Why Michelle Yeoh Disappeared From Hollywood After Playing a Bond Girl
She explains why she took a hiatus after Tomorrow Never Dies.
At age 60, actor Michelle Yeoh is in the midst of an illustrious and varied career. Not only did the Malaysian-born star receive her first Oscar nomination this year for her role in the trippy family drama, Everything Everywhere All at Once, she's also considered a frontrunner after winning the Screen Actors Guild Award, the Golden Globe, and various other honors. After competing in Miss World and getting her start in the Hong Kong action films of the '80s, Yeoh eventually made the jump to Hollywood, appearing in the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. But, as an Asian woman, it wasn't always easy for her to find worthy roles in the U.S. film industry.
In a new interview with People, Yeoh reveals why she didn't work for two years after playing a Bond girl and how she was treated when she first hit the Los Angeles scene.
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Yeoh had been acting in Hong Kong cinema for years before coming to Hollywood.
Yeoh's first acting role was a commercial with Jackie Chan, and her career took off from there. Some of her many, many martial arts movie credits include Yes, Madam; The Heroic Trio; Police Story 3: Super Cop; Magnificent Warriors; and Wing Chun. She grew up speaking English and Malay with her family, so she had to learn Cantonese as she went.
At a Time event in 2022, Yeoh reflected on what she learned through her rise in Hong Kong cinema and how she uses those lessons now. "First you must fall before you learn to fly," she said. "I think that's something that's resonated throughout my life and my career."
She made a splash as modern kind of Bond girl.
In 1997, Yeoh made her Hollywood debut in a big way: playing Wai Lin, a Chinese secret agent, in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, starring Pierce Brosnan. Speaking to People recently, the star noted that her character thankfully didn't fit the mold of earlier Bond women.
"James Bond at that point had only been known as macho, and the girls were just the ones with cutesy names," she said.
In an interview with The Independent last year, Yeoh said, "Bond had to evolve because the fan base was also evolving. Women were choosing the movies to go and watch, and we don't always want to watch ones where we're being sexualized." She also explained why she took on the role, despite the franchise's rocky history with race, particularly Orientalism.
"I think every film should have the right to speak for itself on its own merit," Yeoh said. "It's only when you are given the opportunity to participate that you can make a difference."
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Though she was working steadily, she still dealt with racism.
In the years after Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh received several movie offers. However, as she tells People, she still felt othered by Hollywood. "At that point, people in the industry couldn't really tell the difference between whether I was Chinese or Japanese or Korean or if I even spoke English," she explained. "They would talk very loudly and very slow."
Despite playing a groundbreaking role in a high-profile movie, Yeoh didn't land on her next U.S. production right away. In 1999, she returned to Hong Kong cinema to star in the romance Midnight Express. Then, in 2000, she hit it big again with the multinational production Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, helmed by Taiwanese director Ang Lee and also starring Chow Yun-fat and Zhang Ziyi. The film was a box office hit in the U.S. and internationally, and it was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture.
"I didn't work for almost two years, until Crouching Tiger, simply because I could not agree with the stereotypical roles that were put forward to me," Yeoh told People of her hiatus.
She's also battled ageism.
Yeoh is now an international icon of cinema, but she's still faced with people who underestimate her. She told the Los Angeles Times podcast The Envelope that she was advised to retired from acting before she won the role in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
"You know, as you get older, people start saying, 'Oh yeah, you should retire. You should do this. You should…' No, guys," the actor said, as reported by Variety. "Do not tell me what to do. I should be in control of what I am capable of, right?"
She also noted that as actors age, "the roles get smaller" and "you start getting relegated to the side more and more." That's why she was so grateful to earn the role of Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant who's struggling to keep her family business afloat and to relate to her dissatisfied daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and relentlessly cheerful husband (Ke Huy Quan) when she learns about the existence of the multiverse.
"So when 'Everything Everywhere' came … it was very emotional because this means that you are the one who's leading this whole process, who's telling the story," Yeoh said.