The Lady – Michelle Yeoh interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MICHELLE Yeoh talks about some of the challenges of playing Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady and getting to know the woman, initially without any direct access and then getting the chance to meet the woman herself.
She also talks about her own relationship with Burma and why several of the film’s helpers cannot be credited for fear of not being allowed back into the country.
Q. When did you know you wanted to portray pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi?
Michelle Yeoh: Well, I read in a newspaper that someone was thinking about making a movie about her, so I called on my manager in Los Angeles and said: “I don’t know how but please find it…” Suddenly it dawned on me, you see, because she’s always been a big hero and I think if you asked that of a lot of Asian women you would find that because she’s very rare: someone that’s so incredible. So, this was maybe about four years ago now. So, I sort of knew it was going to happen and when you get a sense like that you begin reading up as much as you can in case. It was really almost two years ago that it became really intensive. Last year was full blown… living with her, being with her, watching her and doing as much as possible to get inside her.
Q. You mention she was a hero already but how much more did you learn about her during the course of making the film?
Michelle Yeoh: Oh, a lot more, especially about the love story. We knew who she was because she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. So, that was when we felt such pride at her being an Asian woman who was achieving so much and who was so powerful and so strong and was doing incredible things, and was willing to put up with the sacrifice that her and her family were going through. Then, to be honest, I think like the rest of the world and many people we forgot because the Army blocked off all the things. So, as you heard less about her, you almost stopped remembering her. So, when I started to read into this and I received the script, I discovered ‘my God, this is wonderful’ because it’s not a political story where we’re trying to teach you about the politics in Burma, which some people will never go to.
Rather, it’s an untold love story, which is so compelling. It’s about real people. When you are doing a movie about a real person there’s always a danger… it becomes easier if you could have contact with them, so that at least they can walk you through or remind you of something. But San Suu was under house arrest, her husband was already dead and family members and many friends hadn’t seen her since ’88. So, when you ask her son what he remembers, he replied: “I was 12… what do I really remember?” But when you’re committed to something, you become relentless and you dig in order to find whatever little morsel you can discover. So, at the end of the day, you take what you’ve found and whatever your own comprehension is and you start putting it altogether and it grows… it becomes very organic.
Q. You’ve had chance to meet her since, though…
Michelle Yeoh: Yes! I met her in December  after she was released. They have a saying that you should never meet your hero because it will be a disappointment, but she’s not… she was incredible. Unfortunately, because we were still wrapping up principal photography in Thailand, it meant that I could literally arrive in the late morning, go and see her, have dinner and then the next day I was on the plane off again. But because Kyi was leaving on an earlier flight, we met again at the airport, so we had good hours and really, really solid moments together.
Q. What did she say about you playing her and the film in general?
Michelle Yeoh: We actually never spoke about the film. I think it had gotten to the stage where, for me, I had forgotten I was doing a film because when you’re there with her there’s so much you want to learn from her as a person – not just the political things. You know that she’s very wise and you know she’s very maternal, but at the same time she is very curious because she’s been in there since ’88, unable to leave her country. So, in a sense you are bringing a part of your world to her, so she wants to know all the latest things that you are doing and what is happening around you.
So, it was very, very interesting. I knew she knew that we were doing the film because prior to going there I had spoken to her on the phone a couple of times. I think the only time she referenced it was when she looked at me and said: “Hmmm, who do you think is taller?” [Laughs] I think she understands that we are doing it with great love and respect and I hope and think she feels comfortable with us. I mean, the real story is something that only she and Michael Aris [her late husband] will only know. But then I think she believes that we will treat it with great honesty and at the same time with the greatest of love.
Q. How important was it to have Burmese extras on the set?
Michelle Yeoh: Oh, it made a huge difference. I didn’t think it would but it does because it adds that extra mileage to it. Asians… when we all stand together and we don’t make any movements, you won’t know who is from Korea or Japan. But the minute we start moving and talking, the nuances that come in… that’s when you can tell the difference. So, it was great because they always reminded me of things because the Burmese [people] are very different from the Thai [people] as well. So, because I was learning Burmese and I had to do a lot of the speeches, especially the campaigning speeches in Burmese, it was important to really get the accent properly. But I think what really helped was that every time I came through the gates, when they turned around and saw me, I knew they didn’t see me. And what I mean by that is when I was outside in my jeans or my shorts, the way they greeted me was very, very different from the way they greeted me when I was dressed up [as San Suu]. I could see it in their eyes and I knew, straight away, that I was in the right mode. It all helped me to become her.
Q. I gather your dialect coach can’t be credited with the work she did because she still has family in Burma and doesn’t want to be banned from seeing them?
Michelle Yeoh: No, there were quite a few of them in the same position. Luc [Besson] tells a funny story because he maintains it’s the first time as a director or producer that people have come up to him and said: “Please don’t put my name in the credits!” Normally people are begging for their name to be bigger. But because they still have family in Burma and because they still want to go back, they don’t want it to be known that they were helping with this film. So, my dialect coach… she really was the one who helped me get the essence and a real feel for the Burmese language, but she has no credit. I really wish I could say her name out loud and thank her, so that everyone knows that she’s the one that helped, but I can’t.
Q. How has your own relationship with Burma changed now? I read that you were deported in June…
Michelle Yeoh: Yeah [looks regretful]. Hopefully, it will change again. Hopefully, they’ll see that we only have the best intentions in our heart because the place is beautiful and the people are truly beautiful and I think this is a new chapter. It looks like reforms are happening and we pray that they are for real. If it is for real, then I’m sure I will be welcomed back.
The Lady is released in UK cinemas on December 30, 2011.