Why should I be afraid? Says Michelle Yeoh

Getting under the skin of revered Myanmar political activist Aung San Suu Kyi was no easy feat for veteran Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh.

Already svelte and athletic, the 49-year-old former Bond girl lost another 10kg to play the slightly gaunt Nobel laureate in The Lady.

Directed by French filmmaker Luc Besson of The Fifth Element fame, the soul-stirring biopic throws the spotlight on Ms Suu Kyi's poignant relationship with her British academic husband and the personal sacrifices she has to make amid a tumultuous military-ruled regime.

"In order to look like Daw Suu (Ms Suu Kyi's Burmese name), I trained as if I was training for a marathon," said Yeoh in an interview with FiRST yesterday at Four Seasons Hotel.

She was in town to promote the movie, which opened here on Thursday.

As it turns out, when it came to shedding those extra pounds, it took someone extremely close to the real Ms Suu Kyi to motivate Yeoh.

"Prior to filming, I had met up with her younger son Kim," she said. "He looked at me and remarked: 'My mum is a lot slimmer than you!'"

Ms Suu Kyi has two sons, Alexander and Kim, from her marriage to Oxford professor Michael Aris. Mr Aris died in 1999 of prostate cancer.

Other than losing weight, Yeoh also learnt and memorised the Myanmar language, which she described as "one of the most challenging things I've done".

Yeoh, whose other notable films include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005), admitted the enduring love and long-standing devotion between Mr Aris and Ms Suu Kyi resonated with her, touching her deeply.

Like Ms Suu Kyi, who was separated from her husband during her lengthy period of house arrest, Yeoh often finds herself apart from her French fiance, International Automobile Federation president Jean Todt, due to her hectic filming and promotional schedule.

"In a certain way, Daw Suu's marriage shows that true love is when you give strength to the other person, enabling them to max out their potential in what they do best," said Yeoh.

"That's what Jean does for me...Of course, he isn't happy that I'm always physically away from him, halfway around the world. But he understands that doing films is my passion."

While her portrayal of Ms Suu Kyi - "a role of a lifetime", said Yeoh in an earlier interview - has won her critical applause, it hasn't gone down well with the Myanmar authorities.

Last December, the actress was denied entry into the troubled country at Rangoon airport and was deported immediately.

Director Besson told Fox News that "measures have been taken to protect all involved in the production".

"The whole shooting has been made secretly," he said.

"Many actors and stand-ins did not want to be credited in order not to harm any members of their families still living in Burma."


Yeoh told FiRST that she was "never ever afraid or worried" about her safety throughout the making of The Lady.

"Why should I be? I don't have a guilty conscience or any malicious intent," she said.

"The Burmese leaders of today need to understand that Daw Suu's story is an integral part of their history.

"I was deported then because Burma had just held its elections and the authorities were uncertain about the country's political future."

Right now, the situation is much clearer, said Yeoh.

"I'm sure they (the Myanmar authorities) know that being tyrannical and closing one's doors to neighbouring countries is not the way to go, especially since Burma has been awarded the Asean chair in 2014."

If she could have her way, she wouldn't want Ms Suu Kyi to watch The Lady.

"I got to meet and chat with her. She's a very warm human being with a great sense of humour," said Yeoh.

"But the story depicted in the film was one of the saddest periods of her life. She shouldn't have to go through all that again."

This article was first published in The New Paper.