Michelle Yeoh was an established martial arts star in Asia by the time Western audiences came to know her, first as a Bond girl and then a balletic warrior in the 2000 hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” During Yeoh’s action-hero days, she performed her own stunts — like launching herself and the motorcycle she was riding onto a moving train — and was at one point, she said, uninsurable. Little wonder, then, that Yeoh’s portrayal of the imperious mother, Eleanor Young, in the summer smash “Crazy Rich Asians” was so ferocious. Now she and her co-stars are nominated for the top prize, outstanding performance by a cast, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 27. (The film is also up for a Golden Globe for best musical or comedy at Sunday’s ceremony.)
During a recent trip to New York, Yeoh — who is 56, and cut an edgy figure wearing head-to-toe black and a supple motorbike jacket — met me at the Four Seasons for black coffee and a conversation about the film, the racism she encountered in her earlier years, and her heartbreak over Myanmar’s repressive government under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yeoh played in the 2012 biopic “The Lady.”
Here are edited excerpts.
It is almost unfathomable that “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first Hollywood movie with a contemporary setting and a majority Asian-American cast since “Joy Luck Club” in 1993.
Asian communities are so hungry, they never see themselves on the big screen. Honestly when I first came out here, suddenly to be told I’m a minority was a big shock. I came from China — how did I suddenly switch to being a minority? We want to be represented, we don’t want to be invisible, we don’t want to be told that we’re not good enough to be on the silver screens. You don’t have to treat us special. Just treat us as equals.
Was your mom like Eleanor?
Oh no. My mom is not Eleanor at all. She’s not a hippie, but she’s very carefree, very outgoing. Eleanor would be truly my homage to the mothers that I know in Asia. A lot of my friends or my friends’ mothers.
Your crazy rich Asian friends?
Ha ha. Yes. And their mothers-in-law. Or their mothers. Because I drew a lot of inspiration from them.
Eleanor was up to the last moment trying to please her mother-in-law. She wanted her son to look good because she wasn’t good enough.
That was the one thing we really, really worked on. We needed Eleanor to be vulnerable to make her more human. In the book Eleanor was black-and-white-movies mean. I didn’t want her to be a villain. I wanted her to have very high standards, to be very elegant. But the most important thing, what we really worked on, is the love between the mother and son.
The mah-jongg scene was great. I take it you know how to play.
Yes, it’s my sort of specialty, I had no problem in that scene at all. It was the showdown, right? And the movie could’ve ended there. At the end of the day it wasn’t a prince-Cinderella movie. If you look at all of the women, they all were stronger. They weren’t waiting to be rescued.
Eleanor had a very intense presence.
Eleanor was very composed. She didn’t talk with her hands. She was very contained. For a character like that, she has to command a lot of attention, with the stillness. That I worked on.
“The Lady” was quite contained.
How are you reacting to news about the atrocities against Rohingya Muslims under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership?
I feel very against of course what is happening to the Rohingyas. We do have a foundation inside Burma. We felt when the country opened up, it’s not the top layer [of society] that needed help. It’s the rest. But they adore her. Because they really believe that she’s trying to do whatever she can for the lower people.
They still adore her?
They still feel like that. But the thing is, it’s so complicated. I don’t believe she has the power. Maybe she’ll hate me for saying this. She has no power. The power is still with the military.
Are you in touch with her?
We are in touch with her. But recently it has been very difficult because of all the things that have been going on. But she knows that I have been a little bit outspoken about the fact that I’ve been so disappointed. It’s tragic.
It must be very strange for you, having played her. Do you think she should lose her Nobel?
I think we should really take a step back and try and understand. What they are condemning her for is for not speaking out. For not turning around and saying, “You are wrong, you shouldn’t have.” Yes, maybe she can do that and be thrown out of the country again. I feel that she’s trying to keep the door open so that there’s still dialogue within her country and she still can have some kind of say. What I fear is without the support of the international people, it’s easy for the military to just disregard her. So I think she’s in a really, really rough place.
Let me ask you about another controversial thing.
Why stop now while we’re at it? Don’t get me into trouble.
It’s been over a year since news about Harvey Weinstein broke. You have said you never had any trouble with sexual harassment, and if you had, you would have deployed your martial arts skills. What do you think about men hoping to come back?
It was an adjustment. Something that we needed to clean up. We needed skeletons to come out from the closet. The most important thing is that the person has changed and understands that all that is bad.
With “Crazy Rich Asians,” were there reactions to the film that surprised you?
Asians are quite reserved, but after the movie they’ve come up to me on the streets to say “Can I give you a hug? I just want to say thank you.” The first opening weekend, I was on my knees, because God forbid, if it didn’t work, it could’ve set us back 20 years.
I was shocked by the opening scene, the intense discrimination aimed at Eleanor’s family. I thought it couldn’t have been like that in the ’90s.
[Yeoh arches a brow and shoots me a piercing “Girl, you’re so naïve” look.]
I remember when I first went to Paris, in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Every time I walked into a store, the women would fold their arms. They wouldn’t even speak to me. So the next day, my ex sent his designer to go shopping with me, and doors flew open.
Just like “Pretty Woman”!
You’d be surprised how racist people were at that time, it’s a shame. But I’m glad it’s not like that now. I work with the [United Nations Development Program] as a good-will ambassador, to promote gender equality, all these things we [need] to have a better world, more peaceful world. If we don’t we’re not going to be able save our world. We have to work together, start dialogue together and have no judgment. Why are we so judgmental?
Twitter. It’s all Twitter’s fault.
I don’t know. I don’t know how to twit.