In Luc Besson's deeply felt epic "The Lady," Hong Kong action icon Michelle Yeoh embodies Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the Oxford graduate who became the figurehead for Myanmar's fight against military dictatorship.
[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran last December, when "The Lady" had an Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles. In opened in wider release on Friday.]
Suu Kyi, the Burmese daughter of slain independence hero General Aung San, was placed under house arrest in her home country for heading the National League for Democracy. She was released after 15 years in detention in 2010, while Besson and Yeoh were in the midst of filming.
"The Lady" starts out in the 1980s during the Burmese student protests and tracks Suu Kyi's tumultuous life until her release. It centers on the little-known love story between Suu Kyi and her British academic husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis), who died of cancer in 1999, while she was under house arrest. As the film makes clear, Aris played a key role in campaigning for Suu Kyi's Nobel Peace Prize win in 1991.
Indiewire spoke with Yeoh about how she came to the project, learning Burmese and the pressure she felt in taking the role.
The film is so beautifully and passionately rendered by you and Luc Besson. It really comes across as a passion project. Was that the case or did it come to you like most projects?
About four years ago, there was an article in the newspaper saying someone was interested in making a film about San Suu. I called my manager in Los Angeles and said, "Whatever you do, drop everything and track it. I have to do this movie." He managed to find Rebecca Frayn, the writer. She had a draft and she was thinking of sending it to me, so we sped up the process. I flew to London to see her right away.
Sometimes in your gut, you know that this is what you’re waiting for. To make a dream become a reality. But also, it had to involve people that feel the same way. It’s not just a job, it’s not just "I have six months free next year. I can do this." It has to come from within you.
So, I think at that time we knew the biggest task was to find a director who shared the same passion and vision as us. We found Luc Besson.
You and Besson are known your action work. It's ironic that your first collaboration isn't an action film. What about Besson spoke to you?
Actually, I never saw Luc Besson as an action director. It’s true, we both seem to be better known for that. But in my eyes, he’s a very versatile director. One of my favorites is “The Big Blue” and that has absolutely no action in it. It’s a very intimate movie about two guys trying to outdo each other. At the same time he managed to bring you into that world and you couldn’t help but be totally enveloped but that.
And he’s always been a champion of strong women characters, no matter how young or old. With “The Professional,” even though, yes, it’s in the realm of action movies because it has explosions, it’s the drama that really captivates you.
We’ve been trying to work on a project for the longest time and we’ve always said, "Until we find a project that blows us away, we’re not going to take time away from our family." When you’re such good friends, you should never do something just for the sake of doing it. It has to be very special.
We’re trying to make a movie about a woman who’s under house arrest, who’s husband died 11 years ago, so we knew it was going to be very difficult to get information. I needed to know, technically, legally, whether it was even possible to embark on such a dream. I think after he took the script and read it, he fell in love. We both knew that no matter how difficult, nothing was going to stand in our way of making this movie.
I hope, that especially for my audience, they don’t see me only as an action actress. I just so happen to have the skills. I can do some crazy stunts. But they are drawn to the films that I make that will bring them on an exotic adventure to a a foreign culture.
I think we as filmmakers never see the project as an action film or not. We see it as whether it will be a story that our audience will be intrigued by. Sometimes if we’re fortunate, the film can have a message and create some form of awareness.
It’s clear why you were attracted to the project. But it must have been extremely daunting to embark on this journey. What gave you the confidence to take this on and embody such an icon and hero to many?
I've always risen to the challenge. That’s what we have to do. I’m so blessed to have a career like this.
Yes, it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s an incredible love story that very few people know. My biggest worry, even today, is that we haven’t done her justice. But then at the end of the day, we take a step back and we think, we’ve done it the best that we can. With that, we feel comforted that she is safe in our hands.
Everything is a risk. There is no perfect formula. I mean, I’m sure a lot of filmmakers will tell you that. But that’s the thrill. That’s what we thrive on. I think this time, purely as an actress, this is a role of such an extraordinary woman that is very challenging on many different levels. First of all, the story spans a very specific 12 to 15 years in her life. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride.
Once the film was greenlit, what was the preparation process? I read that you learned to play the piano and that you actually met her.
Yeah. That’s right. The process started at least four years ago. Then with Luc, it was two. It did take a while for us to be able to get the right actor. When David Thewlis came on board, Luc just let me watch David’s tape. I thought, “This is our guy.” He’s another one who fulfills the need, the love, the passion like the rest of us do.
And it is true. Making a movie like this is never easy, especially with the financing, because it's a risk. But I think when you know in your heart it’s the right thing to do, you manage to persuade everyone who’s doing it as a labor of love.
By the time we said, “Yes, we’re going ahead,” was when we hired one English tutor and one Burmese tutor. Then I had to relearn piano because I played when I was a little kid, like all of us do. That was one thing that Suu practiced a lot of, especially when she was under house arrest, which helped her with meditation, in solitude, in a time by herself. I had over 200 hours of footage, especially from the time she was campaigning. So literally it was discipline. It was just work. Because Suu is such a well-recognized figure, when the audience watches the film, there are certain characterisitics that you cannot vary from. The way that her hair is, the flowers in her hair, the way she dressed in the traditional Burmese outfit, slender figure — I lost like 5 or 6 kilos right away.
Learning the Burmese, now that was really a challenge. The piano was easy compared to learning Burmese because I thought knowing Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Malay, that I would find some similarities. There was none. The Burmese language was like a lot of syllables all running together. In the end, it was learning by blocks, sentence by sentence. I kept thinking, “Oh, boy. I have three or four pages of this.” It’s commitment. You just have to do it. Then, learning about her, you can’t impersonate her, because the emotional journey just does not allow you to do something like that. You get the cadence of the speech, the way she holds her head, the little mannerisms and nuances, just by watching the footage.
We had no contact with her at all. I tried to meet with her friends, people who live in Oxford still. But, think about it, they hadn’t seen her since ‘88. The last time they saw her was 20-odd years ago. So it’s quite difficult to say, “So, what do you remember about her?” It’s like asking you what you remember about a friend of your cousin’s 20, 30 years ago. It helped reading up on the letters that she wrote to Michael Aris or the books that she read. The biggest task was that Michael Aris is no longer with us. But we had some contact with Kim, the younger son. But also, we were very protective of the family because we knew that they still need to visit Do Suu, still need visas to go back to Burma.
Tell me about your meeting with San Suu.
We were filming in Thailand. All through the process of prepping and filming, Luc and myself had no contact. The family had no contact for 10 years. Forget about visiting, they weren’t even allowed phone calls or letters, to or from. There was zero contact. The only time that I knew she knew that we were doing this was when Luc tried to send a message to her. We never got a big letter saying, “Oh, thank you for making this movie!” because we couldn’t get any of this physical evidence.
What year was this?
Around 2008, 2009.
So, a year or so before she was released.
As a sign of respect, we didn’t want to barge in. The film is very private, so we had to take liberties. When she was released from house arrest, we were filming in Thailand at that time. We were coming to the last two weeks of the filming there. I was the only one who had the green light. Everybody else’s visas were rejected. I was only one who had the possibility of going, so I went. But by the time I went, we had almost come to the end of our filming. So it wasn’t to go there to interview her or ask her questions or anything like that. It really was to meet an idol of mine. She has become so inspirational to me over the period of the few years that I’ve been researching her, getting to know her via video, sounds and no actual face-to-face contact.
What surprised you most about meeting her in the flesh?
I think it wasn’t so much a surprise, but when you feel so much for someone and you think, “Oh my God, can someone be as good as this? As disciplined and selfless?” She doesn’t want anything for herself, she doesn’t want any of the acknowledgement. She always talks about how it is for her people and her people’s needs are always in front of her. You ask her about how much she’s suffered, her family, she’ll always turn around to you and say that her people have suffered more. So, you need to see if it’s humanly possible that someone can be so selfless.
I remember when I was going there, thinking, “Please, just don’t be nervous.” I was so excited to meet her. When I arrived, she was standing in front of me. All she did was she opened her arms and gave me the biggest hug. You feel that she’s very much a person who has great warmth and passion about her. She’s quick to laugh, quick to tease, and that’s what so charming. The good thing is when you look at her, she’s very candid. If you’ve seen all the interviews she’s done, she answers you very directly. She tells you how she feels. She’s very honest. She’s exactly the way she is.
But what really took my breath away was to see her and Kim [one of her two sons]. This was one thing that David Thewlis and I always felt we had to work on. There was no footage, only a few photographs of her with Michael Aris and the family, because she was very, very private. And rightly so. It was for us to interpret what it would be like when they were together, how affectionate. It was so warm to see how affectionate they are with each other. To think that they hadn’t seen each other for more than 10 years. It seemed like they just picked up from where they left off 10 years ago. That just feels so good to see that. I know what she looks like, the tilt of her head. But I just sat there, I looked at her and felt such a familiar sense that this is someone you’ve known for a long time.
What kind of questions did she have for you? She must have been curious about the angle in which you were taking the film and her story?
Actually, she wasn’t. The one time I knew she knew that I was doing a film on her was after she was released from house arrest, the first night, actually. We were all together watching her coming up on the gate, waving at the crowd. It was a very emotional day and everybody was happy. At the end of the day, Kim and I were just sharing a quiet moment together and then his phone rang. He said, “I’m here with Michelle, the one who’s going to play you. You know, from ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’” So I knew that she knew I was playing her.
There was no need to talk about what the story was going to be, because we’ve always said that they’re not involved. If you were writing a piece on someone and that someone was hanging over your shoulder the whole time, telling you which way to go and whether you can say that or you can’t, you won’t be writing a piece at all. I think it’s because she trusts us that she didn’t have any questions on that part.
When people are working on historical biopics, history isn’t usually unfolding as they’re making the film. What was it like to be in the midst of shooting when she was released?
It’s very surreal. It was even more surreal for the Burmese people we had on set, because we had 200-300 of them as extras, coming in and out of the set the whole time. Some of the older folks actually came running up to me, grabbed me by the hand and they started speaking to me in Burmese. I think they really felt, I thought, that I was her. Because every time that I was dressed up with the flowers, things like that, there was always a few minutes of silence when they were trying to adjust.
And I think for us, the story continues even as we speak. I mean the timelessness. You can’t plan something like this. But we always knew what period our story was. What we hope is that it will remind the people of today, as they’re watching her, what happened before, why we need to support her, so that whatever happened in the past never, ever happens again. Especially in her lifetime. Her people deserve to have the democracy that they’ve been fighting for since ‘88. Every time we turn on the news and there’s something on her, it’s so important that people know. There are still a lot of people who go, “There’s this Burmese woman. What is it? Who is she and where is it all coming from?” It’s good that you have this. With movies, it’s a gentle and emotional reminder of what the past is.
I think it’s the love story that will really catch a lot of people off guard.
It’s the human drama that always gets us, isn’t it? Honestly, in movies, there’s a certain part of politics that we learn, but we don’t really need to learn it from a movie. It’s the human drama that will transport you. And that’s what we are hoping for. It’s such an incredible love story.
Will anything top this experience? Is this the highlight of your career thus far?
Honestly, this has been such an important part for me. In the long run, it’s made me a better person. I’ve gotten so much from it. As an actor, you step in and out of characters. Some of them leave you with good memories and some of them, you think, “I’ve been there, done that. I should put this character back to where it belongs.” This is not a character. This is like a lesson in life. This is the lesson that you hope will continue to stay with you for a long time. Learning about the compassion and the selflessness, things that you put, the bigger picture instead of your own selfish, little, whiny things.