Interview: Michelle Yeoh on filming The Lady

Luc Besson’s biopic of iconic pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi

Former Malaysian beauty queen Michelle Yeoh started her acting career co-starring with Jackie Chan in the likes of Supercop. She made her English-language debut opposite Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies before returning to China to make the Oscar-winning martial arthouse epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In the ten years since, Yeoh has appeared in Memoirs of A Geisha, Sunshine and Far North as well as voicing Kung Fu Panda 2. Her most recent role, however, has proved to be her most challenging yet: playing the iconic pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi in Luc Besson’s biopic The Lady. Here she talk to Miles Fielder about the film and the lady.

‘This has been one of the greatest challenges of my career, to portray a real life person, someone that’s so recognisable and so revered. Also, her message is so powerful and it’s still effecting great changes, as we see in Burma today. So you feel a great sense of responsibility. But, as an actor, you want to be challenged. It’s also such a privilege, because we don’t have so many heroes, so many Asian women heroes. Ultimately, it has been a very enlightening experience.

‘I gathered as much reading material about Aung San Suu Kyi and about Burma as I could. And I read every article and every book she had written. I also had 200 hours of footage of her to watch. I tried to discover who were her heroes and where he desire and strength to pursue democracy in a non-violent fashion came from. As an actor you can’t just imitate someone. You have to get under her skin. It’s our responsibility as filmmakers to tell a story that’s a human drama.

‘I found Luc Besson fantastic to work with. But he’s a slave driver. But you trust him. And whatever he rings out of you, he knows you have it in you to give it. And with this film, you had to give everything. And we’re great friends, so that’s even better.

‘When we were almost finished principle photography in Thailand, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. So we all decided we should just go and see her. We all handed in our passports and a few days later they came back: all our visas had been rejected except for mine. Everyone was a little worried, because we had been filming under the radar – we had never announced we were making the film. That was amazing: no one, not one of the 2000 extras, took a photo while we were filming and posted it on Facebook. I think that’s a sign of the respect she commands. So I took the opportunity and just went to visit her. And there was no problem. It was very surreal, to go up the driveway and see the same house I had been filming in a replica of for the last few months. I knew my way around the house.

‘At first, we didn’t speak about the film. I forgot I was making a film. She has become such a hero of mine. I just basked in her warmth and love. I think she knew we were doing this movie about her, but I think she is a little shy. She laughed and said, “Who would want to see two hours of me?”

‘She was so humble and modest. And she has a great warmth. You feel she is listening to you. She embraces you. She wants to learn from you. She’s also very maternal. You feel you are family with her. She is very smart, straightforward and articulate. And, of course, she has great principles.’

The Lady International Trailer


The Lady

It takes some doing to rob the biopic of Nobel prize-winning Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi of drama and tension, but that's exactly what Besson manages here. The story of her romance with Oxford academic Michael Aris is mishandled too, making this an entirely wasted opportunity.