Michelle Yeoh is having a moment. The actress, who first rose to fame in the 1980s through Hong Kong martial arts films, was nominated this year for her first Academy Award for her dazzling turn as Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All At Once. On March 12, Yeoh won, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to receive the Oscar for Best Actress. It's an accomplishment made even sweeter by the fact that Yeoh, 60, said she was only offered "stereotypical" roles after coming to the United States and starring in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies and told to consider retirement before Everything Everywhere All At Once.
When did Michelle Yeoh get her start in movies?
Growing up in Malaysia, Yeoh was "very sporty," she told People, playing squash, diving, and dancing ballet. When she was 15, Yeoh moved to England to study ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, but a spinal injury led her in a different direction. Returning home, she entered — and won — the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant, which led to Yeoh auditioning for a commercial with Jackie Chan and appearing in the Hong Kong film The Owl vs. Bumbo.
"When I started off in 1984, women were relegated to being the damsel in distress," Yeoh told People. "We need to be protected, according to our guys. But then I would go, 'No, guys, I think we can protect ourselves pretty well. And if push comes to shove, maybe I can protect you, too.'"
How did she make a name for herself?
Yeoh became known for doing her own stunts in films — in 1992's Supercop, she rode a motorcycle onto a moving train and then jumped from the roof of a truck onto a convertible's hood — and then made her biggest leap in the mid-1990s, when she came to Hollywood. She landed the role of Wai Lin, a Chinese spy, in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, but found that this didn't open the doors she wanted.
"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 told People. "They would talk very loudly and very slow. 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."
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon not only showcased Yeoh's martial arts moves, but also her dramatic side. She played a warrior named Shu Lien, and in her scenes opposite Chow Yun-Fat's swordsman Li Mu Bai, Yeoh's "expression shifts subtly, betraying not just three or four mixed emotions but shades of a thousand," Time's Stephanie Zacharek writes. "There's wistfulness there, and a kind of cautious joy. She also gives you the sense that Shu Lien is measuring the width of the chasm between duty and longing, unsure if she can safely leap across, fearing she might fall into its depths." While many actresses are "capable of that degree of subtlety," Zacharek added, "there's probably only one who could also ride a motorcycle onto a moving train."
Yeoh went on to have memorable roles in Memoirs of a Geisha, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Crazy Rich Asians, but her performance in 2022's Everything Everywhere All At Once resonated with audiences, who were wowed by her portrayal of Evelyn Wang, a Chinese immigrant laundromat owner who discovers that there's a multiverse and it's up to her to save it.
What made 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' so special?
Critics applauded her nuanced performance in this fantastical film, with A.O. Scott at The New York Times writing that Yeoh played Evelyn with "grace, grit, and perfect timing." Yeoh had to capture not just Evelyn, but also several alternative versions of the character, and Vanity Fair's Maureen Ryan praised the "incandescent" Yeoh for playing "an astonishing array of versions of one woman" and directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinart for knowing "she was the only woman on Earth that could have made this bats--t ride actually work."
Yeoh, who did most of her own stunts, told Today it's a "weird, wacky, wild, wonderful movie," and it's been "fabulous to see this little film that has such a giant heart be embraced in all these ways." Everything Everywhere All At Once has earned more than $100 million at the global box office, becoming A24's highest-grossing movie, and Yeoh won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy Motion Picture and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. "This is not just for me," Yeoh, the first Asian woman to win the award, said during her acceptance speech. "This is for every little girl who looks like me."
The success of Everything Everywhere All At Once makes Yeoh feel seen, she told Variety. "As an actor, you need the opportunity," she said. "You need the role that will help you showcase what you are capable to do."
Updated March 12, 2023: This piece has been updated to reflect Yeoh's Academy Award win.