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November 2005
Memoirs of a Geisha: An Interview with Michelle Yeoh

Memoirs of a Geisha: An Interview with Michelle Yeoh

By Wilson Morales

Internationally known for her roles in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, Michelle Yeoh has been in the film industry for more than twenty years and yet, it took films to get her widely noticed. In the United States, it's hard to get strong female roles in films that don't to belong to either Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, and Julia Roberts to name a few. But outside of the country, many women excel with excellent roles and that's where Yeoh has built her career. Having done numerous action roles, Yeoh's continues to diversify her background by choosing delicate dramatic roles and in her next film, "Memoirs of a Geisha", Yeoh plays Mameha, an old-school geisha who has to teach the newest geisha how play and stay in "the game". In speaking to blackfilm.com, amongst other journalists, Yeoh goes over her character, working with Ziyi Zhang, and being a woman producer in the film business.


When you arrived on set with Zhang Ziyi, did you guys want to get into a swordfight for old time's sake?

Michelle Yeoh: No, we've done that before and we've moved on to do other thing. We were like "Did you bring the hammer this time?"


What was the attraction of this particular character to you?

Yeoh: Oh, God. I think first of all, the greatest attraction to this movie was Rob Marshall. I had been a big fan of the book initially. I guess there wouldn't be a lot of people who hadn't read the book and who loved it, and in their mind, they had already visualized what each character and the place looked like and when I heard it was Rob Marshall going to direct the film, I really felt that he was the perfect guy, because he had that sense and sensibility, the masculine and very feminine side of him, and what appealed to me tremendously was because he came from a dance background, he was a choreographer, and it felt like this movie really needed that fluid side of it, the rhythmic dance to it where the girls, the geishas, really had to flutter about. Why Mameha appealed to me, was I think to date, one of the biggest challenges as an actress, not purely just on the physical side, because the physical side, I had been trained for years to be a dancer, to be a martial artist, so moving from one movement to another, it was a familiar background, but still, it was a very specific style of movement that I had to learn from scratch. Mameha is the sensei, she was the epitome of the geisha, and I had to teach on-screen Sayuri what to do, how to bow correctly, how to kneel, how to get up, how to walk, everything, and if I didn't do it well, it would be a disaster. I think Rob would have drawn me out and shot me on the first day. Then, it was the very emotional side of it because geishas had very strict rules that they lived by, and Mameha followed those rules religiously. It was like during the times when we were putting each layer of the kimono, the hair was going up, the make-up was being put on, I felt all those restrictions come on. There is no love. You do not talk about love. You only think of you as the artist, your music, your dance, your calligraphy, your rituals, all those kind of things. You're not a wife. There are so many rules to obey and to observe, and what I think was the most difficult was Mameha really, truly denied herself all that. In the movie, as you can see, love is the biggest theme and love is a theme that we all live by and we passionately need and want, and it was very hard as a woman, and then as a character to say "No, does not happen" even though she wanted it and had it deep inside her, it was that sheer "I am the perfect geisha and it's not there." I think that to me, was the most difficult part.


What about getting into the mindset of a Japanese character, and your own cultural differences? Was that a challenge?

Yeoh: I think once you approach a film, you know very clearly what you're going to be playing. At the end of the day, I hope that we're good professionals and once you attach yourself to that and have the mindset, I am playing a Japanese geisha, and then at the end of the day, I think the most important thing for me was I am playing the vision of Rob Marshall. He is celebrating what it is like to be a geisha, and I think it was very important for us to have that mindset, and to play with him and to realize his vision. And I think he has an amazing vision.


Should it be an issue whether three Chinese actresses, famous worldwide, are playing Japanese geishas?

Yeoh: Right. I sincerely hope that it is not an issue, because this is a fairy tale. This is an amazingly beautiful love story, and I hope that we have done a good job, that we take you into this world, where you're breath will be taken away and you will appreciate what we have done in there. Honestly, in Asia, in Japan, it's never been an issue, so I don't see why it should be made an issue and take away from the greatness of the film itself.


Have you played Japanese characters before?

Yeoh: No.


Having worked with Ziyi before, did you two have a shorthand that made it easier to play two other characters?

Yeoh: It definitely makes it much easier, because when we did "Crouching Tiger", that was at least four or five years ago, and from then, we already had this bond. I think in my eyes, she's always going to be my little sister and in her eyes, I am the big sister. The first time she sees me again...we don't see each other that often unfortunately, because all of us make movies around the world at different times, but I can see from her eyes I am big sister. And I think Rob saw that right away and it's very important that these two characters have that bond. You know what sisters are like, it's that love/hate relationship. I am big. You listen to me. It's like "No, I am young but I have my own dreams and way I want to do things."


Most of the Asian actresses I know are in this film.

Yeoh: Yeah! Maybe we should hope that there will be more movies that will allow us these wonderful, amazing Asian actresses to have bigger participation.


You're Malaysian, right?

Yeoh: I'm Malaysian-Chinese.


Why do you think it is?

Yeoh: Seriously, I think it's been a long time coming that it's come to this but it's taken a long while. Hollywood America is the biggest market, and you have movies that cater to your own stories, and your own lifestyles and your own culture, and it's taken a long while where you suddenly realize, "Hey, guess what? In your society, there are so many of us Asians." We're here. But in a lot of the stories, it seems like it's an afterthought that we should have that. Thank God on TV now you have the newscast reader who is Asian, and then on TV, you see more Asian faces, but it's taken time, and thank God this time Sony said "Guess what? We have to be the leaders in saying we are confident enough that an all-Asian cast can do very, very well in the American market" then it's really good for us, because you know, we seriously need this. I mean, our world is not that big.


Are perceptions of you changing because you've done so many physical roles? Is this a film that might open doors a bit wider to you in terms of the depth of roles?

Yeoh: I think "Crouching Tiger" did that a little. Then, I remember when I was doing the circuit with Ang Lee, and he was always the first one to get very flabbergasted when someone said "Oh, you know, we really appreciated that you could act." And Ang Lee was like "I don't understand. Why would they say something like this?" and I was like "Ang, it's okay." Because you're right, I've always been well known for my physical abilities, but I also choose to think that if you do not have the drama, you do not have the character that supports a great action sequence, your action movie falls flat on its face.


What would you say was the most difficult or challenging in the geisha style of movement and secondly, how do you characterize the essence of that movement, if you could?

Yeoh: We used to laugh about this, but it's actually not that funny. We called them the 7 Rooms of Torture. During the practice, rehearsal period, we had a room very specifically for learning how to do the shamisen because that is a musical instrument that to be a true geisha, you had to do that perfectly. And to be Mameha, I had to play that for Sayuri when she did her performance at the tea houses. Then, the second room was where we learned how to do all the rituals of pouring sake, and handing the cup; it was very specific, and I think we needed to do that so that it was second nature to us, so that by the time we got onto the set, we put on our kimonos, we've done this millions of times, but it was not easy to do, because the three steps, the three cups, how you place it. Everything had its own particular place and we had to do it effortlessly, so that you didn't feel like "Oh, she's remembering that she has to do this particular thing." And then the other room was when we had to learn the dance. Just walking in kimono was a different thing, because once you had the kimono on, you had to make the tail flutter, and you had to glide across the room, so to first learn how to walk, we had to tie our knees together, and then the next step was to just put a thin slip of paper in between, so that if the paper fell, you failed, and you had to get to the back of the class. It was embarrassing, because there were a lot of us and we were trying to outdo the other one. And then t he next was to put a sake bottle on top, so you didn't bob down, you glided down, so this stayed on top. And then to do that with the fans, so every day was something new and something to learn. And we had an amazing geisha consultant, Liza D Alby, who was there. I think the essence of being the geisha is her understanding her place and what a geisha is about. That she believes that a geisha is about truly being an artist, so that's why she spends her entire life, all her time, practicing her skills, so that when she's out there, she is on show. She's literally a moving piece of art with her kimono, the way she is dressed, her make-up, her hair, so when she dances or even she talks to you, it is a moving art form. For me, it was not just the mental side, but also the physical side that embodies the different parts of being a true geisha.


Was Rob Marshall surprised by your work ethic?

Yeoh: That we're so disciplined? I think Rob Marshall didn't look at any of us where we came from, different cultures or whatever it was. Rob Marshall, from the very first stage, said to us, you are the people that I have chosen, because I believe that you are the character I have chosen you to play, and when he spoke to us, it was purely about how we could make his vision come true. He was relentless. It was very, very clear in his mind, and we needed a director like that, because you're talking about a big ensemble cast. You're talking about two of the best Japanese actors around, then there's Gong Li, Ziyi Zhang, many others and then there's myself, and everybody wanting his time and energy. But he was very, very focused. He would remind each and every one of us, because our paths differ, but it still had to converge and meet correctly at the right time and then go off on its own again. And I remember one time, when I had this scene with Sayuri after when I felt very betrayed and he would come up to me and say, "Remember, you are Mameha". And all he had to do was say that, because it means that "You're not Michelle Yeoh, the actress, or a woman trying to express your feelings, how you would feel in a situation like this. You are my Mameha". And that was it. Okay...I'm Rob Marshall's Mameha.


Do you have any personal opinion about the sexism that obviously underpins frankly everything you see on screen?

Yeoh: You know, honestly, doing this movie was already such a privilege and an honor, and I think what we tried to do was try to celebrate a culture that we really are learning about. It's not so open that we can say this is right or wrong or this is black or white. Also, you know, this culture descends from a period of time when parents were trying to do the right thing for their kids and people were trying to survive. I think it's also a culture that's been elevated to an artform, so for me, I don't look at it and try to say "Oh, well" I look at it and I look at the beautiful side of it. I come from a dance background. When I first learned about geishas, it was about their dancing. It was like seeing this amazing doll that had this white face, and all their movements were so exquisite and it was almost unreal, very, very mythical, so for me, that was what I wanted to portray, even though there are so many different interpretations of how it's going to be. I hope that people will go in and just really have their breath taken away and for a moment have a glimpse into a part of a world that we don't really know that much about.


So you don't think it's sexist?

Yeoh: No, honestly, I don't.


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