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Michelle Yeoh finds the beauty in the ordinary in 'Everything Everywhere All at Once'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

From a sword-wielding warrior in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to an icy matriarch in "Crazy Rich Asians," Michelle Yeoh has been a movie star for decades, and only now is she finally in the lead role in a Hollywood film - in the new movie, "Everything Everywhere All At Once," written and directed by the duo known as the Daniels. Now, Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a harried, distracted Chinese woman who runs a failing laundromat.

MICHELLE YEOH: It's probably easier to say, what is going right in her life? She's trying to keep the family together; a failing business - trying to pretend that it is successful; a daughter who's coming out, and she's in total denial; and a father who's come all the way to China to continue to harass her (laughter).

CHANG: Oh, and also, Evelyn's being audited by the IRS. And if all that weren't enough, her husband, Waymond, suddenly drops some other news.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

KE HUY QUAN: (As Waymond Wang, whispering) I'm not your husband, and he's not the one you know. I'm another version of him from another life path in another universe. I'm here because we need your help.

CHANG: I mean, no biggie. Evelyn's suddenly given the technology to access different lives in different universes all at once, and it makes for a zany story filled with absurd antics from Michelle Yeoh. I asked this longtime martial arts superstar, what was it like trying physical comedy for the first time?

YEOH: I think I had it easy in the past, where I just looked cool, you know? Right, I know exactly what I'm doing - that kind of thing (laughter). Oh, my God. Martial arts is simple. It's easy compared to physical comedy. Physical comedy is, like, timing is precision - is so many things coming together at the right time. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I never did it before - because it was so hard (laughter).

No, and I think it was so challenging that I really, really enjoyed it very much because you had to literally fracture your mind into knowing the moves and doing them like you're a master, but your face is completely registering shock, and then wonder, and, like, oh my God, how the hell am I doing this, like, all at the same time?

CHANG: I love that point because it was new for me to see you in a role where you did not look glamorous...

YEOH: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...Or intimidatingly beautiful or regal. I mean, how did it feel to look so intensely ordinary for this movie?

YEOH: Ah, but that was it. You know, I felt that this was such a perfect opportunity to give a voice to the very ordinary mothers and housewife who are out there, you know, doing the most mundane things and get so taken for granted...

CHANG: Yes.

YEOH: ...And then let her discover that, oh, my God, she is a superhero.

CHANG: Exactly. What was so cool for me was to see an unglamorous Chinese woman - the kind of woman who might be invisible to people on the bus or in Chinatown - to see that Chinese immigrant woman play a superhero felt so different to me, right? It was, like, almost subversive. I loved that.

YEOH: Yes. Yes. I think that was one of the main points that we were trying to bring to the surface just, like, this ordinary Evelyn Wang, you know, at the end of the day, finding what she will never give up - that's her love for her family, her daughter. That's - you know, I think, today, we find that so relatable because communication is one of the most difficult things I find...

CHANG: Yeah.

YEOH: ...With the different generations...

CHANG: Absolutely.

YEOH: ...Especially with Chinese immigrant - any immigrant family. You're here for the American dream, and that's not an easy dream, is it? And some don't ever get it right, but they don't give up trying. I think that's one of the messages for me. It's like, whatever you do, if you give up, you've already failed. And you can't give up on family and love and kindness - you just have to keep trying.

CHANG: Well, you know, this movie - it doesn't just shift who we see as superheroes. It also kind of shifts who we see leading a Hollywood movie. Like, you have spent almost four decades in film. And now, at age 59, this is the first time that you have ever gotten top billing in a Hollywood movie. What does that feel like at this moment in your career?

YEOH: Just, like, finally.

CHANG: Yeah.

YEOH: Finally we have our moment, and thank God it didn't come a moment too soon (laughter). No, I think I've waited, and I think not just me. There's so many of us that looks like me - like you - who are waiting; who are still waiting for the opportunities. I think the tide has turned, but we also need to be responsible, good storytellers and seize the opportunities that are presented now...

CHANG: Right.

YEOH: ...For women, for diversity, but don't let it just be lip service. It has to mean something. So this movie in particular, it's about an Asian immigrant woman - an aging Asian immigrant woman. When was the last time you saw that, right?

CHANG: Right.

YEOH: Yeah.

CHANG: Exactly - not only be in a lead role, but to be the superhero. Yeah.

YEOH: Mmm hmm. But it took us a long time. I think, in the older days, you know how Asians put their heads down and say, OK, let's just get on with it.

CHANG: Yes. Right.

YEOH: Let's work hard.

CHANG: Let's not rock the boat.

YEOH: And our hard work will pay off. [Expletive]. Sorry.

CHANG: (Laughter) Amen.

YEOH: You know, sometimes we have to rock the boat.

CHANG: Absolutely.

YEOH: We just have to rock the boat and say, look at us. Give us a chance - because guess what? We exist in your society. We are part of the society and very, very much an intricate part of this whole community. This is the only way we will get more opportunities - if we fight for it and no longer be able to say, OK, I'll turn the other cheek. Dang - no more turning the other cheek.

CHANG: Absolutely. Well, speaking of taking a stand, making decisions, making choices in life - you know? - your character, Evelyn - she travels back and forth between alternate universes in this story, where she catches glimpses of what her life would have been like had she made different choices. And it made me wonder if you have ever imagined what other universes would have opened up had you made different choices in life.

YEOH: Of course, there are things in life I wish I did which would have made me smarter, healthier, wiser when I was younger. But do I sit there and go, I wish I took another path? Because then I wouldn't have all the amazing things I have today and the career that I've forged over the last 30-something years. So I don't really spend time doing that.

But I think in "Everything Everywhere All At Once," every choice that you make splinters into a full-blown universe of its own, with a real life, even regardless of whether you have hot dog fingers, whether you're a rock, what you have evolved to. I think the core spirit - the core emotion is very, very real in whatever universe you are in.

CHANG: Yeah. I felt like this movie was telling us, ultimately, it's not useful in life to wonder what if.

YEOH: Exactly. I think so.

CHANG: Because no matter what path you choose will involve some loss, but also some gain, yeah?

YEOH: Yes. And I think you have to be present. This life is yours. But if you're not present, it's wasted. Time waits for no one. You know, when we're born, we age and then we die, and God forbid we die before we have lived our lives. So we have to be present in whatever universe, in whatever life, because if you give up on being present, then you give up on your life.

CHANG: So well said. Michelle Yeoh stars in the new movie, "Everything Everywhere All At Once." Thank you so much for sharing this time with us.

YEOH: Aw, thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure speaking with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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