Michelle Yeoh plays Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians.
How did you work with director Jon M Chu to bring the character of Eleanor Young to life?
The book Crazy Rich Asians is terrific fun and a perfect beach read. But when you are doing a movie, you need more hooks, and the characters and their journeys should move you. When I first spoke with Jon, I realised he was the right director for this film. He had a strong vision, and we immediately latched onto the traditions we have as Chinese people.
Jon always knew what he wanted, but at the same time was always open to different ideas. He would also listen to someone who had a different take on a scene or line of dialogue. He was born in the United States, but he had traditional parents who helped him understand the values of being in an Asian family. There are many differences between Asians who grew up in Asia and those who grew up in the United States. That understanding helped me convey why Eleanor was so protective of her son, Nick, who is her only child. For me, it was important to show why Eleanor would have a negative reaction to Nick’s girlfriend, Rachel. Eleanor sees her as someone who may cause Nick to undermine those values.
Eleanor instils fear in everyone around her. What was it like to convey that intensity?
You look at Eleanor and you go, “Oh my goodness, I don’t know what she is going to do to me!” One character even says, “Auntie Eleanor is here, and you don’t even have to say anything, because everybody already is scared!” But it was important to me that you feel the love she has for her son Nick and understand why she’s so intimidating. And then comes this girl, Rachel, who Eleanor thinks is unsuitable for Nick because this young lady has no idea what it takes to be in a traditional Chinese family. Rachel has been brought up in America, where your upbringing is different from how it is in Asia. In Asia, you do not answer back to your parents, and whatever they want you to do, you do. If your dad tells you the table is round, even if it’s square, you’ll nod your head and say, “Yes, it’s round.”
We played a lot with Eleanor’s relationship with her own mother-in-law, and how Eleanor was not the chosen one in that arrangement, and how she had to compromise what she believed in, for the sake of her family. In some respects, I almost see Eleanor looking at Rachel with sympathy. She feels sorry for her, because you must sacrifice a lot to be a part of Eleanor’s family. But Rachel may not be ready to do that. So Eleanor is looking for a way to give Rachel a way out of the relationship. We had fun exploring those ideas.
Were there women like Eleanor who tried to put you in your place when you were growing up in Asia?
Yes! I know a lot of those elegant matriarchs in Hong Kong, who had Eleanor’s “look” – it’s a look you already know by heart. So, when we embarked on the journey of making this film, I knew we had to see beyond the fashion and jewellery and over-the-top fun and remember that many of these matriarchs are well educated and elegant. You must keep that balance; otherwise, it becomes too much like a comedy or farce. I wanted Eleanor to have that mix of wealth, elegance and education.
Talk about working with Henry Golding, who portrays Eleanor’s son, Nick.
He’s wonderful. Early on, Henry called me and invited me to tea. That was a good move on his part. Everyone adores Henry because he is so charming, engaging and relaxed. He is also pleasing to the eye and if I had a son, I would want him to look like Henry! When he began work on Crazy Rich Asians, Henry must have been nervous because, suddenly, he is the lead in this big movie. But you could see that he was always eager to learn and not afraid to ask questions. Henry was always open to trying new things. I said to him, “Your eyes tell the story. You don’t have to speak; tell me with your eyes. For him, that was easy.
What was it like to work with Constance Wu, who plays Nick’s girlfriend Rachel Chu?
Constance is smart, passionate and dedicated to her work. It was wonderful to work with her and the other young actors on set and observe how they appreciated the opportunity of working on this film – and run and fly with that opportunity.
Did you get the chance to meet with Kevin Kwan, who wrote the novel and serves as an executive producer on the film?
We had the privilege of meeting Kevin when he visited the set. It was charming because I saw this gentleman smiling at me, and I was thinking, “Maybe I know him from somewhere?” And it was Kevin. He then told me a story that when he met [Crazy Rich Asians producer] Nina Jacobson, he told her, “My dream casting for Eleanor Young is Michelle Yeoh.” And he then told me, “I am here watching my dream come true.” That was so sweet! He’s so talented and humble and we are so proud of him. He is an inspiration.
What was it like to film a major studio picture in Asia?
Our sets were unbelievable. Our amazing production designer Nelson Coates had such imagination, yet the sets were true to the essence of the place. When you read the book you wonder, where are they going to find a house like Eleanor’s in the story? But they found one, with Carcosa Seri Negara, in Kuala Lumpur. It was once a private residence, and then a boutique hotel. The production’s set designs and lighting were phenomenal. Wait till you see the big wedding scene! The light, when the characters enter the scene, is incredible. It was also pretty spectacular when we filmed at night in the Botanical Gardens. Everything is lush in this film.
You are working on many diverse projects. That must be a wonderful feeling.
I am on the plane constantly. I am blessed. Over the past year, I’ve done Crazy Rich Asians; a movie with Yuen Wo Ping, in China; a spin-off of Ipman; and soon, I return to the world of Star Trek. Sometimes, I wonder, who am I now? I am [Star Trek] Captain Philippa Georgiou … no, no, I am Eleanor Young!
It’s exciting and I am fortunate that it’s happening before I get too old and have to be in a rocking chair.