There’s something so utterly brilliant that happens in the first few minutes of Crazy Rich Asians. Michelle Yeoh makes her entrance as Eleanor Young and is turned away from a hotel after a long flight, wet from the rain with her family in tow. Asked to leave, Eleanor Young goes to a phone box, makes a call, and returns to the front desk. She’s told to leave again. It’s then announced that her husband has bought the hotel. Needless to say, she is immediately shown to her suite. It’s a delicious way to introduce us to the matriarch of the family, and speaks volumes about what’s to come.
The Youngs are crazy rich! And Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is about to meet her boyfriend’s family for the first time. It’s a nervewracking experience for any young woman, it’s even more nervewracking when her future mother-in-law is Eleanor Young, so superbly executed by Yeoh in a tour de force performance. Her Eleanor is far from a villain, she’s not even bitchy. She’s simply a strong female character, a woman who could have as Yeoh says, become a great lawyer, but chooses her family first. She’s a mother who loves her son and flatly tells Rachel, “You will never be enough.” It’s one of the best scenes this year, a spectacular dance move, one of many between the conflicting duo.
We’re sitting in The Blvd in Beverly Hills, recognizing these women, this family. Yeoh speaks as softly as her character, but she’s nowhere near as intimidating as Eleanor Young or any other of the ass-kicking characters she has played. She’s warm and and engaging and unpacks a wicked sense of humor.
How have the past few months been for you?
Oh my God! It has been very empowering. It was such a relief after knowing about the initial box office numbers. We always knew there was buzz and Warner Bros. generated such a great buzz. Jon Chu did an amazing job. It was such a great feel-good romantic comedy. I miss those type of movies.
I know. I think the last big studio romantic comedy was The Proposal.
Wow! For a while, it wasn’t working and people were staying away from it. We’re doing a film with an all-Asian cast and that hasn’t been seen in 25 years. A rom-com that hasn’t been around. We were like, “Let’s go for gold.” It worked really well, it really did. It wasn’t just Asians going to see the film.
It transcended different generations and there was no color. It was just a feel-good movie. People related to the parents where they bring their boyfriends or girlfriends home. I think it also opened a dialogue between parents and children because they look at their parents and say, “Okay, I understand why you’re doing that now. You’re doing what you do, not out of manipulation, but you genuinely care for us.” That has been such a feel-good thing. So many Asians will come up to me and hug me and say thank you. I understand where they’re coming from, they feel validated and they’re having stories told. In the past, it’s because we’re depicted more without a story.
We can be nerdy. We can be geeky. Nothing is wrong with that. And yes, some of us are immigrants and we do behave like that, but we don’t get the backstory to show dreams and ambition, or tell the meaning behind it.
Take Eleanor Young. She could have been the villainous mother, but there is nothing villainous about her. It’s balanced with real love.
I think as you say, she helped me understand my own mother. But I recognized many people in her.
It’s so beautiful. What I say about the character, it is my homage to all the beautiful mothers out there. Sometimes we can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. We try to help our children and we don’t want them to make mistakes. But I think the most important thing to feel is that it is from love. Also with how she treats Rachel, it’s not out of malice. She says, “Do you think you can sacrifice so many things for my son?” Rachel comes from a society where you have been told to put yourself first, be independent, make it on your own, and be successful. Chase your dreams. In Asia, it’s Family first. Eleanor put her husband’s needs before her own. She could have been a very successful lawyer, but she decided no. She said there were much more important things to her life.
The scene I loved was when she tells Rachel, “You will never be enough.” What’s so interesting is the way that scene is set up. Eleanor is on the step above Rachel. Higher and more authoritative. There’s a little power balance.
Yes. We worked with Jon. He really wanted to use the stairs. Rachel is lost, she’s come to this new place and she doesn’t know her way around. It’s a big place, it’s a big shock, and she’s fumbling. Eleanor comes. She’s very quiet and elegant.
But there’s power there.
Exactly. And for me, that shows power more than anything else. When Jon came up with us meeting on the stairs. It’s up to us as actors and our body language. She seems very nonchalant, she’s fixing the photos because everything has to be in its proper place. Then Eleanor turns. At first, they’re on the same step, but even for Constance, she feels she can’t be on the same level. She is the one who retreats. When I come up to her, you see how she retreats. I’m not being menacing.
Take Eleanor Young. She could have been the villainous mother, but there is nothing villainous about her.
She shies away.
If that were an action movie I would have kicked her down the stairs. What I loved was that when I touched her on the face, it’s so tender, but at the same time it’s not. That’s what I loved about working with Jon. He let us explore the moment, but he knows how to set us up in positions where we can find our footing. It was a truly collaborative process.
It must have been absolutely amazing to have a director like Jon.
I need my director to direct. He’s the one who sees the big picture. As actors, we see us. But without your sparring partner, you can’t do a monologue the whole way through right?
So, let’s go back to your entry into this world. I took so long to get around to the book despite everyone telling me I needed to read it, but I read it after the movie.
Oh really! OK, what do you think, do you think the book is exactly like the movie?
It’s not. I like everything Kevin did. There’s so much more depth to the characters, we really get to see who they are, but I absolutely love the movie and how we still get this snapshot portrait of these characters.
It’s a book and you can afford to do that. With a film, you have an hour and a half to tell your story. The film had all these characters and every little role made a difference. There was Ronny Chieng and his family.
You know that family.
Do I know that family?! It’s all the rest. I know the Ken Jeong family, but they make their own moments and it all comes together. Without them, something would be amiss. I loved the Astrid character. I liked how he changed it. She walked away from the marriage. She was empowered. Harry Shum comes in as the old boyfriend, but she leaves on her own terms. I really enjoyed the nuances that Jon brought to the film.
The book is great. It’s funny and hysterical. You can read it at the beach, but the movie needed to portray a much deeper and stronger emotion. You need to be moved, touched and taken to an exotic place. And, I think we did all of that with this film.
Eleanor is such a strong woman and it’s a rare thing to see.
I’ve been in the business for a while. For me, the director is important. You can have great material on paper, but if you find that the director doesn’t get it, it’s not going to come to life. With Jon, I skyped with him. It’s a choice. I choose my projects carefully. Time is so precious because when I work on a movie, it takes me away from the people that I love. You have to be special for me to want to be a part of this. For me, it felt like it was an important cultural exchange.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a period piece. You can’t go back and see people running on the rooftops. With Crazy Rich Asians, you can book a ticket to Malaysia or Singapore and relive that whole experience. It’s so important. This could be the girl next door, or the guy that goes to university with you. I think that for me was the most important thing.
When I read it, knowing how special it was. It was going to be in the English language. It should be. Then it’s the natural journey. This story needed to be told but in the right way. God forbid it would be an American director going in there, saying they understand the Chinese culture and go in there and fumble. When I talked with Jon. He said, “Don’t worry. I understand where the mother is coming from because I have a mother like that at home.” His parents came here from China and Tawain. You know his backstory, right?
He grew up understanding the family first and the hierarchy. The grandparents. The parents. The older brother and sisters and here is the baby of the family, you get it last. That’s how it is. As I listened to him, I understood that he knew what I was trying to get.
The mother-in-law is always the mean and nasty one in film, but those days are gone. That’s why she truly is my homage to so many women and friends who are classy and elegant.
When we first meet her in the hotel, it gives us a great insight to who she is.
It’s a very empowering moment.
But then we get a true insight in the kitchen and how she greets Nick and that dynamic there. She tells him his hair is messy.
It’s how Asian parents express love, through concern. There’s concern about your health, your look, your weight. They don’t say, “I love you. I miss you.” The first thing my mom says is, “You’ve lost weight” and I’m like, “Hi mom. Nice to see you too.”
It opens people eyes to the culture. I think what was so great about it, even as it transcends the Asian aspect, people really gain insight.
I think that’s really nice. That people feel enlightened and their hearts open up. After that, they’re more giving. They empathize. I heard a beautiful story last night. The father got divorced and the girlfriend is Asian and his children don’t agree, but after one of his daughters saw the movie, she called her dad in the middle of the night. She said that she understood and if he was happy, it’s OK.
What is that like for you to hear those stories and for people to tell you that?
Oh my God! You feel so strong and it’s just great.
You’ve transcended barriers for years doing action and now this. What were some earlier barriers you faced?
Racism. Then I was really fortunate because, by my second film, I had broken some of those. I wasn’t the damsel in distress. I can stand up for myself. So, I went into that head-on. I was very blessed it worked out. We are allowed to fail and to have things not work out. We are allowed to try new things and to not have them work out. We are very blessed if it works out. You have to come forward and take those risks. You can’t take no for an answer, you have to keep going. Yes, if you have economic wealth, it does make you stronger and you can choose what you want to do.
I remember when I went to meet Danny Boyle to talk about Sunshine. The whole script, but I was really lucky because I was the only Asian in it. I said to him, don’t you think the space race is no longer between Russians and Americans? There are the Japanese and the Chinese. If you look at that film now, you’ll see
Benedict Wong, Cillian Murphy was in it. So was Cliff Curtis. It was really diverse. It’s like doing Star Trek. You don’t even think of gender equality and it’s something we’re working on right now.
The worst they can do is turn around and find someone else who is willing to do it, but you also have to break barriers by saying, “No. I don’t think so.” Sometimes, I get scripts that have no fences. Yes, it’s written for a man, but we think it’s okay for you. It should be like that. Scripts do not have to say, “An African-American woman in her forties or an Asian.” It should just say, “A woman in whatever age group she needs to be.” That’s what we’re after. We’re after equal opportunities. That is our craft. We are storytellers but don’t cut us off without giving us a chance.
Star Trek was way ahead of its time.
It absolutely was.
OK, so, is there a role or a genre you’re dying to do?
I would love to do a musical. It would be so much fun.
What were you thinking?
I loved old musicals. I loved The Sound of Music. My Fair Lady. Singing in the Rain. Then I look at Rob Marshall and what he did. Or La La Land and Mamma Mia. I love music. It’s so romantic. I’m a romantic at heart. I want to go to the movies where it transports me from the mundane things of life. That’s basically what I’m looking for.
If I’m going to watch something that reminds me of who I am, I can see myself. Nowadays, it takes real effort to go to the cinema, but going to the movie is and has always been a part of my cultural upbringing.
The platform has changed so much with streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. There are so many exciting things happening. Unless it’s an incredible movie, most people are too busy binging. It’s also expensive. I go frequently, but if you go with a family, it’s expensive. For me, going to the movies is a shared experience and that’s what I love about it.
Like, Crazy Rich Asians, when you watch it with other people and talk about it afterward.
OK, so we have to wrap it up. But before we go, let’s do this one-word association.
Oh, those things are so scary.
Tomorrow Never Dies
Memoirs of a Geisha.
Ooh, the beautiful scene when I’m walking with the umbrella.
Oh my God! The madness of rolling off the van and jumping onto the train with a crazy motorbike. What was I thinking?!
Guardians Of The Galaxy.
Oh, that was so much fun. I want to go back!
Crazy Rich Asians is released on DVD on November 20