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Sat April 28, 2012
Movie Interviews

Michelle Yeoh: Portraying An Icon In 'The Lady'

Originally published on Sat April 28, 2012 11:22 am

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at a recent film premiere that she'd told Aung San Suu Kyi that she was moving from being an icon to being a politician.

The film Clinton saw is The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh as the pro-democracy activist who spent 15 years under house arrest in Myanmar (also known as Burma), and who won the Nobel Peace Prize before being freed in 2010.

Earlier this month, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won scores of seats in Burma's new parliament, and in the summer Suu Kyi will reportedly travel overseas for the first time in 24 years — and be able to see her sons and grandchildren.

Yeoh, who brought the script to the attention of Lady director Luc Besson, says she approached playing Suu Kyi "with great love and care."

"That was the only way, because she's a big hero of mine," Yeoh tells Weekend Edition's Scott Simon. "But it wasn't just about her. It was also a great story about love between a couple, strength between family."

And in fact much of the movie focuses on the relationship between Suu Kyi and her late husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford academic. While the story of Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy inspires many, the film shows it came with great personal sacrifice and some painful chapters for Suu Kyi and her family.

"It was very important to us as filmmakers to show you that there is a real couple," Yeoh says. "She's a woman, she's a mother, she's a wife, and there's a real family that was involved in all this. ... How they put continuously the needs of others, always the needs of others, before their own ... that was a worthwhile emotion to learn from. Perhaps if we can be inspired by them, maybe things would be a little bit different."

Embodying Aung San Suu Kyi

Yeoh, who made a name for herself by performing her own stunts in martial arts movies, acknowledges that it's mildly ironic that she's now playing a symbol of nonviolent resistance. At the same time, she says that "as an actor, that's what you do: You continue to surprise your audiences.

"I hope ... the audience, when they see it, they aren't going to go, 'Come on, Michelle! Jump over the table and kick their ass!' " she laughs. "I hope after a few minutes they do not see me anymore."

Yeoh prepared for her role with reams of research done by Lady screenwriter Rebecca Frayn, plus about 300 hours of footage assembled by Besson's team from when Suu Kyi was first campaigning. Yeoh says it was a challenging effort to match Suu Kyi in body and voice.

"Basically my day would be starting at maybe 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning," Yeoh says. "I trained as a marathon runner because I wanted to lose more weight to resemble her physically. She is very slim, but she is very strong."

Yeoh also spent hours with an English tutor to match the English lilt in Suu Kyi's accent.

"Then, of course, it was learning Burmese, which I must say has been one of the most challenging things in my career," Yeoh says. "Because Burmese is different from Cantonese, from Mandarin, from English, from Malay, from any of the languages that I already know — but I had an incredible Burmese teacher so I could speak Burmese like Daw Suu." (Represented in English, Burmese names may take the honorific "Daw.")

While Yeoh wasn't able to meet Suu Kyi in person because the activist was still under house arrest when Yeoh was preparing for the role, she says the filmmakers were able to covertly communicate their intentions.

"We managed to just get a message, quietly, to say that Luc Besson and Michelle Yeoh were going to make a movie about her," Yeoh says. "And we believed that she would not have resisted, or tried to stop us, because she always said, 'Use your liberty to promote ours.' "

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at a recent film premiere that she had told Aung San Suu Kyi that she was moving from an icon to a politician.

Aung Sung Sui Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and won the Nobel Peace Prize, before being freed in 2010.

Earlier this month, her National League for Democracy Party won scores of seats in Burma's new parliament. This summer, she'll reportedly travel overseas for the first time in 24 years - and be able to see her sons and grandchildren.

The film Secretary Clinton saw is "The Lady," starring Michelle Yeoh as the woman who was the daughter of a Burmese revolutionary hero, but considered herself a rather shy academic before making her first political speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LADY")

MICHELLE YEOH: (as Aung San Suu Kyi) It may be a little late to be saying this, but you realize I've never actually spoken in public before.

DAVID THEWLIS: (as Michael Aris) Well, there's no time like the present. We'll be watching from the side.

SIMON: That's Michelle Yeoh - maybe best known for her flying kicks and pulling no punches in "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" - playing Aung San Suu Kyi. "The Lady" is directed by Luc Besson. Michelle Yeoh joins us from Bangkok, where she's working on a new film.

Thanks so much for being with us.

YEOH: It's a pleasure to be talking to you, Scott.

SIMON: How do you play an icon as a real flesh and blood human being?

YEOH: Ah, with great love. And with a lot of care. I mean, that was the only way because she's a big hero of mine too. But it wasn't just about her, it was also a great story about love between a couple, strength between family. So it was a lot of preparation, a lot of research fortunately done by Rebecca Frayn and Luc Besson's team. And then afterwards I had like two, no, almost 300 hours of footage of Daw Suu when she was first campaigning. We call her Daw Suu affectionately and as a title of respect. So basically, my day would be, I would start maybe at 4, 5 o'clock in the morning. I trained as a marathon runner because I wanted to lose more weight to resemble her physically. She is very slim but she is very strong. And then, after that I spent hours with an English tutor because Daw Suu has this English lilt when she speaks. Then, of course, it was learning Burmese, which I must say, has been one of the most challenging things in my career.

SIMON: And did you meet her before you played her?

YEOH: Well, at that time Daw Suu was still very much under house arrest.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

YEOH: Her children, her son had not seen her for 10 years and you and also they were not allowed any form of communication. So we couldn't get to Daw Suu. We couldn't get any interviews. I couldn't get to meet her. Nobody could. But we managed to just get a message - quietly - to say that Luc Besson and Michelle Yeoh were going to make a movie about her. And we believe that she would not have resisted or tried to stop us because she always said, you know, use your liberty to promote ours.

SIMON: As you mentioned, at the heart of this story is a love story, Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, now gone, Michael Aris. We want to run a clip, very sad scene because her husband is dying of cancer and Aung San Suu Kyi is offered the chance to leave Burma and go to his bedside, but knowing the military regime as she does, she suspects she wouldn't be permitted to come back. Here she is talking to their son Kim.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LADY")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONATHAN RAGGETT: (as Kim) He doesn't have much time left.

YEOH: (Aung San Suu Kyi) But I can't. My hands are tied. I'm sorry.

RAGGETT: (as Kim) I know. But he's dying.

YEOH: (Aung San Suu Kyi) Please try to understand. Kim. It would be the end of everything your father and I fought for so long.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE LINE CUTTING OFF AND BUSY SIGNAL)

RAGGETT: (Kim) Hello?

YEOH: (Aung San Suu Kyi) Kim? Kim?

SIMON: The story of this dauntless woman that inspires so much of the world, the same time must have painful chapters for the family that was immediately affected.

YEOH: Yes. Yes. I think it was very important for us as filmmakers to show you that there is a real couple, she's a woman, she's a mother, she is a wife, and there's a real family that was about all this and how they put continuously the needs of others - always the needs of others - before their own, and that was a really worthwhile, you know, emotion for us to learn from. Perhaps, if we can be inspired by them, maybe things will be a little bit different.

SIMON: Did anyone ever say to you, here you are playing this famous champion of nonviolent resistance and you're probably best known around the world for kicking people in the teeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YEOH: Kind of ironic, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YEOH: Well, I think, you know, as an actor that's what you do. You continue to surprise your audiences, that they're not quite sure what to make of it. I hope the audience when they see it they're not going to go, come on Michelle. Just jump over the table and kick their ass.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YEOH: I hope that after a few minutes they do not see me anymore.

SIMON: May I ask, is there a dearth of good roles for Asian actresses in Western cinema?

YEOH: Oh, not enough, that's for sure. I think it's quite clear that there are very few and far and between. And we hope that, you know, with the Asian market opening up more, there will be bigger exchanges, there will be more movies that will happen in Asia and vice versa because we are - we have so many talents.

SIMON: Michelle Yeoh. Her new film, "The Lady," telling the story of Aung San Suu Kyi. She joined us from Bangkok.

Thanks so much for being with us.

YEOH: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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