BEVERLY HILLS – Five minutes or so into speaking with Michelle Yeoh in person and it’s clear the iconic actress is something of a baller. There’s no pretense. She’s funny and blunt, but blunt without being shady. And she’s as sophisticated and down to earth as you could expect anyone who travels to multiple continents on a weekly basis. Oh, and she’s probably one of the smartest people in the room.
Yeoh was back in Los Angeles last month to attend the Governors Awards and do some additional awards press for “Crazy Rich Asians.” Yeoh earned critical kudos for Jon M. Chu’s monster hit, but it’s the interaction with fans of the romantic comedy that she’d found unforgettably satisfying.
“I would be sitting in a restaurant and then the chef, the Maître D’ would come over and say, ‘Our pastry chef has made you a special dessert and she wants to present it to you,’” Yeoh recalls. “And I’m like, of course, ‘That’s so nice.’ And it was an Asian girl. And she was so touched by what she saw on the screen and she said, ‘I want to do this but can I give you a hug?’”
The 56-year-old actress who made her name in the world of Hong Kong cinema has been recognized on the street in North America over the years, but the reaction has never been this emotional.
“I have had an Asian come up to me and say, ‘I just want to say thank you and give you a hug’ and you’re like, ‘Whoa, O.K.,’ Because Asians don’t really hug each other,” Yeoh says. “You show affection in very different kind of ways and men are very shy of hugging. I mean I know a very famous actor friend, Jet Li, when he sees a woman approaching he sticks his hand out really far away so there is no chance of that. So, that was for me empowering. When we were in the cinemas, when you hear people crying? That’s why you go to the cinemas, for me.”
The big screen adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s hit novel became something of a cultural moment this summer. There was a ton of anticipation as the Warner Bros. release was the first studio release to feature an all-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 and Chu’s vision more than delivered. Just the existence of the film meant a great deal to the Asian-American community and Yeoh knew when she was making the picture it had to be good.
“God forbid it didn’t work. We are also allowed to fail but at that point, it was so scary,” Yeoh says. “There was no room for error because it could’ve set us back another 25 years.”
Kwan told the producers that Kwan was always his first choice to play Eleanor Sung-Young, the somewhat domineering mother of Nick (Henry Golding) who is not initially impressed by her son’s new girlfriend, Rachel (Constance Wu). The film takes place in Malaysia, where Yeoh was born, and what she loved how people from her homeland reacted to the book. She notes, “It was very much like they were laughing at themselves because they know all these characters.”
“I thought[Eleanor] was amazing but in the book, it is almost written like a mean mother in law which is very prevalent at that time,” Yeoh says. “If you watch all the old movies, that’s how mother-in-laws are. It shouldn’t be just her being mean.”
And it wasn’t. Like many of the characters in “Crazy Rich Asians,” Eleanor is more complex and layered than she initially seems. That’s partly due to Yeoh’s aforementioned concerns and her own artistic contributions to the role. Eleanor’s heart and cunning skills are demonstrated in a wonderfully directed game of mahjong that turns out to be something of a duel between Yeoh and Wu’s characters toward the end of the picture.