Crazy Rich Asians: Michelle Yeoh on how 1980s Hong Kong parties prepared her for role of socialite and glamorous matriarch in film
Malaysian actress can’t wait to see how her friends in Asia react to the film of Kevin Kwan’s novel about Asian high society, and says she worked hard to make her character relatable in a film that’s ‘very representative of who we are’
Michelle Yeoh instantly recognised the material in Crazy Rich Asians without having to turn a single page of the 2013 bestseller.
“I lived in Hong Kong in the heyday of the 1980s, with all those galas and parties and charity organisations,” she tells the Post. “I’ve seen this world and I understand it. So I thought, ‘what’s so unusual?’”
Fast forward a few years, and Yeoh found herself stepping seamlessly into the role of formidable Singaporean-Chinese matriarch and socialite supremo Eleanor Young in the film version of the book, which opens internationally this month.
Her character, never a hair out of place, resplendent in Carolina Herrera and Giorgio Armani, is aghast when her only son, the eminently eligible and dreamy Nick (Henry Golding), brings home Rachel (Constance Wu), an American Chinese girl who, frankly, just isn’t well-born enough.
Yeoh says she could relate; she has friends who never quite approved of their sons’ matrimonial choices. But still, she strove to make her character relatable, and to have the audience understand her choices.
“When I Skyped with [director] Jon Chu, I told him that I didn’t intend Eleanor to be the villain because she’s the mother who refuses to accept her son’s choices,” Yeoh recalls.
“We needed to show all the reasons behind that – you’re the heir, the first born, someone groomed to take over an empire, and this empire is not just about wealth, it’s about responsibility. It’s not just about your family. It’s about all the families who work for you.”
The actress was relaxed and chatty when we met for this interview in Beverly Hills. Wearing a crisp white shirt and slender jeans, she was optimistic about the global appeal – and limitless potential – of a movie with an all-Asian cast that is set in a glossy, sophisticated, and altogether realistic universe.
“We don’t have these contemporary all-Asian movies,” she says. “And it’s not just a diversity movie. It’s very representative of who we are, that we do more than martial arts films. Somehow, it’s always been more acceptable to see Asian actors running around in an action film.”
Yeoh understands the irony. The Malaysian-born actress shot to fame on the back of action movies, having starred in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and Ang Lee’s award-winning wuxia classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
Still, with Crazy Rich Asians, she’s hoping to convey something altogether different to global audiences: that “it’s important for us to be strong, unapologetic and very vocal in saying, ‘Accept us, embrace us.’”
Given her status as one of the leading actresses of Asian descent on the international stage, Yeoh concedes that she took a conscious decision “to be at the forefront” of the movement for diversity.
“I always say I’m so blessed, that I don’t have to do [a job] just to do it. I choose what I want to do, and I see now that at least we are not stereotyped as much and forced to take a job even though we don’t agree with it. The doors are opening,” she says.
“But I wish they’d opened sooner so that there’s more Asian talent being seen. Now, we see an influx of Asian actors clamouring for one small role. When did we become a minority? We need to see more directors who are interested in making Asian stories. It took so long to get here – but at least we’re here.”
For now, though, Yeoh is just curious to see how her Asian friends relate to Crazy Rich Asians. As she insists, she really wanted to ensure director Chu understood the subtle nuances of social mores that underpin high society in Asia.
“The book is funny, but it’s like fab-fab-fab. We need balance. Sure, people are very rich in Hong Kong, but they are also well-educated and eloquent. I need to go back to Hong Kong and not have people say to me, ‘What were you thinking?’”
Crazy Rich Asians opens on August 15 in the US, and on August 23 in Hong Kong
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