Interview : Michelle Yeoh

She’s been dubbed the queen of martial arts, but there’s more to Malaysian born actress Michelle Yeoh than high-energy action stunts. ”Memoirs of a Geisha” and ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” proved the actress is dramatically on par with the best of them. So much so that these days she works as much in the West as she does in the East. This year alone she’s played a sneaky wizard in ”The Mummy” and a WWII survivor in ”Children of the Silk Road”. In her latest film, ”Babylon AD”, she’s a nun. Gaynor Flynn spoke to the actress about working with Vin Diesel, turning 46, and what the future holds.

I understand that originally your character in Babylon AD was written for a tubby, 60-year-old French woman?

When Mathieu Kassovitz,[the director, La Haine] first sent me the script I thought what is he telling me? [laughs] But he changed the character so I can play in it because he thought I can bring something to the movie.

What did you bring?

He felt the dynamics were not powerful enough with the old woman, and he needed someone who could stand up to Vin Diesel. Everyone knows the Vin personality as a very powerful strong persona, physically and mentally. So Mathieu knew everyone would believe that I could stand up to him.

Where you a fan of Kassovitz?

A big fan. I think his movies always have a very tough and strong message so that’s why I said yes.

Did you teach Vin Diesel any moves?

No. But I really enjoyed working with him because we spent a lot of time talking. He’s a real sweetheart. He’s truly a gentle soul and he’s very philosophical so we spent much time just him drinking his cappuccino and me wiling the time away. We became great friends.

Why did you start doing your own stunts initially?

I started off in Hong Kong and in Hong Kong audiences have grown up seeing their actors do their own stunts. And if you wanted to come into their domain there seemed no other way but to do this. Why would they accept you if you can’t even do what you’re supposed to do so that was one of the main motivations.

It’s a very macho world, what was their first impressions of you?

I think the one who had the first heart attack was Corey Yuen. Because when we did the first action film, Yes Madam, he was living in Canada and the company called him and said we have a new action film for you, we need you back right away. He was very excited about doing a kick ass film and when he got back they told him and you’re main lead is Michelle Yeoh and he’s going. A girl. Then not only that, she’s also a Miss Malaysia.

Was it hard to win him over?

Well by the time I met him I was already in training for about five months, and I was training in a place where a lot of the top stunt guys and action actors were training. So I had cut my hair, I was tanned, I was working out, so it wasn’t so bad, he never got the heart attack.

Are you as strong in real life as the characters you portray?

I’m definitely not a push over. [laughs]

Which action stars do you admire?

Honestly my greatest admiration goes to the stunt people. These are guys you’d never know, or hear about but their commitment to what they did was incredible. I mean I worked with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat and they were very encouraging and supportive of what I did but the ones who really inspired me were the lesser knowns.

Why do so few women do their own stunts?

Well movies are becoming so strict with it and they’re right to a certain extent because if you can’t do it you shouldn’t do it because we’re making a movie we’re not trying to break some records. I haven’t met many women who enjoy it the way I do. For me its the greatest challenge, and still is.

You studied ballet originally didn’t you?

Yes until I was 15. But a back injury stopped that dream.

But the back injury didn’t stop you becoming an action star?

I’m sure the specialist who saw me back in ballet school must be going, that can’t be the same girl that I told to stay away from the physical side of things. In dance, it’s a constant pounding, there is a lot of punishment on the body. In marital arts there is as well but in the movies its sort of in spurts. It’s not daily for hours and hours until you bleed and cry. That’s how I sort of justify it to myself.

What’s the worst accident you’ve ever had?

I think the one that was most traumatic was the one in The Story of Ah Gam [The Stunt Woman, 1996]. I played a stunt person and in that one I was pushed off a fly over on a highway but unfortunately the push that was given to me was a little bigger that I expected and I nose dived into a mattress and I heard my neck snap and at the time I thought this is it man. So that was the worst.

You recently turned 46, does the idea that you won’t be able to perform your own stunts scare you?

No because I honestly don’t think about it. I take it a day at a time. If I’m fortunate enough I will be around to do something just as exciting. But I keep myself in good shape and I feel a lot stronger in certain ways than when I was a teenager.

What else would you like to do in the future?

I’m looking into making documentaries in South East Asia, maybe on conservation or education. I want to start small and start in a place I’m comfortable in. Then I hope to travel. I’m a big adventurer.

BABYLON A.D Commences in Australia October 2nd


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