From her roles in Hong Kong action films in the 90s to appearing in everything from Marvel to Star Trek, Michelle Yeoh has made a name for herself as an international actor. She recently appeared in American Born Chinese as the fictional version of the Bodhisattva and Chinese mythological goddess Guanyin. The series is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Gene Luen Yang, following the story of an American teenager named Jin Wang (Ben Wang) and what happens when he meets Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), his new classmate who turns out to be the son of the legendary Monkey King Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu).
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In our interview with Yeoh, we discuss what drew her to the role of Guanyin and the project American Born Chinese. We discuss the way the series chose to portray Guanyin, in a more modern and covert context beyond just her traditional costuming. The series also features many familiar faces from her Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once and from the Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and we talked about what it was like to reunite with fellow actors and creatives. Finally, with her appearance in so many franchises past, present, and future, Yeoh talked about how she chooses what franchises to be in.
Check out the full transcript or watch the video below.
COLLIDER: So first off, I just want say, I’m very excited to speak with you again. We chatted for [Everything Everywhere All at Once] when you guys were doing the press tour, and I want to congratulate you on your Oscar! So for American Born Chinese, you are playing an iconic mythological figure. I think myself and many Asians know the name Guanyin. What was it like embodying the character and bringing her into this modern setting? Because we get to see her not just in her full regalia.
MICHELLE YEOH: It is a real privilege, and it’s an honor to be able to play her, first of all, because she embodies all the goodness that we can think of, right? To be able to say, “I played Guanyin,” then people will think, “Oh my God, she has kindness, she has love, she has serenity,” because that is what Guanyin does for us. But the fun part, I must say, coming out in her full regalia was easy because Joy Cretton and Jose [Luis Ramos Jr.], who did the costumes, really went out of their way with the headgear and the way the robes float as she’s coming down with the wind.
But, to bring her to the 21st century, that was when we had a little bit more fun, but with great respect to who this iconic goddess is. It was nice to see her blend in, right? So, the hoodie, the baseball cap. You would look and say, “Oh, that’s a nice auntie,” or, “That’s someone who’s going shopping and doing the groceries,” and things like that, and she would not stick out like a sore thumb in that way. So, I really enjoyed that part of it, to give her a sense of playfulness, but without overstepping the line.
Yeah, definitely. I love seeing her at the buffet, which was like, “Oh, this is definitely something my family would do!”
YEOH: Right? It’s like, “Don’t stuff yourself with the rice!” [Laughs] Kelvin [Yu] and our writers, they were amazing when they wrote all that into it, and you go like, “Oh my God, that’s really funny!” Because people will relate to that, and it’s coming from the goddess of mercy [laughs]. That sense of humor is something which I really enjoyed when it’s not too much in your face, but it’s there, and the underlying messages that comes out, it’s very, very important.
What drew you to this project other than, of course, playing a goddess?
YEOH: The story that it was telling, the story of coming-of-age, for finding your self-worth. Not just as the teenagers, the kids, but also as adults, that you do not become bitter, and you think, “I’m doing this for everybody else except for me.” And to understand that the journey is hard, acceptance. The most important thing is the journey within yourself, the spiritual side, the love. If you don’t feel love for yourself, how would you expect somebody else to love you if you can’t even, first, do it for yourself?
I think this whole part of the identity, “Who am I?” Who are you? Only you can answer that question, and I think a lot of the times, perhaps, we overthink things. You are Chinese, and yes, you are American, and you have such a heritage that you can be proud of and learn and share with. It’s never too late to learn. And I think with American Born Chinese, that’s what it is doing, is giving you such a fun platform to learn so many things about a different culture, maybe your own culture, about the history, about certain mythological characters that are so dynamic, interesting, and bringing the two worlds like that together is exciting.
Yeah, for sure. I really enjoyed the story of American Born Chinese, and I really like the fact that this show seems to be reuniting you with your Everything Everywhere co-stars, but also with some [Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings] people, as well. What was it like reuniting, getting to have scenes with Ke [Huy Quan] and with Stephanie [Hsu]? Obviously, you didn’t have any scenes with James [Hong], I don’t think, but it was still like, “Oh! There he is!” It was nice seeing him there.
YEOH: Oh yes, I did have a scene with him because we were all in the heavens.
Oh right, yeah!
YEOH: Being reunited with the people that you’ve worked with, especially that you have so much love for, is always great. And to come together for such a important story to be told is even better, right? We all have roles to play to tell this story, and reuniting not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera with Destin [Daniel Cretton] and Joy, the Crettons. It was a dream come true.
Also, working for the first time with Daniel Wu, who plays the Monkey King, you know, we’ve known each other since the days in Hong Kong where we were fighting, and things like that, but we never had a chance to work together. So this time when he called, he text me and he said, “Are you on this American Born Chinese?” I said, “Yes! And you better get your… in there as quick as possible!” So it was a really, really tremendous opportunity, and I’m so grateful to Destin for calling me, and Melvin [Mar] and Kelvin, you know, for making it all come together, and together with Disney+. And this all happened even before the Oscars, that they knew that these kind of stories have to be told, and we’re one of the first few to come out with the American Born Chinese.
This story was very relatable for me on many levels. I am also American-born Chinese, but I didn’t know that you and Daniel worked together before, which I think that makes the relationship that your two characters have even better on a behind-the-scenes level, at least.
So you’ve been in so many franchises lately; you’re in Marvel, Star Trek, The Witcher, you’re going to be in Avatar, you’re going to be in Transformers. Do you have a big takeaway when it comes to being in these types of projects? Has there been a lesson in all this, or is it just you’ll take the jobs that come to you?
YEOH: No, no, no. I choose the jobs that come to me because – it takes me away from my family, so I’m not going to do something that is not meaningful to me. So there’s always a reason. “Why did I choose to do this franchise or that franchise?” But it was a choice. Fortunately, I think we are all in that position where the hardest thing is sometimes to say no.
Especially, it could be a filmmaker or a storyteller that you really, really want to work with, but that character just doesn’t speak to you, or the story is not what you’re looking to do. I think that is very important, that I try not to play the same characters again because that would not be educational for me as an actor. It would not be interesting to you as an audience because you see, “Okay, that’s Michelle doing the Michelle thing again.” And I hope I’m always going to surprise you, or give you something to think about, so that’s why I take on all these very weird and wonderful and wacky roles.