Yeoh girl! Magnificent Michelle
Michelle Yeoh has been a Bond Girl, a crossover Hollywood star and socialite but her biggest talent is diplomacy
Michelle Yeoh sure can talk. And that's a good thing. The makers of Marco Polo - the Netflix series in which she stars - may have "paired" her for interviews with her co-star Lorenzo Richelmy but the Italian hunk hardly gets a look in once Michelle is in full anecdotal flight. She has a lot to say, which is understandable when you look at her CV. She's been a Bond Girl, a Miss World contestant, the biggest female Asian crossover star in history and an unlikely Human Rights poster girl. "I feel like I've had a few different lives" she tells me, "and all of them have been interesting in their own ways."
She grew up as a teenage beauty queen in Malaysia, the child of an ethnically Chinese family, but moved to London after starring in a commercial with Jackie Chan. After wowing audiences as Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997, she went on to star in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee's Oscar-winning martial arts love story of 2000. They were the years when she was one of the few Asian presences in mainstream western cinema. "Whether you're Chinese, Japanese or Korean, Asians all get sort of lumped together. When I started working first in the US, I would always hear that they were trying to find a reason why a particular Asian character might be in a narrative. And I would say 'but just look around, we are a part of your culture'. The role offered would always be the waitress or the prostitute!"
Ironically, she says, it was commercial instinct and not political correctness that eventually caused this issue to be addressed. "China is changing the whole game because film-makers realise that audience makes a huge difference at the box office. When a movie is released in China, that one country can match what the film will achieve globally outside of China. So after all of the campaigning for better representation and political correctness and so on, in the end it will be the market that promotes diversity in film. And I think that's beautiful."
She became involved with Marco Polo after the first series aired and tells me that seeing it for herself was a big advantage. "I had also worked together with the creator John Fusko on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and it was a great pleasure to try and understand the story he was trying to tell. For me, it was important that someone was trying to tell a story about China. He is a European, an Italian, who ventured to this exotic place and he tells the story through his eyes."
In a sense, you could say that this is Yeoh's second career. The first began in the mid-1980s after she met the then owner of Harvey Nichols, Dickson Poon, and it would also end during her time with him. He first convinced her to make TV ads (she starred opposite Jackie Chan in her first one) and then persuaded her to sign a movie contract with his company, D&B Films. Poon then promoted her from protégé to fiancé - they were married in 1988. But Poon would soon ask Yeoh to give up acting and she would agree. Why did she want to stop then, just as her career was hitting its stride, I ask.
"I took a break because I got married. I didn't feel I knew how to juggle married life and wanting to start a family with being away from home and working," she explains. "I am a perfectionist. I have to do my best every time. And I thought, how can I really do my best with my family if I am across the world, filming, for nine months of the year."
When the couple divorced after just three years of marriage, Yeoh was somewhat surprised to discover that her name still had currency in Hollywood. "After my divorce it was actually the media which made me think about returning to acting. They never really believed I was gone. They seemed to be waiting for the next thing. And then the first movie I did on my comeback was with Jackie (Chan) and it went boom! And then I was on my way again."
One of the highlights of this second career was undoubtedly Luc Besson's 2011 drama, The Lady, about human rights activist and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The movie was filmed under a cloak of secrecy because of the sensitivity around political issues in the region. The movie was wrapping in 2010 around the time that Aung San Suu Kyi was released and the moment seemed right for a meeting between the icon and the actress, who said she was intimidated to play her. "She had not been allowed contact with anyone, even her family, because they were trying to break her spirit, she was totally isolated from any human contact", Michelle explains.
"I couldn't get to know her, I could only watch footage of her. Then when she was released, the son, Kim, was with us and he finally managed to get a meeting. In the end I went the following week with my brother, we went to her house and had a family dinner with them."
The next day as Michelle left for the airport, Aung San Suu Kyi's son insisted on riding along with her. He warned her there would be secret police everywhere taking photos of her. "And I just smiled at him," she recalls, "and said that's quite OK! I just hope they get my good side!"
Michelle managed to leave Burma that time but tells me when she next attempted to enter Burma they turned her back at the airport, with an unnamed official telling Reuters she was on a "blacklist". But a twist in the tale was yet to come.
A year later, Burma opened its consulate in Los Angeles and its officials decided there had to be one guest of honour: Michelle. "It was really bizarre - one minute you tell me not to enter your country and now you want me to endorse your embassy?" At the dinner she smiled and made pleasantries. "The president of Burma was sitting beside me and he said Michelle just to let you know I thought you were wonderful in The Lady. I said how on earth did you see The Lady - it was after all banned by his country. And he looked at me and said, 'Oh, I brought in a pirated DVD!'"
In 2008, she married Jean Todt, a French motorsport executive but she never had children. "That's life", she says. "You know what happens happens, and I can say it was not meant to be. But I feel like a very lucky woman because I have six beautiful godchildren and I've had a very interesting life."
The second season of Marco Polo is released on Netflix on July 1
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