While many actors who burst into the global spotlight use their sudden celebrity to segue into high-profile or big-budget films, Michelle Yeoh, ShoWest’s Intl. Actress of the Year, is focusing on work that will bring her native culture to the world’s attention.
Yeoh has seen her profile rise after perfs in the 1997 James Bond caper “Tomorrow Never Dies” and the Oscar-nominated “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Though it might be easy to platform those roles into more big-budget pics, Yeoh has turned down several coveted roles.
She turned down parts in the two “Matrix” sequels in order to create movies centered on her Asian culture through her new production company, Mythical Films. It hasn’t been an easy decision, but it’s one about which she is adamant.
“I feel like it’s very important now that we have this window of opportunity for us to present more Chinese themes and stories to the West,” says Yeoh. “It would be a shame on our part not to take advantage of it.”
Yeoh’s next project, which she will star in and produce, is “The Touch,” a romantic action adventure to be filmed in the Himalayas. The movie is in pre-production, with no American production company yet attached, but she says the film will have roles for an American and European actor, and integrate English and Chinese.
Down the road
Her Mystic shingle will be producing a “dramatic road show across China,” says Yeoh, who has never produced, and finds the experience taxing and rewarding.
“I’m wearing two hats and it’s a lot of work,” she says. “Acting is a lot more passive but now I have to identify the process and idea and find script writers. It’s very involved.”
Yeoh’s landmark year began with “Tomorrow,” the blockbuster Bond film in which she plays Chinese agent Col. Wai-Lin opposite Pierce Brosnan. Yeoh says when the producers came to her with the idea of having a female character equal to Bond, both mentally and physically, she seized the opportunity.
However, Yeoh, who has a long list of starring roles in Asian films, didn’t consider the role a breakthrough, nor did she think it would catapult her to international fame.
“Bond movies reach such a wide audience, so I certainly thought it would be an advantage for me,” she says. “As an actor, you want that, providing it’s a movie you’re proud of and want to be seen in, which was certainly the case. So it came together nicely for me.”
As did her role as Shu Lien in Ang Lee’s Oscar-nominated “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Yeoh says Lee approached her about starring in his film shortly after catching “Tomorrow.”
“He came to me and said, ‘Now that you’re a big international star, I don’t know if you want to work with me,’ ” says Yeoh, who is a long-time admirer of the director. “I looked at him and said, ‘You’re actually saying this to me?’ I was thrilled.”
Yeoh says the opportunity to work with Lee on a film focusing on Chinese culture was a dream. She did not, however, have any idea the film would achieve the enormous success it has until she went to the Cannes Intl. Film Festival last year.
“People started telling me that the media were applauding after the movie. I thought they were pulling my leg because the press is always the most difficult to impress because they see so many movies,” she says. “When Ang and I were in the theater they started clapping and it was such a feeling of relief. We wondered whether other cultures would accept it or say, ‘What on Earth are you doing?’ So that response let us know they were getting it.”
Yeoh says the emotional side of “Crouching Tiger” is what crosses cultural barriers and appeals to such a wide audience.
“A lot of people can see themselves in the characters we were portraying,” she says. “Love transcends time, and the language and beauty of the film is so exciting.”
The success of the film proves that audiences are hungry for stories from the East, according to Yeoh, and she’s anxious to use her company to tap into Asian tales and history. However, she is an actress first, and is ecstatic and overwhelmed by her sudden notoriety and the ShoWest honor.
“I was so flabbergasted when I found out about the ShoWest award because it’s with Russell Crowe and Ang Lee. I keep asking, ‘Are you sure I belong here?’ ” she says, laughing. “Now, I just want to keep doing well to prove, yes, I am an international star.”