What would you do if you could live a different life? One where you’re stronger, more confident, richer, and more famous? Michelle Yeoh‘s Evelyn Wang explores that in her role in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Directed by The Daniels, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere is about Evelyn, who must explore the multiverse in order to save it, all the while trying to balance a tenuous relationship with her own family. Trying to get a grip on her family, Evelyn must juggle her crumbling marriage with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), her broken relationship with her estranged father (James Hong), and learn to accept her daughter Joy’s (Stephanie Hsu) queerness as a lesbian. When a different version of Waymond comes to recruit Evelyn to save the multiverse, we learn much more about where her life could have gone had she made different decisions.
Michelle Yeoh is a much-beloved international actor from Malaysia. Other than starring as a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies as her best-known first feature in the West, Yeoh made a career for herself in Hong Kong working with HK film legends like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan. She hit critical acclaim for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She’s had many roles in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese language films, voice acting roles, and more. Her most recent roles include starring in Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings, and, of course, Everything Everywhere All At Once, her first leading role in a sci-fi film. She will also be appearing in the Disney+ TV adaptation of American Born Chinese, the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang alongside co-star Ke Huy Quan.
We spoke with Michelle Yeoh about what drew her to the project, playing a complex character, giving credibility and authenticity to the film, working on big-budget films vs small budgets, and more! Read it all, below!
Therese Lacson: I just saw the movie and it was absolutely amazing! I would really love to know what drew you to this film and to this role?
Michelle Yeoh: What drew me to it? I was given the opportunity to play a very ordinary woman who suddenly had these extraordinary superhero powers. I hadn’t seen a script like that in a very, very, very, very long time. Too long. And, have you seen a character like that? No, right?
Michelle: Yeah, so when The Daniels wrote this, and later on, I found out that they wrote it with me in mind, then there’s clarity, right? But when I first received it, I was like, okay, I thought these Daniels were completely insane, like they need to be locked up in an asylum, or we are talking about a very unique, dare I even say the word, original kind of storytelling that, in my many years, I have not been part of. I’ve done like this, I’ve done that. I’ve done a bit of this and that. But not all together.
I mean, there are things in there that I’d had hoped to do in some time in my career, like real comedy as the lead actor. Physical comedy, and all these kinds of things. But at the same time, telling a story about a family, a very ordinary family. About a woman that we cross on the streets, and we would not even notice. This older woman who, all she’s trying to do is to hopefully create a better life for her child, her daughter, you know? And doing the worst thing in the world, which is like, not being able to complete her taxes. Then she has to face the terrible IRS officer played by the incredible Jamie Lee Curtis who brought that single-mindedness of “I will bring you down if you try to evade taxes” that strikes fear in every person here.
That was the amazing thing about the story. It was family drama. At the end of the day, it’s love and not giving up on family, on the people that you love. [It has] the most incredible mother and daughter relationship that is so relatable on many different levels, not just for immigrants. Especially in this day and age of the previous generation and this generation and trying to figure out and understand all the things that you have and are capable of doing. We are only now beginning to, I dare not even say understand, but scratch the surface of all the different identities and possibilities that you all are facing and are carrying. Then the husband and wife relationship where after years of being married, it’s so easy to take each other for granted and not work on it. Then with a parent, where you are always trying to make them proud of you, no matter how old you are, from when you were young to now when you still want them to think that you have been successful in your life.
So, I think the story, where it was genius, was that it went onto a platform of science fiction, where anything is possible, where this ordinary story becomes extraordinary because it’s thrown out in the universe, right? And then having different lives and chaos and things happening! I think that The Daniels do it on purpose, they wrote this so that we would slip and fall as they pull the rug out from under your feet. And as you’re falling they throw confetti on you and laugh. And hopefully, as you’re falling, you’re laughing as well, because I think that’s the only way to handle it.
Therese: Yeah, I really enjoyed this movie on a personal level. I’m Chinese and when I was watching Everything Everywhere All At Once, I was enjoying the Chinese dialogue and how it jumped back and forth between dialects. That’s something I’m really familiar with. My parents speak Mandarin and Cantonese and my dad’s speak Shanghainese on top of that, so it’s so casual.
Michelle: When we started out The Daniels obviously don’t speak Chinese, Daniel Kwan speaks a little bit. He has a few words here and there. We even tried to teach his son Gio to say, “新年快乐”. And poor Gio, he was like one and a half years old. But I think that was it, we wanted it to sound and be authentic, because this whole family was real. Evelyn Wong, Waymond, Joy, the father – it was real. This is the only way to portray it, that’s the chaos in a family household, [especially] if you look at that family living room, with all those things piled up and her working away. And when you talk to your parents or depending on which parent, depending on which province, they came from, Mandarin or Cantonese. Then when you switch to talking to someone who has been brought up in America, English will fall into place, right? So, you would understand.
And I think what the beauty of it was the people, they get it because they hear it. Even if they might not know exactly what the words are saying, it’s like, Tallie playing Joy’s girlfriend who is like, “Oh, okay,” like, you understand because the gesture and the body language speak volumes already on their own. I think that was what we wanted: the authenticity. It was very lucky, because Ke [Huy Quan] comes from multilingual background as well, he speaks Mandarin, he speaks Cantonese. So between the two of us, we were able to work it out and go like, I think this should be in Cantonese, and let’s do this in Mandarin, and work it out from there. I’m really glad we did it because it really gave credibility.
Therese: Yeah, I definitely felt like that was the most authentic version because I don’t ever see that. Normally, they’re all speaking Mandarin, or they’re all speaking English. And they don’t normally even mix Cantonese in there. So I was very excited when you were on the phone, and you slip in and out of English. I felt like it was like listening to my mom talk.
Michelle: Thank you! I’m so glad you caught on to that. That is very common for us.
Therese: I just want to know when it comes to these Asian and Asian American stories being told on screen, as someone who’s had a career in Hollywood and in the international film industry, what’s your opinion on the changes to the industry and this move to include more stories that are more diverse.
Michelle: It’s necessary. I mean, this is part of good storytelling. You have a very diverse culture here, especially in America, where you have had the diaspora of immigrants come in, whether it’s from the East or from so many other places, you are a country of immigrants, and all your stories deserve to be told in their own way. When we came out with Crazy Rich Asians, that’s three years ago, right? That was just the beginning. It’s been a long time coming. There was no all Asian cast. But there was a great weight of responsibility in the sense of what if it wasn’t as successful as it was? Would it have meant that it was the downfall of all these other storytellers that had so many stories to tell? And the certain executives or producers going, “See, nobody wants to see any Asian faces up there.”
But then they suddenly realize it’s not just about the Asian faces, it is about good storytelling and about a good story. Then oh, lo and behold, guess what? They do want to see a hunky Asian man. Because for a while they thought, “Asian men are not romantic,” but, excuse me! Give us an opportunity to be able to showcase our talents and let us also have the opportunity to tell our stories with respect and authenticity. I think that’s very, very important. But we also have to be mindful now the door is more open, and more opportunities are there, we have to grab them and treat them and nurture them and make sure that it is done well.
Therese: Yeah, I 100% agree. Well said. Just to shift gears a little bit, you’ve worked on a lot of these very large IP universe stories like Star Trek, and you’ve been in the MCU. I just wanted to know what is it like working on those types of projects versus this smaller project, where you’re just working with a very close group of people and you don’t have a lot of that noise, so to speak, hanging over your head?
Michelle: You mean a lot of money, big budgets, larger trailer? [laughs] No, you know, at the end of the day, I think it is about the integrity of the filmmakers. I mean, obviously, you could have a much bigger budget, you can have bigger dreams. But I also believe that when you don’t have that big budget, you need to draw on the big talents. The real talents. For example, with The Daniels, we don’t have the budget to do all these incredible, special effects that we can do in Star Trek Discovery, which just blows your mind away, because it’s made for TV. But when you watch it on the big screen, it is just as amazing. I just watched The Man Who Fell to Earth, oh my god, and you think that’s not a TV series! Because what is out there deserves to be on the big screen.
But then with The Daniels, if you’ve watched them and seen what they have done before, they are technical geniuses. Because they don’t have the budget to do certain things, they have found ways with the camera and, okay I shouldn’t say tricks, but capabilities to make it work. Sometimes it happens so fast, you’re like, “Okay, I think I saw it?” But that was it. And that’s what they have also captured, it is your sense of imagination plus their ability to make magic. When you look at some of the things that they have done, for example, we had to shoot a scene with Ke and we were very lucky. It was March 17, when we had our last day of shoot, and it was complete lockdown. We all had to go our separate ways, and we have not seen each other until we all came back here two years later, for the presentation of our movie of Everything Everywhere All At Once.
There was one big day of green screen that I had to shoot in London. Ke had shot it in LA, and the directors were on Zoom from their whole different homes. So, we were in different parts of the world trying to connect, and it is a very emotional scene in the van where he’s talking about [Evelyn and Waymond splitting] up.
Therese: Oh yeah!
Michelle: Yeah, remember that scene? And then there’s Jamie’s character hanging in by the window ready to drag me back to the other universe. So it’s this emotional drama that’s happening inside a very ordinary van, but then I’m being dragged back into this horror movie where this looming monster’s ready to pull my arms and my limbs apart. And they did it with a split-screen, green screen. I don’t know, it’s too technical for me for my little brain to comprehend. But the use of camera together with Larkin [Seiple], and how they could put it together, was just… But I guess when you don’t have certain things, like when you have hot dog fingers, you become adept with your feet, right? When you don’t have this, you will have to make it work with that. And that is their genius. They have an incredible team with them, with the editor and the DP, and they put this jigsaw puzzle thing together in an incredibly crazy way.
Therese: Yes, somehow it all fits together! It’s so wild and chaotic, I mean, the title is really accurate, but it all comes together really well in the end and it was very emotional to watch. Your performance was amazing, and I really want to thank you for speaking with me and taking the time!
Michelle: Thank you. I hope you go and see the movie again!
Therese: I will! I have to for the hot dog fingers alone!