A story of remarkable devotion and incredible spousal support and understanding, director Luc Besson’s “The Lady” stars Michelle Yeoh as Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Burma who spent years imprisoned by her native country’s military junta. While Yeoh is better known for the sort of physicality she’s put on display in more straightforward genre films, “The Lady” showcases her quiet side, to often heartrending effect. ShockYa recently had a chance to speak to Yeoh one-on-one in person, about her exacting research for the movie, the challenges of embodying a well known public figure, and more. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Thank you for your time. Is slipping back into the space and spirit of a film that you maybe completed so long ago weird or discombobulating at all?
Michelle Yeoh: It’s not, because I have taken this past year off to do this, so I’ve been in tune with the material and the fact that we would be doing this. Because after the film was made we’ve been in contact with the NGOs (non-governmental agencies) and the Freedom House, and people who were working very closely for the people in Burma. We finished at the very beginning of the year, so yes, it’s been about 10 months, but not that long. Sometimes it’s been almost two years (between completion and release), and then you’re like, “What did I do on that film?” So the good thing about taking the year off is that my mind is still very much present, and has been kept very focused on this, even as it’s been evolving and things have been changing. This has become more than just a film for us — it’s become a great passion, and it means a lot more.
ShockYa: The story of Aung San Suu Kyi is such an inspiring one. I probably become most aware of her through U2’s music and longtime advocacy on her behalf, so to me it was instructive that the film addressed the fact that there was very much this PR campaign on her behalf for the Nobel Peace Prize, because her husband and others realized her utility of her face and plight as a symbol for the struggle of the Burmese people overall. When did you first hear of her?
MY: Coming from that part of the world, we’ve always heard about Aung San Suu Kyi. But I think where the Burmese junta has been successful — because they kept her under house arrest for so many years and because there’s been almost no communication with her family, and vice versa — is in making people forget. It’s not that people want to forget, but they just have so many other things that are going on. Remember the time that American swam into her compound just before the elections and her sentence got extended? It suddenly dawned on us — hey, there is Aung San Suu Kyi, still. Why haven’t we thought about her? I remember I called my agent and said, “Find out if there’s a movie about her.” And so he went on the prowl and we found a screenplay called “The Divided Heart” at that time.
ShockYa: I imagine some of the linguistic elements may have been a barrier, but to me your physicality is striking. You have a certain similarity in body type, but how difficult was embodying the cultural aspects of Aung San Suu Kyi?
MY: When I started with it I knew what was going to be needed to complete the real and whole picture, with the hair and make-up. I remember meeting with the family, just to get their blessings, because they cannot be involved for the obvious reasons. Her son said, “You know, my mom is slimmer than you.” And I’m thinking, “There’s no way! I’m 5’6″ and I exercise.” But I lost more weight because you realize when you portray someone you should try at least give an effort to match [their appearance and body type]. I wish I was half as beautiful as her — she’s stunningly gorgeous. But the only thing you can do is work on the little nuances that will trick the audience into believing you are them, like the costumes and the flowers in her hair. And has a very distinct way of holding herself, and even the way she walks —
ShockYa: (interrupting) I was going to mention that, actually, because I think people would look at your filmography and say, “Wow, Michelle is this very physical actress,” and associate that with only action movies. But there’s a very specific quality to her gait and the way she holds herself. How much of that was picked up from studying footage?
MY: By the time I met her we’d almost finished filming, it was deep into production. Because when we were doing it we didn’t know whether she was going to be released from her house arrest or whether they’d find another reason to keep her in there. I think. But when you’re portraying a well known person, and someone who’s so well regarded and also distinctive, you know you have to work on those things. So the production team sent me over around 200 hours of footage, and that was very valuable, just from picking up these little glimpses. Because she was campaigning most of the time, but every once in a while you would catch that little off-guard bit, and then you have to just piece it together. The footage of her is not like a reality show, where it goes behind the scenes and shows her with her family and sons. Nobody really has any video like that. So it’s very daunting to play someone like that, and you worry about doing your best, but at the end of the day you realize this is done with love and total commitment. That’s all I have. And when we did photo tests for the hair and make-up — because she’d had a few covers, like with “Time Magazine” and everything — it’s not enough to just get the profile or look in the same direction as her, it’s not about mimicking her. It’s about what is going on between here (points to her head), and in her eyes you can see the wistfulness, and you can’t do that by robotic impersonation.
ShockYa: Did you read a lot of outside texts about her?
MY: I read all the books that were written about her, because it was important to understand where she came from and who were the biggest influences in her life. Her father died when she was three, and in a lot of ways she didn’t know him but in other ways she did, because her mother was a very disciplined woman that told her all about him. You have to remember, [Aung San Suu Kyi] has been molded to behave like this. It’s a very traditional thing that we understand as an Asian culture. What is her philosophy in life, in her Buddhism? I remember when she first went into house arrest she learned to [rely on the importance] of her meditation, whereas she often couldn’t in Oxford because there were so many things distracting her. It was those hours of isolation that [were important]. Even when she was 13 years old she was reading books about a woman who was in isolation during the Communist era, while I would have been reading “Mad Magazine” or something. That type of thinking has to start somewhere, and so you try to locate that path, gather information and just follow it. And it’s made me a better person, because you learn about compassion and putting others’ needs first.
ShockYa: I wanted to ask you about this weird fine line that the Burmese junta has tried to walk — not killing her, because they don’t want her to be a martyr, but coming up with all these reasons to [continually] extend her house arrest. You had a 25-hour visa to visit her, but when did it come through, what sort of pre-conditions were imposed, and what were your impressions of Burma apart from her?
MY: When we started production, we didn’t think about her house arrest coming to an end. We were filming in Thailand, and nobody really believed that she would be released — even her son had no idea whether it was a yes or a no [after the rigged elections in Burma were held]. But our story is very specific in the time it covers, and her release wouldn’t have made a difference to that period because it’s historically what it is. We decided to put a pause or end to her story, as we told it. …So we went as tourists the first time — you want to get a sense of the nuances, and how people talk and walk. Even in Italy or France, before someone speaks you get a feel of the place. And Burma is beautiful, it really is a golden land. When we were there, Luc was silently filming as much footage as he could, and we said, rather nonchalantly, “Oh, we hear that the Burmese lady lives down there.” Nobody says her name. And our guide said she did live down there, so we tried to go down the street down where she lives: “Oh, come one — we’ll just drive by.” But he just said, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” And so they know that they’re not supposed to do certain things. They don’t talk about it. They said, “OK, we can maybe instead take you to the lake where the American swam up.”
Written by: Brent Simon