Memoirs of a Geisha - Michelle Yeoh interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
Q.Was it a book you knew and was it a surprise to you that it was written by a man?
A: I knew of the book, I read the book a very long time ago when it first came out and it was a major success in Asia. It was a book you can’t put down because Authur Golden is so descriptive and so visual about the characters, about the landscape.
It was a book when you read you know it’ll make an incredible story because it’s got all the elements of a place, a culture, a time when you want know these mysterious characters and you want to see it and feel it because, possibly, you can’t today.
When I found out that Rob was going to do it, it was literally about getting down on my knees and preying, “Please, God, let the phone call come!” I love this man. I loved Chicago; everyone is so well-versed with the stage musical and to be able to do that on film and make it even more compelling and rich – because this was a well-known stage play – and now he’s done it again with a much-loved book.
This is a highly-anticipated movie, I think, particularly for Asians. It’s a very rare opportunity whereby a movie with such scope and an entire cast of Asians has an opportunity to show you what we can do. Thank God for Rob Marshall. He was a taskmaster!
Q. Were there any negative reactions to the idea of Chinese women playing Geisha?
A. You have to remember that this is Rob Marshall’s vision. It’s a celebration of a culture and he is the one who cast each one of us. I remember a huge feeling of warmth on the first day when all of us got together for the first time and it was a pan-Asian cast. He said: “You are all here because I believe in each of you.” And that was all we needed to hear. In Asia we have played Koreans, Japanese, and we constantly do that so we don’t question this in the same way [western actors] don’t question if you play a German.
Q. In terms of Geisha training, what was the hardest part? We hear there were several rooms?
A: We affectionately called those rooms the seven rooms of torture. There was a music room where we learnt to play the instruments and a dancing room which we really quite enjoyed, learning to do the fan dances. Basically, just how to walk in a Kimono was an art form in itself. The layers and the weight of the Kimono with Rob’s idea of the way they flutter, how the back of our skirts movie, if you didn’t learn to walk it properly it was like dragging a dead cat across the stage.
You had to walk it with a piece of paper between your knees and a Sake bottle during training. I think the most precious room for us was working with Rob because he had his own special way. We talked about the meaning and the depth of the characters and how to deal with characters that we really don’t know that much about. Particularly for the Geishas because they don’t have love, they deny love, they don’t marry and they don’t have children. As a human being, how do you deny love and live with that and face that every single day? Every time the mask came on and the face came on we got bound tighter and tighter to what it meant to be a Geisha. The room we all enjoyed very much was the Sake room.
Gong Li and I would be like, “make sure there’s real Sake in there!” Everything was like a ritual, it had its own place and order and how it came, you know, and how you moved it. Every room was daunting for me because of my character. I had to do it properly so when I say to [Ziyi Zhang’s character] “You bow like a pig farmer,” I could say it and not be a pig farmer. But it was a really, truly enriching experience. It was daunting to think that in four to six weeks we had to do something that Geishas spend their whole lives perfecting. It was not easy to walk like that. The little gestures and the fluidity that they create.
Q. You’ve built your career in the past on martial arts films and now you’re playing Geisha, which training was the hardest?
A. I think whatever training you’ve had in the past you can always use. I’ve had ballerina training and martial arts training. It teaches you a different balance where you learn to focus and you learn endurance and stillness. Doing those kind of action films is very physical and you’re allowed to project your energy, whereas in this movie everything is much more contained and much more fluid and lyrical.
The last movie Ziyi and I did together, after five words we’d be fighting. It was so much more enjoyable to be able to enjoy her company and see how she’s matured into this amazing actress and beautiful young lady. We have moments of being big and little sister together; dancing and laughing and sharing that joy. So it’s been a great transition.
Q. You’re working with one of our finest directors, Danny Boyle, on Sunshine – how’s that going?
A: Amazing. Last year we were in Hanamachi and you really felt, once you had you Kimonos on and you were walking down those cobbled stones, that you’d really been transported back in time to the twenties. And now I’m on a spaceship. Eight astronauts, the most fabulous actors – Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada – and we are carrying this immense bomb heading to the sun. Could it be any different?
Before it was three or four hours of hair and make-up and getting into costume and now we’re in spacesuits. There was no dancing in the spacesuits! None at all. But you’re right, Danny is one of your finest. He actually reminds me a lot of Rob. He’s a very macho-man but very sensitive.
Danny is very sensitive but in a very manly way. He’s big, he’s tall and he’s so commanding. He’s very graceful – Danny strides into the room. Rob’s almost like a Geisha in some ways, and Danny would sit there when he’s talking about his characters and he gets into his head and he’s ruminating saying, “Just think you’re in space – what are you thinking?” and his hair is flying up like in zero-gravity! He’s so funny!