Michelle Yeoh in "The Lady"
Cohen Media Group Michelle Yeoh in "The Lady"

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.

"My biggest worry is that we haven’t done her justice. But then we take a step back and think, we’ve done it the best that we can."
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.