A 1984 TV commercial with Jackie Chan was the start of Michelle Yeoh’s on-camera career. (See below.) While she ranks #7 on EW’s Best Bond Girls list for her kick-ass role in “Tomorrow Never Dies” and one of the most bankable Asian actress in the world, the martial arts action star (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) has never achieved Hollywood leading lady status. With her starring role in this weekend’s release of Luc Besson’s biopic “The Lady,” Yeoh illuminates the screen with gentle grace.
The timing of this release is close to perfect, and while the film has earned mixed reviews, Yeoh holds the screen as Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spends fifteen years under house arrest while fighting Burma’s military dictatorship as the face of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy. Earlier this month, Suu Kyi won a place in the country’s Parliament, in what New York Times calls a “remarkable shift from dissident to lawmaker.” (TOH!’s interview with the actress and director Besson is here.)
SIGNATURE QUOTE: “It’s mostly dull routine, of course. But every now and then, you get to sail on a beautiful evening like this…” – As Wai Lin to James Bond in “Tomorrow Never Dies”
THE START: Malaysian-born Yeoh began her training with ballet at age four and studied at London’s Royal Academy as a teen before winning the Miss Malaysia and Miss Moomba (Australia) beauty pageants. She landed a 1984 commercial with Jackie Chan in 1984. Although she had no martial arts experience, her dancing skills propelled her into becoming an action star with D&B Films in Hong Kong.
BIGGEST ASSET: She’s always done her own stunts (check out the YouTube tribute video below), which helped her to land roles in “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), which buttressed her consistent work in China (“Fearless,” “True Legend” and “Reign of Assassins”) and the U.S.-produced “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005), “Sunshine” (2007), “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” (2008) and “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011).
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Her sensitive acting as well as her stunt work were on display in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” opposite Chow Yun Fat ($213 million worldwide, 97% Fresh ) and “Tomorrow Never Dies” opposite Pierce Brosnan ($333 million, 54% Rotten). “The Lady” breaks Yeoh out of her action niche. She championed the film from the script stage as both producer and star seeking strong material, and brought it to Luc Besson and his Europa production house.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: As if finding strong material as a 49-year-old woman in Hollywood wasn’t already a challenge, the possibilities are even more limited for Asian actresses. Besson said of Yeoh to TOH: “You can feel the vibration: ‘this is my time, I want this part,'” and adds, “For an Asian actress, there aren’t so many parts.”
MISFIRES: Of all Yeoh’s films, 2008’s “Babylon A.D.” ranks lowest on Rotten Tomatoes, and while it didn’t damage her career, it didn’t help either. That can be said of many of the Hollywood films that typecast her in supporting one-dimentional roles. She stood out in Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005), which despite strong performances and jaw-dropping visuals earned lousy reviews (35% Rotten). “The movie was cast partly on the basis of star power,” wrote Roger Ebert. “Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh are not only great beauties and gifted actresses, but box office dynamite.” While the controversial film did better overseas than stateside, it didn’t serve those stars well, and topped out at $162 million worldwide.
CAREER ADVICE: While old-fashioned straight-forward romantic political melodrama “The Lady” failed to win wide support from critics and audiences, finding her own material is still the best way to go for Yeoh. She’s smart, capable and respected by filmmakers around the world, especially in Asia. This actress is capable of rising to any occasion.