, when I was doing publicity for the Bond movie. Looking back, I believe Ang is not someone that things happen to-he is someone who has visions and dreams, and knows what he’s going to do. When we met in L.A. he turned to me and said, ‘Remember when we met in New York and I said I’d like to work with you-but now you’re a big international star, I don’t know whether you’d consider working with me.’ I nearly fell off my chair. He said ‘I want to do Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.’ Right away I said ‘When, I’m there.’

I’ve done a lot of action films before, and especially with that genre, the action has always overwhelmed these beautiful stories behind them. The directors get so excited about the action that the drama is sort of, well, we’ll just include this because we need to tell a little bit of a story. But with Ang, I believe he’s an amazing actor’s director, especially for actresses. He’s so sensitive to those emotions, those complicated feelings we all have and try to hide and not express in too many words-which is very similar to Ang himself. So I went back to my agents and said ‘This is the project I’m going to do-whatever happens, this is priority.’

Q: How did you break your knee?

YEOH: Sheer stupidity! Fortunately, it was the last night of the first action sequence, on the rooftops. We’d been working nights, and by 3 or 4 in the morning, you’re not just physically tired, you’re mentally very tired as well. Being on wires, off wires, your body and mind get confused. One minute I’m 30 feet in the air, the next minute I’m jumping with all my might and I’m one foot off the ground.

I was involved in hand-to-hand combat, and when I landed-I thought I was on the ground but I wasn’t-and I felt like someone had clubbed me in the knee. Fortunately I had arranged to do a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz in New York. I went to see my doctor at Johns Hopkins, because if I needed surgery, I would do it here-they’re very specialized, they only concentrate on the knee or the shoulder or the elbow. Also the physiotherapy-they rehab professional athletes.

When I saw my doctor, he knew I didn’t want him to say I needed surgery-I had that look on my face that said ‘don’t you DARE tell me my knee is dead.’ When he did the MRI he said ‘I’m sorry, it’s not just half-torn and we could wait, it’s completely on its back, it’s completely severed. The option is if you bind it up, you can’t run, you can’t jump, you can’t do any of the action sequences.’ But he said if you go into surgery now, and are willing to put up with that intense rehab, you could, if there are no complications, get back into full form in three months. Professional athletes, football players, have done that. In a football game, people will come at you and try and injure you even more. But on my set, these people will protect me. I would be able to go ‘OK, no good, let’s try again’ until I get it right.

I called up Ang and said I have bad news, I can’t come back the following week. He said the thing I wanted to hear-‘We will wait for you.’ It could have been that the studio would turn around and say ‘you can’t wait.’ I needed at least three to four weeks to stay in America-Ang had to shift his whole filming schedule around, because I wasn’t going to be physically there. He was my champion. After three and a half weeks I was back on the set with a physiotherapist and working through all this.

The blessing in disguise was that I really got into the character more-my dialogue, my lines, my Mandarin-which was my biggest hurdle prior to my knee. This language, which I don’t read and don’t understand-it’s very formal, it’s like Shakespeare English. Words don’t mean exactly what they are. I would sit there and go ‘What am I saying? I don’t understand what he’s saying, I don’t understand what she’s saying.’ My dialogue coach would have to explain every single line, every single subtext behind it. I was sitting down with Ang every evening to work on it. It was good in that way.

Q: So you didn’t know Mandarin as a child?

YEOH: No-I was brought up in Malaysia, so English and Malay are my first languages. It was only when I got to Hong Kong, about 15 years ago, that I learned Cantonese as a spoken language. And Mandarin is one of the most complicated languages in the world to study. I can have a conversation in it-how are you, where’s the bathroom, I’d like to go to a restaurant-that’s easy. But [in the film] it’s so stylized and so formal, and the passages were long. Obviously it’s your tone that imparts the meaning to your audience. At the end of the day, regardless of what language we were speaking, you could feel what we were trying to tell you, from our voice and the little subtle movements. But it was hard.

Q:
How natural is sword fighting to you?

YEOH: Totally UN-natural. I’ve done some action with swords before-but generally the films are done without weapons. Personally I hate using weapons. When I’m fighting with hands and feet, on impact I know where to stop. Then suddenly with a weapon I have an extension-a nine-foot pole, heavy blades or double swords-so it’s very difficult to judge the distance.

For this film, Ang researched everything. All the weapons you see in the film haven’t been made up or fabricated. When I first went to his home he was sitting there with all these books and different weapons. I went oh, no. He said to me ‘You are my warrior in this film.’ He thought I was the expert. He had all these different weapons he wanted to try out. I knew Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi would be using the [magical Green Destiny] sword. I asked ‘who else is going to be using all the rest of these incredible weapons?’ and Ang said ‘you.’

Q: Do you just yearn for a romantic comedy?

YEOH: Yes! Yes. That’s why I started my own production company. I said if you’re not going to give it to me, I’ll do it for myself. To be fair, I’ve been getting a good range of scripts in Hollywood, not just action-oriented films. But in Hong Kong, commercially it’s much more viable in terms of distribution for me to do an action film. So yes, I’m dying to a romantic comedy.

Q: Was the training for Tiger particularly difficult?

YEOH: One fortunate thing is I’ve been trained as a dancer/ballerina, so I pick up movements quickly. I’ve also been doing action films for the last 10-15 years, and that’s a great training ground. And personally I train all the time. I love exercising-it’s part of my life, it’s not a chore. But when you know you’re going to be starting this genre of films, where the fighting is very different from street fighting-you have to practice a specific kind of form. Ang, from the start, had wanted to base it on tai chi, because everything is very rounded, smooth, everything comes from the waist-and you still have that kind of power to go with it.

Q: So when you exercise on your own, is tai chi your favorite form?

YEOH: It is now. It’s so graceful, it’s so contained. And it’s really good for women especially, the butt and the thighs.

Q: And for your head too?

YEOH: Oh yes. When you practice martial arts-the philosophy behind it is very different from what’s the visual concept of it. People think it’s very aggressive, it’s about fighting. It’s completely not about that at all. And for film, it’s not just about how hard you can hit-it’s how do you exert that force that the camera will catch.

Q: How much acting instruction did Ang Lee give his actors?

MY: He works differently with each person. Obviously with the newcomers, he said ‘This is what I want.’ He has a vision-he would spend three hours with two people just saying five lines, and the rest of the crew would ask ‘Is there something we’ve missed out on?’ He has that vision in his mind, and he’s trying to translate that onto the silver screen.

I wanted to work very closely with him, to discuss my character. First of all I couldn’t read the novel, I couldn’t understand the complex emotions that were going on. This character is very unlike me as a person, which is fine. But if it’s a character not like you, you really have to find how to go into her world, her century, her mentality. If you look at me, I’m very animated when I talk, and this character is so contained, so graceful, wise, gracious and noble. She’s always making sure everyone around her is all right. She’s so suppressed and repressed with emotions, and this love for this guy who she knows loves here, but is not willing to say it out. If it were me I’d be going ‘speak it out.’

By the time I got through the first month of shooting, I knew this character. The minute I put on this costume and walked in it, I became a different person. When it got to the death scene, it was all this suppression she’s felt-all these things she’s giving and always not getting back. And the sense of loss-the one she truly loves is going. It’s not that he’s gone, it’s that I’m gone too.

Q: Do you have anything else coming out?

YEOH: I’m working on my own productions-Mythical Films is my own production company that I started with Media Asia in Hong Kong-on this movie called The Touch, an action-adventure. We’re working on the script right now.

Q: Who will you play?

YEOH: Who will I play? I’ll play the LEAD!

Q: Will you direct?

MY: I actually have no feel of being a director-I see the director’s job as being concerned about all the little details, all the camera movements-I’m a producer.

Q: As an actress what kinds of films would you like to do?

YEOH: The list is long-ranging from dramatic and romantic comedy to action. People are constantly asking me-are you going to shift now, after this movie people will see you’re actually an actress, you have that range. I won’t do that-I love the action movies. I love to be entertained, and action films can be entertaining. But action films can also be very moving-it can shift to another level. With my own production company, I’m going to say ‘At least once a year I want to do a romantic comedy, give the body a rest, be free and easy and hip-hopping around.’

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