Q&A: Michelle Yeoh

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AFP PHOTO / FILES / MARTIN BUREAU

Aung San Suu Kyi (L) as she arrives at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon on November 15, 2010 and Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh (R) arriving to attend the Amfar auction on May 21, 2009 in Antibes, southern France.

Best known for fighting the bad guys in martial-arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and alongside James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies, Michelle Yeoh has had to tap into an inner strength to play Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson's biopic The Lady.

Over a lunch of pomelo salad and coconut juice at Bangkok's Oriental Hotel (playing wafer-thin Suu Kyi means having to watch your weight), Yeoh spoke with Andrew Marshall about the pressure of playing a living icon — and who would win in a fight.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a living saint. Aren't sinners more fun to play?
Playing a sinner is very liberating! But honestly I don't see Suu as saintly. She has great dignity and elegance, but not arrogance. She's very strong, but there's a little frailty there, something that makes you feel very protective of her.

How did you prepare for the role of Suu Kyi?
I had to research her. It was difficult trying to get inside the head of someone who is still living, but you have no access to. I didn't want to just mimic her. It wasn't enough to have her mannerisms and to speak like her. It's what makes her tick — what makes her have such strong convictions. The scariest moment was when Luc said, "Okay, we're starting." I really had a panic attack. I just felt I didn't get her. I spent a whole weekend watching interviews of her. Slowly, I calmed myself down. Most daunting was the sense of responsibility. Not just to her, because what's the worst she can do if I don't portray her properly? Kick my ass? ...

I don't think she could kick your ass ...
[Laughs] But I also felt a sense of duty to the Burmese people, who have such great faith in her. I wanted to make sure we portray her the right way.

When you were sent the script by British writer Rebecca Frayn three years ago, was Luc Besson your first choice for director?
Honestly, Luc didn't spring to mind. I thought he wasn't directing many movies, because [his production company] EuropaCorp takes up so much of his time. When he said he'd think about directing, I almost fell off the chair.

Isn't The Lady a departure for a director best known for making action films?
Luc is a man's man. But he's also very sensitive. And he has such an amazingly creative mind. I'm sure this is a story that he's been waiting to tell, or he wouldn't have done it. And this movie needed a director who felt like that. It can't be just a job.

What's he like to work with?
With Luc there is a very clear understanding. He knows what he needs. For me, the director is the most important thing. He is steering the boat. If you don't trust him, you won't be able to give him your all. The camera picks up on things that on stage you wouldn't see — and Luc is always behind the camera. In Europe and America you never see a director pick up a camera. They all sit behind monitors. When Luc is holding the camera, when he's following me in a crowd, he's part of that energy. It's very gratifying. He's there with you, not in the next room.

Is it true there are no good roles for women over 30?
It gets worse: there are no good roles for Asian women.

So you were lucky that The Lady came your way?
I was very blessed. I was there at the right time. I feel like it was made for me. The Burmese on the set call me "Daw [Aunt] Suu."

Why did you decide to meet with Suu Kyi after her release?
I needed to see her. It wasn't so much for the film. It was personal. And it was amazing. Here was someone I'd been imagining and living with for three years, right in front of me. She gave me a hug. She's so slender, but you can feel there is such strength in her. I'm still on cloud nine.