Michelle Yeoh talks 'American Born Chinese,' life after Oscar win: 'I'm having too much fun'

Patrick Ryan

NEW YORK – Michelle Yeoh has a new man in her life.

Weighing 8 ½ pounds and standing just 13 ½ inches tall, Oscar was first spotted with Yeoh on the Academy Awards stage in March, where she picked up the best actress statue for her dazzling turn in best picture winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Since then, she and her gold-plated paramour have traversed the globe, stopping in her native Malaysia last month to celebrate her historic victory.

“Right now, Mr. O is still traveling with me,” says Yeoh, 60, sitting in a Midtown hotel room hours before the premiere of her new Disney+ series “American Born Chinese” (now streaming). "I have to share him with people who’ve helped me to be where I am today. So when I go back home next time, I will let Mr. O hang out with my mom.”

'American Born Chinese' role was 'daunting' for acting legend Michelle Yeoh

Jim Liu, left, and Michelle Yeoh in a scene from Disney+ series "American Born Chinese."

Adapted from Gene Leun Yang’s 2006 graphic novel, “Chinese” shakes up the traditional coming-of-age story with elements of mythology and wuxia (a genre of martial-arts fantasy fiction). The eight-episode series follows an ordinary teenager named Jin (Ben Wang), who’s enlisted by Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) – son of the Monkey King (Daniel Wu) – to help save the Heavenly Realm from an uprising by the fearsome Bull Demon (Leonard Wu). Yeoh plays Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, who doles out wisdom to Wei-Chin.

“Michelle Yeoh might be the closest you can get to a goddess here on Earth,” Yang says. “She is the nicest person. Everybody’s favorite auntie – that’s how she feels.”

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) lives out several different realities, including one where she has hot dog fingers, in the sci-fi dramedy "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

“Chinese” bears many similarities to “Everything Everywhere:” It's set across multiple worlds and timelines and features core themes of love, family and self-worth. Yeoh even shares brief scenes with her “Everything” co-stars Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu, who play supporting characters. But taking on the role of Guanyin also held deeper meaning for the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star, who is Buddhist.

“To us, the goddess of mercy is very revered. We pray to her for our well-being, and that she will look after the family,” Yeoh says. “To be asked to play her was a little daunting because you don’t want to get her wrong. You’d have millions of people come after you!”

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"It's a timeless film, and the youngsters of today don't even know that movie," Michelle Yeoh says of 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

In one of her early scenes, Guanyin sagely explains that “dreams can bring great success” and “failure can bring enlightenment.” It’s a maxim that resonates with Yeoh: She worked for decades on action movies and dramas, with featured roles in Hollywood blockbusters “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997), “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018). But “Everything Everywhere” was her first time at the top of the call sheet, and her first performance to yield nominations for major awards.

She recalls one of the “worst moments” of her career when she fractured several ribs and vertebrae shooting a jump sequence for “The Stunt Woman” (1996). Recovering in the hospital, she briefly considered giving up acting.

“That is when everything implodes around you,” Yeoh says. “Your friends and family are going, ‘Why would you do this? If you do a stunt like this, you could get yourself killed.’ And then you take a step back and you go, ‘OK. You want to do this for a long time? Don't take these kinds of risks. You’re not invincible. We're all humans.’“

Now, she adds, “I’m wiser on that field. I’m still great friends with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and we look at each other and go, ‘We’re not jumping off the roof again, right?’ We paid our dues.”

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With her Oscar win, Yeoh became the first Asian woman – and only the second person of color behind Halle Berry (2001's "Monster's Ball") – to win best actress in the awards’ 95-year history. Back home in Malaysia, Yeoh’s mother threw a massive watch party on the day of the ceremony.

“Sitting there at the Oscars, suddenly you go, ‘What if they don’t call my name?’ My mom is sitting there with 400 people,” Yeoh recalls. “You can feel those expectations – everybody was just hoping that this history would be in the making. And in that moment, you go, ‘I would never go home again. I would never be able to face anybody again (if I lost).’ It was scary. And then, when you actually get home and bring it to them, it’s all so surreal. People are so sweet. They’re like, ‘Can I touch him?’“

Yeoh has several new projects lined up. She’s shooting “Wicked,” a big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, and recently announced “Section 31,” a film spinoff centered on her “Star Trek: Discovery” character Emperor Philippa Georgiou. She believes the critical and commercial success of “Everything Everywhere” has helped wake up Hollywood to the importance of Asian representation.

Michelle Yeoh walks the red carpet at the New York premiere of "American Born Chinese" earlier this month.

“It’s given people food for thought, like, ‘Yes, we need to tell more of these stories. And yes, Michelle can still play all these different kinds of (roles),’“ she says. “What I love now is getting scripts where it’s nondescriptive: (not) ‘an Asian woman.’ Also, it doesn’t say the age, which I think is very important.”

Yeoh earned praise for calling out ageism in her Oscar speech, saying, “Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime.”

“Any time you talk to an older actress, they will tell you: As your numbers rise, the roles diminish,” Yeoh says. “You can go, ‘OK, that’s it. Time to call it quits.’ But fortunately, I’ve never been that kind of personality. I’m having too much fun. This is a passion, and I’m not doing it for anything else but that.”