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Michelle Yeoh has a new leading role and a new motto: No more turning the other cheek

Michelle Yeoh (center) plays Evelyn Wang, a Chinese immigrant who owns a failing laundromat. She protects her daughter Joy (left), played by Stephanie Hsu, and her husband Waymond (right), played by Ke Huy Quan.

Updated April 10, 2022 at 12:23 PM ET

In the new movie Everything Everywhere All at Once from directing duo The Daniels (that's Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), laundromat owner Evelyn Wang is bad at everything.

Her business is failing, her relationships with her husband and daughter are falling apart. As actress Michelle Yeoh puts it, Evelyn is "a jack-of-not-even-all-trades. She's a jack of nothing and master of nothing."

As if that weren't enough, she's also being audited by the IRS.

"It's probably easier to say what is going right in her life, the minute that you meet Evelyn Wang," Yeoh says.

She is not a stereotypical superhero — and that's exactly what makes Evelyn so compelling for Yeoh.

"I felt that this was such a perfect opportunity to give a voice to the very ordinary mothers and housewife who are out there, you know, doing the most mundane things and get so taken for granted," Yeoh says. "And then let her discover that, oh my God, she is a superhero."

Yeoh says finding the value in the ordinary — and the bizarre — is a superpower in itself.

"Whether you have hot dog fingers, whether you're a rock, what you have evolved to. I think the core spirit, the core emotion is very, very real in whatever universe you are in," Yeoh says.

In our universe, Yeoh has had her own string of different life paths. She was a ballerina and a pageant queen before an injury led her to become the leading lady of Hong Kong's action movies in the 1990s.

Now, 30 years later, Yeoh is finally getting her turn at a leading role in a Hollywood movie.

This interview with Michelle Yeoh has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On doing physical comedy for the first time

I think I had it easy in the past where I just look cool, you know? I know exactly what I'm doing, that kind of thing. Oh my God, martial arts is simple. It's easy compared to physical comedy. Physical comedy is like timing, it's precision, it's so many things coming together at the right time. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I never did it before because it was so hard.

I think it was so challenging that I really, really enjoyed it very much because you had to literally fracture your mind into knowing the moves and doing them like you're a master, but your face is completely registering shock and then wonder and like, "Oh my god, how the hell am I doing this?" like all at the same time.

On Asian representation in Hollywood

I think the tide has turned, but we also need to be responsible, good storytellers and seize the opportunities that are presented now for women, for diversity. But don't let it just be lip service, it has to mean something. So this movie in particular, it's about an Asian immigrant woman, an aging Asian immigrant woman. When was the last time you saw that, right?

Rich Fury / Getty Images for SXSW
Getty Images for SXSW
Michelle Yeoh at the opening night premiere of "Everything Everywhere All At Once" during the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals in Austin, Texas.

But it took us a long time. I think in the older days, you know how Asians put their heads down and say, "OK, let's just get on with it. Let's work hard. And our hard work will pay off." Sorry. You know, sometimes you have to rock the boat. We just have to rock the boat and say, "Look at us, give us a chance." Because guess what? We exist in your society. We are part of the society and very, very much an intricate part of this whole community. This is the only way we will get more opportunities, if we fight for it and no longer be able to say, OK, I'll turn the other cheek. Dang! No more turning the other cheek.

On whether she asks herself 'What if?'

Of course there are things in life I wish I did, which would have made me smarter, healthier, wiser when I was younger. But do I sit there and go, I wish I took another path? Because then I wouldn't have all the amazing things I have today and the career that I've forged over the last 30-something years. So I don't really spend time doing that. But I think in Everything Everywhere All at Once, it does make you ponder because what it tells you here is like every choice that you make splinters into a full blown universe of its own with a real life.

I think you have to be present. This life is yours. But if you're not present, it's wasted. Time waits for no one. When we're born, we age and then we die, and God forbid, we die before we have lived our lives. So we have to be present in whatever universe, in whatever life, because if you give up on being present, then you give up on your life.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 9, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of the headline implied this is Michelle Yeoh's first leading role.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Megan Lim