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Oscar-winning actor Michelle Yeoh wants to change the way we think of superheroes

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. It was no surprise but still a spectacular showing when the film "Everything Everywhere All At Once" swept the Academy Awards. It won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director and best actress for Michelle Yeoh, our guest today. She was the first Asian performer to win that award. But Michelle Yeoh has been a movie star for decades. Appearing in Hong Kong action films since the 1980s, she was widely praised for her work in the 2000 film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Her other movies include the Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "Crazy Rich Asians." Michelle Yeoh spoke last year to FRESH AIR guest interviewer Tonya Mosley. Here's Tonya.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TONYA MOSLEY: When Michelle Yeoh read the script for "Everything Everywhere All At Once," she gave a big sigh of relief and said, finally, a project that would allow her to be the lead and show everyone what she was capable of - playing a multidimensional character who could be sad, real and funny. "Everything Everywhere All At Once" follows Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American immigrant mother who made a decision decades ago to leave her parents behind and follow her boyfriend to America.

Years later, Evelyn is living out the underwhelming consequences of that decision until she is presented with alternate versions of her life, from the glamorous life of an actress to a martial arts expert and an even wackier alternate path where people have hot dogs for fingers. Michelle Yeoh embodies Evelyn through this multiverse while telling the story of a woman contending with her own life choices.

Michelle Yeoh, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

MICHELLE YEOH: Hello, Tonya. Thank you for having me today.

MOSLEY: You know, Michelle, people love this film, but it's also kind of difficult to describe what it's about. How do you do it?

YEOH: (Laughter) You're right. It is very difficult. It's like five genres of - you know, in one movie. It's science fiction. It's comedy. It's drama. It's action. It's a little horror. But I think the core of the story, it's about a mother and daughter. Through all the multi-universes (ph), they are searching for each other because what we can't do is give up on each other and give up on family.

MOSLEY: You know, I was struck by the introduction of your character. She was so beaten down, juggling so many things. There are piles of paperwork everywhere in the back office of the laundromat she runs with her husband. There's a leak in the ceiling - and this far-off look in her eyes of someone who has just too much to handle all at once. And I'll tell you, for me, it reminded me of the weight that we all carry - the laundry list...

YEOH: Correct.

MOSLEY: ...The weight specifically that women carry.

YEOH: You have a great insight into the film. That's exactly what it was. I think the Daniels did a wonderful job of writing about this very ordinary housewife, Asian immigrant woman - came here to look for the American dream, to hope, to find and be successful and have a good life not just for herself and her husband, but for her family and, in this case, her daughter.

But I think one of the most important thing for me as an actor was this ordinary housewife needed her own voice. You know, she's the woman that you pass by when you go to Chinatown or in the supermarket. It could be any immigrant woman who has just got the laundry list, as you've put it, and, you know, bent on the weight of everything, the responsibility all on her shoulder. That's why she walks - she walks bent over a little, hunched back, because she is carrying a lot of weight. And, you know, she - because of the nature of her job, her spine is a little bit bent because - you know, of dragging heavy laundry constantly. So I felt that it was so important for someone like that to be given a voice and then to be shown that she is actually a superheroine.

MOSLEY: You know, it's been reported that, originally, Jackie Chan was supposed to play the lead in this film. And it's hard to imagine, but you were going to be his wife?

YEOH: (Laughter) I think it's a common thing to do. You know, when they think superhero, someone who does that, it's always the guys. They seem to be, like, always first in line for it. So that's why when I received the script, I - it was such a overwhelming sense of relief. It was like, yes, finally, why is it we - all the women cannot be the superhero, you know? It just didn't make sense.

And I think the Daniels being the Daniels, they looked at it. I think they pursued it for a bit. And then they realized, we're telling the same old story if it was really Jackie Chan and myself as playing the husband and wife and he is the one who goes on the multiverse thing. But I think the good news was they turn around, and they say, let's start again. Let's do this. And - because the Daniels are surrounded by very, very strong women. So I think they took great pleasure. And I think it's an homage to all the strong women who are around them. And they made themselves as the villains, as antagonists in this story, which I thought was really, really delightful.

MOSLEY: And in the film, your daughter, who is played by Stephanie Hsu, is looking, as we said, for a mother that she can connect with in every universe. And your character, Evelyn, doesn't really want to repeat the alienation she felt from her parents growing up. But even still, she's doing that. There is this scene where your daughter is leaving the laundromat, and you want to give her one piece of parting advice. Can you describe to us what you were saying to her and ultimately how she interpreted it?

YEOH: You know, this was the - I think a lot of immigrant parents, the first generation - when they come here, they have to make a conscious choice for the next generation. It's like, do we hold on very firmly to all our cultural, our language and everything, and we stick to a - you know, like, a group of immigrants as well? Or do we make them or help them blend in so that they will be able to fit in better? So it - I think it's a very, very hard choice.

And I think it's not just the first-generation immigrants. I think parents, even today, from different cultures face the same thing. It's like, you know, if we want them to fit in better, maybe they can - they should just speak English. But then, it's a shame if they don't speak their own language, which is what you find with Joy in "Everything Everywhere All At Once," is, like, she has morphed into a true American - ABC, American-born Chinese, in that sense. So she doesn't really speak the language. And the worst thing is, like, we find that a lot of Asian parents, especially the older generation, they don't really give - they are more critical in the sense that the feeling is, if I tell you, you are great in everything, then you will walk away thinking you don't need to learn anymore because I'm already so great.

So they always say - like, in this scene that you're describing, she wants to talk to her daughter. She wants her to understand that, you know, she accepts the fact that she is gay. She has a white girlfriend. But it's impossible to communicate that to her father from a previous generation because in his eyes, Evelyn would have been a total failure. As she is a failure as a daughter, now she is a failure as a mother because she can't even teach her daughter to be proper. So there is so much confusion and so much emotional contradiction that Evelyn is facing.

The first words that come out from her mouth is, like, you are getting fat. It's another criticism, you know? But it's a very common thing that we say to our children. Instead of, oh, you're looking so beautiful today, they'll say, oh, I think you need a haircut. Or, you know, maybe you need to go to the gym. You need to drop some pounds. So - but the first thing they always give them is food because that is the way they show how much they love them, how much they care for them. The best food is always reserved for them. So what it shows here very clearly is how the misunderstandings occur. And the worst - they don't know how to communicate. That chasm gets bigger and bigger until to the point where everything that comes out from the mouth seems to be hurtful. It's like a dig. It's like - it's almost like Joy feels, I'm hurting so much. When I say things to you, I want you to feel that hurt, so I'm going to reply with a very hurtful answer. And that for her is one of the easiest solution, which is not a solution at all.

MOSLEY: I'm thinking about your physicality. And I actually read somewhere that your early films didn't even have scripts - so no dialogue at all.

YEOH: Yes, this was the old days in Hong Kong and the '80s. I mean, they made movies so quickly. They had a very simple formula if it was an action movie, a comedy. And they churned them out in, like, weeks. I mean, we would be filming on Monday. The movie would be out by Friday midnight. And that was how they worked. They worked fast. And the other good thing was nobody really knew my voice at the beginning of my career because they had someone dub it 'cause, you know...

MOSLEY: Right.

YEOH: ...We didn't record - we didn't have synced sound at that time. So to make it to be able to be so quick, it's like, sometimes, we would go on the scene and go, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, you know, and look in different directions (laughter). This is terrible. I shouldn't be telling all these stories. But at that point, that was...

MOSLEY: No, we love to know the secrets.

YEOH: (Laughter). That was the craziness of the glory days and the old style of Hong Kong filmmaking. But there were the exceptions. I mean, there were amazing scripts that were still being shot. Then we had some of ours where we had no scripts. You know, it was just the writer or director writing it as we were filming.

MOSLEY: Wow. It sounds like things were moving so fast.

YEOH: (Laughter). But it was the same for the action sequences. We don't have rehearsal time, so we would get all dressed up. We would go to the set, and our stunt coordinators and stunt guys would be choreographing it 'cause they arrive that day, and they choreograph what they are given with - they look at the set, and they will decide what will happen on the spot. And then we will learn it and shoot it. So, you know, we - there was never any rehearsals.

And I remember the first the first time when I was doing "Tomorrow Never Dies" in 1997. I love her to death - Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, my producers, said, well, you know, we would love to see how you - the Hong Kong style of martial arts in a Bond movie. So she hired a team of us, a team of them who I had worked with and brought them over from Hong Kong. But prior to that, they actually sent a mock-up of the whole stage. And I can - I will never forget the wonder of those boys when they looked at it, and they go like, this is a mock-up of - 'cause they never have that that privilege or luxury. They normally get to a real set and then find out, what are the things that they have to do?

So when they finally arrived in London and we were shooting, you know - we start at 6. We're on for hair and makeup and all that. And someone came to me and said, what happened to your stunt team? They're all sitting in the green room. And so I went over and say, hey, guys. You're giving us a bad name. All of you are supposed to be in on the set. Then they turned around. The head stunt coordinator turned to me, and he said, we already have five different versions, and we have already recorded it. So we're waiting to show the director what - which is the one that he's more favored to. So they work at such a speed because in a sense, they are forced to. They have been trained to do that.

DAVIES: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer, Tanya Mosley, recorded with actor Michelle Yeoh, who walked away with a best actress Oscar for her role in the film "Everything Everywhere All At Once." We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SON LUX'S "CLAIR DE LUNE (PIED AU PIANO)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Michelle Yeoh, who stars in the film that swept the Oscars, "Everything Everywhere All At Once." Michelle Yeoh received one of those Oscars for best actress. Yeoh's other films include Hong Kong action films like "Supercop," the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Crazy Rich Asians." She spoke with our guest interviewer, Tanya Mosley.

MOSLEY: Michelle Yeoh, what was the event that turned you into an action star?

YEOH: My first movie, I played a social worker. And we were bullied by, you know, the juvenile delinquents who took great pleasure in teasing us and giving us a hard time. And then the guys who were the martial arts expert were the ones who would rescue us constantly. So when I watched them, I went to my producers, and I say, you know what? I would love to be able to try to do martial arts. They looked at me and thought I was insane. Then they thought, well, you know, she's a foreign girl. She must be insane. (Laughter). But then they thought, well, what do we have to lose?

So - but they did a very good - they packaged me with, you know, the top comedians so that at least if I fail badly, the movie would still have a chance to be successful because the comedians were very well-known in Hong Kong. So I think the only thing I said was like, if I fight, I have to fight. Like, you cannot differentiate it's a girl fighting or a boy fighting. She's fighting for the reason of - and so they made me a cop, a detective. So when she would be faced with dangerous situations, there was a good reason for her to be showing these kind of skills.

So I went into training, like, with these - the stunt boys and all that. And I think they were very curious to see this young girl who wanted to play in their sandbox. And I was very fortunate. They were very agreeable to it. So - and I had some of the best instructors, who taught me how to protect myself. And - but then you did learn that they took the blows. I mean, they didn't - they - you know, people like Jackie and Jet and Sammo and Yuen Biao - all the top action stars, they did not get it handed it to them on a silver platter. And so I remember thinking, if I want to join this boys club, you better be able to take the blows as well.

MOSLEY: Right.

YEOH: So yeah. And - but it took a little bit of - you know, I had to persuade them. I had to demonstrate to them that I was - I deserved to be there. I think that's the most important thing, is that, you know, we fight for gender equality. We fight for all these kind of things. And when we are given the opportunity to be able to do it, we must be able to prove our worth. I think that's the simple message.

MOSLEY: Is that your motivation? - because you've done a lot of action films, and you've done some really difficult stunts. You're talking about Jackie Chan being physical and taking those blows. But you - I mean, riding motorcycles onto trains, falling off a train, landing on a car - you really put your body in danger.

YEOH: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: What is so appealing about that kind of work - the challenge, pushing yourself, getting your body to do it?

YEOH: All of the above and plus a bit of insanity going on, you know? I think at that time, it was, like, the most incredible adrenaline rush and because it's a physical challenge and the mental challenge that you overcome after, thank God, the stunt is successful.

And I remember - the very first stunt that I did in my first action film - and I will never forget that one because even Quentin Tarantino can, frame for frame, tell you how it was done. I was - I'm on the second floor, sitting on a railing, and two guys, like, swipe my head with their swords. So I - hanging on the balcony, on the railing, I bend backwards, go through a pane of glass and drag these two guys down onto the first floor in one take. And at that point, the - I didn't know how to think of the danger, the repercussion, if things did not go right 'cause I only knew how to focus on how to get the stunt done properly. I was probably too fearless for my own good, plus the fact that, you know, physically and mentally, I was so fit. So that egged me on because I did feel that I had a lot of things to prove to stay in this - what was the boys club, and to constantly demonstrate that I deserved to be there.

MOSLEY: You keep a diary. What does that look like - a diary of each of your characters?

YEOH: Oh, so I write, like, what Evelyn would need to do, like a list of her shopping or what she needs, like the painting that they'll - so I write it all out so that I have a reference because once - for me, the more prepped I am, then when I walk onto the set, the Daniels or any director can throw new, you know, curveballs at me, the actor, and I would be able to respond.

MOSLEY: You know, there's one element of the film, though - there's a separation, OK? So the name initially was Michelle. And you said, no, we have to change it to something else. They changed the character to Evelyn. But there is one of the - in one of the multiverses, we see that Evelyn is...

YEOH: Where she was a movie star (laughter).

MOSLEY: Yes, she...

YEOH: Yes.

MOSLEY: And the film uses footage of you at premieres in real life. It's really trippy.

YEOH: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: What purpose do you think this particular storyline actually serves in the movie?

YEOH: No, when I said to them, oh, you have to take away the name Michelle, they're like, but, no, you know? It was so cool 'cause in one of the multiverse, she jumps into a place where she doesn't go off with Waymond, and she becomes, like, this movie star. But she's chained to this. She doesn't have a husband in this universe. She doesn't have a daughter in this universe. And in - and they already planned using, you know, excerpts from real life, red carpets and things like that. And we were very lucky that, you know, we were given the permission to do that. It's just to show Evelyn Wang, yes, if you had that, what you would have is fame. You would have a lot of flashbulbs, like, flashing in front of you. But you don't have a life, which is very different from Michelle Yeoh. Michelle Yeoh, the movie actress, has a very full family life.

MOSLEY: Michelle Yeoh, thank you so much.

YEOH: Thank you, Tonya. I've really enjoyed speaking to you and listening to you, actually (laughter).

DAVIES: Michelle Yeoh, the winner of the best actress Academy Award, spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley. Tonya is also the host of the podcast "Truth Be Told," which has a new season coming in April, exploring advances in the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD due to racial trauma. Coming up, Terry's interview with Adam Sandler. He'll be receiving the Mark Twain Award for American humor, joining past recipients, including Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Lily Tomlin and Jon Stewart. And FRESH AIR television critic David Bianculli will review "Lucky Hank," the new miniseries starring Bob Odenkirk based on Richard Russo's novel "Straight Man." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "ON SONNY'S SIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.