"It was the ladies in the company who stuck up for me"
Crazy Rich Asians star Michelle Yeoh has said “strong business women in film” provided her first action role.
Yeoh first acting experience was presented to her by Chinese mogul Dickson Poon who was looking for an actress to star in TV commercials for his fashion franchise. Yeoh’s friend had shown Poon a picture of her at a dinner.
“I was in Kuala Lumpur and had just come back from a squash game, all sweaty,” Yeoh recalls. “Phone rings, I pick it up, and my friend says, ‘Come to Hong Kong. Faster. Tomorrow. Get on the flight!’”
“So I took a meeting, and Mr. Poon said, ‘Would you like to shoot the commercial tomorrow?” Yeoh continued. “That was my first meeting with Jackie [Chan]—the first person I worked with in Hong Kong.”
Reflecting on her time with the kung fu legend, Yeoh said, “oh yeah, we’re very good friends. Jackie is what you see is what you get. He’s a lot of fun to be with, but he eats too fast. I think it’s conditioning, since he grew up in a performing troop. If you eat slow somebody is going to eat your food. He never knows how to sit down and eat—he’s always standing up.”
From then, Yeoh’s career in the Hong Kong film industry flourished, including Police Story 3, Holy Weapon and Butterfly And Sword.
Yeoh credits the women in the industry who wanted to see her in an action role. “When I wanted to do my first action movie, a few strong business women in film championed it and said, ‘Yeah let her try!” She explained. “You bring a very exotic girl from Malaysia. She’s not our usual Hong Kong girl. Why stick her in the same kind of roles?’ So it was the ladies in the company who stuck up for me.”
However, when transitioning from a mainstream actress in Hong Kong to America, Yeoh found a number of roadblocks. “I was having a great time doing Hong Kong films and just hanging out and having fun,” she said. “Coming to America meant starting all over again.”
Hollywood reminded her that her ethnicity was a drawback. “When I first came to do movies here, I remember very specifically someone said, ‘If we cast an African-American lead, there’s no way we can cast you, because we can’t have two minorities,’” she said.
Nonetheless, her experience of being a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies as her first role in a western film is a fond one. “What was amazing with Pierce, he was so confident a man that he goes, ‘Yeah, let her fight!’” he said. “Then he would just stand there like a proud dad.”
Crazy Rich Asians is out now in cinemas. Click here to read Resonate writer Joie Ha’s review of the film.