Michelle Yeoh, Academy-award winning actress, advocate, and United Nations Development Programme Goodwill ambassador, offered the Class of 2023 some advice during the Class Day celebration on Wednesday as they were poised to dive into “a presumably bright but unpredictable future.”
Yeoh, who got her start in action films in Hong Kong, performing her own stunts, offered her audience some pointers drawn on her own experience “leaping off of high perches into scary voids.”
Her first piece of advice was to stay loose. Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia, described her first love as being dance rather than acting. “I knew at a very young age that my gift was to communicate through movement.” She said, “I found freedom in discipline and focus, training tirelessly day and night, drilling my body in every aspect of the craft. More importantly, I trained my mind to be still, to silence the whispers of self-doubt. Dance was my safe place, my inevitable future, and my undeniable path.”
But after she enrolled in a ballet school in England and began to live her dream, all that changed after a spinal injury. Yeoh credits the principal of her school for giving her the encouragement that ultimately led her, she said, to “a career beyond my imagination. It was she who encouraged me to stay loose about my future.”
“When falling,” Yeoh continued “the tendency is to tighten up, to brace for impact. But in truth, the safest thing one can do is remain calm, even curious, about the shifting world around you.”
She described graduating with a degree in creative arts, and returning home, “more open to other possibilities outside the box,” including to doing a commercial in Hong Kong, and to acting roles, and the start of her life in film.
This led to her second piece of advice: Know your limits. “Although understanding what you can do is essential,” she said, “understanding what you can’t do is pretty important too. This works on two levels: both internally and externally.”
“Internally, knowing your limits keeps you humble, motivated, and focused on a goal to point your finger toward. Externally, knowing the limits that are set for you by others gives you a place to point a different finger. I’m talking about the middle one,” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “Limitations set by yourself give you boundaries to respect, but limitations set by others give you boundaries to bust through,” said Yeoh.
As a young woman trying to break into film in Hong Kong, Yeoh was confronted with limitations at every turn. Initially cast in stereotypical roles — “the demure, docile damsel in distress,” she said she soon realized she wanted to play the action roles, the heroes. “Of course, these were then reserved exclusively for men,” she recalled, “but I could see that their fight sequences were highly choreographed, and I knew in my bones that my training in dance would allow me to excel at them, if only I were given the chance.”
She went to her producer and said that she wanted an action role, and she was prepared to do everything the men were doing, “the choreography, the stunts, taking the blows, all of it. What, like it’s hard?”
When the chance finally came, she knew it was make-or-break, and she seized the moment. “As it turned out, she said, “thankfully, audiences were more than ready for a female star in action comedies.” The film, “Yes Madam,” was well received and launched her career.
“I knew I had made it,” she said, “when, soon after, I joined Jet Li and Jackie Chan as the three people who Hong Kong insurers refused to cover. They took one look at the scenes we were shooting and ran for the hills. I wore that as a badge of honor.
“Eventually, things progressed, and before I knew it, I was regularly running on rooftops, riding motorcycles onto moving trains, and rolling off vans into oncoming traffic. There were injuries, as you can imagine, but with every nick, scratch, and fractured vertebra, I came back better and braver,” she said.
“Learning how to fall teaches you how to land. And learning to land gives you the courage to jump higher,” she added.
She told the audience that when the James Bond producers knocked on her door about a film called “Tomorrow Never Dies,” she thought “Yes! They want me to play James Bond!”
In fact, she says, the part she was offered was “the character of Wai Lin — a formidable agent who was always one step ahead of her adversaries and an equal to Bond. Many regard that character as instrumental in modernizing the franchise and its retrograde portrayals of women.”
Yeoh described a period of two years that followed in which she waited for the right role, “rejecting scripts that lacked nuance or depth in their characters.” She admitted that at times she wondered if she was doing the right thing. “However, I knew,” she said “that I would not be happy unless I continued to seek out roles that allowed me and like-minded creatives to dig deeper and reflect three-dimensional humanity onscreen (that was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). I must have done something right, because at 60, I am busier than ever.”
These examples illustrate the importance of limitations, she said. “Because our limitations become our challenges, and there is nothing like a challenge to keep you working, striving, and pushing for more. Every demeaning role I was offered, every rejection I was handed, and every time someone underestimated me … I found energy and renewed motivation.”
This brought Yeoh to her third piece of advice: “Find your people.” She said she could not have done any of what she has alone. “My achievements are the results of those around me who offered, and continue to offer, support and belief. There are times where, as much as I don’t want to let myself down, I don’t want to let them down even more.”
Yeoh said her definition of community is vast, including family and friends and a wide range of individuals she has worked with or crossed paths with. Her community also transcends time: “I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me, and I am energized and inspired by those who come after me.”
She said her community also extends beyond people she knows personally, “which is why representation matters and why diversity on and off the screen have been a major priority, particularly for women and particularly in lead roles,” said Yeoh, who this year became the first Asian person to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the film for which she also won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award.
It also includes people she is serving around the globe through her role as UNDP ambassador. “I have witnessed the deep inequalities that continue to plague societies around the world, and I have seen up close how women and girls are often the last to get essential services, like clean water and vaccines, especially in crises. For this reason, I have committed myself to walking in lockstep with their struggle. The prerequisite to change is empathy.”
Before concluding her remarks, Yeoh returned to her most recent award-winning film — in which she plays an overwhelmed, yet determined, immigrant mother who must deal with the dangers and unique facets of a strange and chaotic multiverse — and which brings together many of the insight she shared with the audience.
“It defied genre, playing loose and free with expectations and categorization. It flouted limitation by taking a smaller budget and turning it into an international phenomenon,” she said. “And it brought together a community of creative and talented individuals, working with a common passion to tell a universal, human story. This was a movie made entirely with love that was in many ways the culmination of my life’s work.”
“And the reverberations of that love continue to be felt,” Yeoh added, describing “a tectonic shift in the industry, opening the door to more independent efforts and greater Asian representation. When I think of a glorious leap into an unknown void, I think of that movie.”
Yeoh’s final words of advice for graduates: “Stay loose, be smart, and go with love… and then leap. And then leap again. And then leap again.”
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