Michelle Yeoh was already a star overseas by 1997 thanks to popular Hong Kong movies like “Police Story 3: Super Cop” and “Supercop 2,” but it wasn’t until the James Bond tentpole “Tomorrow Never Dies” opened that year that Yeoh had her Hollywood breakthrough. The actor played Wai Lin, a Chinese spy who is highly skilled in marital arts and bucks every “damsel in distress” and “Bond girl” stereotype.
“The first movie I did after I came to America was ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ with Pierce Brosnan,” Yeoh recently told People magazine. “James Bond at that point had only been known as macho, and the girls were just the ones with cutesy names.”
Although Yeoh was praised for her progressive and action-ready Bond girl, she told People that the Hollywood offers that followed were exactly the opposite.
“At that point, people in the industry couldn’t really tell the difference between whether I was Chinese or Japanese or Korean or if I even spoke English,” Yeoh said. “They would talk very loudly and very slow [at me]. I didn’t work for almost two years, until ‘Crouching Tiger,’ simply because I could not agree with the stereotypical roles that were put forward to me.”
Flash forward over 25 years, and Yeoh is an Oscar-nominated actor and a recent Screen Actors Guild Award winner thanks to “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Coincidentally, Yeoh’ role was originally written for a man and her directors, the Daniels, courted her “Police Story” and “Supercop” co-star Jackie Chan to star. When the role was changed to a woman, Yeoh had some demands regarding the character’s name.
“The only thing I said to them was, ‘The character cannot be called Michelle Wang,’” Yeoh told Variety. “They’re like, ‘But why? It’s so you.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not an Asian immigrant mother who’s running a laundromat. She needs her own voice.’ That was the only thing. I’m like, ‘If you don’t change the name, I’m not coming in.’”
The character’s name was ultimately changed to Evelyn Wang, and the rest is history. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is nominated for a total of 11 Academy Awards, including best picture.