The Way of Wai Lin: Michelle Yeoh Talks Bond

Actress Michelle Yeoh was in Singapore as a special guest of the 26th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), where she was presented with the Cinema Legend Award. At the In Conversation panel, Yeoh spoke about her stint as Bond girl Wai Lin in Tomorrow

Michelle Yeoh at the Singapore International Film Festival, 2015

Never Dies and during the roundtable interviews afterwards, I made sure to squeeze in  a question about Bond – specifically, how she feels Daniel Craig stacks up against her Bond, Pierce Brosnan.

As Bond fans, we know that certain actors embrace being part of the storied franchise and others might prefer to distance themselves from it. It is heartening to know that Yeoh falls into the former category. “I’m very proud of the Bond thing. You can walk into places in England and say ‘I’m a Bond girl!’” she said with a laugh. “You’re part of a legacy that’s been around for 53 years – what is there to be embarrassed about? Especially my Bond girl, I thought she was pretty cool!” When she is asked if she’s uncomfortable being a Bond girl, her standard reply is “No way! Do you know how cool it is to be a Bond girl?!”

The actress hails from Ipoh, Malaysia and had originally intended to become a ballerina, studying at the Royal Academy of Dance in England. A spinal injury prevented her from pursuing this passion and she later turned her attention to acting after being crowned Miss Malaysia in 1983. Yeoh’s first film, the Sammo Hung action comedy Owl vs. Bombo, saw her playing a more traditional damsel in distress role. Yeoh decided that wasn’t her cup of tea and that she wanted to perform stunts herself, which led to a prolific career in Asian films.

Michelle Yeoh in The Owl VS Bumbo, 1984
Michelle Yeoh in The Owl VS Bumbo, 1984

Among the causes Yeoh champions is that of road safety. She is the global ambassador of the FIA Foundation’s Make Roads Safe initiative and she is an advocate of the use of safety helmets and seatbelts – a touch ironic considering the stunt sequence in Tomorrow Never Dies which saw Wai Lin and Bond handcuffed to each other astride a motorcycle, sans helmets.

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Yeoh graciously said that she cannot take credit for Wai Lin’s characterisation as it was a conscious decision on the part of director Roger Spottiswoode and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson to make the Bond girl an agent who could give Bond a run for his money, in a bid to counter claims that the franchise was “misogynistic”. Yeoh revealed that the very first ideas were a “beautiful Russian girl to play the femme fatale role,” perhaps as a nod to The Spy Who Loved Me. “I was very blessed,” Yeoh said. “In the writer’s room, there were a couple of them who went ‘how about this actress called Michelle Yeoh? She kicks ass!’”

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Yeoh described Broccoli as “a very strong woman” and recounted how the producer tracked her down and travelled to Italy where Yeoh was filming at the time to take a meeting with her. Spottiswoode sat Yeoh down to tell her that she was cast not just because she could perform stunts, but because they wanted an actress for the role, saying “If you have no chemistry with Pierce and you can’t act, I can’t find a double for you.” Yeoh said she found this empowering, since being known for action-centric roles in Hong Kong cinema, she was wary of being typecast and being known only as an “action actress”, a label she is not too fond of.

“I had the privilege to audition with Pierce,” Yeoh recalled. “Thank god we had chemistry.” According to Yeoh, Brosnan had “no ego” and was perfectly fine with Bond being showed up in some scenes by Wai Lin. “They did want to highlight the fact that we have a Bond girl who’s going to be on par with James Bond. She is herself a spy from China and they are not easy to be reckoned with. She will be as physical as him and [be] able to do whatever he does – or [be] even better,” Yeoh explained. “We had fun and it wasn’t a competition,” she said of the process. “We had such a great time in front of the camera, behind the camera because he was the best father, great husband, a good man, so we became good friends,” she said of Brosnan.

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Yeoh acknowledges and appreciates the vast differences between the way Brosnan portrayed Bond and the way Craig plays 007. “Now, I’m biased because I worked with Pierce,” she said, almost reluctantly saying that Connery might edge out Brosnan as her personal favourite

Michelle Yeoh at the Singapore International Film Festival, 2015

Bond. “When Pierce was not going to be Bond, everybody goes ‘who’s better-looking than Pierce, who’s taller than Pierce, who’s this than Pierce?’” She recalled, emphasising that “It’s such a burden to carry.” Yeoh referenced the uproar over Craig’s hair colour, and was quick to point out that “Daniel is very similar to the original Bond.”  “I love the line when he’s asked how he likes his vodka [martini]; you know it’s always shaken and not stirred, and Daniel’s line is ‘do I look like I give a [damn]’”, she laughed.

Considering Craig’s take on the character, Yeoh said “He’s harder, grittier, rougher, but that is [the decision of] the producers.” “The people who own the franchise, they evolve with their audience. It’s good, because it keeps the franchise fresh, interesting.” Yeoh is already bracing herself for the hubbub that will inevitably be generated when it comes time to recast the role. “If Daniel doesn’t want to do it, who is the next Bond? And I’m sure when that happens, the world will be in a tizzy. All the actors of that age will be in a frenzy to be James Bond.”

Article by Jedd Jong




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