Learning to play the piano and the Burmese language, and dropping eight kilograms in four months, were the least of 48-year-old Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh’s worries when preparing for her role in the film The Lady. She calls the movie, directed by French filmmaker Luc Besson, the most challenging of her career.
And little wonder. Yeoh, who’s best known for her action roles in films such as Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had to play Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Stepping into the shoes of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate was daunting for her – not least because Suu Kyi is still alive.
Now 66 years old, Suu Kyi was released from seven consecutive years of house arrest on November 13, 2010 – just as the cast of The Lady had, coincidentally, finished filming a scene about her release. In total, she spent 15 years under house arrest for leading Myanmar’s opposition movement.
Reader’s Digest Asia caught up with Yeoh at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar, where she spoke about her preparations for a part she describes as “the role of a lifetime”.
Reader’s Digest: Suu Kyi is one of the world’s most iconic female figures. What prompted you to take this film on?
Michelle Yeoh: I grew up in Malaysia. Daw Suu [Burmese for Aunty Suu] is from a neighbouring country. She’s inspirational, particularly to a lot of Asian women. So for me to get this opportunity to portray this extraordinary woman who was selfless, had devoted herself to fighting for people in a non-violent way – [this] was something we should all aspire to.