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

Memoirs of a Geisha: An Interview with Michelle Yeoh, continued

By Wilson Morales

We live in a world where there are young Asian girls who are sold into situations of prostitution and other servitude. This is a story about a girl who was sold... do you feel that has any bearing or in a way leads us to reflect on our current or modern situation?

Yeoh: I think everything should lead you to that, and let you have a moment where you think about that, because unfortunately, very sadly, to think that in this century, in the affluent life that a lot of us have, that this still happens very randomly in Burman, in Vietnam, in Thailand, and it's horrifying. I see that because I live in Asia, and it's terrifying that that still happens, but some of the places, I don't know whether they're just doing it because they thought that the kid would have a better life and there are some really people, whether it's the Triads or the Mafia that are doing it for all the worst possible reasons, so in a way, you can't really compare the destitute that was then and now on the same level, because times have really changed. You know, I'm a great fan of Jackie Chan, and he's a boy. You know that in China they revered the son, because he is the heir, and when he was a very young boy, he was sold to the acrobatic house because his parents believed that if he went there and trained, he might have an opportunity to be an acrobat and look where he is today. But if his parents said "Oh, no. I can't sell my child. I'll just keep him at home." Where would he be? So we have to take a step back and say "I see there is something there" but not to just lump it all together and say "This is bad" or ėThis is not right". There is a different way of approaching it.

Are you focusing your career in Asia at the moment?

Yeoh: Ah, from the looks of it, it looks like it's very bright and shining. (laughs) And I'm having such a great., you know, for me, honestly, I don't choose the place that I work. I really choose by the character and the director. The director, for me, is very important, because I really truly believe that he's the soul of the film. You can have an amazing script, but if you don't have a director that has the passion, the dedication and the vision for that, it would go a little soft, and I think a lot of you could understand that, and I don't choose to say that I'm only going to concentrate on working in America or just in Asia. I hope to find a balance where I can go where the best character and the best director is.

Are you working with Ang Lee again?

Yeoh: I hope so. I'd do anything to work for that man.

And you did the new Danny Boyle movie also, and you just finished that?

Yeoh: Yes, and it was such a contrast, because at the beginning of last year, I was the geisha, right? Four hours of make-up and every day walking around like a supermodel. This movie, I'm the astronaut fifty years ahead in time, fifteen minutes in hair and make-up where she comes up and goes... "Okay". And I'm like "Wait a minute. What about my eyebrow?" and she's like "No, you're a real character, you're an astronaut, you're a physicist, you're a scientist. Get back to your lab." It's fantastic.

It seems like an odd film for Danny Boyle so what was that experience like?

Yeoh: That's where Danny Boyle is amazing, because if you look at his films, you don't know what to expect from him. Just like the last movie, not Millions but 28 Days Later. There are so many zombie movies out there, so why did he make it different? Because he had an edge. Yes, this is like...8 astronauts going up to save the world. We've heard that so many times before, but you have to see it. It's got an edge. I loved it. The first week of filming, he said to me "You know this is not a family movie, right?" "Danny, I know your films, it's okay."

You were in a movie a few years ago called "The Touch". Will that ever see the light here?

Yeoh: Yes, I was a producer on that film. It was Miramax and I guess I don't have to say anymore. I think it's still being moved. I hope so.

Do you have any intention of being a director?

Yeoh: No. Sorry. Being a director is a job where you have no life, you only have the movie. It's like 24 hours whether you're awake or asleep, and the details and the going back, cause I watch directors work like Ang Li and Danny Boyle and Rob Marshall. I don't have that kind of energy that they have. I have another kind of energy. I'm very dedicated to my life, but once I put it down, I'm like "Hey, I'm a free spirit. I'm going out there and have a good time" but these people don't, and they have to be like this. Ang Li was in a wheelchair when he wrapped "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Danny Boyle I'm sure is going to have a nervous breakdown when he gets done with us. And Rob Marshall, when he was on the set, you people...seriously, you know, the hours, it's grueling...and he was there with a fever of 104. He was losing his voice. It was a night shoot, and people were at the side, you can see them going "Oh god....we're dying, we're dying" but we'd go on because we have a director there who is "Come on! We can do this!" and he's always gentle and never short. He wants to hear your opinion because he appreciate what you want to bring to the movie, but then at the end of the day, he knows very clearly what he needs from you, so it's hard to be a director. I have too much of a life.

What is your secret for looking so amazing?

Yeoh: Oh, thank you! I was thinking "Oh, jetlagged, blurry eyed, you guys are going to see through me right away" I think it's just trying to be happy, cause with our kind of work, sometimes you take things personally, and you never should, and then you think "Oh, well, if this doesn't work out" and then at the end of the day, you think "Hey, you did your best. You had a really good time, and today is such a gift"

What kind of geisha is Mameha?

Yeoh: The best. Yeah. The only kind there is. I think she was too hard on herself a lot of the times. I don't' think she allowed any sidetracks. There was none of that. You have to know why you're here, how you got here and then know that this is a privilege that you're in this position right now and you should do the best that you can and there's no second best in her eyes.

How do you have time for a life?

Yeoh: I think you just try to be normal. I mean, I think I'm very grounded and I'm normal. I have my workout, I have my godchildren, I have my family and my friends, and then when I'm not doing a film, I'm not doing a film. I don't sort of think and agonize about it. I think I've learned to just let go of things.

Is it easier to be a woman producer from an Asian standpoint than it is being an American woman?

Yeoh: You know, just being a producer was not easy. Seriously. I don't think that being a woman in Asia already can be...but times have changed. Being a woman is okay, and you can use your wiles and femininity to your advantage, and I'm not ashamed to say I do! But when I did that for three years, sometimes I felt that this is really a thankless job. I was the star of the movie, I was the producer, I catered to the director, to the cast, to the crew, to the buyers, to the distributors, and I was thinking "What am I thinking here?" I love being an actor, I love the job, and I felt that I was sort of stepping away from it too much. I didn't have time to do what I really truly enjoyed, because being a producer is about crisis management. Every day there was a little crisis and the last movie that I did which was "Silverhawk", we were right in the middle of SARS. We were right in the middle of filming, and SARS hit Shanghai. Every production shut down. Ours was the only one sort of like "Don't shut us down! If you shut us down, we'll die!" It was horrible, so you can imagine? You had to worry about your crew. And we had 150 crew from Hong Kong and about 300-400 in China, and if one of them or their neighbor or their kids' kids' friend had it, we would have been shut down and locked out forever, so every day was horrifying. So I'm thinking "When you're the actress, everybody looks after you. You don't have to think about what happens if the electricity doesn't come on. The set is not ready. You can just sit there and go I'll go to the spa...it's okay...I have another day to work on my lines."

Has Silverhawk come out in the States?

Yeoh: No, not yet. it's actually been picked up and it's gone straight to DVD.

But you play a superhero though?

Yeoh: Oh, yes.

Did you act as mediator on the set at all between Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang?

Yeoh: We had great interpreters on set, but Ziyi because we know each other well. Gong Li and I just hit it off from the first day. It was so funny. By the end of the day, after like rehearsing, she just stepped up to me and said "I really like you"...and I was like "Girl, guess what. I really like you, too!" We would be conversing in Mandarin. Rob has immense patience. He stands there, and when you have a room full of girls, it's not easy, okay? So there's me, Ziyi and Gong Li going "nininininininin" in Mandarin, there's Cary, Yuki and interpreters going on at full speed in Japanese, and then we'd turn to each other, and we'd be talking. I'm not sure what language we were talking in, but we knew exactly what we were saying and Rob would just stand there and let us have our moments, and go "Girls, director here. Talk to me now" So we had a great time, and it was one of those things where we truly loved being there on set and we loved we were given the opportunity to do, so we had a really fun time. We worked together really well. We all threw things at each other and said "What if you did this and I did that and how do we work it out?" and we watched each other's backs, basically.

Did you get to keep any of your kimonos?

Yeoh: At that time, we were thinking "Gosh, wouldn't it be great if we could?" And you know what was the most difficult? Deciding which one we wanted to keep. I couldn't decide. For the life of me, I couldn't decide and that was horrible. I couldn't go up to Rob and go "I'd really like to keep...a kimono...sssssss' That one and that one and that one.

Did you just walk away with several?

Yeoh: No. (laughs) No, you know what? It will always be immortalized on film, so you know, sometimes it's much better that way. You don't have to keep the physical thing. It will always be there, and it's fantastic. Because you know, when I come away from this movie, what it's really taught me is like you know how the kimonos, they're so precious but then after that, they're kept in their boxes, and they're put safely away. For every movie that I've done, they're like a kimono. I packed them very neatly and very preciously in a box but they're kept in my mind, and I really don't need a physical thing to say "Hey, remember this time when you did this?" It will always be here (points to head) and here (points to heart).

Would you appear in other kind of films? Are you looking for a Hollywood career?

Yeoh: I hope I already have a Hollywood career. I think when you're an actor, your dream is to be able to reach out worldwide internationally, and at the present moment, it seems like to be a Hollywood actor, that would be the fastest way, that would be the surest way that you do reach out to the most people. I hope that in time, the Asian productions or the Chinese productions will catch up, but until our markets are as sophisticated as the American market, it will take us a lot of time. It's like India has an amazing, huge, film market, but it's really basically for themselves, because they make movies very close to what they like and they don't have the illusion that they can export it outside because they don't have that kind of contacts, but I find with the Asian films right now, they are crossing. Even whether it's just remakes or coming across here or getting straight into DVD, but it is reaching out, and it's no longer just the people who have the interest in watching European films or Asian films. It's more general right now, so hopefully, as an actor, yes, if it's to be working in Hollywood films that I get to show my work to the world, then yes, I would do it. Absolutely.

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