Michelle Yeoh was having a flashback, not of the acid variety, but it was pretty intense all the same.
She was seated in the middle of the Paramount Theatre in Austin in March for the South by Southwest premiere of her movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” nerves frayed, worried how people would react to her performance — or should we say “performances,” since Yeoh plays half a dozen different characters in the movie. Would the audience laugh in the right spots? Would they find her funny?
And, sitting there, waiting, Yeoh thought back to the midnight premiere of her first headlining movie, Corey Yuen’s 1985 Hong Kong action classic “Yes, Madam!,” where she was perched in the balcony tier, first row, constantly peeking over the railing to see how the hardcore moviegoers seated below her, the ones given to sharing their feelings very vocally, would react. She was bracing herself for the boos and instead was ecstatic when the audience erupted into cheers.
“Forty years, man!” Yeoh says, letting out a big laugh, thinking about how long she’s been making movies — and worrying about what people think when she tries something that’s outside her comfort zone.
Considering “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” in which she plays Evelyn, a stressed-out laundromat owner trying to save an imperiled multiverse and heal a frayed relationship with her daughter, Yeoh calls it a role she’s been rehearsing to play all her life. And as it was the first time she has been allowed to be goofy on screen — a quality that comes quite naturally to her in real life, she says — she didn’t know if audiences would buy into the act.
“When I was at that premiere and I heard that first laugh, I was like, ‘Omigod, omigod, omigod, they actually think I’m funny,’” says Yeoh, who, in conversation, is quite the cutup, if only for the sound effects with which she punctuates her thoughts. Perhaps the only thing better than Michelle Yeoh performing martial arts in movies like “Wing Chun,” “The Heroic Trio” and, of course, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” is hearing Michelle Yeoh describe her moves in those movies with pow-pow-pow punctuations.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was celebrated at the Telluride Film Festival this year, part of a salute to Sony Pictures Classics’ 30th anniversary. There was an outdoor screening at a park in the mountain resort town and, after introducing it, Yeoh went to dinner and then circled back to watch the ending.
“She brought a quiet dignity to that movie — along with all those great fight scenes,” Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker told me afterward. “That was such a star performance.”
But Yeoh wouldn’t be No. 1 on the call sheet again until “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and that might not even have happened had Jackie Chan accepted the invitation from co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to star in the movie. After Chan passed, the Daniels (as they’re collectively known), completely rethought the project, flipping the genders and offering Yeoh the lead and bringing in the great Ke Huy Quan to play Evelyn’s husband. (Yeoh later sent her old friend and “Supercop” co-star Chan a text, saying: “Your loss, my bro!”)
“You know, you get to be my age,” the Malaysian-born Yeoh, 60, says, “and you can see it literally slipping through your fingers, because you are no longer that prime age. The worst is when people think, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like she did in her 20s, so she can’t physically do the same things.’ What they don’t understand is that I’ve learned some things over the years, and I’m more clever and smarter in how I can sustain my stamina. I’m as fit as I was before, because I know how to look after myself much better than when I was younger.”
He was a young favorite -- Short Round in ‘Temple of Doom,’ Data in ‘The Goonies’ -- then he left acting, or rather, acting left him. Now he’s back in ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once.’
Yeoh pauses and then grabs my arm. “You know, older women can still have these crazy adventures!” she says, laughing, letting out a whoop. “If people learn nothing else from this movie, I hope it’s that!”
It’s hard to place Yeoh in any kind of AARP category. She loves to eat and has been haunting Sichuan and Cantonese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley while filming projects in L.A. in recent months, and, as she tells me more than once, “I love my wines.” So how does she stay so fit?
“Before I even get out of bed, I start meditating and I do my mantra,” Yeoh says. “I wake my body up slowly. I’ve had injuries over the years, so I have to rectify them.”
Can you talk to your injuries and actually heal them? I’m thinking about the muscle I pulled in my lower back after sneezing the other day.
“It starts from within,” she says. “I tell my body, ‘I’m sorry. Forgive me of all the things I’ve done to you. And thank you.’” After that, Yeoh moves to stretching, then core exercises and then, if possible a hike (Runyon Canyon is a favorite spot), and, if not, she’s on the elliptical machine. I tell her I hate elliptical machines.
“You’re like Jean,” she says, referring to her longtime partner, Jean Todt, the recently retired French motor racing executive. “You have to get past the first five minutes, and then the adrenaline kicks in and you get into a groove.”
Yeoh and Todt have been together since 2004 and engaged for almost as long. This was supposed to be the year they were going to make it official. But procuring the paperwork has been time-consuming — Todt is a Swiss resident, so blame Switzerland for the exacting requirements. Now they’re aiming for a wedding next year in Geneva. Probably. Yeoh holds up her hand, crossing her fingers.
Is it important to her? “A piece of paper doesn’t change it for me,” Yeoh answers. “But it means a lot to Jean, so it means a lot to me.”
An Oscar nomination for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would appear to be in the cards, and Yeoh is definitely down with that, though she’s more enthusiastic when talking about what making the movie did for her craft as an actor.
“I learned not to judge myself,” Yeoh says. She begins to expand on the thought and then reverses and puts it in simple terms. “I learned to say, ‘What the heck.’”
“I have stage fright,” she continues. “I don’t do improv. I don’t know how to make up lines. And I would say to the Daniels, ‘That’s your job. You just tell me what to say.’ And then they’d say, ‘OK, say this ... but say it in six different ways.’ And they’d want me to max out on the comedic side. ‘How do I do that?’ I’m freaking out. But I just trusted my instincts and went with it.”
Scheinert says Yeoh kept any jitters hidden while making the movie. What he wants to talk about is how nervous he and Kwan were when meeting her for the first time, wondering if she’d be game for sporting floppy hot dog fingers or misremembering a Pixar classic as “Raccacoonie.”
“We sometimes ask collaborators if there’s something they watched recently that they really liked,” Scheinert says. “And Michelle answered, ‘I just saw “Deadpool 2.” I thought it was hilarious.’ We took that as a good sign that she’d go hard.”
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“Oh, she would tease us like the way an auntie would tease her nephews,” Scheinert adds. “She’d be like, Oh, my God, you boys are crazy! What are you making me do?’ But then she’d just do it and she’d kill it.”
Now Yeoh can’t run an errand these days without bumping into a young fan who wants to tell her how much they enjoyed all the crazy gags in “Everything Everywhere” as well as its message that maybe, just maybe, life is worth living and parents and children can (sometimes) get along.
“Teenagers will come up to me at the supermarket and say, ‘You’re cool! Can we have a picture with you?’” Yeoh says. “Outwardly, I’ll smile and say, ‘Of course!’ But inwardly, I’m pumping my fist, screaming, ‘Yes! Finally! I’m cool!’”
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