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Michelle Yeoh: Portraying An Icon In 'The Lady'
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Michelle Yeoh: Portraying An Icon In 'The Lady'

Movie Interviews


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at a recent film premiere that she had told Aung San Suu Kyi that she was moving from an icon to a politician.

Aung Sung Sui Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and won the Nobel Peace Prize, before being freed in 2010.

Earlier this month, her National League for Democracy Party won scores of seats in Burma's new parliament. This summer, she'll reportedly travel overseas for the first time in 24 years - and be able to see her sons and grandchildren.

The film Secretary Clinton saw is "The Lady," starring Michelle Yeoh as the woman who was the daughter of a Burmese revolutionary hero, but considered herself a rather shy academic before making her first political speech.


MICHELLE YEOH: (as Aung San Suu Kyi) It may be a little late to be saying this, but you realize I've never actually spoken in public before.

DAVID THEWLIS: (as Michael Aris) Well, there's no time like the present. We'll be watching from the side.

SIMON: That's Michelle Yeoh - maybe best known for her flying kicks and pulling no punches in "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" - playing Aung San Suu Kyi. "The Lady" is directed by Luc Besson. Michelle Yeoh joins us from Bangkok, where she's working on a new film.

Thanks so much for being with us.

YEOH: It's a pleasure to be talking to you, Scott.

SIMON: How do you play an icon as a real flesh and blood human being?

YEOH: Ah, with great love. And with a lot of care. I mean, that was the only way because she's a big hero of mine too. But it wasn't just about her, it was also a great story about love between a couple, strength between family. So it was a lot of preparation, a lot of research fortunately done by Rebecca Frayn and Luc Besson's team. And then afterwards I had like two, no, almost 300 hours of footage of Daw Suu when she was first campaigning. We call her Daw Suu affectionately and as a title of respect. So basically, my day would be, I would start maybe at 4, 5 o'clock in the morning. I trained as a marathon runner because I wanted to lose more weight to resemble her physically. She is very slim but she is very strong. And then, after that I spent hours with an English tutor because Daw Suu has this English lilt when she speaks. Then, of course, it was learning Burmese, which I must say, has been one of the most challenging things in my career.

SIMON: And did you meet her before you played her?

YEOH: Well, at that time Daw Suu was still very much under house arrest.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

YEOH: Her children, her son had not seen her for 10 years and you and also they were not allowed any form of communication. So we couldn't get to Daw Suu. We couldn't get any interviews. I couldn't get to meet her. Nobody could. But we managed to just get a message - quietly - to say that Luc Besson and Michelle Yeoh were going to make a movie about her. And we believe that she would not have resisted or tried to stop us because she always said, you know, use your liberty to promote ours.

SIMON: As you mentioned, at the heart of this story is a love story, Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, now gone, Michael Aris. We want to run a clip, very sad scene because her husband is dying of cancer and Aung San Suu Kyi is offered the chance to leave Burma and go to his bedside, but knowing the military regime as she does, she suspects she wouldn't be permitted to come back. Here she is talking to their son Kim.



JONATHAN RAGGETT: (as Kim) He doesn't have much time left.

YEOH: (Aung San Suu Kyi) But I can't. My hands are tied. I'm sorry.

RAGGETT: (as Kim) I know. But he's dying.

YEOH: (Aung San Suu Kyi) Please try to understand. Kim. It would be the end of everything your father and I fought for so long.


RAGGETT: (Kim) Hello?

YEOH: (Aung San Suu Kyi) Kim? Kim?

SIMON: The story of this dauntless woman that inspires so much of the world, the same time must have painful chapters for the family that was immediately affected.

YEOH: Yes. Yes. I think it was very important for us as filmmakers to show you that there is a real couple, she's a woman, she's a mother, she is a wife, and there's a real family that was about all this and how they put continuously the needs of others - always the needs of others - before their own, and that was a really worthwhile, you know, emotion for us to learn from. Perhaps, if we can be inspired by them, maybe things will be a little bit different.

SIMON: Did anyone ever say to you, here you are playing this famous champion of nonviolent resistance and you're probably best known around the world for kicking people in the teeth.


YEOH: Kind of ironic, isn't it?


YEOH: Well, I think, you know, as an actor that's what you do. You continue to surprise your audiences, that they're not quite sure what to make of it. I hope the audience when they see it they're not going to go, come on Michelle. Just jump over the table and kick their ass.


YEOH: I hope that after a few minutes they do not see me anymore.

SIMON: May I ask, is there a dearth of good roles for Asian actresses in Western cinema?

YEOH: Oh, not enough, that's for sure. I think it's quite clear that there are very few and far and between. And we hope that, you know, with the Asian market opening up more, there will be bigger exchanges, there will be more movies that will happen in Asia and vice versa because we are - we have so many talents.

SIMON: Michelle Yeoh. Her new film, "The Lady," telling the story of Aung San Suu Kyi. She joined us from Bangkok.

Thanks so much for being with us.

YEOH: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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