I I’ve waited a long time for this,” Michelle Yeoh told me in May last year, visibly moved as she spoke. The revered doyen of Asian cinema and stunt legend was talking about the recognition in general, which after decades in the industry, she is finally receiving in abundance thanks to her starring role in Everything Everywhere Simultaneously. There’s a good chance the Oscars weren’t even on her mind back then. The movie and Yeoh were fantastic, but it was supposed to mean its early release EEAO he would be forgotten come awards season.
And yet here we are on the eve of the Oscars, and the wacky, unlikely comedy-drama is leading the pack with 11 nominations. Tonight, if there are no numbers, Yeoh will climb those difficult steps of the Dolby Theater and take the stage at least once, if not several times. Thanks to EEAO, Yeoh has won accolades and, in recent months, some shiny trophies, too. She has won a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance. She is the first Malaysian and second Asian actress to win an Oscar. However, Yeoh’s career is far from smooth sailing. Her story, with its underdog, Rocky Balboa transformation and Quentin Tarantino cameo, is ripe for film adaptation.
To learn that Yeoh was once a ballet dancer is to understand something integral about her. Or at the very least, start to understand where her ethereal grace comes from, not to mention that perfect posture she somehow maintains even when she’s airborne or landing properly. Born into an upper-class family in Ipoh, Malaysia, Yeoh moved to London at 15 to study ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance, only for a back injury (the first of many) to snuff those dreams out. She returned home, where her mother entered the Miss World Malaysia beauty pageant in 1983. Yeoh won. Soon she was on the set opposite Jackie Chan, shooting not a movie, but a watch commercial. She was “just a pretty face” at that point.
In the eighties, the Hong Kong action scene was very much a boys’ club. Yeoh said so herself. He managed to infiltrate this world like a Trojan horse. He agreed to star in 1984 The Owl vs Bumbo, appearing in a role best described as a damsel in distress. It was more disappointing than impressive. Seeing her male co-stars fight and bicker, Yeoh wanted to shoot herself. The next few weeks played out like a montage of Rocky Balboa or that iconic “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” sequence on Disney’s Mulan. “I cut my hair and trained hard,” he recalls. It paid off. Within a year, Yeoh was the star of her own kung fu film, Yes Madam! Even in today’s context, the stunts he did in that movie are mind-blowing. In 1988, when she was 25, Yeoh married studio head Dickson Poon and retired, hoping to start a family. However, she was unable to have children and they divorced in 1991. She returned to work.
Over the next few years, Yeoh established herself as a person to know – and respect. For 1992 Super cop, she joined forces with Chan again, only this time as a martial arts expert rather than a model. It obviously took some time for her co-star to adjust to this new dynamic. Years later, Yeoh told David Letterman that Chan, while a “very good friend” of hers, believed that women “should stay at home and cook.” Last year, he revealed that Chan no longer holds such beliefs, not after “kicking his butt.”
In 1995, the injury struck again. Yeoh threw herself onto a moving truck from an 18-foot overpass while turning The stunt woman and broke a vertebra as well as several ribs on impact. Immobilized in her neck and back, she thought her career was over. It was Quentin Tarantino who rushed to her bedside and begged her to stunt one more day. “It wore me out,” Yeoh said Country and City. Tarantino was a big fan of hers, as he had previously said Super cop – often cited as one of the greatest action films of all time – was an inspiration for Kill Bill. If he was such a fan, you might ask why he didn’t cast her in his iconic revenge thriller. Yeoh wondered that too. She says he told her, “Who would have thought Uma Thurman could kick your ass?”
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood hit, regardless. It invaded the Western world on the back of Pierce Brosnan’s motorcycle in 1997 Tomorrow never dies. With her own stunt team in Hong Kong, Yeoh arrived on set and wowed the Brits with her no-nonsense approach to filming action scenes. “Our boys were jumping off buildings over 10 feet from cardboard boxes,” director Roger Spottiswoode said. The Telegraph earlier this year. “Whereas Michelle could land safely on an inch-thick rubber mat.”
Her scene-stealing role as Wai Lin led Ang Lee to cast Yeoh in the 2000 martial arts masterpiece Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Lee said The Telegraph that Yeoh had defied every expectation that came with the Bond girl tag. “She and Pierce were two perfectly matched movie stars,” he said. Crouching Tiger was a success – it became the first foreign-language film to gross $100 million in the US – but as Yeoh told me, the box office numbers didn’t translate into meaningful change for Asian representation on screen. In the following years he starred in titles such as Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), science fiction thriller by Danny Boyle Sunshine (2007) and historical drama The Lady (2011).
Hollywood is still closing in on Yeoh, but over time, the landscape has changed enough to allow for an exciting and unexpected second act to her career. In the past five years, he has starred in two Marvel big-budget rom-com movies Crazy rich Asiansand the highly anticipated Netflix spin-off The Witcher. The most exciting of the bunch, however, is undoubtedly EEAO – maybe because he sees Yeoh playing so brilliantly against the guy. In everything else, it is the picture of balance. That ballet background shines through not only in her perfectly extended muay thai kicks but also in her stoic composure. As Evelyn – a Chinese-American immigrant struggling to keep alive her laundromat and her relationships with her husband, father and daughter – she is sloppy and messy. There’s no doubt that Yeoh’s physical prowess remains impressive (at 60, she still does most of her stunts), but her fight scenes are matched by a performance that’s down-to-earth and human. Who would have thought that the most extraordinary thing played by Michelle Yeoh was ordinary?
During this awards season, Yeoh has been a vocal activist for herself. Earlier this week, she controversially shared one Fashion article, in which a journalist writes that Cate Blanchett (arguably Yeoh’s strongest competitor in the best actress category) has already won two Oscars. The thing is, a third would do little for Blanchett, but for Yeoh, “an Oscar would be life-changing.” Yeoh soon deleted the post, but the argument stands. This is an actor who struggled for decades to gain recognition. If her career has taught her anything, it’s that no one is going to give you anything, even if you deserve it. you have to fight for yourself.