Actress Michelle Yeoh’s first role stands in stark contrast to the rest of her career: She played a damsel in distress in “The Owl vs. Bumbo.” The 1984 movie came at a time in the Hong Kong film industry when women were “thought to be the weakest and they always needed to be rescued by these heroes and guys who could run around, toting guns and doing martial arts,” Yeoh told NBC News.
That was the first and last time Yeoh would be cast as such an archaic trope, however.
A martial arts expert, Yeoh quickly cemented a legacy as an action star in Hong Kong before making a name for herself in Hollywood — where she portrayed characters ranging from a Bond girl in 1997’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” to the icy, controlling matriarch Eleanor Young in last summer’s hit “Crazy Rich Asians.”
All that and she’s still evolving. The movie “Last Christmas,” which opened on Friday, marks Yeoh’s first foray into comedy.
Yeoh’s character, a Christmas-loving store owner who goes by “Santa” on the job, is quirky, sometimes stern but always endearing. Though Yeoh has never been afraid to take down lethal villains, she was wary about hamming it up for the camera, she said. The role took some encouragement from director Paul Feig.
“I always say I give my audience something new to look at. This was really refreshing for me as well,” Yeoh said. “I’m glad I did, it was so much fun. Of course I would love to have more fun in those roles as well.”
Yeoh is a bit of an anomaly in the Hollywood landscape. Traditionally, Asian women have been relegated to powerless exoticized temptress parts, like the Vietnamese sex worker in 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket,” or mystic deceitful dragon-lady characters like the controversial Nagini in 2018’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.”
Even in television, the stereotypes persist. Research examining as recently as the 2015–16 season found that television continues to be “littered with problematic racial stereotypes,” including exoticized Asian women.
What’s striking about Yeoh’s journey is her ability to avoid that fate. She said that’s no accident.
“I work very hard. I do make very clear choices that drives me into movies that are very supportive or about strong women, and I normally gravitate away from those that do not show women in the way that I believe that they are,” Yeoh said.
By her second film, the 1985 action movie “Yes, Madam!,” she portrayed Inspector Ng, a detective with martial arts skills and an ability to defend herself. Through that role, Yeoh said she was able to change the trajectory of her career, proving she was a professional with the physicality and acting chops to take on strong, martial arts roles in Hong Kong.
“There was no turning back after that,” she said. “Because it was accepted I could hold my own in these kinds of roles. In the old days, that was what it was: If you had a goose that laid a golden egg in a particular genre, they kept you to that and fortunately mine was in very strong women roles.”
Yeoh noted that as her career progressed, she could afford to be more selective, venturing outside the martial arts genre in Hollywood and portraying characters in films that she felt had compelling stories. It's served her well.
Her performance as Bond girl Wai Lin has been heralded as one of the most powerful of the franchise, with James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan himself dubbing her the “female James Bond.” And “Crazy Rich Asians” earned the actress high praise for delivering a character that was frigid yet fully-fleshed out.
To this day, fans come up to Yeoh demanding that she give the cutting Eleanor “‘you will never be enough’ look” from the rom-com, she laughs.
Yeoh, 57, is still nabbing prominent roles, not an easy feat in a field where longevity isn’t the norm. Research reveals that in the 100 top grossing films from the 2017-18 season, only four movies featured a woman of color 45 or older as a lead or co-lead.
Though she admits that the industry hasn’t been kind to older actresses, she’s optimistic.
“I think it’s because older women are making opportunities for themselves. They are producing their own TV shows and saying ‘I’m not going to wait around for someone to tell me I can do this because I know I can and I’m going to do it,’” she said. “I think that’s what needed to change very, very much. And you can see with all the different platforms we have now, there are so many roles being created, and a lot of the times they’re being done by these women.”
Yeoh is adamant about the importance of being proactive in enacting change and getting what she wants. It’s a guiding principle she’s lived by for some time. Yeoh even bought herself the famed emerald ring that was used in “Crazy Rich Asians.” She told BuzzFeed that she doesn’t “wait for people to give me presents."
"If I want flowers, I’m going to send them to me.”