15 Dec 18
Michelle Yeoh earned rave reviews for her performance as strict mother-in-law Eleanor Young in “Crazy Rich Asians.” The actress is now being met with some Oscar buzz for the first time since 2000’s “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” for which she was nominated for a BAFTA. She also received a SAG Awards nomination this week as part of the film’s ensemble with Constance Wu, Henry Golding and the rest of the cast.
Yeoh recently sat down with Gold Derby senior editor Joyce Eng to talk about bringing Eleanor to life, how “Crazy Rich Asians” resonated with her own experiences and the need for Hollywood to embrace Asian actors on a wider scale. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
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Gold Derby: Michelle Yeoh from “Crazy Rich Asians,” one of the biggest and best movies of the year.
Michelle Yeoh: Thank you for saying that.
GD: Thank you for being here. Thank you for your time. First of all, when did you hear about the book “Crazy Rich Asians” and did you read it right away?
MY: When it first came out. In fact, actually, a friend from Hong Kong called me very excited saying, “You’ve got to read this book and you’ve got to make it into a movie.” So on the first chance that I got I read it, and honestly, Kevin [Kwan] had me at the prologue, when Eleanor went to London with her young child and they were not welcomed to the hotel, and like Eleanor Young does best, she buys the hotel and takes it over.
GD: It tells you everything you need to know about her.
MY: That’s right. Immediately you’re so drawn to her character because I’ve always been drawn to strong women characters. So yes, I read it and it had all the elements of fun, funny, all the quirky characters that I know because I live in that part of the world, and I’m going, “I think I recognize who this is and who this family is,” so it was a lot of fun. I was really thrilled when I knew someone was going to make this into a movie.
GD: So when you’re reading it, did you picture yourself playing Eleanor or anyone else?
MY: Well, yes and no, but in the book Eleanor is really mean. She was just mean. It reminded me in the old days of the black and white movies where mother-in-laws were just downright mean. But I was very happy when I received the script and I could see that they had really given her much more complexity, as any mother really deserves, which I thought was really necessary, because why would such a wonderful son stay away from home if he had a truly loving mother, and I think that was more important to us as storytellers to be able to reflect on what is around us, and I know these wonderful mothers who, the motivation is out of love, feeling that they know the best for their children and sometimes us as children, we don’t want to be told what to do. We don’t want to be told that their ways are much more wiser because they lived their lives and their understand what is the right thing to do, so it was a good experience for me and wonderful as an actor, because I don’t have children, so I don’t really know what a mother would do for her child, but I could see how it was reflected around me because I‘ve got a wonderful sister-in-law, I’ve got friends, I’ve got godchildren and I’ve got friends who are mothers and I see how they protect their children and how they actually do it because they really want the best for them.
GD: She’s also a vessel through which we see the values in Asian culture, because I’m Chinese American, I know, we put family first, versus values in American culture which is independent and putting yourself first. So how important was it for you to get that theme across through Eleanor, because she could come across as the villain keeping these lovebirds apart?
MY: Correct. I don’t think at any point with Jon Chu or the producers, they wanted to portray an Asian mother as just “the villain,” and it would not have been a good balance for the story because to have the young lovers have an obstacle is normal. I think it reflected in anyone who has a mother-in-law and you know you’re never going to be good enough for my son or for my daughter. You’re gonna have to earn that respect. With Eleanor, it was exactly what she needed to show to the rest of the world because we are given this amazing opportunity to take you to the other side of the world. Even if you are American-born Chinese, it’s like going back to your roots and really knowing how it is back home, because it is very very different, whereby family values are much more important than personal ambitions and personal goals. So that self-sacrificing attitude but the love for family, but is shown in very different ways. It’s not shown by saying, “Oh I love you so much.”
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GD: We don’t do that.
MY: We don’t do that. Growing up, you don’t have your mother or your dad going, “Oh, come here, let me kiss you and tell you how much I love you. They’ll say, “Oh, you’re looking a little bit tired,” which means, “I’m going to make you the best soup.”
GD: Soup cures everything.
MY: Exactly (laughs). But that was how they express love, through food. They will save the best part for you, if it was a chicken leg or something like that. And that was how love was, is still today expressed in many ways. When I go home, my mother will lay out my clothes because she thinks that, “You will look the best in this.” That is the old, traditional way of expression of love. So it was very important at this point to also show through Eleanor, the old values and how they need to be protected. There are some traditions that need to be protected, and need to be handed down, and only if you live and you practice it all the time will it happen, because otherwise it will lost. So, having the scene of making the dumplings and all that. But what I thought was really special that you show the strength of Eleanor was having the mother-in-law, played by the amazing Lisa Lu, that she was on her back after so many years. My son is all grown up, but she’s still on her back reminding, “You can be better. You’re still not good enough.” And I think that was her approach to Rachel. It was like, “I don’t think you are prepared to be in this circle, to be in this family, because this will be demanded of you, not by me but by the fact that you are in this family.” So it was almost like a nice warning. It’s like, “If you be part of this family, you will have to lose some of your very independent American ways. You will have to put the family before yourself, the eldest before yourself, speak only when spoken to,” and all those kinds of things. It was a wonderful ride because I got reminded as well of all the different values while we were making this film.
GD: That all comes to a head in the Mahjong scene, which is not in the book but is such a great distillation of all the themes and the relationship. It was just loaded with symbolism. Even if you don’t know how to play Mahjong, it didn’t matter. You understood what was going on. She gave up her winning tiles. So what was your reaction when you found out about that scene?
MY: I thought they were very, very smart, because you wanted these two women to, I would say it’s like the final battle, coming to terms with who is going to win this. Like you say, it wasn’t just the game. It was the coming forwards and backwards, and I thought they were very smart. They used Mahjong because the tiles make that sound. It’s almost like a rhythm, “Tah tah, tah tah, tah tah, tah tah,” back and forth and all those kind of things. It is true, it is one of the favorite games of the Chinese society. We play this all the time and it is a game of strategy very similar to the game of poker. But that quietness of speaking versus the sound of the tiles and the many people that were in that room gave it such a powerful ambiance and that was necessary because in that moment of noise but quietness, she was hearing for the first time the strength of this young woman and the reality of what is going on, and the choices that one makes for the people that you love, like, the choice that she would make for herself, for her son, and how she would support him or not support him, but I think the most important thing was seeing this girl find her own inner strength was for her the biggest joy in that sense, and then when she walked away with her mother, proud but not prideful, proud of the fact that she would do anything for the man she loves, and that is the girl I’m looking for for my son.
GD: It’s like self-sacrifice. Eleanor finally sees that too in Rachel. I love what you said about them speaking quietly because you’ve kicked a lot of ass in your career in Hong Kong martial arts movies and stuff, but I love Eleanor’s presence because she’s a very fierce woman but there’s obviously no fighting in this movie at all. No one really raises their voice. So what was it like for you to communicate that inner strength without doing anything physically? There’s still a physicality to her, the way she carries herself.
MY: Yes, Eleanor when I started to form this character, I worked very closely with Jon Chu, with Nina Jacobson, Brad [Simpson] and John Penotti as well, because she is a very crucial character and she is very well-formed. I think Eleanor herself, in the way she dresses, the kind of jewelry she wears, the kind of clothes she comes up with, everything is not random. Everything is thought about. So for me, sometimes the most difficult to convey strength and power is not by raising your voice or shouting. It’s your demeanor. It’s the way you use your words. I think the eyes say a lot more than words sometimes do. When you finish saying a sentence, it’s the look afterwards sometimes that conveys a lot more, and some physicality was when I touched her face. It’s almost like a caress, before these very strong words comes out. With Eleanor, there’s always a sense of elegance and quiet strength about her that commands your respect. She knows who she is. She understands the position that she’s in and the family that she has to protect, which gives her a certain armor that she wears, that when she walks out of a place, she’s not just representing herself but the family, the Young family, her husband, and all the things that come with this family. It’s like with her son. She understands that he wants to maybe not have this kind of responsibility yet, because it’s not about the wealth. It’s about the people that work for them, which carries a lot of weight and carries a lot of responsibility, so she feels that and that’s what she has to convey the whole time. I guess there’s some moments where she would love to have fun, too, and I find that she has a sense of humor. When she bought the hotel, “Please clean it up.” I never think that battles are won by the louder you are. That’s how I really appreciated that Jon Chu had that in mind. That is Eleanor Young, that she’s formidable and you know it, but you never see her throw something at you or do something physical or swear at you or anything like that.
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GD: This is the first Hollywood movie in 25 years since “The Joy Luck Club” with an all-Asian cast. You did your first Hollywood movie like 21 years ago, “Tomorrow Never Dies.” What does it mean for you to be part of this movie now in this climate, having taken so long for another all-Asian cast to be in a studio picture?
MY: Now, it’s very empowering. That moment when you are doing it, you know that it’s a great movie, it’s a fun movie and it’s wonderful that you see the leading man and girl, they’re Asians, but I think at the end of the day, we did tell a fun, feel-good romantic comedy that we haven’t seen in a long time, and I think after a little while you forget that it’s an all-Asian cast, and that’s what I would like to see, that it’s not an event when we have an all-Asian cast. It should be a norm. We should be able to be getting more roles like this, and I think it’s proven the fact that we have, globally, fantastic Asian Americans, Asian Australian, Asian English, just Asian actors who are able to give you what you want when you go to the cinemas, when you take the time to go watch a movie, that they are able to be amazing storytellers and that is what is so necessary and that’s something that I have been fighting for since 30 years in my career. Not just strong women roles. To break away the stereotype of what Asians should be and the type of roles. Yes, we are nerdy, we are quirky, we have all those, but you must give us a full story and not just a two-dimensional, stick someone in there. “Oh we have an Asian. We have a diverse cast.” That’s not it. But what I do hope is to see many, many more of these opportunities for Asian storytellers in front and behind the camera, so I am very grateful to be part of it, to be part of something that’s bringing in so much love and fun. It’s very empowering because I walk down the street and Asian Americans and even in London when I was just there recently, they come up and they embrace you and say, “Thank you.”
GD: Lastly, is there any update on the sequel?
MY: Okay, so I’m not letting the cat out of the bag because at a Q&A, Nina Jacobson did say that we are hoping to do 2 and 3 together.
GD: That’s all you can say.
GD: Okay, well then we’ll hound her next, then.
MY: Yes, please do!
GD: Thank you very much for chatting.
MY: Thank you.