Thanks to memorable roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha and Tomorrow Never Dies, Michelle Yeoh has established herself as a formidable force in Hollywood. With a habit of doing her own on-screen stunts and a beauty-queen past, she has a blockbuster pedigree. But in 2008, she began to chase a role that was unlike anything she’d played before—the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese leader who had been leading a non-violent revolution to bring democracy to Burma. Suu Kyi had been under house arrest in Yangon since 1988.
The biopic film, titled The Lady, became a passion project for Yeoh. With her husband, she convinced Luc Besson, best known for The Fifth Element, to direct. She devoted herself to significant language studies and physical training to transform into Suu Kyi. Yeoh opened up about her experience on- and off-set before the film’s U.S. release on April 11.
In the film, The Lady, you play Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democratic revolutionary. What did you want to portray such a significant historical figure?
I think most of all, as an Asian woman, I was particularly proud of her and considered her to be a role model. In this day and age we all need to know someone that will be our hero.
There was a bit of serendipity in your landing the part.
I read a newspaper article about writers working on a script about Daw Suu [“Daw” is a Burmese honorific] and I called my agent in Los Angeles and begged her to find them. Fortunately the writers were also looking for me. Before I went to meet them, I studied her life. In the last 15 years or so, since she’d been under house arrest, I had forgotten a lot about her and I needed to be reminded. It’s not just the story of her life, it was about a husband who believed so strongly in his wife and a couple that put the needs of others in front of their own.
[French director] Luc Besson is a great friend of my husband, Jean Todt. Jean could see how extremely passionate I was about the project, and gave Luc the whole story. There were so many difficult things about the film. How do you tell the story of someone who’s so very much alive, but so very much under house arrest? We couldn’t get letters to her. Her own son, Kim, hadn’t seen her in 10 years. There were also technical things. One of our biggest worries was that we would cause harm. But, Luc read the script and he said, ‘I cried.’ He was in love.
We all agreed that we would create the film and hold on to her belief: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” She’s very shy. I’m sure she’d rather the movie was not focused on her.
How did you prepare for the part?
I switched on into Daw Suu mode for six or seven months. I did an hour and a half of cardio every morning. She’s always been a very slender woman; I had to lose eight kilograms and trained like a marathon runner. Then I sat down with an English tutor for an hour and a half, then a Burmese tutor. I ended the day with another two hours of cardiovascular exercise.
I needed that time. It was very good training. You have to have such clarity and discipline. Your commitment becomes easier as the days pass. I think she will always be a big hero of mine. In filming The Lady, I learned how to be a better person.
I had 300 hours of footage of her from her campaigning. I watched how she matured from ‘88 to ’93, and I picked up her nuances. The sad part was that we didn’t have any home video, but there was enough to give me an idea of who she was as a person. She’s very down to earth. She has a very calming effect.
When I watch myself on-screen I always look for the flaws. I will admit this is one of the few films where I don’t see me. I see Daw Suu. I see her story. I know that I gave the very best I could. It was a little daunting. I felt a great sense of responsibility and sometimes I felt that weight. But this is a true labor of love.
Had any of the people involved in the film witnessed the events first-hand?
Luc was very brave. He went to the northern part of Thailand and brought 30 [Burmese] refugees to be actors in the film. There’s one character in the film [who plays one of her captors]. He’s not an actor; he’s a refugee and he’s a carpenter. The stories were so amazing. We’d ask them if they remembered the Burmese junta they’d say, “Yeah, they killed half my family.”
I’ve done my fair share of action films. Normally, everything’s very choreographed. But in some scenes, Luc just had to give very simple directions and [the refugee actors] would work out the details. Luc wanted to record the Shwedagon Pagoda speech in one take. But after a take he said we had to do again because one of the actors playing a [National League for Democracy] member on the stage was crying. We asked him what was wrong. He said that he was in the crowd in 1988 and was standing in front of Daw Suu and now he was there again standing behind her.
You met Suu Kyi in 2010. Tell me about that experience.
When I got to her study, she just opened up her arms and gave me a hug. She’s such an elegant, eloquent lady. At that point, she had been released for less than three weeks and she wanted to learn from me what was going on with us. She hadn’t been out of Burma since 1988. It was so delightful to be in her company. The one thing we didn’t talk about was the film.
Is it true that you were deported from Burma last summer? Was your role in the film the cause?
When I got to immigration, [the officer] sort of looked at my passport. And then in the end, they couldn’t let me in. They were very apologetic and said the cause was immigration. I was so disappointed. They always have the right to turn you away. Later I was told that I was supposed to be on a black list. I think the government was trying to figure out what their path was. At the time, Daw Suu’s party was not yet reregistered and it was not clear what she could or couldn’t do. They were going through a transition. I have been told that there is not black list right now.
Since the film was completed, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and elected to Parliament.
As a joke we’ve been saying that she’s been doing great publicity for us. We just believed that it was just an incredible story that needed to be told. It does give real people an understanding of who this woman is—people who may have seen her face but don’t know her story.