Michelle Yeoh Tells National Board of Review Gala About Her Road to Hollywood — and Her ‘Western Name’

"I am so incredibly proud to be the first Asian actress in 45 years to receive this honor," the "Everything Everywhere All at Once" winner said at the Manhattan awards ceremony.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 08: Michelle Yeoh accepts the Best Actress award for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” from Awkwafina during the National Board Of Review 2023 Awards Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on January 08, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for National Board of Review)
Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina
Getty Images for National Board

The National Board of Review awards gala made its in-person return at Cipriani in midtown Manhattan, with “Top Gun: Maverick” taking the night’s top honors — even despite Tom Cruise and co-star Miles Teller as no-shows at the ceremony. The event, however, was attended by the starry likes of Best Actor winner Colin Farrell, Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh (without her chief competitor Cate Blanchett, as “TÁR” was completely shut out of this race), Best Supporting Actress winner Janelle Monáe, and Best Director Steven Spielberg.

The awards season is still on the cusp of staleness, and so attendees and winners were in buoyant spirits as a skillfully and sometimes strangely curated list of presenters included Awkwafina, Daniel Craig, Paul Dano, Ariana Debose, Tamron Hall, Oscar Isaac, Barry Jenkins, Jeremy O. Harris, Ron Howard, Sienna Miller, Brooke Shields, Fisher Stevens, Amber Tamblyn, and Andrew Weissmann.

However, the canniest pairing of presenter and winner was Awkwafina with one of her idols, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” Best Actress winner Yeoh. “Michelle Yeoh can and will punch me through a wall. She will casually drive and crash a speeding motorcycle without a helmet… onto a moving train and then proceed to take down eight dudes in a group formation, and she’ll in turn allow countless young Asian women to see themselves in the world as strong, timeless, resilient, and truly badass.” Awkwafina then presented her “auntie Michelle” with the National Board of Review’s award for Best Actress.

“Thank you, Awkwafina. Nora, I’m so proud of you and what you do,” Yeoh said, adding that, due to nervousness over following up Colin Farrell and Ron Howard, she’d “rather be on a motorcycle jumping on a moving train right now” than giving this speech. “I feel like I’ve been through my own metaverse,” Yeoh said of her film’s awards season journey so far. Yeoh told the room, “My real name is Yeoh Choo-Kheng,” before tracing her career path working with “some of the most innovative filmmakers” from John Woo to Johnnie To. “I was told I needed to take a Western name,” she said.

“So Yeoh Choo-Kheng became Michelle Yeoh. We were told it would make it easier to sell our films, tell our stories to the rest of the world. Then, one day, Hollywood came calling, an absolute dream come true. We all wanted to go to Hollywood — until I got there. Suddenly, I was a minority. How did that happen? There are more of me than you!” she said. “Thankfully, I did find visionary filmmakers who understood the importance of representation,” referencing her work with Ang Lee on “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” as well as with Rob Marshall and Steven Spielberg.

With “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” she said, “I knew immediately the gift I was given to play Evelyn Wang. She turned out to be the most challenging, human, unique, tender, sweet, sour, tough, and resilient character. In other words, the most universal character that I’ve ever had the privilege to say. She is an everyday superhero. The story resonates with audiences all over the world… because, in these times of turmoil and trouble, it is a movie about hope, about kindness, and family. I am so incredibly proud to be the first Asian actress in 45 years to receive this honor.” That last bit Yeoh said to a nearly-minute-long applause. “I hope that Hollywood and the filmmaking community recognize what a watershed film this is and [that it represents] all the things I’ve stood for and tried to accomplish in my four-decade career. This award proves we can tell our own stories on our own terms and embrace something as simple and as important as our given names.”

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