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Michelle Yeoh on her Oscar-nominated performance in 'Everything Everywhere All at Once'
Amna Nawaz: The film with the most Oscar nominations this year, "Everything Everywhere All at Once," became a surprise breakout hit for audiences and critics.
This weekend, at the Directors Guild of America Awards, the film's directors won for best theatrical feature. The movie's star, Michelle Yeoh, has already nabbed a Golden Globe Award, and now has a chance to make history as the first Asian woman to win an Oscar for best actress.
Jeffrey Brown talks to Yeoh for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jamie Lee Curtis, Actress: Mrs. Wang,are you with us?
Michelle Yeoh, Actress: I am paying attention.
Jeffrey Brown: "Everything Everywhere All at Once," a wild title, a wild and hard-to-characterize movie. It's part sci-fi, action film, comedy, family drama, in which a woman named Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American immigrant whose life is a string of problems, with her husband, her daughter, her failing laundromat and the IRS, suddenly finds herself the only person who can save the universe from disaster, and not just this universe, but an entire multiverse of alternative lives.
Michelle Yeoh: It's weird. It's wacky. It's wonderful. Just strap on your safety belt and go on this crazy ride with Evelyn Wang, because she's just going to blow your mind.
You still went looking for me.
Jeffrey Brown: Michelle Yeoh stars as Evelyn. And the role has brought her an Oscar nomination.
The movie, co-directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, together known as the Daniels, is up for best film and a slew of other awards, including best director and three supporting actor nominations. And it's been an unexpected box office hit.
Speaking from London recently, where she's filming a movie version of "Wicked," Yeoh said part of "Everything Everywhere"'s secret is its playful twist on who gets to be the superhero.
Michelle Yeoh: And it was what I found so charming about this movie was shining a light on a very ordinary woman that you would pass by on the streets, you would see in the supermarket. You probably wouldn't even give her a second glance.
But then, at the end of the day, she finds her superpowers, which we all have, which is kindness and love and compassion.
Jeffrey Brown: Not to mention a pretty good punch. Yeoh, now 60, has had a storied career for decades, first attracting international attention in 1992's "Supercop" with Jackie Chan. She took a memorable little motorbike ride with Pierce Brosnan in the 1997 James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies."
And she soared and fought in courtyards and across rooftops in 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Born in Malaysia and trained first as a dancer, she's a rare combination of grace and power, elegance and action. Coming up in the Hong Kong film world, she says she learned firsthand to do her own martial arts and other action scenes.
Michelle Yeoh: It was very, very risky, because all the stunts were done real. When they say jump off the roof, they jumped off the roof.
And then I will never forget when the stunt coordinator said to the stuntman who was bouncing off the railings and stackings, and he said: "That was too comfortable."
I'm like: "How did bouncing off the staircase look comfortable?"
But what he meant was like, it didn't have that boom, boom, pow! And I wanted to show that women needs to be strong and independent and physically capable to do this.
Jeffrey Brown: You know, you have you have spoken about, as you age as a woman, as an actor, the roles perhaps change. They might become more limited.
Michelle Yeoh: What I was most opposed to much, as I love my superhero guys, is like, why do they get to rescue, go out and save the world? And they will do it with my daughter, and not me.
So it's like, no, no, no, no, no, I refuse. I don't want -- I would like to be given the opportunities.
Jeffrey Brown: Yeoh has also helped lead the way in a change in Hollywood that has brought Asian actors to the forefront, notably in the 2018, blockbuster "Crazy Rich Asians."
Michelle Yeoh: When "Crazy Rich Asians" came out in 2018, it sort of lit a fire and say, please look at us. We can be leading men and actresses. We can be funny, and we can be this and we can be that.
It's just like, embrace us and give us the opportunity.
Jeffrey Brown: You now have the opportunity to become the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for best actress. How important would that be for you?
Michelle Yeoh: You know, when I was told, I think I sort of ping-ponged against being shocked. Like, no, it can't be. I mean, all of a sudden, I'm like, are you serious?
Because I know of such amazing, great actresses that came before me. So how is that even possible? And it's like, why have we -- is -- all we want to know is that be given the privilege to compete. But we can't compete if the roles have not been forthcoming in that way.
I mean, my ideal world is -- after this,is to see that, when -- for example, "Wicked," I'm playing Madame Morrible, a role that has always been a Caucasian woman's role. And our dream is, there will be no more roles written only specifically as an Asian, as an African American, as a this, as a duck, but if you are capable of doing it, you should be given the opportunity to have that privilege.
And I hope -- I hope this just changes everything. It has to.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a complicated moment.
Even as "Everything Everywhere All at Once" and other films begin to change the cultural landscape, violence against Asian Americans has grown in this country, and global tensions between the U.S. and China rise.
If you think about how long it has taken, as you say, for recognition for an Asian actress like yourself, do you see Hollywood really changing, diversifying in the storytelling, the faces, the people telling the stories?
Michelle Yeoh: Well, if they didn't change, I wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't be here having you say Oscar-nominated.
I wouldn't -- we wouldn't have a movie that was so authentic in -- for an Asian immigrant family and so loved and embraced today. So, yes, I believe that we have made leaps and bounds in change. And -- but we can't just sit back and say, OK, we have done it. We have to keep evolving. We have to keep pushing the envelope, and we should do that together.
Jeffrey Brown: Michelle Yeoh is now saving this and other universes in movie theaters around the country. She vies for an Academy Award on March 12.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.