In 1991, Michelle Yeoh was a 28-year-old Malaysian-Chinese actress living in semi-retirement with her Hong Kong entrepreneur husband. It was the year that Burma’s unyielding pro-democracy crusader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was awarded the Nobel peace prize; she didn’t get to Oslo to accept the award, as she was under house arrest at the time. “I went, ‘Wow, who is this woman? She must be extraordinary,’” Yeoh recalls. “It was inspirational. It made me proud that an Asian woman had achieved something like that, and was being so widely recognised for what she was trying to do for her country.”
Twenty years on, Yeoh has come to know her a whole lot better, even though the Burmese politician spent 15 of those years confined to her Rangoon home. Now technically free, Suu Kyi is watching her country take stuttering (and, many say, strictly cosmetic) steps towards democracy, and Yeoh is portraying the graceful peace activist in a new biopic, The Lady, by the French director Luc Besson. His film lays out her astonishing journey from Oxford housewife to global icon, largely through the prism of the limitless devotion between Daw Suu — as she is known in Burma, Daw being a term of respect for revered women — and her husband, the academic Michael Aris, who died of prostate cancer in 1999.
In those two decades, Yeoh has become much better known, too, thanks to her fly-kicking exploits as a Bond girl and her fierce warrior in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A former dancer, she is petite and elegant, her beauty undimmed at 49, her attire expensively chic when we meet in a swanky Toronto hotel. She is also one of the warmest interviewees you could meet, grabbing my hand in hers when I bump into her twice more during the autumn, and declaring, with what seems to be utter sincerity: “So nice to see you again.”
Yet she clearly has a steely side. Four years ago, when she heard that someone was attempting to make a film of Suu Kyi’s life, she told her manager to track down the project — or else. “He knows I don’t threaten lightly,” she says with a laugh. The search led to Rebecca Frayn, daughter of the Noises Off playwright Michael, who had been developing a script for several years and was predictably thrilled to reel in a star of Yeoh’s stature. Initially, Yeoh asked Besson to mentor the project. Instead, he announced that he wanted to direct. “I was amazed by what I read,” he says. “It was the story. I’ve never read anything so romantic and so powerful since Romeo and Juliet.”
David Thewlis was also moved by it, and left the producers a tearful voicemail after reading the script. He had proved himself to Yeoh as worthy of being cast as Aris. “I knew we had to get people who would be in love with the story, not just say, ‘Yeah, I have a window in my schedule,’” she explains. “You needed to feel emotional about it. It wasn’t just a story about the politics in Burma, it was a human drama between Michael and Daw Suu.”
The politician’s destiny was shaped by a father who negotiated his country’s independence from Britain before being assassinated by rivals; her mother was traditional and strict, Burma’s ambassador to Nepal and India in her daughter’s youth. Having settled in Oxford in the 1970s to raise two sons with Aris — Alex and Kim — Suu Kyi returned home in 1988 to tend to her ailing mother; she never left, moved to protest against the military junta’s brutal suppression of student protests and swept up in a burgeoning democracy movement. She helped found and lead the opposition party, the National League for Democracy.
Unsurprisingly, Yeoh found it daunting tackling an icon who is not simply a national figurehead, but a sanctified figure, the Gandhi of her age. The quiet serenity of this charismatic beauty, with a flower in her hair, has helped fix the image of Suu Kyi. When they were making the film, though, she was under house arrest and not even in communication with her children, which blocked any opportunity for Yeoh to meet her. “There’s an essence about her I was scared about trying to portray,” admits the actress, who is also a Buddhist, and relied on Suu Kyi’s writings (including her private correspondence with Aris) for her research. She read the same books, met friends who had known her in Oxford and pored over 200 hours of film footage.
Yeoh did meet Suu Kyi’s younger son, Kim, who informed her: “ ‘Meme is slimmer than you.’ I thought, ‘She cannot be slimmer than me.’ I remember gently asking him about her, and he said, ‘You know, I was 12 years old. I don’t have big enough memories for you.’ ” Yeoh was left to rely on her intuition that approaching Suu Kyi’s story with respect would yield its own truth.
The filming of this story was never going to be easy. Before work began, Besson and his wife, Virginie Silla, travelled to Burma for 10 days, shooting clandestine footage on the streets of Rangoon under the pretence of being tourists — including shots of the site of one of Suu Kyi’s most famous speeches, her 1988 address to 500,000 people at the golden Shwedagon pagoda, when she called for a democratic government. Thanks to digital trickery, Besson was able to incorporate his pilfered recordings into The Lady, layering in marching crowds and military hardware.
“I was there too,” Yeoh whispers conspiratorially. “We had this elaborate ruse that we’d all go separately, then, when we got there we’d say, ‘Oh, what are you doing here?’” The actress travelled with her brother, his wife and two friends, only daring to meet up with Besson on the final day, and taking still photos that were used as reference. In the heart of Rangoon, she wasn’t allowed to look soldiers in the face; on the outskirts, the mood was more relaxed. Several guards posed with the Asian superstar, who used the occasion to snap a few military signs and banners.
Even in Thailand, The Lady’s 10-week shoot had to be a secret. If the Thai authorities had learnt of its existence, they would have tried to shut down the production, out of deference to their autocratic neighbour. Most of the film was shot in a replica of the family home where Suu Kyi spent so many years in isolation; built on private land and concealed behind high walls, it was relatively easy to keep under wraps. Venturing beyond its confines was more perilous. The director of a Bangkok hospital turfed them out, for fear of repercussions, and the Thai secret police were questioning their drivers towards the end. “You could smell that it was time to go,” Besson says. When filming Suu Kyi’s Shwedagon pagoda speech, he addressed 3,000 Thai extras by megaphone, asking them not to upload anything onto the internet. Amazingly, they complied. “In Europe, your own brother would post something,” he says. “They have a sense of honour there.”
On November 13, 2010, Suu Kyi was released, and her liberation gave Yeoh a golden opportunity. She journeyed to Rangoon last December. Approaching the real house, she describes it as being “almost creepy”. “I was going down the driveway, feeling, ‘God, wasn’t I here yesterday? Isn’t my bedroom up those stairs?’ Then she walked into the room, and you are thinking, ‘I know this woman.’ I felt like I was visiting an old family friend. I told myself, ‘Don’t gush’, but you just felt she was someone you could trust. You didn’t have to think of the smartest things to say, she was just so happy because you were there. You felt there was great strength and a great sense of humour. Her son was teasing her, saying, ‘Oh, you’re always so rigid.’ She said, ‘I don’t think I am. Just... disciplined.’ We never spoke about the film.”
Suu Kyi, Yeoh says, professed herself happy at The Lady’s creation, seeing it as a mark of respect for her struggle and for Burma. But she didn’t want to hear about the content, read the script or see the final film, partly because she doesn’t want to give ammunition to her military watchers. “In all honesty, she can say, ‘I didn’t ask for the film, I didn’t write it,’” Yeoh says. “Because you never know — if they suddenly feel threatened by her, she could be back under house arrest all over again.
“Even I have huge problems watching it. Can you imagine what she would feel? I don’t know...” Yeoh’s voice descends to a whisper. “Because she never really saw... In our film, we show the normality of what was going on in Oxford. It juxtaposes that with what she was putting up with. Then, at the end, when these soul mates were trying to come back together, for hopefully one last time, and were denied that...”
After finally meeting Suu Kyi, did Yeoh wish she had played her any -differently? “Honestly, no. I wanted to portray the vulnerable side of her that you’ve not seen, not just this well-presented woman.”
The Lady softens the harsher realities of Suu Kyi’s long incarceration. Yeoh is never less than beautiful, whereas malnutrition caused Suu Kyi’s hair to fall out, and she developed spondylosis. The film also ends with the start of the monks’ 2007 Saffron Revolution, but refrains from showing the bloody suppression that snuffed it out. Even so, the Burmese authorities were never going to take kindly to it. Even with the veil of secrecy still in place, when Yeoh attempted to re-enter the country in June, she was turned back at the airport. “I wish I knew what happened,” she sighs. She suspects the cat was let out of the bag during last December’s visit, when she unintentionally turned up at the airport at the same time Suu Kyi was seeing off her son Alex. Yeoh is now on a blacklist.
A year after completing The Lady, she is finding it difficult to leave the role behind. “The philosophy of compassion, of love, of commitment, of patience — if I can aspire to just a little bit of that...” she muses. “I’m still feeling anxiety, because she represents so much to so many people. You just feel, ‘Please, God, I hope I didn’t get it wrong.’” Yeoh gives a rueful smile. “I’ll have a lot of people after me if I did.”