Michelle Yeoh on playing Aung San Suu Kyi

Anna Smith meets the star of Luc Besson's new biopic, 'The Lady'

Michelle Yeoh as Burmese pre-democracy politician Aung San Suu Kyi Michelle Yeoh as Burmese pre-democracy politician Aung San Suu Kyi

Malaysian-born, London-educated Michelle Yeoh cut her teeth on Hong Kong action films before finding worldwide fame in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997) and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000). Now 49, the actress talks about her role in director Luc Besson’s ‘The Lady’, as Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi.

You’ve been involved with ‘The Lady’ from the outset. How did it all come about?

‘When we started, Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. I read there was a filmmaker thinking of doing a film about her so I called my manager and said, “You find out who this is because I want to play that part.” She’s always been an idol of mine, and I’ve always gravitated towards strong female roles. Then we found [writer] Rebecca Frayn, who had been on holiday in Burma and discovered more about this woman under house arrest. She’d been researching for a few years and it was like a connection of minds.’

How did Luc Besson come on board?

‘I’ve been the biggest fan of Luc since “Le Grand Bleu”, and I’ve got to know him and his wife very well, through my other half, Jean Todt, as they are both French. I went to Luc as a producer, mentor and friend, half of me hoping it would be great if he directed it. So when he read the script and said, “I want to do this film”, I was like, “What did you just say? Repeat that one more time?” I was so happy.’

It sounds like David Thewlis, who plays Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris, was similarly inspired…

‘Oh my God! I remember Luc told me to listen to his acceptance message. It was like [sobs in high voice], “Hello Luc [sob], I read the script, Oh it’s so wonderful! [sobs].” I was like, “That’s our guy!” During filming, it was like three of us dancing together the whole time. Luc is a very intimate director, he always carries his camera. All the scenes with the two of us, he was there.’

How important is the husband and wife relationship in ‘The Lady’?

‘San Suu’s story will always involve politics but the essence is the love story. It’s about two people who’ve been soulmates, who’ve been married for 16 years with two teenaged kids, a life in Oxford… It can only be true love when you enable your other half to be better, to be the person they’re destined to be.’

What was the biggest challenge for you during filming?

‘Apart from learning Burmese? I think that was the first time in my life I thought: I don’t know how to do this. I remember filming a big speech and we had real Burmese people in the crowd. I wanted them to be proud of me. Luc came to me and said, “A man has been crying, I have to move him.” And I said, “Why?” He said that in 1988 he was a young man watching Suu make her speech and he said, “Today, I’m standing behind her and hearing the speech all over again.” That was a real moment for all of us.’

Did Aung San Suu Kyi know you were making the film?

‘Before we started, Luc said, “I have to get a message to San Suu” – I don’t know how, we don’t ask. When she was released from house arrest, we were in Thailand filming and Kim [Aris, her son, who consulted on the film] was in Bangkok waiting to go see his mum. They hadn’t spoken to each other in ten years. He’s like, “Hello, yeah, I’m in Michelle’s room – the one who’s playing you, she was in ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’.” And I thought: Okay, she knows! I went over to say hello – it was like a dream to meet your idol.’

How has the filming affected you?

‘I think it’s become more than a movie. She has made us all a better person. When she’s there with you, you behave better! I took this year off because I knew how important the publicity is for this, it’s one of those movies you really have to engage with your audience. I hope that people will really understand who is Aung San Suu Kyi, where is Burma and about this fight for democracy. It would mean everything to us if it affects the viewers, make them aware of the situation. Then they have the choice to see what they would like to do, or not. But at least they know.’

Read our review of 'The Lady'