Over the past couple of decades, it seems the world has begun to covet slightly older, more worldly action stars. Think Liam Neeson’s hit Taken trilogy, which he began shooting at the tender age of 56. Then there’s The Expendables franchise, whose leading men’s ages range from their fifties (Jason Statham) to mid-seventies (Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Proof positive that global audiences have truly embraced cinematic silver foxes.
Yet the same cannot be said for the fairer sex. Indeed there seems to be a dearth of more mature leading ladies taking the lead in high-octane action thrillers, with the exception of one notable outlier – Michelle Yeoh. The Malaysian-born actress, who turns 60 later this year, remains one of Tinseltown’s most highly sought-after screen sirens. After already having forged a successful career in the Far East, she made her Western debut in the James Bond outing Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997 before being catapulted to Hollywood fame in Ang Lee’s smash hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon three years later.
Fast forward to today. While many of her counterparts are being sidelined in favour of more youthful thespians, Yeoh remains in hot demand. In fact, in the past few years, she’s added impressively to her portfolio. She’s won major roles in multi-million dollar productions such as 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians and kung fu film Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy, 2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings, and more recently, in the critically acclaimed absurdist dramedy Everything Everywhere All at Once.
In an industry notorious for being perceived as being both ageist and racist, Yeoh’s reign at the top of the box office continues unabated. To celebrate the trailblazer’s decades of success, we delve into some lesser-known facts about this versatile actress.
1. Early Aspirations
Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng was born on 6 August 1962 in Ipoh, Malaysia to Yeoh Kian-teik, a politician and lawyer, and Janet Yeoh. An all-rounder at school, she excelled at sports such as swimming and rugby, but even at an early age, she knew what she wanted to be – a ballet dancer. Having begun ballet lessons at just four, she continued to pursue her dream after moving to London with her family at age 15, eventually studying at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance.
However it was not to be, as a spinal injury sidelined her from the stage, causing her to switch her focus to choreography instead. A new calling emerged several years later, however, when her mother secretly entered her in a Miss Malaysia pageant in 1983. Once she nabbed the crown, film opportunities began trickling in, launching what would eventually be a decades-long career. Ballet’s loss was cinema’s gain.
2. Kung Fu Prowess
When Yeoh first got her big acting break back in the ’80s, she was often faced with sexism from her male colleagues when it came to preparing for action movies. Despite the obvious risks, in those early days, she almost exclusively performed all her own stunts as she “didn’t have help from CGI” back then. Recalling the antagonism she faced while training in local Hong Kong gyms, she recalls: “They literally folded their arms, stood back and watched me. ‘This little thing wants to do all this?’ But I followed them move for move. I was in that gym from 8.30am until sundown every day.”
3. Stunt Work
It wasn’t just the trainers that used to look at her sideways, however. The streak of male chauvinism also encompassed many of her co-stars as well, most notably with Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, whom she first collaborated with back in 1984 – her first acting gig – while shooting a watch commercial. The latter, who Yeoh has gone on record as saying believed women belonged in the kitchen rather than in action movies, tried to enforce his views on her. The result? In her own words, she “kicked his butt”.
4. Acting Hiatus
Although Michelle Yeoh has been with her long-time partner, French motor racing executive Jean Todt, for nearly 20 years, she was once married to successful Hong Kong entrepreneur, Dickson Poon, following her rise to prominence in the local film industry. At that time, the then-25-year-old decided to retire from acting to focus on her new husband and family.
Looking back, she says: “I’m in awe of women who can juggle an amazing career, motherhood and family. I cannot. At that point I realised that if I was getting married then that’s what I wanted to focus on. I’m a very, very committed person, and I knew I couldn’t be the best wife – and hopefully mother – if I was away months on end shooting. I didn’t know how to balance that. I wanted to be able to travel with my husband. I wanted to be a part of his life and make it our life.” Sadly, Yeoh was unable to have children, and the couple parted ways four years later.
5. Second Wind
After settling for playing the mother or other secondary characters for a few years, her renewed success on the big screen was as much a shock to Yeoh as it is for anyone else. In fact, she claims to being somewhat tickled at being introduced to a whole new generation of movie-goers as she nears 60. “These young kids don’t know me because they didn’t grow up watching Tomorrow Never Dies or Memoirs of a Geisha. Now I’m suddenly known by the younger generation, and they can relate to me suddenly, and I think that’s a great achievement,” she muses.
While the change may be as fortuitous as it was unexpected, there’s no sign of the momentum abating anytime soon. Next, the Crazy Rich Asians actress is set to act in James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar sequel, set to be released later this year. Then, there’s the as-yet unnamed Star Trek: Discovery spin-off rumoured to be in the works that will see her reprise her popular anti-protagonist character of Philippa Georgiou. After that, the future is less clear, but chances are we’ll be seeing her on the silver screen for many more years to come.