After ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ Michelle Yeoh Is Holding a Seat at the Table

On Sunday, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian actress to ever win the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role in a Motion Picture. The moment was not lost on the star.

“This is not just for me; this is for every little girl that looks like me,” said the honoree during her acceptance speech, trying to contain her excitement enough to get through the pivotal on-stage moment. “Thank you for giving me a seat at the table because so many of us need this. We want to be seen, we want to be heard, and tonight you’ve shown us that it is possible, and I’m grateful.”

The award, bestowed upon her by her actor peers, puts her in good standing to become the first Asian woman — and only the second woman of color — to win the Oscar for Best Actress. But as she acknowledged in her SAG Awards speech, saying “I know I’m up against titans, rightly so,” Yeoh is in a tight race with two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett, who gave a tour de force performance in “TÁR” that recently earned her a BAFTA Award.

On the eve of that particular UK awards ceremony, the Malaysian icon told IndieWire that even just earning all the nominations for her work in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was a huge relief. The dramedy, helmed by writer-director duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, follows a middle-aged Chinese immigrant named Evelyn who is swept into a zany, heart-rending, multi-versal adventure that revitalizes the emotional bonds she has with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu).

“It’s been joyous, but at the same time, [there is] the sense of responsibility or the stress [when fans] come up to you and say, ‘You are doing this for us,’” said Yeoh over Zoom, holding up two peace signs to indicate she’s mentally escaped to her happy place. Reflecting on her thoughts at the start of this winter, when the film was catching a second wind that brought it to the forefront of the awards conversation, she said “I swear to God I was thinking, ‘What if I didn’t get nominated?’ A year ago, you didn’t even think about it, and then suddenly you’re thinking, ‘Please, please, please get me nominated. Please just get me nominated.’ And then you are thinking, ‘If I don’t get nominated, all these people will be so goddamn disappointed,’” the actress said.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Allyson Riggs, Courtesy of A24

The film premiered the same weekend as the last Oscars ceremony, and has triumphantly built awards momentum since then, becoming the frontrunner for Best Picture after major wins at the DGA, PGA, and SAG Awards.

“For us to be promoting a movie for a year, it’s hard work. But it is easy work when people respond to it, and respond in such a beautiful way,” said Yeoh. “I have mothers that come up and say, ‘I’m not sure I understand your movie, but you were pretty interesting. Pretty good.’ And then they say, ‘But the most important thing is my daughter saw it, and she called me, and I haven’t spoken to her for a few months,’ because the mother-daughter relationship is always complicated already. This movie has somehow started a healing process, and opened a communication platform for husbands and wives, for mothers and daughters, for fathers and daughters, for people.”

Although this is Yeoh’s first official Oscar run, she has previously played significant roles in several Academy Award-winning films, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000). When asked if she ever thought any of her past work would lead to an awards campaign, Yeoh paused.

“It’s almost sad,” she said. “It’d gotten to the norm. During ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,’ because it’s Rob Marshall and Steven Spielberg, and it’s such a beautifully shot movie, and the characters were so rich, we thought, ‘I don’t know, maybe they can just hoist us up there with them,’ right?”

The Oscars have very rarely nominated actors from a majority Asian ensemble. It was only three years ago when Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” won Best Picture — without any of its all Korean cast getting individual awards recognition at the Academy Awards.

When Yeoh did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in January, her achievement as the first Asian actress ever nominated for the award came with an asterisk. Merle Oberon, star of the 1935 film “The Night Angel,” received the same honor, but was never open about being of Asian descent for fear of losing out on leading roles. It’s an unfortunate reality that Yeoh has an understanding of.

“For us, [it was] the name change. You want to make sure that the distributors or buyers buy your film, you have to give them names that are more Caucasian,” said the actress, born Yeoh Choo Kheng. She cited her fellow actors that got their start in the Hong Kong’s 1980’s Kung Fu movie scene, including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Sammo Hung. “We all added an English name instead of just using our own name, because at that time, we were made to understand that this would make it easier,” she said. “It would make it more acceptable.”

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”

©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

After spending nearly two-thirds of her life onscreen, Yeoh can feel the changes happening in real time. “Times have changed. We have changed. The audience, the people, everyone. The people who make the movies, the people who are watching the movies, the whole world has changed into ‘Let’s accept each other. Yes, we are different, but we are the same. We are still people of the world,’” said the actress.

Look no further than Evelyn herself, a seemingly ordinary woman who becomes a hero of the multiverse. She — and the film — has resonated so deeply with a global audience that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has become A24’s highest-grossing release ever.

Yeoh’s work in the film hits on many of the beats that have led other stars toward a Best Actress win in the past. It was Yeoh who made the apt decision that her character not be named Michelle, as “the audience will be connecting me to her all the time, and then she won’t get a voice, [and] Evelyn needs a voice. She deserves to have a voice,” said the actress.

The role also required a physical transformation. “Everything had to be accentuated, you have to see the weariness on her face, and then in the way she walks, it’s always with the slouch,” said Yeoh. “Because of years of dance training, as with martial arts, I’m always quite held upright. But she’s slouched. She’s almost shuffled as she’s walking.”

Finally, Evelyn is an endurant woman of a certain age, along the lines of Frances McDormand’s recent Oscar-winning roles in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) and “Nomadland” (2020). “Any hardworking mother who is striving to keep a family together, she is Evelyn. And you need to give her that chance to be a superhero, to use her superpowers, which is love, which is patience, which is compassion, which is the feeling of never giving up because I will make it work, because it’s not for myself, but for my family, the people that I love,” said Yeoh. “So Evelyn was so important in that way.”

Though she did not expect the unconventional “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to make it this far, becoming both a critical and commercial hit, Yeoh is so proud that it was one of the films that drew people back to movie theaters last year. “Even though it’s a small film, it has scope. It takes your breath away. And sometimes you feel like you’re falling from the skies and learning to fly to somewhere else again,” said the star.

Harry Shum Jr., Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh, and Jamie Lee Curtis, recipients of the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture award for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” at the 29th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

And while there remains a nasty perception that the push to have actors of color recognized at the Oscars is somehow prescriptive, and not about making sure members of the Academy watch acclaimed films that they would presumably enjoy, Yeoh is operating with a cautious amount of optimism that this could be the year these conversations have a progressive shift.

What does she hope?  “That it would start being a normal thing. That it doesn’t look like, ‘Oh my God, there’s four Asians being nominated!’ Does that mean there’s too many of us? I definitely hope that’s not the case,” she said. “Our filmmakers, especially our community, are generous enough and they understand how we need to embrace each other — and continue to do so.”

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