For her fifty-sixth birthday last August, Michelle Yeoh got a very big present: another crossover hit. Nearly 20 years after Ang Lee’s wuxia feature “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” became a massive smash at the domestic box office — grossing over $213 million, the rare subtitled foreign feature to break through to mainstream audiences — the Yeoh-starring “Crazy Rich Asians” pulled off a similar feat, earning nearly $175 million at the U.S. box office and upending any sense that all-Asian casts can’t appeal to wide audiences. (A recent Critics’ Choice win for Best Comedy, plus a pair of Golden Globe nods and a SAG nod for the cast certainly don’t hurt matters.)
The film’s premiere was just one day after Yeoh’s birthday, a happy coincidence that only solidified the actress’ birthday wish: she wanted this one to succeed, even if she was a little intimidated by the pressures being put on it. “You realized it wasn’t just a movie, so much more seemed to be riding on it,” Yeoh told IndieWire recently. “Sometimes it felt like, ‘Oh god, it’s a little unfair, it’s a lot of expectations to put on just one movie.'”
Yeoh first rose to acclaim with a series of Hong Kong action films, in which she impressed with her acting skill and insistence on doing her own stunts. Today, the veteran actress remains flummoxed by Hollywood’s apparent resistance towards actual change. “Crazy Rich Asians” was touted as being the first studio film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast, and she said that stat continues to stun her.
“At this point in my career, it’s almost like déjà vu,” Yeoh said. “Like, why am I experiencing this after being in here for over 30 years? I wish it wasn’t an event, right? I wished this was normal that you see an all-Asian cast in a studio movie. Why did it take so long?” … Surprised is maybe not the right word [for how I feel about it], but I’m sad sometimes that we’re still fighting so hard. But [I am] very pleased that whatever it is, at least it’s happening so that I can see what we’ve been fighting for all this time.”
She’s enjoyed similar success on the small screen in recent years too, thanks to a juicy role in CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery” that has spawned her own imminent spinoff. “We just want equal opportunities,” Yeoh said. “Just give us a chance to audition, a chance to go for the character. Don’t put us in the boxes or label us, or label anybody for that matter. Actors are actors so long as it’s the right role.”
Based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name, “Crazy Rich Asians” follows Chinese-American professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she travels to Singapore with her secretly wealthy boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). Once the pair arrive in the glittering country, Rachel is shocked to learn just how rich Nick and his family are, and how fiercely his mother Eleanor (Yeoh) wants to protect her son from marrying seemingly below his station. Despite the glitzy nature of the story — and its unabashedly rom-com sensibilities — the film is populated with a wide cast of characters that span class, age, and personality. Audiences can see themselves within its many colorful characters, and they did.
“This time, I really felt the impact it had on the Asian community and people just coming up saying, ‘Thank you’ and saying, ‘Oh my god, I see myself on the silver screen. That’s me,'” Yeoh said. “So then I begin to realize that it wasn’t just about us, or us being able to get the roles and get the parts, but the impact on what it is for the people, for like the young girls, the Asian girls or the African-American girls. It’s just the younger girls going and saying, ‘I can, because I see it happening.'”
As a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program, Yeoh’s interest in equality extends far beyond her work on the big screen.
“Sustainable development Goal 5 is gender equality, and you think: ‘Why are we still fighting for that today?’ But you think about it, it wasn’t so long ago women would not have the right to vote,” Yeoh said. “Our first goal is to end poverty, you can’t do that if there’s no equality, you can’t do that if both sexes are not working together. You need that balance and you need that to be able to fulfill all the goals. … We’re so advanced in so many ways, why are we so backwards in more ways than one?”
Yet there were some people in Hollywood who sought to push “Crazy Rich Asians” backwards before a film version even got off the ground. Before the film was released, Kwan was outspoken about early chats he had with other producers, including those who wanted the adaptation to turn Rachel Chu into a white woman.
“That’s whitewashing,” Yeoh said. “Now that is wrong. That is completely wrong. … So when you whitewash it and say only the white, beautiful people are allowed to be in love or talented, then that is completely wrong. And thank God nobody took that seriously, that note. Straight out the window.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” did eventually find a studio home that embraced Kwan’s vision and wasn’t interested in issuing such bizarre decrees. Produced by Nina Jacobson, John Penotti, and Brad Simpson and released by Warner Bros., Yeoh points to Chu and his trifecta of producing heavy-hitters for delivering a game-changer.
“What Jon Chu did and the producers did was amazing, the way they cast this ensemble, they brought the Asian talent pool together,” she said. “It was so wonderful, because I’ve worked in Asia and I worked in the U.S., but it’s very rare that they both meet in such a beautiful way. I could just sit back and watch and it was like joy, pure joy. It was only as you get into it that you start to realize this is the first time in 25 years that [studios have] done something like this.”
The actress also credits Chu, Jacobson, Penotti, and Simpson for being open to communicating about her character, pushing her to bring her own experience to the prickly Eleanor. If there’s affection in her portrayal, it’s because Yeoh found inspiration for her actor from women she knows and loves.
“She doesn’t roll up her sleeves and get into a brawl fight with you,” she said. “She will find a way around you and she will have the upper hand. I love strong women like this, and they’re all around us. I’ve lived in Hong Kong for about 20 over years before I moved to Europe, so I know these women. I know these mothers. I know these very, very intellectual women.”
Yeoh always saw the dimensions of the matriarch, billing her as “very clever, very intelligent, but very elegant and classy.” And she was intent on not turning her into the kind of cut-and-dried villain that would be easy to hate. She had to have motivations that anyone could understand.
“It was very important why she was doing it. Why would any mother do something like that? The motivation is love, but we have to be able to show that,” she said. “It didn’t come easy for her and she knows how difficult the journey is. … We have to show that vulnerable side to her so that you would empathize. I felt for Eleanor there were so many possibilities of expressing what mother’s love is, what family is, through her character. I see these women around me all the time and I wanted it to be an homage to that, to be able to say, ‘See that’s why your mother did that, that’s why your mother-in-law is so tough on you, because she does want the best for her daughter or her son.'”
That kind of admiration for her characters is part of what keeps Yeoh happy to be working after so many years in the spotlight. Being able to choose the ones she lets in helps too, and much like Eleanor, she remains intent on doing the very best she can. “I’ve been very lucky, I’ve always had the opportunity to be able to choose my work, but I’ve also been very lucky that they chose me at the right time of my life,” Yeoh said. “When it didn’t work out, at least I can turn around to myself and say, I did try my very best.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” is currently available on digital, DVD, Blu-ray, and Ultra HD Blu-ray.