For the past four decades, Michelle Yeoh’s legendary body of work has defied easy categorization, running the gamut from cult classic kung fu cinema to blockbuster Bond flicks. She takes on her most expansive role yet in Everything Everywhere All at Once, where her comedic chops and deep emotional complexity are showcased alongside the signature martial arts skills that made her an international action star. The film, which released on March 30, centers around Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang, an unlikely superhero who travels in the multiverse, but can’t seem to finish her taxes.
Ahead of the film’s release, TIME caught up with Yeoh to talk about her current career renaissance, defying stereotypes, and why kindness is a superpower.
You’re starring in Everything Everywhere All At Once, a title that might also describe your career lately. You just appeared in Shang- Chi, are currently filming American Born Chinese, and have other projects. But the movie is about a laundromat owner who discovers alternate realities and amazing skills.
It’s a good thing, right? Who would have thought, at my age, to be busier than ever? I’m very, very lucky.
I loved the film. What drew you to this project?
When was the last time you saw a woman like this become a superhero? So I immediately said, “I need to meet these two directors [Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert].” They had me with their passion, the clarity of the story that they were telling. They have very strong women in their lives, basically their mothers, which made sense when it came together. I signed on after I understood where they were coming from. They told me, “Well, you know, Michelle, if you refused to do this movie, we would have to go back and rewrite the whole script again.” In their craziness, they really believed in me.
How did you prepare to embody Evelyn?
Every time I take on a new role, I have to give her history; I have to know where she’s coming from. Because Evelyn is a real character and she deserves her story to be told in its entirety, I kept a diary of Evelyn Wang [starting from] when she left China with the man she loved, much to the dismay of her parents, and her father disowning her because she didn’t do what he wanted. She had the American Dream, like a lot of immigrants do, because they are in search of a better life. Hoping for one thing, which was what Evelyn did, they started their laundromat, they started a family, and maybe it’s all coming together. But then it’s hard. Not everybody is able to keep it together; not everybody is able to be successful at what they set out to be.
Did you ever find it hard to keep up with all the different worlds in the multiverse?
There were moments in which I was blessed because as Evelyn Wang, I could look as confused as she is! It was an important journey for the audience as well, because you have no clue what’s going on the minute you get dragged into that janitor’s closet with this crazy woman—your brain sort of fractures with her.
We don’t always see films centered around difficult middle-aged women, much less sci-fi action comedies like this one. How did you feel taking on a layered character like Evelyn?
I love the beauty that she becomes a superhero, that she’s allowed to be a superhero. All of us have the superpower in us when we are able to show kindness, because that is a great superpower that will enable us to help the people around us, especially those we love, to find acceptance in ourselves in whatever we’re doing.
What does it feel like to have this absurdist comedic role that also uses all your skills as an action star at this time in your career?
If after 30-something-odd years being in the business, I can still surprise you, that means I am doing something right. As an actor, that’s what you want to do—the last thing you want to do is to be stereotyped or typecast or put in a box. When I approached Evelyn, I was like, “I do not want to be recognized as Michelle Yeoh; I do not want you to see Michelle in any form.”
At the beginning, Evelyn feels really limited in her life, but by the end, she realizes that the only limitations are the ones she has been putting on herself. Was there anything that you could relate to within feeling limited or limitless?
If you don’t feel like you’re capable, if you don’t think you’re capable, then you won’t be capable. Because the first person that says no is you— you’ve already said no. So how are you going to be able to do anything?
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