Datuk Michelle Yeoh tells Faridul Anwar Farinordin the challenges of playing an iconic figure in The Lady
CLAD in a Roberto Cavalli green mini dress and matching Christian Louboutin multi-coloured pumps, Ipoh-born international actress Datuk Michelle Yeoh impressed her audience at the recent Press conference by reciting a portion the 1988 political speech by Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi — in fluid Burmese.
“I was doing it every day and night for six months. I slept, ate and breathed the language. I had to know the speech very well so that when the director Luc (Besson) wanted the emotional depth to come from here or there, I would be able to do it without even thinking about it. Everything should come naturally,” said Yeoh who portrayed Suu Kyi in the bio-pic film The Lady which opened in cinemas here yesterday.
Does she speak fluent Burmese now?
“All I can do is give a (scripted) political speech very well. I don’t think I can hold a conversation in the Burmese language though. I am thankful to have had a wonderful Burmese speech teacher,” she explained, adding that Daw Suu — that’s what she calls Suu Kyi (“Daw” is used to denote respect in Myanmar) never looks at her written speech when addressing her people.
With her blow-dried shoulder-length hair perfectly framing her age-defying looks, the 49-year old was in Kuala Lumpur on a short visit to promote the movie which chronicles Suu Kyi’s journey in love and politics. Directed by French film-maker Besson (known for action flicks The Professional, The Fifth Element and The Transporter), and written by Rebecca Frayn, it also stars David Thewlis who plays Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris.
Yeoh sat down for a chat about the filming experience.
Besson is known for action films. What is your take on him approaching a movie of such delicate subject matter?
He is one of the most incredibly gifted film-makers around. I became a huge fan after watching his 1988 film The Big Blue. A lot of people instinctively reacted with “oh, he’s an action film director”, but if you look at his work, notably in films such as the The Professional (1994), you will remember the performances by the cast Jean Reno and Natalie Portman (who portray a hit man and a troubled 12-year-old respectively), and not the explosions. Such is the power of his characters.
Beyond fancy camera work and technical grandeur, a director must essentially be able to tell a human story. Besson does this extremely well and that’s why his work stays with the audience for a long time. He showed incredible restraint in making The Lady, which could easily go down the same path as other epic war films such as The Killing Fields.
From the start we knew that we didn’t want to do a politically-driven story, which was what you get when you watch the news on TV. What we wanted to present with The Lady was a love story.
Did you have some creative control over the direction of story?
When I first got the script, the story was more about Daw Suu’s husband, Michael Aris. The story was written based on the input gathered from his twin brother Anthony and it’s perfectly understandable as Daw Suu was under house arrest at the time and her daily life was pretty routine.
To me, the film would be more interesting if we had two stories — about Michael and Daw Suu — running side by side. The story evolved further when we managed to get Besson to come on-board — I almost fell off my chair when he agreed to direct it.
Some people asked me why I got a Frenchman involved and to answer that, I’d say that French people are very in tune with their sensitive side. Besson’s films have always had women as central figures with men playing equally important parts.
My input to the film was more of a collaborative effort, together with Frayn and Besson. At the end of the day, it all boiled down to the vision of the director and the story that the screenwriter had intended.
How does it feel to be given the honour of playing such an iconic person?
I actually pursued the role. Four years ago, I read a newspaper article that a production company was interested in telling the story of Daw Suu. I immediately called my agent in Los Angeles to find the people behind the project. I felt that if there’s anybody who could play her, it had to be me. I wanted to make the movie because Daw Suu had been my inspiration for a long time. Luckily for me, the production company, helmed by producer Andy Harries (The Queen, The Damned United) and his wife Frayn were also looking for me to play the political leader. I guess it was meant to happen.
You played a real-life character who is larger than life.
It was a privilege. She is a beautiful human being and I found great joy playing her and walking in her footsteps. The entire production team enjoyed the experience so much that we didn't want filming to end. Of course her journey hasn't been easy and that's where we feel that it's important to focus the story on Daw Suu as a person, a mother and a wife, and not just as a political leader.
Preparing for her role, however, was a challenge. It was not like going into make-believe characters such as my roles in James Bond (Tomorrow Never Dies) and The Mummy 3 (Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) because you made them the way you wanted them to be.
With The Lady, it’s a different ball game. Daw Suu is a real person and what she represents can’t be taken lightly. There is a huge responsibility that comes with playing such character, but as an actor that’s what I crave for — they can either make you a better actor or write you off completely.
How did you go back after filming such emotionally draining scenes in The Lady?
You move on... you have to. I learned from Daw Suu that you have to able to pick yourself back up after experiencing traumatic experiences. So no matter how harrowing the scenes, I should be able to resume with life just like the next person.
Playing Daw Suu gave me such great pleasure that I didn’t want to let go of her even after filming was over. I didn’t want to step out of her body, so to speak. I hope she stays with me for a long time because what I learnt from her has been very valuable for me as a person. She teaches me to be a better person, to be compassionate, patient, understanding, selfless and to have faith in the good of others. So why would I want to switch that part off?
How did you mentally prepare for the scene with Suu Kyi walking calmly past armed military junta personnel who point their guns at her?
You have to first understand Daw Suu to exude her serenity and pull this scene off. She is not afraid of anything, not least the armed soldiers. She comes towards them in peace even though she has guns pointing at her face. There’s no aggression, no violence, no threats, no harsh words. I had to be able to convey such messages through my eyes —they are consoling and to a certain extent, almost inviting. I did four takes for that.
What was the most challenging scene for you?
I would put it as the most worrying scene — and that is the three-minute political speech in Burmese language. Right from the beginning, Luc said he wanted to film it in its entirety in one continuous shoot. We couldn’t stop halfway, have a break and come back to resume the scene because it carried strong emotions that couldn’t just be broken apart. I wanted to sound as authentic as possible, and not like a foreigner speaking the language.
Film critics singled out your performance as the better part of the film, but were critical on the overall story line. How do you feel about that?
When it comes to movies, there is no guarantee how the audience will react. When you are committed to making a film, you have a responsibility to tell the story and do your best. I am sorry for the critics who may feel that their job is to find something to pick on every time they see a movie. Maybe they expected a political drama, which can be disappointing because it is a film about love and family. We also want to reach out to a younger audience who are looking for a role model and a hero to look up to.
Tell us about the film background.
When we embarked on this journey, screenwriter Rebecca Frayn had spent almost five years researching her story. It’s an interesting journey because Daw Suu was under house arrest. She was completely isolated not only from the world outside but also her family. Her sons hadn’t seen her for almost 10 years at the time, but that never broke her spirit.
During the making of the film, we had no contact with Daw Su. Although we had some contact with the family for some of the film’s input and they gave us their blessings to make this film, they did not participate very closely because they were wary about Daw Su’s safety as she was still under house arrest and they wanted to protect her.
I think everyone at that time was not sure how the Burmese military junta would react to a movie made about her. It was understood then that the less anyone did about her, the better.
The movie is essentially a story of love. About an endearing love of a man (Suu Kyi’s husband Michael who died of cancer in 1999), who understood his wife and who she was. I think when you truly love someone, you don’t try to change the person. You try to realise his or her potential and help the person be who he or she is. This movie should essentially be called The Lady And The Gentleman.
When Michael died in London, Suu Kyi was temporarily released from house arrest. However, she couldn’t be at his side because she feared that she wouldn’t be allowed back in Myanmar to resume her struggle for democracy, something that they both had been fighting for. She said this was not a sacrifice but rather, a choice. How do you see this?
While I was researching into her story, what remained clear to me was her clear sense of direction. She is right when she said it was a choice — a difficult choice undoubtedly, but a choice nevertheless. At the same time, it is understandable if we see such a display of detachment as cold and heartless.
To me it shows how much she is committed to her cause, something that she and Aris made and fought for from the beginning. This strong sense of commitment has been instilled in her as a young child. She is the daughter of Burmese political leader General Aung San (the person behind the nationalist movement that earned Myanmar its freedom from British colonial rule in 1948). He brought democracy to Myanmar and was assassinated when Daw Suu was only 2.
Her strength, her strong sense of patriotism, her devotion to her people and family, and not to mention her calm gracefulness, came from her mother Daw Khin Yi. Daw Suu always lived by that life philosophy. I have great respect for someone who has such strong sense of commitment. No doubt it is a choice, but it is a difficult one — not only for her but also her family. She chose to be with her people when her husband was dying.
She is always very protective of her family and this was very clear when I met her in December 2010, when she had just been released from house arrest.
Your next film project?
It will be about cooking and family drama, called Cooktales. Three generations of men who try to outdo one another through cooking and I play the culinary grand master. I am going to take it easy this time (laughs).
(Cooktales, a collaboration between South Korea and Singapore and directed by Korean film-maker Gina Kim, has been described as “an epicurean drama set in the food paradise of Singapore about a coming-of-age tale of an amateur cook who at the same time has to deal with the twisted fate of his family”).
What is the first thing you look out for when you come back to Malaysia?
Curry noodles. If I am in KL, I normally go to Shook! Restaurant at Starhill or walk across to Pavilion for it. I love local food!
The Lady opened in cinemas nationwide yesterday.
Lady with a big heart
ON her recent visit, Datuk Michelle Yeoh attended the charity premiere of The Lady in aid of Voice Of The Children.
At the event presented by Richard Mille, the luxury watch brand, Yeoh was dressed in a long satin gown. She was all smiles as she walked down the red carpet with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak at GSC Pavilion in Kuala Lumpur.
Despite the heavy downpour, thousands of fans had gathered at the main entrance of the mall to catch a glimpse of Yeoh who arrived at 8.15pm.
The former Bond Girl, also ambassador for Richard Mille, described the experience of playing Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as “intimate and personal”. In her speech, she thanked Richard Mille Asia chief executive officer Dave Tan for supporting the movie‘s promotional activities in the region.
Voice Of The Children focuses on raising public awareness on all issues affecting children while supporting the government to ensure the welfare and protection of children in the country. -
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