[FILM] Interview with Michelle Yeoh
A Deadly Partner
By Alison Dakota Gee / London
Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh has teamed up with Pierce Brosnan in
the latest James Bond movie. At first, the producers thought they
were getting just another Bond Girl -- a bimbo in a bikini. But Yeoh
quickly proved to be a mighty match for the legendary agent 007
Go to a Yeoh film-biography
Go to a story about action-star Chow Yun-fat
MICHELLE YEOH'S STUNTWOMAN IS bored. She is slumped in a corner of
the London set of Tomorrow Never Dies, the 18th James Bond movie,
nursing an early-morning cup of coffee and yawning. It has been like
this for the past five months. She has sat and watched while Yeoh
has gone deep-sea diving, battled with four men at a time, toted two
enormous machine guns in a submarine and leaped from the roof of one
building to another. And coming up today is an especially dangerous
Yeoh, 35, is to ride pillion on a huge BMW motorcycle as it careens
backward on a narrow platform 300 ft above the ground. She seems
unconcerned that the bike is so powerful that its grumble sends the
set into a seismic attack. It has given Pierce Brosnan, the fearless
agent 007, an attack of a different kind. He has retreated to his
dressing room while his stuntman takes the ride with Yeoh.
The maneuver goes off flawlessly. Once again Michelle Yeoh has shown
why she is Asia's No. 1 female action star and highest paid actress -
- someone who commands around $500,000 each time she lends her kicks
to a flick. Her fearlessness also underscores why she is
increasingly hyped as the female Jackie Chan. And why the Bond
producers have become so enamored of her that her part has grown
from the original plan of appearing in a few scenes to starring in
almost three-quarters of the movie.
Yeoh hops off the BMW and settles into her seat on the set, a royal
blue director's chair that has her name embroidered on it in an
elaborate, cursive script. She is petite -- 1.64 m (5 ft 4 in) tall
and 45 kg (100 lb) in weight. On screen, she often looks fierce,
arrogant and hard, like the mythological Chinese warriors she so
often portrays. At other times, her features soften, and she is once
more the sweet, naive beauty queen she was 14 years ago.
Yeoh's voice is low, and her speech echoes her past -- equal parts
British boarding school and Malaysian childhood. And she is
hyperpacked with energy. Even after a morning of physically draining
stunt work, you suspect she might be plugged in to the national
grid. But there are no superstar trappings on display. The only give-
away that Yeoh was groomed by the flashy Hong Kong movie machine is
the cellular phone she has constantly pressed against her left ear.
In Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh plays Wai Lin, a Chinese secret agent
who teams up with Bond to fight an evil media mogul who sets off
wars by reporting phony conflicts on his TV stations. "I am proud --
this is a great character," says Yeoh. "Wai Lin is the first Bond
Girl who is on a par with Bond, someone who can match up with him
mentally and physically. From the moment our characters see each
other, there is a wariness and a recognition that this person is not
who she or he seems to be."
When the two are thrown into scrapes together, such as outrunning a
group of thugs (played by Jackie Chan's stunt team, who were
imported from Hong Kong), they decide four fists are better than
two. "There is a growing admiration between them, a growing
respect," says Yeoh. Is there romance too? "I'm not telling you,"
she says, grinning. "You'll have to wait for the movie to come out.
I will say this, though: there is tension." Off-camera, there is
definitely something. She and Brosnan hold hands, smile lovingly and
whisper jokes to each other.
Why a Chinese Bond Girl? Says producer Michael G. Wilson, who has
been involved in 007 films since The Spy Who Loved Me in
1977: "Because China is hot. The Bond franchise likes to go where
things are happening, to places in the news and in people's minds."
And why Yeoh? Because the Bond producers consider her a genuine
movie phenomenon. Wilson, a London-based American, has been a fan of
hers for years -- ever since his teenage sons started bringing her
Not that Yeoh was a shoo-in for the part. Wilson says they
auditioned "all the usual suspects," including Joan Chen, Vivian Wu
and Ming-Na Wen. The producers finally flew Yeoh to Los Angeles for
a screen test. On a dingy set furnished with only an old couch and a
coffee table, Brosnan, in a tuxedo, and Yeoh, in an elegant evening
gown, read dialogue on camera to check their on-screen chemistry.
That was all that was needed.
On the set of Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh almost aggressively charms
everyone who crosses her path, offering them a few cheerful words
and a moment or two of attention. In contrast, former Lois and Clark
star Teri Hatcher, who plays the other, more traditional Bond Girl,
often keeps to herself in her dressing room. Who can blame her? Her
character is limited to a few scenes (she dies), while Wai Lin has
practically taken over the storyline.
Every day Yeoh joins the crew for lunch at the studio cafeteria --
braving suspicious-looking trays of stodgy English fare such as
Shepherd's Pie. Today, she has grabbed a serving spoon dripping with
Bolognese sauce and is playfully threatening the set make-up artist,
who is dressed head-to-toe in white. Says Patricia O'Reilly, a unit
publicist: "Michelle's made a real effort to blend in with the rest
of the crew." The grumpy stuntwoman probably wouldn't agree. She
looks ready to lodge a complaint with the International Stunt
Michelle Yeoh was born on Aug. 6, 1962, in the Malaysian tin-mining,
palm oil and rubber town of Ipoh. She says of her childhood: "No
responsibilities, no worries, just good friends and my family." She
talks animatedly of weekend fishing trips to Pangkor island, and of
the time she caught a 14 kg (30 lb) snapper. "You never forget your
biggest fish," she says, laughing. Yeoh has a younger brother,
Bobby, 33, who is married to a Hong Kong woman and has three
One of Yeoh's friends from those childhood days, Philip Hemnell, now
accompanies her on every film, working as her personal assistant. A
jovial elf of a man, he is a former investment banker who decided
Wall Street wasn't for him. "I must be the only P.A. with an
M.B.A.," he says, chuckling, as he grabs a bottle of mineral water
for his boss. "Michelle realized my heart was not in banking so she
asked me to work with her." Hemnell, who is half-Chinese and half-
British, met Yeoh when they were both 10. "Her house was next door
to the Ipoh Swimming Club," he says. "Her family always kept an open
door for anyone who wanted to drop by."
Yeoh excelled at almost every sport, representing Malaysia as a
schoolgirl in squash, diving and swimming. She also enjoyed rugby,
which must have been a sign of her future taste for the rough and
tumble of action movies. After high school, she studied ballet at
the Royal Academy of Dance in London. But a back injury put an end
to that and she turned instead to drama studies. Meanwhile, her
mother entered her in the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant. She won. Fame
awaited. And so did Dickson Poon.
The Hong Kong entrepreneur had parlayed a $900,000 loan from his
parents into a multi-million-dollar retail empire and was beginning
to experiment with film-making with his D&B production company. The
word is that he instantly fell for Yeoh after meeting her at a
reception. Whatever the truth of that, he enthusiastically cast her
in a watch commercial with Jackie Chan. Secretly, the millionaire
and the beauty queen began dating.
Says Ann Hui, Hong Kong's leading female movie director: "The first
time I ever met Michelle, she was Dickson's girlfriend, hosting a
dinner party at his house. The next thing I knew, she was on the
movie screen." That was in Owl vs. Dumbo, a hopelessly goofy 1984
comedy that would have been long forgotten were it not for the fact
it marked Yeoh's debut. By her third film, Yes Madam! (1985), she
was showing off her skills as a wing chun martial artist and street
Yeoh would spend hours in front of a mirror, practicing aggressive
facial expressions. "You could be throwing a hard punch," she told
The New Yorker, "but if your face doesn't say, 'I'm going to kill
this guy,' the audience is not impressed." It was in Yes Madam! that
Yeoh performed her first major stunt: outrunning two thugs by
smashing through a plate-glass window. To this day, Hollywood
director Quentin Tarantino can recite each of Yeoh's moves from that
But her private life was also beginning to shatter. After her
marriage to Poon in 1988, she gave up the movies, apparently to help
her husband with his career. But she gradually morphed into what
Hong Kongers call a tai tai -- a married woman of leisure. Dickson
Poon's wife became a fixture in Hong Kong's fashion boutiques and on
the society pages. One friend told Vanity Fair: "She became bored
and fed up. She would go shopping virtually every day, then come
home with six bags and throw them in a corner and cry."
The couple divorced, childless, after three years. "Everyone thought
they were perfect together," says director Hui. "Then they got
divorced. Nobody said why." Nor will Yeoh. Asked if she is willing
to talk about it, she turns frosty. "No," she says, the smile
dropping from her face. "You can ask, but I'm not going to talk
about it." After more prodding, she sighs and says: "Look, things
happen. There are no guarantees in life. Dickson's happy and has a
great family life. I'm happy and I have a good career. Life
continues. What's most important is that we're still good friends."
Soon after the divorce, Poon dissolved his film company. He has
since remarried and has two children. Yeoh remains single.
For her fans, the good news was that their action heroine was
available to make movies again. Police Story III: Super Cop (1992)
was her comeback film -- and it showed that shopping had not blunted
her courage. In perhaps her most famous stunt ever, she rode a
motorcycle off a steep hill onto the roof of a speeding train. "I
must have been crazy," she now says. In 1993, Yeoh made no fewer
than five films. In 1994, three.
In 1996, she joined up with Hui to make Ah Kam, an otherwise
inconsequential drama rendered notable by the fact that it nearly
cost Yeoh her life. She jumped 15 meters off a freeway overpass but
missed a pile of boxes that were meant to soften her fall. "I heard
a 'snap!'" she says. "It was my back." Hemnell says: "She had
basically folded in half backwards. If she hadn't been as flexible
as she was, she would probably have been maimed or killed." Yeoh
suffered deep-tissue bruising but no broken bones. She was in
convalescence for three months.
"When I went into the hospital to see Michelle, she was in a neck
brace," says Hui. "She said, 'I'm too old. I slipped. It was
inconvenient for all of you. It was all my fault. I ruined your
shot.'" The hard-boiled Hui says she burst into tears by Yeoh's
bedside. "Nothing was worth having her injured like that," she says.
A year on, Yeoh's trailer on the London set of Tomorrow Never Dies
is a study in minimalism. There is scarcely a trace of her presence,
save for rows of cards the crew gave her at a surprise birthday
party (most are addressed to "Princess Michelle") and the ever-
running air conditioning, which keeps the temperature on the brink
of Arctic. The refrigerator has only two half-eaten Swiss chocolate
bars in it. The closets are bare.
It seems as though Yeoh is uneasy about showing off her new status.
Or maybe she is traveling light, the better to make a swift exit
back to Hong Kong. She has a home on the Peak, a fabulously
expensive area set above the rest of the city. She calls it her
sanctuary -- "a simple place where I can kick off my shoes and
relax." Her ever-revolving roster of guests lounge on plush,
oversized throw pillows scattered on the living-room floor. Yeoh now
sleeps on a low platform because it is better for her back. The view
from her windows is over lush hills and out to distant islands.
At night, the wing chun star jumps into her Mitsubishi four-wheel-
drive to scoot around town to see her close-knit circle of friends,
made up mainly of the offspring of prominent Hong Kong families.
Pansy Ho, daughter of Macau casino king Stanley Ho, is among
them. "There are seven of us," says Yeoh. "We're called the Seven
Yeoh also has close friends in show business, such as Maggie Cheung
and Anita Mui, her co-stars in 1992's The Heroic Trio. But it is her
buddies outside the film world who, as she puts it, "keep me on the
ground." She has nicknamed socialite Pearl Lam her "mother." But her
closest friend is Margie Yang, Dickson Poon's first wife. "She's
more like my sister," says Yeoh, who is also the godmother of Yang
and Poon's daughter, Dee Dee. "If anything happened in the middle of
the night, Margie is the first person I would call." Yeoh doesn't
think it strange that she and Yang are so close. "She's one of the
best human beings around. That's not so easy to come by nowadays."
Nor are roles in James Bond movies. But Yeoh achieved that. So does
this mean goodbye Hong Kong Kong, hello Hollywood? Her manager,
Terence Chang, says: "Michelle has generated an incredible amount of
heat. As a result, she's been offered a lot of stuff." One project,
he says, was a remake of John Woo's classic The Killer, about the
relationship between a hired assassin and a cop, with Yeoh playing
the police officer. "I like the dimension of the pair being a guy
and a girl," says Chang, "but there would be no point in changing
the role to a woman if Michelle were not in it."
Chang says he would prefer Yeoh to take on a more modest film for
her next American project. No fight sequences, no stunts and, of
course, no megastar salary. "Michelle's also a very good dramatic
actress," he says. "We want that to become known." Yeoh seems
unconvinced about Hollywood. "Sometimes, being a girl away from
home -- it gets to you," she says. "While all this has been great,
I'm in no hurry to leave Hong Kong." Somewhere off the set, an
American stuntwoman sighs with relief.
Michelle Yeoh is no overnight superstar. She has spent 13 years
learning her trade, sometimes at a rate of several movies a year.
She would probably prefer not to have made some of them. Her story
1984 Owl vs. Dumbo. Director: Samo Hung. With Hung and George Lam.
1985 Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars. Dir: Samo Hung. A cameo appearance
by Yeoh. With Hung, Jackie Chan and a young Andy Lau. Not very funny
1985 Yes Madam! Dir: Corey Huen Kwai. With Cynthia Rothrock, Tsui
Hark and Anthony Wong. Light plot, great action
1986 In the Line of Duty. Dir: David Chung. With Henry Sanada and
Michael Wong. Remarkable fight scenes, with a truly tough-looking
1987 Easy Money. Dir: Stephen Shin. With George Lam and Kent Cheng.
Yeoh in a non-combat role.
1987 Magnificent Warriors. Dir: David Chung. With Richard Ng, Matsui
Tetsuya and Derek Yee.
1992 Police Story III: Super Cop. Dir: Stanley Tong. With Jackie
Chan, Yuen Wah and Maggie Cheung. Yeoh's comeback, fabled for its
stunts, including her landing a motorcycle on a moving train.
1992 The Heroic Trio. Dir: Johnny To. With Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui
and Anthony Wong. Outrageously campy stuff. Great fun.
1993 Butterfly & Sword. Dir: Michael Mak. With Tony Leung, Donnie
Yen. Includes a celebrated scene where Yeoh uses a scarf as a bow to
fire a man like an arrow.
1993 Executioners. Dir: Johnny To. With Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui.
An exceptionally ridiculous plot.
1993 Holy Weapon. Dir: Wong Jing. With Maggie Cheung, Cheung Man and
DoDo Cheng. Perhaps the worst Hong Kong movie ever made.
1993 Once a Cop. Dir: Stanley Tong. With Yu Rongguang and Athena Chu
yun. Non-stop action with a cameo appearance by Jackie Chan in drag.
1993 Tai Chi Master. Dir: Yuen Woo-ping. With Jet Li and Chen Siu-
ho. Includes a legendary few-against-many fight scene.
1994 Wing Chun. Dir: Yuen Woo-ping. With Donnie Yen, Waise Lee.
Charming kung fu comedy/romance, with Yeoh often cross-dressing.
1994 Wonder Seven. Dir: Ching Siu-tung. With Li Ning, Kent Cheng and
Andy Hui. Mixed reviews, shading toward the favorable.
1994 Shaolin Popey II: Messy Temple. Dir: Chu Yin-ping. With Sik Siu-
lung and Kok Siu-man. Yeoh makes a cameo appearance.
1996 Ah Kam. Dir: Ann Hui. With Samo Hung and Jimmy Wong. Yeoh was
badly hurt in a stunt that went wrong. Otherwise an unmemorable
1997 The Soong Sisters. Dir: Mabel Cheung. With Maggie Cheung and
Vivian Wu. The story of the rise of three sisters in republican
China. Not a satisfactory vehicle for Yeoh.