HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 12: Michelle Yeoh attends the 95th Annual Academy Awards on March 12, 2023 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images )
Arturo Holmes/Getty Images
If you thought Michelle Yeoh was going to slow down after winning last year’s Best Actress Academy Award for Everything Everywhere All at Once, you’d be mistaken. And it’s all part of her plan to “seek roles that I feel I have not explored or experienced before.” Her latest project is Netflix’s The Brothers Sun. She plays Eileen “Mama” Sun, living a quiet life in Southern California with her teenage son when suddenly her eldest son arrives from Taiwan, saying her Triad crime boss-husband has been assassinated and they’re after her family now. But The Brothers Sun is way more than a crime drama; it’s action-packed and, at times, very funny. “We know there’s going to be killings and gore and all that, but the core of any story is the family.” And it’s while protecting her family that Eileen resumes her criminal ways, which come back to her easily. “Once you know how to ride a bicycle, you don’t really forget.” Even though the series is an ensemble, Yeoh knows everyone is looking to her. “I do believe if you are an elder in the group, it is your responsibility to set a tone.”
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Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
Your characters often come off one way, like being quiet or meek, and then suddenly reveal this immense strength and power. Do you seek out those kind of roles?
I do. I seek roles that I feel I have not explored or experienced before. It was very interesting. Someone just reminded me, you know, I’ve done the trilogy of E’s, Eleanor from Crazy Rich Asians, and then [Evelyn] from Everything Everywhere All at Once and now [Eileen in] Brothers Son. They’re all mothers, but how I approach them is distinctly very different and has a very different outlook in the way they present themselves. And I do seek that out, because I find that’s the only way I can challenge myself. The first thing I look for in a script is please do not be the same character I just played or that I have played. So I’m constantly on the prowl for something that I would learn something [from], that I would be different in and I think that helps with the excitement for my audiences as well.
The Brothers Sun. Michelle Yeoh as Mama Sun in episode 101 of The Brothers Sun. Cr. Michael Desmond/Netflix © 2023
Michael Desmond/Netflix © 2023
What did you learn from Eileen? What was different about her to you?
Oh, my God, this sense of sacrifice that she had to [make] the decision that she had to make. I think it’s very relatable to any immigrant family, when you have to leave a place which is your home to go to a new place. But with Eileen, she had to leave a son behind. And what could be worse than that? But it was either choosing one son, or none at all. So then going over to a new place, how do you blend in? How do you make the perfect life? You pour your whole energy into that, until your past comes crashing in and everything goes to chaos.
And Eileen comes ready for it. Even just at that first episode, when the chaos starts, she has that drill, and she’s ready to go.
Yes. I think it’s like, once you know how to ride a bicycle, you don’t really forget. But I think that’s the reality of her past. She always knew [her] past will come [back]. You can leave it away for forever, there will come a point and you have to be ready, you have to know and understand how you are going to protect your family. That is her youngest son [Bruce], played brilliantly by Sam Li, and her eldest boy, Charles [played by Justin Chien]. These two boys are just so different, so intense in their own way, that they have the perfect chemistry. So is it when the three of us are together, it’s real, I feel the love I have for Justin and for Sam, and how we can play off each other.
That’s what I love about the show, it’s this dance between being an action drama and this unique family drama. Did that excite you?
Absolutely. The tone of how it was written, how it was envisioned, that it would have this dynamic, chaotic but very choreographed, incredible action fight sequences, some of them are so hysterically funny. And then it is so brutal, but at the same time you’re going like, “Oh, I want to see what’s going on as well.” And then it wraps up being like, “Oh, my God, that is really quite funny.” So that has never been done before. I have seen many movies about Triads [a crime syndicate in China], but this thing makes it easier to digest. In that sense, because we know there’s going to be killings and gore and all that, but the core of any story is the family drama. That really drives what makes you feel for the characters, that makes you want to know what’s going to happen. How is it all going to turn out? Right? And so for me, that was a whole new experience on its own.
The Brothers Sun. (L to R) Sam Song Li as Bruce Sun, Michelle Yeoh as Mama Sun in episode 107 of The Brothers Sun. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
I love the dynamics of her being this doting mother but also a crime boss. She’s not a villain, but she’s certainly villainous.
Yes, I think that’s the thing. There really is a very fine line between what is a villain that is evil, the intent is just to do evil things, or some people who are forced by the nature of what they need to do, and some who will try to get out of it. So it is very beautifully written in that way. It’s like she was thrown into this world of triads and gangsters and killing, but always trying to say there must be a better way, there has to be a better way. Where is brain over brawn and blood? Right? And that was what she was trying to do. But unfortunately, she was married to a man who did not agree with that completely. And I think the first bad thing that she thought, “this is it, I can’t deal with this anymore,” is when he turned her son into a killer. When that happens, it’s tough. How do you go back from that?
And her son is also just really good at it, which she probably sees too, probably because she’s really good at it.
Exactly. But he’s angry. And Justin played that so well. He thinks he is cool. I guess he has to be cool, because his burden since he was a very young child is to protect your family irregardless, you will kill anybody that stands in your way. Because you have to protect the family. Can you imagine as a teenager to be sent out on a test to behave like that? And then the other one is being doted on and cuddled. We do treat our children like that sometimes. You have to set a good example so that your younger brother or your younger sister will know what is the right way to behave. You are the eldest, do the right thing. Who gets punished? The eldest one, because you are the oldest. Do it right.
And Sam’s role is also complicated, like yours, because he’s sort of doing this dance between two worlds, the old normal one he remembers and this new crime one.
And coming to terms with like I just want to do improv and drive fancy cars, I’m a good guy, I’ve always been a good guy, I don’t do criminal things. And then suddenly you are told you are the crime boss’s number two. But he plays it so beautifully without being too over-the-top that he’s such a believable, adorable, young man. And that was the beauty about putting [Sam and Justin] together, where they were trying to convince the other of what they should be. And that, for me, was such a beautiful journey to watch. And at the triangle when the mother is there and how she treats one over the other. Because she believes in tough love.
Considering you’re such an iconic actor, do you ever feel like a mentor to young actors like Sam and Justin? Do they turn to you?
When we started off, Byron [Wu] and Brad [Falchuk, the creators] and our producers brought everyone together, sat us down so that all of us got to know each other. And what I love about the young kids nowadays, they are like, “I’m cool.” Yeah, no, I am actually quite cool and good at what I do, just so don’t waste my time, OK? I hope that I walk onto the set and I’ll be surprised like, “Wow, that kid is really good.” Not judging you at all. Not saying that. I come in thinking, I have to also make sure that I am bringing my best game to the table. How do we gel? Because I do believe if you are an elder in the group, it is your responsibility to set a tone. And a tone doesn’t have to be, show me respect. The tone is we are in this together, let’s make the best thing happen. So I think that is the most important thing for me. Because every day when I walk on the set, I want to learn from them. And they are good. They are amazing. And they fought very hard to be in those roles. So they bring to the table a lot of things that I learned from them, definitely.
(L-R top row) Jamie Lee Curtis, winner of the Best Supporting Actress award, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh, winner of the Best Actress in a Leading Role award, Jonathan Wang, winner of the Best Picture award, Stephanie Hsu, Daniel Scheinert, winner of the Best Director and Best Picture award and (L-R bottom row) Ke Huy Quan, winner of the Best Actor In A Supporting Role award and Dan Kwan, winner of the Best Director and Best Picture award for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” pose in the press room during the 95th Annual Academy Awards on March 12, 2023 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
Mike Coppola/Getty Images
So this year you’ll be handing out awards as last year’s winner. How does it feel to not have the pressure of being a nominee?
It is a very, very different experience. It was the sense of pressure and the sense of hoping and wishing, because there was so many all over the world that was like, “Please do this for us. We have to do this together.” Fortunately, I had the most incredible team that kept you grounded and pushed you forward. It helped tremendously. I mean, my Everything Everywhere All at Once family, we were just like linking arms, Jamie [Lee Curtis] and Ke [Huy Quan] and the Daniels and Jonathan [Wang] and everyone that was involved, we kept each other sane.
And you’ll be back together this year because you all won all the awards.
I am really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back in L.A. so much. So in January, I will get to see them, so we will all be reunited.
And I can’t wait to see your Oscars dress.
No pressure, no pressure. [laughs]
Source : Newsweek