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Actor Michelle Yeoh wants to change the way we think of superheroes

When Yeoh first read the script for Everything Everywhere All at Once, she gave a big sigh of relief: Finally, here was a film that put a middle-aged mother in the role of action hero. She spoke with Tonya Mosley about her path from dancer to martial artist to leading lady, as well as joining the boys' club of stunt work.

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Other segments from the episode on April 25, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Monday, April 25, 2022: Interview with Michelle Yeoh; Review of The Northman

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Michelle Yeoh, has been a movie star for decades. She's appeared in Hong Kong action Films since the 1980s. She was nominated for the BAFTA award for best actress for her work in the 2000 film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Her other movies include the Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies," "Crazy Rich Asians" and her new film, the science fiction comedy "Everything Everywhere All At Once." Michelle Yeoh spoke to FRESH AIR guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

When Michelle Yeoh read the script for "Everything Everywhere All At Once," she gave a big sigh of relief and said, finally, a project that would allow her to be the lead and show everyone what she was capable of, playing a multidimensional character who could be sad, real and funny. "Everything Everywhere All At Once" follows Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American immigrant mother who made a decision decades ago to leave her parents behind and follow her boyfriend to America. Years later, Evelyn is living out the underwhelming consequences of that decision until she is presented with alternate versions of her life - from the glamorous life of an actress to a martial arts expert and an even wackier alternate path where people have hot dogs for fingers. Michelle Yeoh embodies Evelyn through this multiverse while telling the story of a woman contending with her own life choices.

Michelle Yeoh, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

MICHELLE YEOH: Hello, Tonya. Thank you for having me today.

MOSLEY: You know, Michelle, people love this film, but it's also kind of difficult to describe what it's about. How do you do it?

YEOH: (Laughter) You're right. It is very difficult. It's, like, five genres of film, you know, in one movie. It's science fiction. It's comedy. It's drama. It's action. It's a little horror. But I think the core of the story - it's about a mother and daughter - through all the multiuniverses, they are searching for each other because what we can't do is give up on each other and give up on family.

MOSLEY: You know, I was struck by the introduction of your character. She was so beaten down, juggling so many things. there are piles of paperwork everywhere in the back office...

YEOH: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: ...Of the laundry mat she runs with her husband. There's a leak in the ceiling...

YEOH: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: ...And this far-off look in her eyes of someone who has just too much to handle all at once. And I'll tell you, for me, it reminded me of the weight that we all carry, the laundry list...

YEOH: Correct.

MOSLEY: ...The weight specifically that women carry.

YEOH: You have a great insight into the film. That's exactly what it was. I think the Daniels did a wonderful job of writing about this very ordinary housewife, Asian immigrant woman, came here to look for the American dream, to hope, to find and be successful and have a good life, not just for herself and her husband but for her family and in this case, her daughter.

And I think the other worse thing on top of all this - being audited. I think that's everyone's worst nightmare - is to be audited and to have everything that you've worked so hard for that could be snatched away from you. On top of all that, her father is now upon them, and he's come from China. And he is the most - one of the most disapproving fathers that you can find because first of all, now he is proven right. You went with the man that I disapproved of, and you disobeyed me. And now you are failing at everything. So she's trying to juggle all of this.

But I think one of the most important thing for me as an actor was this ordinary housewife needed her own voice. You know, she's the woman that you pass by when you go to Chinatown or in the supermarket. It could be any immigrant woman who has just got the laundry list, as you've put it, and, you know, bent on the weight of everything, the responsibility all on her shoulder. That's why she walks bent over, a little hunched back because she is carrying a lot of weight. And, you know, because of the nature of her job, her spine is a little bit bent because, you know, of dragging heavy laundry constantly. So I felt that it was so important for someone like that to be given a voice and then to be shown that she is actually a super heroine.

MOSLEY: And when you refer to the Daniels, that's Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.

YEOH: And Daniel Scheinert, yes.

MOSLEY: You know, it's been reported that, originally, Jackie Chan was supposed to play the lead in this film. It's hard to imagine, but you were going to be his wife.

YEOH: (Laughter) I think it's a common thing to do, you know, when they think superhero, someone who does that, it's always the guy they seem to be like, always, first in line for it. So that's why when I received the script, I - it was such an overwhelming sense of relief. It was like, yes, finally. Why is it we older women cannot be the superhero? You know, it just didn't make sense. And I think the Daniels being the Daniels, they looked at it. I think they pursued it for a bit. And then they realized, we're telling the same old story if it was really Jackie Chan and myself as playing the husband and wife, and he is the one who goes on the multiverse thing.

But I think the good news was they turn around, and they say, let's start again. Let's do this. And because the Daniels are surrounded by very, very strong women - so I think they took great pleasure. And I think it's an homage to all the strong women who are around them. And they made themselves as the villains, as antagonists in this story, which I thought was really, really delightful.

MOSLEY: And in the film, your daughter, who is played by Stephanie Hsu, is looking, as we said, for a mother that she can connect with in every universe. And your character, Evelyn, doesn't really want to repeat the alienation she felt from her parents growing up. But even still, she's doing that. There's this scene where your daughter is leaving the laundromat, and you want to give her one piece of parting advice. Can you describe to us what you were saying to her and, ultimately, how she interpreted it?

YEOH: You know, this was the - I think a lot of immigrant parents, the first generation - when they come here, they have to make a conscious choice for the next generation. It's like, do we hold on very firmly to all our culture, our language and everything, and we stick to a - you know, like a group of immigrants, as well? Or do we make them or help them blend in so that they will be able to fit in better? So I think it's a very, very hard choice.

And I think it's not just the first-generation immigrants. I think parents even today from different cultures face the same thing. It's like, you know, if we want them to fit in better, maybe they can - they should just speak English. But then it's a shame if they don't speak their own language, which is what you find with joy in "Everything Everywhere All At Once" - is, like, she has morphed into a true American - ABC - American-born Chinese in that sense. So she doesn't really speak the language.

And the worse thing is, like, we find that a lot of Asian parents, especially the older generation - they don't really give - they are more critical in the sense that the feeling is if I tell you you are great in everything, then you will walk away thinking you don't need to learn anymore because I'm already so great. So they always say - like, in this scene that you're describing, she wants to talk to her daughter. She wants her to understand that, you know, she accepts the fact that she is gay; she has a white girlfriend. But it's impossible to communicate that to her father from a previous generation because in his eyes, Evelyn would have been a total failure. As she is a failure as a daughter, now she is a failure as a mother because she can't even teach her daughter to be proper.

So there is so much confusion and so much emotional contradiction that Evelyn is facing. The first words that come out from her mouth is like, you are getting fat. It's another criticism, you know? But it's a very common thing that we say to our children. Instead of, oh, you're looking so beautiful today, they'll say, oh, I think you need a haircut. Or, you know, maybe you need to go to the gym, you need to drop some pounds. So - but the first thing they always give them is food because that is the way they show how much they love them, how much they care for them. The best food is always reserved for them.

So what it shows here very clearly is how the misunderstandings occur and the worse they don't know how to communicate, that chasm gets bigger and bigger until to the point where everything that comes out from the mouth seems to be hurtful. It's like a dig. It's like - it's almost like Joy feels, I'm hurting so much. When I say things to you, I want you to feel that hurt. So I'm going to reply with a very hurtful answer. And that, for her, is one of the easiest solution, which is not a solution at all.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Yeoh, award-winning actor known for roles that span across decades, from James Bond's "Tomorrow Never Dies" to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Crazy Rich Asians" and her most recent work as the lead in the new science fiction film "Everything Everywhere All At Once." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SON LUX'S "WHAT ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT?")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and we're talking with award-winning actor Michelle Yeoh about her new film, "Everything Everywhere All At Once," where she plays the lead character that moves through several worlds and versions of her life and what it could be.

You were born in Malaysia. What was your childhood like?

YEOH: Oh, carefree (laughter). My dad was a lawyer and my mom is a housewife, so she's very traditional. And I have a brother, and he has four children. And when we were kids, we were always very active. We were always running about. We didn't play video games, so we played real games. We would climb trees, we'd - table tennis, squash, swimming, diving, you know, taking long walks in the jungle and going out to sea with my parents. So we had a very full, active upbringing.

MOSLEY: Very active. And you started out wanting to be a ballerina. You were dancing early on. You must have been really serious about it as a kid.

YEOH: Oh, I loved it. I really, really loved it. I think that was my dream was to one day have my own school, be a teacher, you know, and spread this joy and love of dancing with other little boys and girls.

MOSLEY: You moved to the U.K. when you were a teenager. Did you move so that you could pursue dance?

YEOH: Yes. My dad, you know, he always said your education - what I'm really responsible for you is your education. But what you - because we have a lot of Asian parents that want their children to be doctors, lawyers, you know, where they are guaranteed of a secure, stable job. But my father was - is very liberated, you know? And he thought, no, you will choose and study something that you want to do. Because I don't want you when you are grown up to say, well, I had to be this because you forced me to study that. So I said, I want to go to a ballet school. And the only thing was he said, OK, the Royal Academy of Dance is in London and you should find a sister school. And fortunately, there was one. And I went to Chester (ph) to go to this. My dream came true. So I was dancing, doing ballet, you know, surrounded by music and dance. That was, like, the core education I was getting at that point.

MOSLEY: But your future in dance specifically got cut short because of an injury.

YEOH: Yes.

MOSLEY: What happened?

YEOH: Oh, God. I - you know, when you do such rigorous training in dance, when you go away on a holiday, which is like, for example, Christmas, you go away for a month for your break. And sometimes over summer, you have two, three months, right? But the thing is, like, when you are on a break, what you should really do is keep up the training. But sometimes, you know, children will be children. They get sort of lost into going away on a beach holiday or something like that. And when I came back into school, I was about a week late. So all the warm up sessions had already begun.

And I just went straight back into classes, which did not help because I possibly must have strained a muscle in my back, which got progressively worse because, you know, when you're that age - and being a ballerina, what you learn to do is you learn to live with pain a lot of the times. I mean, you're standing on your tiptoes, on your toes. Your whole body weight is on your toes, and you're gliding along the hall and looking like you're very ethereal. And that's a lot of bleeding and blisters and the blah, blah, blah, blah. So what you do is you take it in your stride and you try and work through the pain. And for me, it was a bad call. It just made the strain on the back and it caused really bad injury to it, to the point that I needed a minor adjustment to my spine.

MOSLEY: Was there ever a period of mourning for the end of that dream?

YEOH: I think when I was first told that I should consider something else, I just saw it in front of my eyes the mirror shatter. Like, my - the dreams of my just, like, literally shatter in front of me. But I was very fortunate because the - possibly because I'm a foreign student, you know, the principal felt that it was much more of a responsibility. And she just took me aside and say, now, don't be a silly young lady. There are many aspects of dance, and if you truly love dance, we will find another place where you don't have to do so much physical dancing but still be very much involved. And over time you will heal your back. You will get - you know, there will be exercises and it will take a little bit of time. It will become better and hopefully it will be stronger. And so she took me under her wing. She enrolled me and got me to audition for another college where it was more academic rather than physical. So I went from there to be given another chance. Another door opened where I was still very much in the world that I want to be, so I was very blessed.

MOSLEY: Do you ever think - you know, we're talking so much about the multiverse. Do you ever think about an alternative universe where you became a dancer?

YEOH: (Laughter) Do I think - you know what? I don't because, you know, I found another door. And I'm in this universe where I am enjoying so much new things that I never - actually, I never even - when I was a child, we used to go to the cinemas all the time. And if you had asked that kid, would you want to be up there on the big screen and be an actress, I wouldn't have - I would have told you no. I never dreamt of myself up there. But when I was given the opportunity, I just embraced it and went, you know, why not? I think this could be something fun to try. And with - not with a lot of training as an actor, I was thrown, literally, I was thrown in the deep end, and I learned to swim.

MOSLEY: I'm thinking about your physicality, and I actually read somewhere that your early films didn't even have scripts, so no dialogue at all.

YEOH: (Laughter) Yes, this was the old days in Hong Kong. And in the '80s, I mean, they made movies so quickly. They had a very simple formula if it was an action movie, a comedy, and they churned them out in, like, weeks. I mean, we would be filming on Monday. The movie would be out by Friday midnight. And that was how they worked. They worked fast. And the other good thing was nobody really knew my voice at the beginning of my career because they had someone dub it.

MOSLEY: Right.

YEOH: Because, you know, we didn't record - we didn't have synced sound at that time. So to make it - to be able to be so quick, it's like sometimes, we would go on the scene and go, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, you know, and look in different directions. (Laughter) This is terrible. I shouldn't be telling all these stories. But at that point...

MOSLEY: No. We love to know the secrets.

YEOH: That was the craziness of the glory days in the old style of Hong Kong filmmaking. But there were the exceptions. I mean, there were amazing scripts that were still being shot. Then we had some of ours where we had no scripts, you know? It was just the writer or director writing it as we were filming.

MOSLEY: Wow. It sounds like things were moving so fast.

YEOH: (Laughter) But it was the same for the action sequences. We don't have rehearsal time. So we would get all dressed up. We would go to the set. And our stunt coordinators and stunt guys would be choreographing it because they arrived that day, and they choreograph what they are given with the - they look at the set, and they will decide what will happen on the spot. And then we will learn it and shoot it. So you know, we - there was never any rehearsals.

And I remember the first time when I was doing "Tomorrow Never Dies" in 1997. I love her to death - Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, my producers, said, well, you know, we would love to see how you - the Hong Kong style of martial arts in a "Bond" movie. So she hired a team of us, a team of them who had I had worked with and brought them over from Hong Kong. But prior to that, they actually sent a mock-up of the whole stage. And I can - I will never forget the wonder of those boys when they looked at it and they go, like, this is a mock-up of a - because they never have that privilege or luxury. They normally get to a real set and then find out what other things that they have to do.

So when they finally arrived in London and we were shooting, you know, I - we start at 6. We're on for hair and makeup and all that. And someone came to me and said, what happened to your stunt team? They're all sitting in the green room. And my - so I went over and say, hey, guys, you're giving us a bad name. All of you are supposed to be in on the set. Then they turned around. The head stunt coordinator turned to me, and he said, we already have five different versions, and we have already recorded it. So we're waiting to show the director which is the one that he is more favored to. So they work at such a speed because, in a sense, they are forced to. They have been trained to do that.

GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with actor Michelle Yeoh. She stars in the new film "Everything Everywhere All at Once." Her other films include "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Tomorrow Never Dies." We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SON LUX'S "CLAIRE DE LUNE (PIED AU PIANO)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Michelle Yeoh. She stars in the new sci-fi action comedy "Everything Everywhere All At Once." She plays a put-upon Chinese American mom whose business and marriage are failing when she discovers that she can travel between dimensions of the multiverse and experience different versions of her life. Yeoh's other films include Hong Kong action movies like "Supercop," the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Crazy Rich Asians." She spoke with our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley.

MOSLEY: You know, one question I didn't even ask you - we jumped from you studying dance to you being in these big-budget films.

YEOH: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: But what was the event that turned you into an action star?

YEOH: In my first movie, I played a social worker. And we were bullied by, you know, the juvenile delinquents who took great pleasure in teasing us and giving us a hard time. And then the guys who were the martial arts experts were the ones who would rescue us constantly. So when I watched them, I went to my producers and I say, you know what? I would love to be able to try to do martial arts. They looked at me and thought I was insane. Then they thought, well, you know, she's a foreign girl. She must be insane (laughter). But then they thought, well, what do we have to lose?

So - but they did very good. They packaged me with, you know, the top comedians so that at least if I'd fail badly, the movie would still have a chance to be successful because the comedians were very well-known in Hong Kong. So I think the only thing I said was, like, if I fight, I have to fight. Like, you cannot differentiate - is a girl fighting or a boy fighting? She's fighting for the reason of - and so they made me a cop, a detective. So when she would be faced with dangerous situations, there was a good reason for her to be showing these kind of skills.

So I went into training, like, with these - the stunt boys and all that. And I think they were very curious to see this young girl who wanted to play in their sandbox. And I was very fortunate. They were very agreeable to it. So - and I had some of the best instructors who taught me how to protect myself. And - but then you did learn that they took the blows. I mean, they didn't - they - you know, people like Jackie and Jet and Sammo and Yuen Biao - all the top action stars, they did not get it handed it to them on a silver platter. And so I remember thinking, if I want to join this boy's club, you better be able to take the blows, as well.

MOSLEY: Right.

YEOH: So, yeah. And but it took a little bit of - you know, I had to persuade them. I had to demonstrate to them that I was - I deserved to be there. I think that's the most important thing, is that, you know, we fight for gender equality. We fight for all these kind of things. And when we are given the opportunity to be able to do it, we must be able to prove our worth. I think that's the simple message.

MOSLEY: Is that your motivation? Because you've done a lot of action films, and you've done some really difficult stunts. You're talking about Jackie Chan being physical and taking those blows. But you - I mean, riding motorcycles onto trains, falling off a train, landing on a car - you really put your body in danger.

YEOH: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: What is so appealing about that kind of work - the challenge, pushing yourself, getting your body to do it?

YEOH: All of the above and plus a bit of insanity going on, you know? I think at that time, it was, like, the most incredible adrenaline rush. And because it's a physical challenge and the mental challenge that you overcome after, thank God, the stunt is successful.

And I remember - the very first stunt that I did in my first action film - and I will never forget that one because even Quentin Tarantino can, frame for frame, tell you how it was done. I was - I'm on the second floor, sitting on a railing, and two guys, like, swipe my head with their swords. So I - hanging on the balcony, on the railing, I bend backwards, go through a pane of glass and drag these two guys down onto the first floor in one take. And at that point, the - I didn't know how to think of the danger, the repercussion, if things did not go right, because I only knew how to focus on how to get the stunt done properly. I was probably too fearless for my own good. Plus the fact that, you know, physically and mentally, I was so fit. So that egged me on because I did feel that I had a lot of things to prove to stay in this - what was the boy's club, and to constantly demonstrate that I deserved to be there.

MOSLEY: Right. You're actually quoted as saying, "In my younger days, I took more risks than necessary because I thought I had something to prove. I had to convince people I was capable of being up there with actors like Jet Li and Jackie Chan." I mean, you're certainly up there, Michelle. I think a better question may be to ask you, is that something that still drives you?

YEOH: I think what does is, like - must be able to do the best of my ability. That is what drives me, is, like, if I agree to do something, it must be to the best of my ability. But I do assess - whether it's a script, whether it's a character and especially if it's a stunt - the reason for it, and should I be doing that? In the old days, there was not so much the thought for safety as much as there is now. It was much more, how do we make a much more dynamic - a bigger stunt that the audience will be satisfied with? That was much more the intention of the stunt coordinators, you know, the actors that - and constantly, all of us would be injured in some way or the another.

But today, with the help of CG, with the help of, you know, rehearsal time and things being done in a safer environment, there - we are much better protected. But I - would I take risks like that again? No, definitely not.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: No.

YEOH: I'm glad I paid my dues. That's all I can say (laughter).

MOSLEY: You've paid your dues, for sure.

YEOH: I mean, there's been one time - Jackie, myself and Jet and, you know, Sammo - we look at each other and go, come on. We have already convinced everybody that we can do it, OK? We already paid our dues.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: You know, one other thing - and I'm thinking about your catalog of work. You mentioned James Bond, the movie "Tomorrow Never Dies" - I mean, so many of your characters are poised. They're in command. They're regal. I think a big part of why people are really enjoying this latest film so much, aside from a good performance, is because there's such a contrast. Your sad-sack persona is so relatable and also different from how we're used to seeing you. And you're really funny.

YEOH: (Laughter) I think that was the thing - is, like, I could be in - like, for example, in "Crazy Rich Asians," you know, where it's a romantic comedy, but I always get to play the serious role. I mean, I can be in comedies, but generally, I am given the much more, you know, subdued, the guide - the mentor, the guiding lights. So it was such a relief to receive the script, and it goes into everything. It's given me an opportunity to showcase things that I have never done before. Like, physical comedy is so different, you know, because when I am in "Crouching Tiger" or I am in - I'm always in control of my movements, you know? I am the teacher, and suddenly, in this one, it's like - suddenly, I remembered the Daniels coming up to me and saying, can you not look so good at what you're doing?

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

YEOH: I'm like, what on Earth are you talking about? He says, no, no, no, remember; you're Evelyn Wang, right? She doesn't, so it's like, oh, ah, yes, you forget. You know, once you're in the action mode, you're very - you can't because this is not that action movie. This is Evelyn Wang's action film. So then it's like, oh, yes, my body, my hands and feet knows exactly where they're going, but the face is registering something like, oh, my God, what am I doing? From shock to horror to amazement to - you know, it's like everything going on all at once. So it was so fun.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Yeoh, award-winning actor known for roles that span across decades, from James Bond's "Tomorrow Never Dies" to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Crazy Rich Asians" and her most recent work as the lead in the new science fiction film "Everything Everywhere All At Once." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And we're talking with award-winning actor Michelle Yeoh about her new film "Everything Everywhere All At Once," where she plays the lead character that moves through several worlds and versions of what her life could be.

You mentioned "Crazy Rich Asians." That was another very successful film.

YEOH: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: And in it, you play this matriarch of this rich family in Singapore, and you have this son who's studying in the United States, and he brings home an American girlfriend, and you don't think she can measure up. Here is one of your first conversations alone with the girlfriend, played by Constance Wu.

YEOH: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

YEOH: (As Eleanor Sung-Young) I'm glad I found you. I'm afraid that I've been unfair.

CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) Oh, no, you know what? I'm sorry I made an assumption. I didn't mean to offend you.

YEOH: (As Eleanor Sung-Young) Not at all. You asked about my ring. The truth is, Nick's father had it made when he wanted to propose to me because Ah Ma wouldn't give him the family ring. I wasn't her first choice. Honestly, I wasn't her second.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) Gosh, I'm so sorry. I had no idea.

YEOH: (As Eleanor Sung-Young) I didn't come from the right family, have the right connections. And Ah Ma thought I would not make an adequate wife to her son.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) But she came around, obviously.

YEOH: (As Eleanor Sung-Young) It took many years. And she had good reason to be concerned because I had no idea the work and the sacrifice it would take. There were many days when I wondered if I would ever measure up. But having been through it all, I know this much - you will never be enough.

MOSLEY: Ouch. Michelle...

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: ...Has anyone ever had a conversation with you like this, not necessarily the you-aren't-good-enough sentiment, but the part about how one needs to kind of put one's own desires on the back burner for the interest of the family?

YEOH: But it is so much part of our culture that that's what she was trying - even from the very first time she met, when they were in the kitchen, is the understanding is, like, you know, even though we look alike, but we are not because you have been brought up in America, where you are taught to think for yourself, put yourself first. But she's not saying that it's wrong; it's just that when you are back in Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong, the culture there is you always put your parents, your grandparents, your family first before yourself. And that is really what she was trying to explain 'cause this is something that she didn't believe she would be able to do - she would be able to put her own dreams, you know, on the back burner and come to Singapore to - if she was to marry the son and help him be successful in his job, first of all, for his family.

MOSLEY: You have said that you try not to see yourself in the characters you play, and I'm curious to know what you mean by that 'cause there is such a cultural underpinning to so many of the characters that you choose. I think we often think of actors as using the ways that they are similar to their characters in their acting.

YEOH: Well, I think it's like - for example, with "Everything Everywhere All At Once," when I received the script, the character Evelyn Wang was called Michelle Wong. And when I met with the directors, I - you know, I wanted to see if they were certifiably insane or they really was going to be my dream, you know - helping me fulfill my dream. But I said to them, OK, the one thing you have to take off from the script is this character is not called Michelle because this character deserves to have her own voice. And I cannot have the audience constantly, when - every time you say, Michelle, Michelle, you know you would be thinking, oh, is this a movie about Michelle? Is Michelle playing Michelle? So you know, you have to be - I always disconnect, just, like - because every character I play deserves that voice. And do we find, I think, which is very easy to is, like, find experiences that you have gone through.

But most of all, I draw a lot on experiences that other people have gone through. I watch them. I see them. I hear them. And I think it's much more compelling and it's much more real and sincere in that way. Then each character has its own life, because she has - I map out their background and, you know, they have history. I have a diary for them. And they know exactly - I know exactly who they are. And I do not insert myself into it because I'm - like, I'm very far from the composed, elegant Eleanor Young. And I'm definitely very far from the crazy, wacky, like, beaten-down Evelyn Wang.

MOSLEY: You keep a diary. What does that look like, a diary of each of your characters?

YEOH: Oh, so I write, like, what Evelyn would need to do, like a list of her shopping or what she needs, like the painting that they'll - so I write it all out so that I have a reference, because once - for me, the more prepped I am, then when I walk onto the set, the Daniels or any director can throw new, you know, curveballs at me, the actor. And I would be able to respond.

MOSLEY: You know, there's one element of the film, though - there's a separation, OK? So the name initially was Michelle. And you said, no, we have to change it to something else. They changed the character to Evelyn. But there is one of the - in one of the multiverses, we see that Evelyn is...

YEOH: Where she was a movie star (laughter).

MOSLEY: Yes. She...

YEOH: Yes.

MOSLEY: And the film uses footage of you at premieres in real life. It's really trippy.

YEOH: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: What purpose do you think this particular storyline actually serves in the movie?

YEOH: No, when I said to them, oh, you have to take away the name Michelle, they're like, but, no, you know? It was so cool because in one of the multiverse, she jumps into a place where she doesn't go off with Waymond. And she becomes, like, this movie star. But she's chained to this. She doesn't have a husband in this universe. She doesn't have a daughter in this universe. And in - and they already planned using, you know, excerpts from real life, red carpets and things like that. And we were very lucky that, you know, we were given the permission to do that. It's just to show Evelyn Wang, yes, if you had that, what you would have is fame. You would have a lot of flashbulbs, like, flashing in front of you. But you don't have a life, which is very different from Michelle Yeoh. Michelle Yeoh, the movie actress, has a very full family life.

MOSLEY: You know, this film and this character, it's such a human depiction, but also a relatable experience, looking into other paths your life could have taken. I think all of us at some point or another have daydreamed about the other versions of our lives. Do you ever think about the other paths your life could've taken?

YEOH: No, I don't because I believe you have to invest in being present because this is the life. And you have to make the best of it. And if I think it's OK to, you know, sometimes think, I should have done it differently. But you have to move on, move forward and accept that if I am given another opportunity, I will do it better. But I'm not going to dwell on something that I have to, like, oh, God, I regret doing this, because it's already in the past. So it's about moving forwards. That's the most important. And if you are not present - because I believe in being - it's now that is important. And now will dictate how - what you're doing moving forward as well. So I think in this - at the end of "Everything Everywhere All At Once," what it does remind you is you can't give in. You have to live.

MOSLEY: Michelle Yeoh, thank you so much.

YEOH: Thank you, Tonya. I've really enjoyed speaking to you and listening to you, actually.

GROSS: Michelle Yeoh stars in the new film "Everything Everywhere All At Once." She spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Tonya Mosley. Tonya hosts the podcast Truth Be Told. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Northman," starring Alexander Skarsgard and Nicole Kidman. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, ADRIAN YOUNGE AND ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD'S "BETTER ENDEAVOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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