Michelle Yeoh

Memoirs of a Geisha

Which director would you like to work with that you haven’t before? “The list is long, but I can’t say, because it will jinx me.”

How do actors balance commerce vs. art? “The role has to speak to me. I never turn away a script because it’s a certain genre. A film has to be meaningful, because it’s a year or more of your life.”

Up next: “Sunshine.” “It’s a Danny Boyle movie, a very serious psychological thriller. Danny gets a little technical but he’s got such vision, we bear with him, or else we would have killed him a long time ago.”

For an actress used to exhaustive martial-arts action — the genre in which she first came to global prominence through such films as “Supercop” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — succumbing to the strapped-down life of a geisha was a completely new world.

“Every layer of clothing of that kimono was like another layer of a straitlaced jacket,” says Yeoh, who plays celebrated geisha Mameha, teacher and protector to Ziyi Zhang’s emergent Sayuri in the film adaptation of “Memoirs of a Geisha.” “So many rules and regulations! She had to cut herself off from the most important emotion, she had to deny love. So every time you put on the makeup, you do the hair up, you were getting more cornered, and tighter. You felt every bone.”

And yet a geisha, Yeoh stresses, is not only an artist but also often the one manipulating the action.

“It’s so difficult when you don’t move, and yet your presence has to be felt. She’s constantly aware, like a chess player. She knows the move before it’s even out there. The whole life is about bettering yourself, so that you’re going to be the best.”

The Malaysian-born Yeoh worked a lot with the film’s consultant, real-life Caucasian geisha Liza Dalby, on everything from walking to sipping sake to playing the three-stringed shamisen. Yeoh says she’s retained a few mannerisms to this day: “One thing I learned very well was listening, how to make you feel like you’re the most important person. It helps.”

She has nothing but praise for director Rob Marshall, who shares a dance background with the actress. Says Yeoh, “He understood the smoldering emotions that could be shown by body language and little gestures.”

He also sometimes had to corral a highly spirited cast of actresses “chattering nonstop in Japanese, Mandarin and English, and with translators going at full speed,” says Yeoh, laughing. “Rob would just stand there very patiently and go, ‘OK, girls, are you done?’ He understood that we love to experiment and talk amongst ourselves before we talked to him. He was the most amazing general.”

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