The Lady Looks the Part

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In conversation with Michelle Yeoh, the leading lady of the Suu Kyi biopic that’s making all the Oscar buzz

In a sheer blue dress wrapped around her slender frame, Michelle Yeoh, action star of the crossover martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is plugging her new film to journalists from across the globe attending

the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF). In only a few hours from now, Yeoh will walk the red carpet for her latest project, The Lady, which closes the weeklong festival.

Yeoh, 49, is generating Oscar buzz for her performance in The Lady, which sees her play iconic Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest in Rangoon, after leading the National League of Democracy to an election victory over the ruling military junta in 1990. It’s a film Yeoh nurtured over close to five years, and offered her friend, French director Luc Besson to direct.

The Lady principally covers Suu Kyi’s relationship with her English academic husband, Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis), and the difficult choice she faced: between returning to him in London after he was diagnosed with cancer and fulfilling her political duty in Burma (now Myanmar).

Yeoh prepared for the part extensively, and met Daw Suu (as she has come to be affectionately known; it means Aunt Suu) in Myanmar, before she was forbidden entry into the country when she attempted to visit again a few months later. The actress describes the part as “most difficult to shake off”, and hopes the film will make a difference in the current political climate in Myanmar.

Besson, who has directed formidable female performances on screen, including Natalie Portman in Leon and Milla Jovovich in Joan of Arc, sits alongside Yeoh in the DTFF press room, and raves about his leading lady. “Our crew was stunned when she walked on set dressed as Daw Suu,” he says. “She never came as Michelle. On the set, she was always Aung San.”

From performing that memorable motorbike stunt handcuffed to Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh’s star rose slowly but surely in Hollywood. Punctuating her responses with little smiles, the actress doesn’t deny that The Lady is her most high-profile role yet, and she’s travelling with the film “everywhere they’ll have us”, including Goa for the International Film Festival of India where she and Besson will attend the closing ceremony this weekend.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q Did you know the moment the film came to you that this was going to be the defining film of your career?

A I honestly didn’t look at it that way. When Rebecca Frayn (the writer) came to me with the script, I just knew it was a story that had to be told. Living in Asia, we know who Aung San Suu Kyi is, but the world needed to know about her. We tend to forget our heroes easily, and I saw in this film an opportunity to shed light on a very important story. And, yes, of course it was the role of a lifetime.

Q The buzz surrounding The Lady is hardly surprising, given that it’s pitched as a biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi. But at its heart it’s really a love story between Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris, isn’t it? A story of love and sacrifice.

A That’s what I responded to first… the incredible story of this couple and this family. She could have left (Burma) any time she wanted to, and be with her husband and her boys. But it’s a choice the whole family made—that this was the thing to do. It’s a story of great selflessness and sacrifice, and I think that’s what people immediately respond to. Luc puts it very well… He says Daw Suu is such an iconic personality, it’s easy to forget she’s also human. We were committed to showing that human side.

Q Was it easy to prepare for this character, given that you had so much material in news coverage as your research?

A For almost four years I watched every piece of news footage of her to observe her mannerisms and her speech. I threw myself into it completely. It was the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I did before I went to bed. There was no other way to approach it, because I didn’t want to mimic her. I had to get at what makes her tick, what makes her have such strong convictions.

I read many of the books she had while she was in isolation so I could understand what was driving her. Physically, of course, you can achieve almost anything with make-up and prosthetics today; but I lost around 8 kilos, which was hard since I’m not very big anyway.

I learnt Burmese, and it wasn’t easy. It was nothing similar to Mandarin or Malay. I didn’t want to speak Burmese like a foreigner, so I worked with a coach to make it sound natural. It’s a complicated language to learn, but it sounds almost musical when you hear it spoken. I also worked on my English accent because Daw Suu speaks English eloquently.

But that wasn’t even the most important thing. Daw Suu has had an overwhelming life and there were these extreme emotions you had to somehow reflect. There was just no way to do that without actually feeling it yourself. That was the most challenging aspect for me—to feel it, and then express it in the most honest way possible.

Q You shot the film in Thailand while she was still under house arrest in Burma. And then you saw her at her home shortly after she was released last year, didn’t you?

A I was very nervous. It’s hard to describe that moment because I’d been living with her for so long until that point, watching her footage, listening to her on tape, reading her books… and then suddenly she was standing in front of me. I was so nervous and excited, I didn’t know what to say. It was she who offered a hug. And that just broke the ice immediately.

Q What did you speak about? Was she curious to know about the film?

A She’d been released from house arrest only recently, so she was very busy. There were so many visitors to see her. She hadn’t had any contact with anyone for years. It didn’t feel right to impose on her time.

She spoke about the books that had given her company during isolation. Those were her companions during her hardest times. She was very apologetic that we were repeatedly interrupted by visitors seeking her time.

I spent two days with her on that visit, and it was incredible. I was there when she saw her son Kim for the first time in ten years.

Q Did she know of you before she learnt you were going to play her?

A I don’t think she did. But Kim watches action movies, and he knew who I was.

He’d visited us on the set in Thailand, and when he walked into the replica set of her home that we’d created, I think he was completely overwhelmed by how closely it resembled her home in Rangoon. His only instruction was that the piano was placed at the opposite side of the room.

After we’d shot a scene that day, he phoned his mother from the hotel and told her he was with me, the actress playing her. That was such an emotional moment.

Q You tried to go back and see her after completing the film, but they didn’t let you into Myanmar this time…

A We’d wrapped filming and we wanted to say thank you to her for inspiring us, and for giving the project her blessing. But when I got off the plane, I was told I couldn’t stay. They said they were sorry, but they didn’t have any explanation and sent me back to the plane. It was heartbreaking. Here I thought we might be getting somewhere… the film wasn’t being critical of their country, it was asking some important questions. But they were just not ready for dialogue.

Q The film hasn’t opened in Myanmar, but how have the Burmese reacted to news of the film?

A When we were at Toronto, some Burmese people came and saw us and said they were happy that we’d made the film, because their story needed to be heard. They were grateful that we were telling the world of Daw Suu’s relentless struggle for freedom.

Q Do you believe that a film has the power or influence to make a difference? Can The Lady do something about the situation in Myanmar?

A We are hoping the film will start a dialogue. It must create an awareness of Aung San Suu Kyi in the rest of the world, where there are people who don’t know her, despite the Nobel Prize. That is more important than anything else. Freedom is precious, and it is what we pass on to our children and to our future generations. The world has to know you can’t take your freedom for granted. People like Daw Suu have committed their lives to fighting for it on their behalf.

Q Ever since the film first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, there has been talk of an Oscar nomination for your performance.

A You never go into a film thinking of these things. That’s not the reason I made this movie. It’s flattering and humbling that they think you’re worthy of the honour, but that can never be the goal.

Q Audiences know you as an action star, a Bond girl even. Are strong dramatic parts like this hard to come by?

A In Asia, they are. If you’re a big action star, they don’t want you to be anything else. They put you in a box and they want you to stay there. The choices are slightly better in America. After I did Tomorrow Never Dies, I had to wait three years for something good to come along. I did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and after that they only came to me with more martial arts films.

Q Is this film closest to your heart?

A There hasn’t been another film that has affected me in the manner this one has. Other roles you step out of after you’re done. But this one has given me so much more. It has made me question life and freedom and human rights. It’s also not a part you can shake off easily, because it stays with you.

Q Has Aung San Suu Kyi watched the film?

A She hasn’t. She told us she’d watch it when she gathers the courage. It will mean reliving some difficult portions and moments of her life, and it’s understandable that she’s not ready. But the film really isn’t for her. It’s for the rest of the world to understand who she is and what she stands for.