Michelle Yeoh: The Secret Superhero of Everything Everywhere

Michelle Yeoh’s career as one of cinema’s most remarkable action heroes has been notable for many reasons, not least the fact that she has never previously been cast as a lead in a Hollywood movie. That has finally been remedied with 2022’s sensational Everything Everywhere All At Once, a superhero film which hinges on the idea of branching timelines and missed opportunities. As the accolades pour in following Michelle Yeoh's Best Actress Oscar, it’s clear that while Hollywood has missed many opportunities to feature Yeoh’s incredible talents, this Secret Superhero has paved the way for other Asian actresses to succeed in her wake.   

Michelle Yeoh: The Secret Superhero of Everything Everywhere
Michelle as unlikely superhero Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All At Once

PIROUETTES AND PIVOTS

Michelle was born in 1962 in Malaysia, to wealthy parents who trained her from the age of four to be a ballerina. She was a talented and promising dancer, and at the age of 15 the family moved to London so that she could study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance, but at this point the first major branching point in Michelle’s life occurred when she suffered an injury in practice. The doctors informed her that she had a rotated disk in her spine, and would be unable to withstand the grueling training expected of a professional ballet dancer. She described their conversation: "People talk about seeing their dreams shattered, but that really happened to me. The doctor asked me, 'Have you ever thought of doing something other than dance?' Suddenly it hit me: he wasn't joking."

Michelle Yeoh: The Secret Superhero of Everything Everywhere

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Michelle Yeoh’s career as one of cinema’s most remarkable action heroes has been notable for many reasons, not least the fact that she has never previously been cast as a lead in a Hollywood movie. That has finally been remedied with 2022’s sensational Everything Everywhere All At Once, a superhero film which hinges on the idea of branching timelines and missed opportunities. As the accolades pour in following Michelle Yeoh's Best Actress Oscar, it’s clear that while Hollywood has missed many opportunities to feature Yeoh’s incredible talents, this Secret Superhero has paved the way for other Asian actresses to succeed in her wake.   

Michelle Yeoh: The Secret Superhero of Everything Everywhere
Michelle as unlikely superhero Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All At Once

PIROUETTES AND PIVOTS

Michelle was born in 1962 in Malaysia, to wealthy parents who trained her from the age of four to be a ballerina. She was a talented and promising dancer, and at the age of 15 the family moved to London so that she could study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance, but at this point the first major branching point in Michelle’s life occurred when she suffered an injury in practice. The doctors informed her that she had a rotated disk in her spine, and would be unable to withstand the grueling training expected of a professional ballet dancer. She described their conversation: "People talk about seeing their dreams shattered, but that really happened to me. The doctor asked me, 'Have you ever thought of doing something other than dance?' Suddenly it hit me: he wasn't joking."

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Michelle stayed on at the Royal Academy to study choreography, and after graduating she briefly returned to Malaysia, where her mother entered her in the Miss Malaysia beauty pageant. She won, and went on to represent Malaysia at the 1983 Miss World pageant, back in London. This led to another pivotal moment in her career, after she was noticed by the prominent Hong Kong film producer Dickson Poon, who ran the D&B Films company alongside action star Sammo Hung. Poon hired Michelle to star in an advert alongside Jackie Chan, and this led to early acting roles in martial arts movies. In her first role, 1984’s The Owl vs Bumbo, she was cast as a helpless damsel in distress, waiting to be rescued by the film’s male stars. She describes how she carefully observed the intricate action sequences, and then insisted on being included in fight scenes for her next role, where she was quickly recast as a judo instructor. 

Michele Yeoh and Pierce Brosnan
Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin alongside Brosnan's Bond

HOLLYWOOD WOULDN’T

The die seemed to be cast, but there were more twists to come. Poon asked Michelle to marry him, and also to quit her career as an actress in order to be a full time wife and mother. Michelle agreed, but the pair were unable to conceive and divorced just three years later. Happily, Michelle’s acting talents were still in demand, and she resumed her action hero career at the age of 30 in the much loved 1992 Jackie Chan film Supercop.

It wouldn’t be long before she made the transition to Hollywood, appearing as a Bond Girl alongside Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997. Brosnan was hugely impressed by his co-star’s acting chops and stunt work, describing her as “a female James Bond”, but Hollywood studios did not see her as a lead actor, even after she cemented her position as a household name in 2000 with her stunning performance in Ang Lee’s masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

She consequently struggled to break into Hollywood, and her next film, 2002’s The Touch, was self-produced. She eventually landed supporting roles in Memoirs of a Geisha and Sunshine, but would not be cast as a lead until her skillful portrayal of the Nobel Peace prize winning politician Aung San Suu Kyi, in Luc Besson’s British-made 2011 biopic The Lady. 

Michelle Yeoh: The Secret Superhero of Everything Everywhere
Portraying Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE

By 2015, she had turned to television, with roles in the spy drama Strike Back, and as Starfleet Captain Phillipa Georgiou in Star Trek: Discovery and Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians. She had also begun to speak out about the lack of representation of Asian women in Hollywood, noting that while successful Asian movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and  Parasite were recognised as technical achievements, the actors in those movies received little credit. Both films had won four Academy Awards but no actor in either movie had been nominated for any award at the Oscars or Golden Globes. At that point, Youn Yuh-Jung’s 2020 Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress in Minari had been the sole instance of Asian cinema stars winning at the Academy Awards. 

Michelle Yeoh accepts the award for Actress in a Leading Role at the 95th Academy Awards.
Michele Yeoh wins the 2023 Oscar for Best Actress

Happily, Michelle has finally begun to receive the recognition and roles that her acting talents deserve. 2022’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, directed by the duo known as The Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), swept the 2023 Academy Awards with seven awards, including a belated Best Actress win for Michelle herself, and a Best Supporting Actor win for Ke Huy Kwan.

The movie places Yeoh at the center of multiple universes in a hugely demanding role. Her portrayal of Evelyn Wang - a downtrodden laundromat owner who is juggling marital difficulties, a dysfunctional relationship with her lesbian daughter, and an aggressive audit from the IRS - is a challenging role even without the more fantastical elements of the film’s plot. These see the put-upon Evelyn being asked to accept the unlikely role of a multidimensional superhero, saving an infinite number of universes from a mysterious - and highly capricious - existential threat.

The film is chaotic and intricate, and so is Yeoh’s masterful performance as she effortlessly portrays Evelyn’s shock, disbelief, wonder and deadly combat skills, often all in the same scene. It is not hard to see how the film would fall apart in the hands of a lesser actor, but with Yeoh at the center of the bedlam it is nothing short of a triumph. It's been a long time coming, but Michelle is finally being recognized for her work, and this iconic figure’s Secret Superheroism will hopefully be featured more prominently in Hollywood films to come. 

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