She’s been a beauty queen and an action hero, but now with the awards success of Everything Everywhere All at Once and that Avatar sequel on the horizon, Michelle Yeoh finds herself at the zenith of the Hollywood firmament. It’s no surprise if you’ve been paying attention.
Michelle Yeoh strides through the world like a woman who has never been hurt. This is not the case. In her nearly four decades as an actor Yeoh has been punched, kicked and bruised so badly that one time a director thought she had smudged her hands with dirt. She dislocated a shoulder, fractured a rib, ruptured an artery, and ripped her ACL doing a highwire stunt. Once she leaped from a speeding van onto a convertible, bounced off the windshield, and nearly died tumbling onto the pavement. What happened after that? She got up and did the stunt again.
For Yeoh life isn’t so different from a stunt. Planning helps, but the unexpected still happens. So every morning in bed she performs a gratitude ritual: She stretches every muscle in her body, notes the day’s creaks and throbs, and apologizes to it for the joy she takes in challenging her limits. I’m sorry, please forgive me, I love you.
“To good health!” Yeoh says, hoisting a spicy margarita. It’s a Friday afternoon in Beverly Hills, and the 60-year-old actress is easing into a relaxing weekend, a luxury she hasn’t enjoyed in a while. That Yeoh is toasting to health could be seen as a sign of humility. She could have raised a glass to her pick of successes: the TV show she wrapped earlier this week, the new series she started today, her several major movies on the horizon (including James Cameron’s long-anticipated sequel to Avatar), sitting front row at Balenciaga and Schiaparelli during Paris Fashion Week, or her astounding star turn as multiverse-jumping laundromat owner Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The indie sensation has earned more than $90 million at the box office so far and was met with a critical response that can only be described as rhapsodic. The film swept 10 awards at the Oscars—including Yeoh for Best Actress.
The first thing that registers when you meet Yeoh in person is how startlingly small she is, stacked against her imposing on-screen presence. She has built her career playing women poised to stab their rivals with a sword—or, in the case of her Crazy Rich Asians character, grande dame Eleanor Young, a cutting remark.
“I was terrified,” the director Paul Feig says of his first dinner with Yeoh. “I expected this stoic person who could beat me up.” To his surprise, Yeoh made him giggle so hard that he cast her in his next two comedies, Last Christmas and this fall›s subversive, star-studded fairy tale, The School for Good and Evil, in which she delivers some of the movie’s zingiest punchlines.
They’ve become close friends who delight in sending each other bottles of bubbly. “Insanely expensive,” Feig notes of their shared taste in good champagne, eye-catching outfits, and the cocktail they invented together, the “Five Yeoh-larm Margarita,” which features muddled jalapeños, hot sauce, and pepper on the rim. “We love to step it up.”
That’s clear in everything Yeoh does. Every inch of her is expressive. She laughs with her full body, clapping to punctuate a joke. Yeoh claims to speak only “one and one-fourth” languages (for husband Jean Todt she has tried to learn French, but she struggles with the genders and pronunciation), but after a few minutes with her one becomes aware that she has invented her own nonverbal language: continual interjections of “Pyongow!” and “Gwarghhh!” and “Kadada-tadata!” that, in the moment, make perfect sense.
At 16, Yeoh moved from Ipoh, a former tin-mining town, to England to study dance. She dreamed of a career in ballet, but shortly after she arrived, the school she was attending measured her limbs and declared her hopelessly stubby. “It’s very brutal,” Yeoh said. Fine, she thought, I can teach. Then she injured her back, and that plan, too, slipped away.
Yeoh’s father Yeoh Kian Teik, a lawyer and politician, trusted his daughter to follow her own desires, but her mother Janet, a showboat herself, thought her daughter should be famous. Growing up, Yeoh would open a magazine and be stunned to see her own face: Janet had a habit of secretly mailing in her photograph. Yeoh was dismayed but not shocked to learn that her mother had entered her in the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant. She was more surprised when she won. “I’m a little competitive by nature,” she said. Then she shrugged and said, “I think the judges were blind.” Her second pageant was Miss World, where she walked across the stage wearing a traditional gold and green costume, but she never competed again. When asked if her mother takes credit for her career, Yeoh says, “All the time! She always tells me, ‘It’s me, I created her, I gave her this,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, Mom.’”
Believe it or not, Everything Everywhere marks the first time Yeoh has been number one on the call sheet of a Hollywood production. Now that she has reached this benchmark, Yeoh has been inundated with offers tempting her to extend her stateside stay. It’s the fulfillment of a life spent working, but right now what she really wants is to clear her brain with a trip to Bali, or a simple weekend at home by the pool with her family and a bottle—okay, maybe two—of wine. She has worked her way to the top of the Hollywood food chain, but she has also earned the chance to enjoy the spoils of her success.
“My guiding light,” she says, “is you do it because you want to do it—with passion. Our life is a gift, and hopefully when it’s time to go I will say, ‘I lived it to the fullest.’”