ISSUE: Winter 2011-12
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Mira Advani Honeycutt
Best known for her martial arts action films, Michelle Yeoh is now tackling a role of a different kind. The Malayasian-born actress has recently been traveling promoting the new film The Lady, in which she plays the Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and had a gala presentation at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea last October.
Directed by Luc Besson, the film follows the life of Suu Kyi when she returns to Burma in 1988 to take care of her dying mother and finds herself at the forefront of the country’s democratic movement. When she’s placed under house arrest for more than a decade, she attains world recognition and receives the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but not without the sacrifice of her family. Her two teenage sons were continually denied visas to visit her, and Suu Kyi is not by her Oxford professor husband’s side when he dies of prostate cancer in 1999.
During the filming in Thailand, Yeoh traveled to Burma, the only person allowed to meet with Suu Kyi. “I was nervous and overwhelmed,” said Yeoh to the press at Busan. “She opened her arms and gave me a hug. For a slender woman she is very strong and that hug was worth the trip.”
The film project, Yeoh explained, came to her through her friend Rebecca Frayn, who wrote the script with Yeoh in mind. “As an actress, where do you get a role like that?” said Yeoh. She then turned to her good friend and mentor Luc Besson for advice. “I read the script and I cried,” said Besson at the film festival. The director, known for such action films as La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element and the Transporter films, got on board immediately. “I cancelled everything for the next 18 months.”
For Yeoh, it was a challenging role, from learning Burmese to playing the piano. Although there is footage of Suu Kyi as a public person, there was very little information on her family life, said Yeoh. It was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle: “I studied her little laugh, her sighs, to give some insight. I walked around the streets in Oxford and met her friends to get a sense of her life.”
The most striking thing about Yeoh’s portrayal may be the resemblance between the two women. “Yes, there is an uncanny resemblance,” said Yeoh, “but when you see the poster, I hope you see her and not me.” Details In theaters December 2, 2011.
— Mira Advani Honeycutt