Michelle Yeoh on how to become a Lady

The Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh talks about taking on the daunting task of portraying Aung San Suu Kyi in the film The Lady.

Michelle Yeoh and the director Luc Besson at a gala presentation for their film The Lady. Kim Jae-Hwan / AFP
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The Lady has been a passion for you. Why did you feel so driven to bring Aung San Suu Kyi's story to the screen?

Because of who she is and because of the love story with her husband. I think this is something not a lot of people know about, their devotion to each other. When you think of Daw Suu [a term of affection used by the Burmese], you think of the strength of a woman who was willing to stand up against a whole army.

You couldn't meet her before you made the film for obvious reasons. How did you prepare for the role?

I remember Luc [Besson] told me he wanted to shoot in September and I said: "Oh, September next year. Good." He goes: "No, this September", and I thought: "No, no, no. I'm not ready!" But she'd been living with me every day for a long time; I read the books that she read, the books that she wrote, I studied the way she writes, what inspires her, I watched clips of her and could see how she developed and how her passion grew over the years.

She's been criticised for not flying back to her husband in the UK when he was dying of cancer.

Some people would say: "How can she be so cold? How can she not dash back?" But if you understand the story of her and her husband and their devotion to each other, this was something that bonded them as well. It's about understanding who she really is. She had no choice. She needed to be with her people. It gave her people strength to know that she was with them in that sense of the word.

Was it a challenge bringing a human face to someone who is a saint in the eyes of so many?

It was a great fear as well because I felt a great responsibility. What if I got it wrong? All these people love her and revere her, she stands for hope and inspiration, and if you got it wrong, you'd just never forgive yourself.

How was it meeting her for the first time, near the end of the shoot?

I remember walking down the driveway to her house thinking: "God, wasn't I here yesterday?" And as I'm walking up the stairs I'm thinking: "Oh my god, my bedroom is supposed to be there." It was so weird. When she finally walked into the room, you're thinking: "I know this woman," but you don't know her. We never spoke about the film but I felt like I was visiting an old family friend. You felt like she was someone that you could trust, someone that was not judgemental. She was just so happy because you were there to be with her.


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