Movie Interview - Michelle Yeoh Discusses 'The Lady' And Aung San Suu Kyi Actress Michelle Yeoh portrays Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi in the new biopic The Lady. Before she played a symbol of nonviolence, Yeoh began her film career as a fighter in martial arts pictures. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Yeoh about the film and her career.

Michelle Yeoh: Portraying An Icon In 'The Lady'

Michelle Yeoh: Portraying An Icon In 'The Lady'

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Michelle Yeoh plays pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady. Yeoh says it was important that the film portrayed Suu Kyi's struggles realistically, including how her 15-year house arrest kept her from her husband and sons. Cohen Media Group hide caption

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

The film Clinton saw is The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh as the pro-democracy activist who spent 15 years under house arrest in Myanmar (also known as Burma), and who won the Nobel Peace Prize before being freed in 2010.

Earlier this month, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won scores of seats in Burma's new parliament, and in the summer Suu Kyi will reportedly travel overseas for the first time in 24 years — and be able to see her sons and grandchildren.

Yeoh, who brought the script to the attention of Lady director Luc Besson, says she approached playing Suu Kyi "with great love and care."

"That was the only way, because she's a big hero of mine," Yeoh tells Weekend Edition's Scott Simon. "But it wasn't just about her. It was also a great story about love between a couple, strength between family."

And in fact much of the movie focuses on the relationship between Suu Kyi and her late husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford academic. While the story of Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy inspires many, the film shows it came with great personal sacrifice and some painful chapters for Suu Kyi and her family.

"It was very important to us as filmmakers to show you that there is a real couple," Yeoh says. "She's a woman, she's a mother, she's a wife, and there's a real family that was involved in all this. ... How they put continuously the needs of others, always the needs of others, before their own ... that was a worthwhile emotion to learn from. Perhaps if we can be inspired by them, maybe things would be a little bit different."

Embodying Aung San Suu Kyi

Yeoh, who made a name for herself by performing her own stunts in martial arts movies, acknowledges that it's mildly ironic that she's now playing a symbol of nonviolent resistance. At the same time, she says that "as an actor, that's what you do: You continue to surprise your audiences.

"I hope ... the audience, when they see it, they aren't going to go, 'Come on, Michelle! Jump over the table and kick their ass!' " she laughs. "I hope after a few minutes they do not see me anymore."

Yeoh prepared for her role with reams of research done by Lady screenwriter Rebecca Frayn, plus about 300 hours of footage assembled by Besson's team from when Suu Kyi was first campaigning. Yeoh says it was a challenging effort to match Suu Kyi in body and voice.

"Basically my day would be starting at maybe 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning," Yeoh says. "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."

Yeoh also spent hours with an English tutor to match the English lilt in Suu Kyi's accent.

"Then, of course, it was learning Burmese, which I must say has been one of the most challenging things in my career," Yeoh says. "Because Burmese is different from Cantonese, from Mandarin, from English, from Malay, from any of the languages that I already know — but I had an incredible Burmese teacher so I could speak Burmese like Daw Suu." (Represented in English, Burmese names may take the honorific "Daw.")

While Yeoh wasn't able to meet Suu Kyi in person because the activist was still under house arrest when Yeoh was preparing for the role, she says the filmmakers were able to covertly communicate their intentions.

"We managed to just get a message, quietly, to say that Luc Besson and Michelle Yeoh were going to make a movie about her," Yeoh says. "And we believed that she would not have resisted, or tried to stop us, because she always said, 'Use your liberty to promote ours.' "