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Actor Michelle Yeoh wants to change the way we think of superheroes

Michelle Yeoh plays a Chinese American immigrant who explores the paths not taken in <em>Everything Everywhere All at Once.</em>
Mike Coppola
/
Getty Images
Michelle Yeoh plays a Chinese American immigrant who explores the paths not taken in <em>Everything Everywhere All at Once.</em>

When actor Michelle Yeoh first read the script for Everything Everywhere All at Once, she gave a big sigh of relief: Finally, here was a film that put a middle-aged mother in the role of action hero.

"When [people] think 'superhero' ... it's always the guys who seem to be first in line for it," Yeoh says. "Why is it that we older women cannot be the superhero?"

Yeoh originally trained as a ballet dancer, but turned to acting after becoming sidelined with an injury. In the 1980s and '90s, she starred in martial arts films in Hong Kong before becoming more internationally known for her performance in the 2000 art-house film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

In Everything Everywhere All at Once, she plays Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American immigrant who made a choice decades earlier to leave her parents behind and follow her boyfriend to America. Years later, Eveyln's life is a mess. Her laundromat business is being audited by the IRS, her husband is serving her papers for divorce and she has a tense relationship with her daughter, who is queer. But through the film she is presented with alternate versions of her life — including the glamorous existence of a movie star.

Yeoh describes Everything Everywhere All at Once as five genres wrapped up into a single film. "It's science fiction, it's comedy, it's drama, it's action, it's a little horror. But I think the core of the story, it's about a mother and daughter," she says.

Yeoh credits filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — aka "the Daniels" — with crafting a nuanced story about the type of character Hollywood often overlooks: a "very ordinary housewife ... a woman that you pass by when you go to Chinatown or in the supermarket."

"I felt that it was so important for someone like that to be given a voice and then to be shown that she is actually a super heroine," Yeoh says. "And we allow her to prove herself, her self-worth and to shine."


Interview highlights

On Everything Everywhere All At Once originally being written for Jackie Chan as the lead and Michelle Yeoh as his wife – but the Daniels rewrote it

They realized, I think, we're telling the same old story if it was really Jackie Chan and myself as playing the husband and wife, and he is the one who goes on the multiverse thing. But I think the good news was ... the Daniels are surrounded by very, very strong women. ... I think it's an homage to all the strong women who are around them. ... So I think that cemented the mother and daughter story a lot more. I think it's much more relatable. It's much more emotional on many levels.

On the intensity of shooting the film

Michelle Yeoh stars as a woman who suddenly develops the power to leap between parallel universes in the action-adventure-fantasy <em>Everything Everywhere All at Once.</em>
/ A24
/
A24
Michelle Yeoh stars as a woman who suddenly develops the power to leap between parallel universes in the action-adventure-fantasy <em>Everything Everywhere All at Once.</em>

One thing that bonded us always together was the fact that the Daniels would have a 15-minute warm up for everyone. And that means everyone from behind the scenes, anyone who's working on sets in other departments who are normally not seen when we are working, would come together and know and feel that we are in this together. I think that really helped all of us really be a family. So we basically just linked hands, looked at each other and say, "We're diving into the everything bagel with commitment and passion." We just trusted in each other and there was no other way to do it, because if any one of us let go, it would have been chaotic and it would have been a chaos that would have been very difficult to pull back from.

On mourning for the end of her dance career after a back injury

When I was first told that I should consider something else, I just saw in front of my eyes the mirror shatter in front of me. But I was very fortunate, possibly because I'm a foreign student, that the principal felt that it was much more of a responsibility. And she just took me aside and said, "Now don't be a silly young lady. There are many aspects of dance, and if you truly love dance, we will find another place where you don't have to do so much physical dancing but still be very much involved and over time you will heal your back. There will be exercises and it will take a little bit of time. It will become better and hopefully it will be stronger." And so she took me under her wing. She enrolled me and got me to audition for another college where it was more academic rather than physical. So I went from there to be given another chance, another door opened where I was still very much in the world that I wanted to be. So I was very blessed. I must say I've been very blessed all through my life. There's always been someone who's watched out for me.

On her severe stage fright

I have stage fright. If I have to go on stage and say something, I won't be able to sleep the night before or the nights before that, thinking of all the things that could go wrong. I am so bad. It's OK when I dance. It's perfect when I'm just using body language. But once I have to start saying something or give a speech ... it is quite the nightmare for me. So I think if you ever said to my lecturers when I was in college and say, "One day you're going to have Michelle Yeoh on the screen," they'll bet their last dollar that it would not happen.

On breaking into the boys' club of martial arts and stunts

I went into training, like with the stunt boys and all that, and I think they were very curious to see this young girl who wanted to play in the sandbox. And I was very fortunate, they were very agreeable to it. I had some of the best instructors who taught me how to protect myself. [I] did learn that they took the blows. ... All the top action stars, they did not get it handed to them on a silver platter. And so I remember thinking, if I want to join this boy's club, you better be able to take the blows as well. I had to persuade them. I had to demonstrate to them that I deserved to be there. I think that's the most important thing is that we fight for gender equality, we fight for all these kind of things. And when we are given the opportunity to be able to do it, we must be able to prove our worth. I think that's the simple message.

On her first stunt

I remember the very first stunt that I did in my first action film, and I will never forget that one, because even Quentin Tarantino can, frame for frame, tell you how it was done. I was on the second floor sitting on a railing and two guys like, swipe my head with their swords. So, hanging on the balcony on the railing, I bend backwards, go through a pane of glass and drag these two guys down onto the first floor in one take. And at that point, I didn't know how to think of the danger, the repercussions if things did not go right, because I only knew how to focus on how to get the stunt done properly. I was probably too fearless for my own good. Plus, the fact that physically and mentally, I was so fit, so that egged me on, because I did feel that I had a lot of things to prove to stay in what was the boys' club, and to constantly demonstrate that I deserve to be there.

On proving herself among Jet Li and Jackie Chan and taking risks she wouldn't take now

All of us would be injured in some way or the other. But today, with the help of CG, with the help of rehearsal time and things being done in a safer environment, we are much better protected. But would I take risks like that again? No, definitely not. I'm glad I paid my dues.

If I agree to do something, it must be to the best of my ability. But I do assess —whether it's as a script, whether it's a character, and especially if it's a stunt — the reason for it and should I be doing that. In the old days, there was not so much the thought for safety as much as there is now. It was much more: How do we make a much more dynamic, a bigger stunt that the audience will be satisfied with? That was much more the intention of the stunt coordinators. ... And constantly, all of us would be injured in some way or the other. But today, with the help of CG, with the help of rehearsal time and things being done in a safer environment, we are much better protected. But would I take risks like that again? No, definitely not. I'm glad I paid my dues. That's all I can say.

Ann Marie Baldonado and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.