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From left, Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in a scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once. Yeoh talks about finally feeling cool and funny to the teens of today. Photo: AP

Michelle Yeoh on the role Jackie Chan turned down in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and how it’s finally made her cool with the kids

  • Michelle Yeoh, star of Golden Globes-nominated Everything Everywhere All at Once, reveals how, after 40 years of making films, she finally feels cool
  • She reveals what she messaged Jackie Chan after he turned down the lead role in the comedy-drama, and why she likes to say sorry – and thank you – to her body

Michelle Yeoh was having a flashback. Not one of the acid variety, but it was pretty intense all the same.

She was seated in the middle of the Paramount Theatre in Austin in the US state of Texas, in March for the premiere of Everything Everywhere All at Once, nerves frayed, worried about how people would react to her performance. Well, “performances”, since Yeoh plays half a dozen characters in the movie. Would the audience laugh in the right spots? Would they find her funny?

Sitting there, Yeoh thought back to the midnight premiere of her first headlining movie, Corey Yuen’s 1985 Hong Kong action classic Yes, Madam!, where she was perched in the balcony tier, peeking over the railing to see how the film-goers seated below her – the ones given to sharing their feelings very vocally – would react.

Braced for boos, she was instead ecstatic when the audience erupted into cheers.

Yeoh (right) and Cynthia Rothrock in a still from 1985 Hong Kong film Yes, Madam!. Photo: A24

“Forty years, man!” Yeoh says, letting out a big laugh, thinking about how long she has been making movies – and worrying about what people think when she tries something that is outside her comfort zone.

In Everything Everywhere All at Once, she plays Evelyn, a stressed-out laundromat owner trying to save an imperilled multiverse and heal a frayed relationship with her daughter.

Yeoh calls it a role she has been rehearsing to play all her life.

As it was the first time she has been allowed to be goofy on screen – a quality that comes naturally to her in real life, she says – she did not know if audiences would buy into the act.

“When I was at that premiere and I heard that first laugh, I was like, ‘Omigod, omigod, omigod, they actually think I’m funny’,” says Yeoh.

Michelle Yeoh named ‘Icon of the Year 2022’ by Time magazine

Perhaps the only thing better than Michelle Yeoh performing martial arts in films like Wing Chun, The Heroic Trio and, of course, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is hearing Yeoh describe her moves in those movies with pow-pow-pow punctuations.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was celebrated at the Telluride Film Festival in the US this year, as part of a salute to Sony Pictures Classics’ 30th anniversary.

There was an outdoor screening in the mountain resort town of Telluride and, after introducing it, Yeoh went to dinner and then circled back to watch the ending.

“She brought a quiet dignity to that movie – along with all those great fight scenes,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. “That was such a star performance.”

Yeoh in a still from Everything Everywhere All at Once. Photo: A24
But Yeoh would not be No 1 on the call sheet again until Everything Everywhere All at Once, and that might not even have happened had Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan accepted the invitation from co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to star in the movie.
After Chan passed, the Daniels rethought the project, flipping the genders and offering Yeoh the lead and bringing in Ke Huy Quan to play Evelyn’s husband. Yeoh later sent her old friend and Supercop co-star Chan a text, saying: “Your loss, my bro!”

“You know, you get to be my age,” the Malaysian-born Yeoh, 60, says, “and you can see it literally slipping through your fingers, because you are no longer that prime age. The worst is when people think, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like she did in her 20s, so she can’t physically do the same things.’

“What they don’t understand is that I’ve learned some things over the years, and I’m more clever and smarter in how I can sustain my stamina. I’m as fit as I was before, because I know how to look after myself much better than when I was younger.”

Yeoh at the opening night premiere of Everything Everywhere All at Once in Texas in March, 2022. Photo: Getty Images

Yeoh pauses and then says: “You know, older women can still have these crazy adventures!” laughing and letting out a whoop. “If people learn nothing else from this movie, I hope it’s that!”

It is hard to see Yeoh as a retired person. She loves to eat and has been haunting Sichuan and Cantonese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley while filming projects in LA in recent months, and, as she says more than once, “I love my wines.” So how does she stay so fit?

“Before I even get out of bed, I start meditating and I do my mantra,” Yeoh says. “I wake my body up slowly. I’ve had injuries over the years, so I have to rectify them.”

Yeoh in a still from Everything Everywhere All at Once. Photo: A24

Can you talk to your injuries and actually heal them?

“It starts from within,” she says. “I tell my body, ‘I’m sorry. Forgive me of all the things I’ve done to you. And thank you.’” After that, Yeoh moves to stretching, then core exercises and a hike (Runyon Canyon is a favourite spot) if possible. If not, she is on the elliptical machine. I tell her I hate elliptical machines.

“You’re like Jean,” she says, referring to her long-time partner, Jean Todt, the recently retired French motor racing executive. “You have to get past the first five minutes, and then the adrenaline kicks in and you get into a groove,” says the actress.

Yeoh in a still from Everything Everywhere All at Once. Photo: A24

Yeoh and Todt have been together since 2004 and engaged for almost as long. This was supposed to be the year they were going to make it official. But procuring the paperwork has been time-consuming – Todt is a Swiss resident, so blame Switzerland for the exacting requirements.

Now they are aiming for a wedding next year in Geneva. Probably. Yeoh holds up her hand, crossing her fingers.

Is it important to her? “A piece of paper doesn’t change it for me,” Yeoh answers. “But it means a lot to Jean, so it means a lot to me.”

Yeoh is now up for best actress in the musical or comedy category at the 80th Golden Globe Awards for Everything Everywhere All at Once, and an Oscar nomination would appear to be on the cards too. She is definitely down with that, though she is more enthusiastic when talking about what making the movie did for her craft as an actor.

‘I’m versatile’: how Michelle Yeoh became a martial arts movie star

“I learned not to judge myself,” Yeoh says. She begins to expand on the thought and then reverses and puts it in simple terms. “I learned to say, ‘What the heck.’”

“I have stage fright,” she continues. “I don’t do improv. I don’t know how to make up lines. And I would say to the Daniels, ‘That’s your job. You just tell me what to say.’

“And then they’d say, ‘OK, say this … but say it in six different ways.’ And they’d want me to max out on the comedic side. ‘How do I do that?’ I’m freaking out. But I just trusted my instincts and went with it.”

Yeoh in a still from Everything Everywhere All at Once. Photo: A24

Scheinert says Yeoh kept any jitters hidden while making the movie. What he wants to talk about is how nervous he and Kwan were when meeting her for the first time, wondering if she would be game for sporting floppy hot dog fingers or misremembering a Pixar classic as “Raccacoonie”.

“We sometimes ask collaborators if there’s something they watched recently that they really liked,” Scheinert says. “And Michelle answered, ‘I just saw Deadpool 2. I thought it was hilarious.’ We took that as a good sign that she’d go hard.”

“Oh, she would tease us like the way an auntie would tease her nephews,” Scheinert adds. “She’d be like, Oh, my God, you boys are crazy! What are you making me do?’ But then she’d just do it and she’d kill it.”

Yeoh at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in December, 2022 in California. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

Now Yeoh cannot run an errand these days without bumping into a young fan who wants to tell her how much they enjoyed all the crazy gags in Everything Everywhere as well as its message that maybe, just maybe, life is worth living and parents and children can – sometimes – get along.

“Teenagers will come up to me at the supermarket and say, ‘You’re cool! Can we have a picture with you?’” Yeoh says.

“Outwardly, I’ll smile and say, ‘Of course!’ But inwardly, I’m pumping my fist, screaming, ‘Yes! Finally! I’m cool!’”