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.