Michelle Yeoh journeys the multiverse in 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' : Consider This from NPR Michelle Yeoh has been a star for decades. American audiences will know her as a warrior in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or an icy matriarch in Crazy Rich Asians. Now, in Everything Everywhere All At Once, she's playing Chinese immigrant Evelyn Wang who is both a failure and possibly the key to saving the multiverse from a great chaos-spreading evil.

Michelle Yeoh talks with NPR's Ailsa Chang about her journey through the multiverse, with all its wackiness, wonder and wisdom.

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Michelle Yeoh is a subversive superhero in 'Everything Everywhere All At Once'

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Michelle Yeoh has been a star for decades. She was a warrior in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON")

MICHELLE YEOH: (As Yu Shu Lien, speaking Mandarin).

CHANG: ...A mentor in "Memoirs Of A Geisha..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA")

YEOH: (As Mameha) You cannot call yourself a true geisha until you can stop a man in his tracks with a single look.

CHANG: ...And of course, she was the icy matriarch of a family of "Crazy Rich Asians."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

YEOH: (As Eleanor Young) Pursuing one's passion - how American.

CHANG: Now Yeoh is finally getting her turn at the leading role in a Hollywood film in the new movie, "Everything Everywhere All At Once," written and directed by the duo known as the Daniels.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

YEOH: (As Evelyn Wang) I am paying attention.

CHANG: In it, Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a laundromat owner.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

YEOH: (As Evelyn Wang) You need some, lah (ph).

CHANG: When you meet Evelyn at the beginning of the movie, she is totally stressed out and distracted.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

YEOH: (As Evelyn Wang) I have to finish all of this before (non-English language spoken). Go and steam the tablecloth for tonight.

CHANG: Her marriage to her husband Waymond has stagnated. Her relationship with her queer daughter Joy is fraught with tension and frustration.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

STEPHANIE HSU: (As Joy Wang) Mom, just wait.

YEOH: (As Evelyn Wang) Wait, wait? No time to wait.

HSU: (As Joy Wang) Just - please?

CHANG: And on top of all that, her laundromat is about to go under. Oh, wait, there's more. Her judgmental father's in town, and she's being audited, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Need I remind you that there's already a lean on your property? Repossession is well within our rights.

YEOH: (As Evelyn Wang) I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YEOH: It's probably easier to say what is going right in her life the minute you meet Evelyn Wang.

CHANG: That's Michelle Yeoh. To her, Evelyn represents a kind of everywoman.

YEOH: For me, she's the woman, the mother, the auntie, the grandmother that you pass by, you know, when you go to the supermarket; the almost unseen woman who is, like, got the weight of the world on her shoulders.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is a zany, science fiction adventure that travels through multiple universes, including the universe of one ordinary Chinese immigrant woman - frizzy hair, puffy red vest and all - who turns out to be a superhero. Confused yet? I talked with Michelle Yeoh about her journey through the multiverse with all its wackiness, wonder and wisdom. From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Friday, April 8.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. OK. "Everything Everywhere All At Once" throws a lot at you all at once. In the middle of her IRS audit, Evelyn Wang's husband, Waymond, drops some pretty mind-boggling news.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

KE HUY QUAN: (As Waymond Wang, whispering) I'm not your husband, and he's not the one you know. I'm one of the version of him from another life path, another universe.

CHANG: In fact, there are many other universes out there, he says; universes where Evelyn made different choices along the way that led to different Evelyn lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

QUAN: (As Waymond Wang) I'm here because we need your help.

YEOH: (As Evelyn Wang) Very busy today. No time to help you.

CHANG: Oh, and there's a great evil spreading chaos throughout all of these universes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

QUAN: (As Waymond Wang) I've spent years searching for the one who might be able to match this great evil with an even greater good and bring that balance.

CHANG: And that greater good might just be this Evelyn Wang, as in the failing laundromat owner Evelyn Wang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, FIGHTING)

CHANG: So it's a good thing she has been given a device that allows her to access all the other Evelyns and all their other skills.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, FIGHTING)

CHANG: And that's just the beginning. It is a very different kind of movie than Michelle Yeoh is used to...

YEOH: I swear I was on the floor laughing so hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, FIGHTING)

CHANG: ...Especially when it came to filming scenes that used adult toys as weapons.

YEOH: I remember lying there thinking, oh, God, what have you put me into? What did I do to deserve this (laughter)?

CHANG: Still, Yeoh told me she trusted directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.

YEOH: You have to understand what these - I call them evil geniuses - what's going on in those heads. They are bold and courageous and not afraid to make you laugh or feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, FIGHTING)

CHANG: And that required Yeoh to be bold and courageous herself, stretching beyond the martial arts masters she's so good at playing to, well, someone who doesn't really know what she's doing.

YEOH: I think I had it easy in the past, where I just looked cool, you know? Right, I know exactly what I'm doing, that kind of thing. Oh, my God. Martial arts is simple. It's easy compared to physical comedy. Physical comedy is, like, timing, is precision, is so many things coming together at the right time. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I never did it before because it was so hard (laughter).

No, and I think it was so challenging that I really, really enjoyed it very much. Because you had to literally fracture your mind into knowing the moves and doing them like you're a master, but your face is completely registering shock and then wonder and like, oh, my God, how the hell am I doing this? - like all at the same time.

CHANG: I love that point because it was new for me to see you in a role where you did not look glamorous or...

YEOH: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...Intimidatingly beautiful or regal. I mean, how did it feel to look so intensely ordinary for this movie?

YEOH: Ah, but that was it. You know, I felt that this was such a perfect opportunity to give a voice to the very ordinary mothers and housewife who are out there, you know, doing the most mundane things and get so taken for granted.

CHANG: Yes.

YEOH: And then let her discover that, oh, my God, she is a superhero.

CHANG: Exactly. What was so cool for me was to see an unglamorous Chinese woman, the kind of woman who might be invisible to people on the bus or in Chinatown, to see that Chinese immigrant woman play a superhero felt so different to me, right? It was, like, almost subversive. I loved that.

YEOH: Yes. Yes. I think that was the whole - that was one of the main points that we were trying to bring to the surface. It's like, not just her, but all of us have superpowers. And one of the biggest superpower that we often and should use more of is kindness. That's an incredible superpower that's inherently there in all of us. And that's what we are trying to do here is, like, this ordinary Evelyn Wang, you know, at the end of the day, finding what she really, really - she will never give up. That's her family. That's her love for her family, her daughter, that, you know, I think today we find that so relatable because communication is one of the most difficult things I find...

CHANG: Yeah.

YEOH: ...With the different generations...

CHANG: Absolutely.

YEOH: ...Especially with - you know, a Chinese immigrant, any immigrant family, you're here for the American dream. And that's not a easy dream, is it? It's so tough. And some don't ever get it right, but they don't give up trying. I think that's one of the messages for me, is, like, whatever you do, if you give up, you've already failed. And you can't give up on family and love and kindness. You just have to keep trying.

CHANG: Well, you know, this movie, it doesn't just shift who we see as superheroes in the universe. It also kind of shifts who we see leading a Hollywood movie. Like, you have spent almost four decades in film, and now, at age 59, this is the first time that you have ever gotten top billing in a Hollywood movie. What does that feel like at this moment in your career?

YEOH: It's like, finally.

CHANG: Yeah.

YEOH: Finally we have our moment, and thank God it didn't come a moment too soon (laughter). No, I think I've waited, and I think not just me. There's so many of us that looks like me, like you, who are waiting, who are still waiting for the opportunities. I think the tide has turned, but we also need to be responsible, good storytellers and seize the opportunities that are presented now for...

CHANG: Right.

YEOH: ...Women, for diversity. But don't let it just be lip service. It has to mean something. So this particular - this movie in particular, it's about a Asian immigrant woman, an aging Asian immigrant woman. When was the last time you saw that, right?

CHANG: Right.

YEOH: Yeah.

CHANG: Exactly - not only be in a lead role, but to be the superhero. Yeah.

YEOH: So - but you know that - it took us a long time. I think in the older days, you know how Asians put their heads down and say, OK, let's just get on with it? Let's work hard. Our hard work will pay off. [Expletive]. Sorry.

CHANG: (Laughter) Amen.

YEOH: You know, sometimes we have to rock the boat.

CHANG: Absolutely.

YEOH: We just have to rock the boat and say, look at us; give us a chance - because guess what? We exist in your society. We are part of the society and very, very much an intricate part of this whole community. And - but we also have to make it that we have to stand up for our rights, you know? We can't just...

CHANG: A hundred percent.

YEOH: We - it's not just for us, but for our children and their children. And this is the only way we will get more opportunities - if we fight for it and no longer be able to say, OK, I'll turn the other cheek. Dang - no more turning the other cheek.

CHANG: Absolutely. Well, speaking of taking a stand, making decisions, making choices in life, you know, your character, Evelyn, she travels back and forth between alternate universes in this story, where she catches glimpses of what her life would have been like had she made different choices. And it made me wonder if you have ever imagined what other universes would have opened up had you made different choices in life.

YEOH: You know, I think what we all do is we - especially when we've made a mistake - and we all make mistakes. We're human, right? I'm sure we do that - some really bad ones. And if you're smart, you'll never make them again. And that's what we hope to do, is every time we do make a mistake is to know what the mistake is, accept it and move on and move forwards. And I - do I want to say, oh, I wish there - of course, there are things in life I wish I did which would have made me smarter, healthier, wiser when I was younger. But do I sit there and go, I wish I took another pass? Because then I wouldn't have all the amazing things I have today and the career that I've forged over the last 30-something years.

So I don't really spend time doing that. But I think in "Everything Everywhere All At Once," it does make you ponder because what it tells you here is, like, every choice that you make splinters into a full-blown universe of its own with a real life, even regardless of whether you have hot dog fingers, whether you're a rock, what you have evolved to. I think the core spirit, the core emotion, is very, very real in whatever universe you are in. And for Evelyn, yes, because her life at that moment in time was so desperate and feeling like such a failure, she almost wants to go to the glam universe...

CHANG: Yeah.

YEOH: ...Where she has - she's successful, you know? Everything - someone...

CHANG: She's a movie star.

YEOH: Yeah, she's a movie star.

CHANG: I mean, frankly, those scenes look like your real life, Michelle.

(LAUGHTER)

YEOH: The Daniels tried very hard, OK? They tried to call the character Michelle at the beginning of the - when we started our journey.

CHANG: (Laughter).

YEOH: And I shot that down, like, right away. It's like, no. I said, watch my lips - N-O.

CHANG: (Laughter) Yeah.

YEOH: No Michelle calling in the movie because I think it's like, yes, we do have moments of regrets. But we also have to remember, if you go - like what Evelyn is told - if you go into that universe, it destroys all the other universes. It destroys your universe. And what is most precious to you now, you would lose.

CHANG: Yeah. I felt like this movie was telling us, ultimately, it's not useful in life to wonder what if?

YEOH: I think so.

CHANG: Because no matter what path you choose will involve some loss but also some gain. yeah.

YEOH: Yes. And I think you have to be present. This life is yours. But if you're not present, it's wasted. It goes by. As you know, time waits for no one. You know, when we're born, we age, and then we die. And God forbid we die before we have lived our lives. So we have to be present in whatever universe in whatever life because if you give up on being present, then you give up on your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That was Michelle Yeoh talking about her new movie, "Everything Everywhere All At Once." It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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