LIVING LEGEND: Michelle Yeoh
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Michelle Yeoh
Richard Mille RM 51-01 Tourbillon Tigre et Dragon
Richard Mille RM 051 Phoenix

We’re pretty sure that if we counted the votes for coolest female action star, Michelle Yeoh would rank right up there with the best of them.

Michelle Yeoh traverses between badass and beauty with such ease that it’s difficult to summarise her legacy in just one word. Go on, we dare you to try it. Richard Mille probably felt the same when he honoured the actress with her own wristwatches a few years ago as part of their partnership. And part of the reason their association continues today is because it’d probably take another ten wristwatches – or chapters – to truly capture the life story and essence of the 53-year-old Ipoh native. Her first wristwatch sports a phoenix motif, a symbol of her beauty and strength; while the latest flaunts a tiger and dragon which reference the Ang Lee film that made her a household name. They look personalised, sporty enough to take to karate class, and as blinged out as those camera flashes on the red carpet. The former Miss Malaysia is more glamorous in the flesh. Younger looking too with a spirit of someone half her age. She’s just going about her day to day with mental and physical preparation that she puts at the top of her priority list when it comes to accepting film roles, speaking to people, or just being a damn good humanitarian. Or, eating healthily so that she’d be able to kick butt on set without collapsing. And… simply having a good outlook on life so that every situation that comes her way becomes a good one. So how is it that Yeoh’s so bloody good at life? She’s confident and works hard at it. Simple as that.


MANIFESTO: Knowing that you’re an action woman both on and off screen, it is fitting that you have a kickass wristwatch to your name. Now, you’ve got a couple with Richard Mille.


MICHELLE YEOH: I think when you have great admiration and respect for someone, it becomes very easy. He (Richard Mille), to me, is not just a watchmaker. He is an artist. He is a creator. What I love about him is not just what he does but his personality. He is full of life, full of love, and full of passion. And you know when he wants things, he goes for it and he seeks perfection. He is relentless. That, to me, is what life is about. You have to live it to the fullest. You have to give it your best shot. As a person, he is very humble. He’s great fun to be with. He’s funny, he’s charming, and he’s an idiot (Laughs), you know?  I love him dearly. He is just so creative; I think because he loves what he does.


M: How did it all start?


MY: I must say it’s thanks to Jean [Todt] (Laughs), because they knew each other first. That’s how I got to know him. I think I was working with somebody else prior to that, but then I thought that with Richard; there could be more of a true relationship that could be established. Then there was no looking back.


M: Do you have any personal connection then to the partnership?


MY: You know what, it becomes a personal relationship. Each of his ambassadors he chose because he believes in them, and truly loves and respects them. So with him, we’ve become part of his extended family. At any time and at any point, even if it’s not business, he will be there for you as a friend. And that’s what I love about him. I’ve seen it.


M: Speaking of injuries and sport, you’ve got the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel (Sword of Destiny) coming out soon. The release date appears to be February 2016?


MY: Yes, we keep hearing rumours!  Maybe you have a better idea than I do (Laughs).


M: Did you do your own stunts this time round?


MY: Yes! Master Yuen Woo-ping, the director, and his team are the ones who do all the stunt coordination and choreography and all that. And I’ve been working with them since… forever. So, you know, it’s very easy. I trust them totally. When they see me up there, when I’m jumping off a roof or flying around, I know that I will be fine. And when you do these kinds of things you must have confidence. If there is a moment you feel unsure, you shouldn’t do it. When Master Yuen coordinates martial arts scenes, I always want more. I want to fight more (Laughs).


M: Ever had any bad accidents then?


MY: Oh, yes!  In my career, unfortunately, I wish I could say no but I have. I’ve been in the hospital too many times. There have been times when you think you’ve broken your back or you won’t be able to get out of bed anymore. You know, surgery too. But at the end of the day, we didn’t set out to do this. Accidents happen, right? We take a little bit more of a risk than everybody else, but before we do it, we always put all the safety precautions in place. When you push the envelope, there’s always that risk.


M: How did you develop this sort of fearlessness then, despite having near death experiences at times? What keeps you going?


MY: Confidence in oneself. Confidence in your team. When you go out there you must be prepared. You can’t just go out and say, Okay, I’m confident, I can do this. No, you can’t. You must be in good shape; you must have gone through training. You also have to train with your team so that they understand what your capabilities are, so that they will only do things that are suitable for you. It’s really about teamwork. None of us – actors, directors, or stunt team – go out to do something and think they can do it on their own. It’s all about the team and how we work together.


M: People often underestimate the sort of physical and mental sacrifices you put into your work. Do you think success has come easily?


MY: If you ask anybody: What is success? I don’t think anybody can tell you it came easily. There are always things that you have to do, whether it’s hard work or not. I don’t think it’s a sacrifice per se; it’s more of a choice. I can choose not to do it. I can just let a stunt double do my job and just come in to pose intermittently. But I find the challenge a part of the process. It’s because I like to be challenged physically and mentally. I think when I get to a stage where I think, Nuh-uh, not doing that, there’s no point going through with it. Along the way, I don’t think I sacrificed anything to be where I am today. I love what I do. I am fortunate that I’ve been given great opportunities. It’s not just luck, though luck always plays a part. But when luck comes your way, you better be ready. And I think the harder you work; the luckier you become.


M: So, what would be the best advice you could give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?


MY: Don’t follow my career path (Laughs). I think you should always forge your own path. You are who you are. You must believe in who you are, but you must be prepared. If you want to be an actor, have good coaching lessons so that if you get the opportunity you are prepared.


M: You used to be a fan of ballet and swimming. What is your fitness routine these days?


MY: I do a lot of walking. I don’t run anymore. I used to run a lot. Ballet, unfortunately, is something I don’t do anymore. I wish I had the time to do it. But because I travel so much, it’s very disruptive if I go and join classes and only go once or twice every three months. Fortunately I still do my action movies and work very close with a stunt team; I have learnt new forms of tai chi or movements that keep up my energy and physical state.



M: So technically, you’re working out on set.


MY: Yeah! And actually that’s the fun part because they pay you to go and work out (Laughs). How can it get better than that, right? They bring the best team down from China and put them on your doorstep. They’re available for you every day. All you have to do is make that effort; be with them and you’re learning incredible things.


M: As you grow older, have you found your age to be a hindrance in terms of choosing roles?


MY: I think it becomes a hindrance for other people. You know there are some producers who look at you and think you may not be right for a role. Why do you look at someone’s passport or someone’s numbers on paper? Because when they are on screen it doesn’t say how old this person is or where they’re from. It would limit the people who could play the roles in the first place, because I would be stuck playing a Malaysian-Chinese girl every time. It wouldn’t make sense. I think, you will find that actresses will always say that it is more difficult to find the roles as they get older, because it seems they always want younger girls to play the role. But if you look at the amazing actresses around us who are slightly older or in my age group, they bring a personality or a commitment to the character that is much more believable, and that’s where the drama is.


M: You look much younger in person. Do you have any beauty secrets?


MY: I think the most important thing is to watch your own health – what you eat and what you drink. I don’t smoke. I drink my red wine but in moderation. And exercise is a way of life for me. I don’t think of it as exercise, I think of it as part of my life; like my hygiene. In the morning I wake up, brush my teeth, comb my hair, and as I do all that, I stretch or exercise. Then, your whole person becomes alive. And if you have a good outlook on life, that’s already half the battle won.


M: Back in the days when you were being crowned Miss Malaysia, did you ever imagine being one of the most famous Asian actresses some day?


MY: Even when I was learning ballet and was on stage a lot, I never thought I would be an actress. It never crossed my mind. I always thought that whatever I did would be somewhere in the field of dance – whether I would start my own school or stay in England and do something more related to it. As a kid, if someone told me there were a fortune teller, I think the first question I would have asked would be: When am I getting married (Laughs)? So it never occurred to me that I would be an actress until the day I was offered a film contract. I thought, Why not?


M: If you didn’t star in those commercials with Jackie Chan back in the ’80s, where do you think you would have been right now?


MY: I don’t know. The thing is, I don’t think about what could have been. I think forward. I think about the present. I think of the things I have now and try to enjoy the moment. The past is the past. I don’t plan the future because I don’t like to draw limits. What if you can’t reach your goals? You might beat yourself up. What we have to do is live stress free. Then you’ll enjoy your life. There are only two things that are guaranteed when you’re born: that you’ll age and then you’ll die. So meanwhile, this is your gift so you have to enjoy it.


M: Arguably, you are one of the first actresses of Chinese origin to break into Hollywood. What is your view on Asian actresses and international recognition?


MY: I think it’s happening more and more. And I believe that we deserve it; we really do. We also have to be mindful that we have a strong market now with China. Asian faces are going to dominate in a different kind of way. I think we have to be careful; we have to nurture it. You can see with a lot of western movies, they want the Chinese market; the Asian market. There are so many of our stories to tell and we have to learn to tell them well. In the past, everyone wanted to go to America and to Hollywood because that was the biggest dream. Still, today, it is; because they’ve had years of experience and some of the best directors. But I think slowly, it’s changing. Not fast enough – in my opinion. I sometimes wish I started out now because the opportunities suddenly seem endless. If you want to go into the international market, you must speak English well; there are no two ways around it. If you want to keep the Chinese market, you must be able to speak Mandarin.


M: You didn’t know how to speak Mandarin when you were shooting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon…


MY: I learnt. I don’t read Chinese either. I did it with pinyin. So it’s hard work. There is no easy way around it, but if you want something badly enough, you’ll do what you can to get there.


M: Would you say that you are fluent in mandarin now?


MY: Enough. Yes, I can have a conversation, and give an interview. But I can’t give a lecture (Laughs). I have a limited vocabulary.


M: You are a humanitarian too. What are you fighting for?


MY: I would say that road safety is my priority. I’ve been advocating this for six or seven years now, and we’ve come to a midpoint in our action plan. But we don’t feel as though we are achieving our goals as much as we can. Since we’ve been sitting down here talking, a handful of children have probably died on the roads somewhere in the world. And this is something that we can change and cannot allow to happen. I advocate for AIDs, for malaria, for tuberculosis. And we find so much money to research and find vaccines. But with road safety we have the vaccines, we just have to implement it and make the government understand that this is a problem that could potentially be the number one killer of our youth. It’s not going to go away by itself, but we have the ways and means to stop it. I just did a radio program, it’s called Global Radio, and we advocate for many things whether it’s sustainability, or eradication of poverty. There are so many issues, but it just takes us one minute every day to help things go in a certain direction. Little things make a difference, like unplugging things from sockets when you’re not using them, being more careful as a pedestrian.


M: Do you ever think you’ll have your own family in the future?


MY: Unfortunately, I can’t have kids, but I have amazing Godchildren. I am very lucky. I can borrow them and when they’re too naughty, and I can give them back (Laughs). But I think family doesn’t always have to be blood. It can be a certain type of connection. I am very blessed.


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