Michelle Yeoh on styling her Crazy Rich Asians’ character, Eleanor Young, and the importance of letting her wear authentic fine jewellery
Considered the grande dame of Chinese action cinema, Michelle Yeoh became an international household name when she starred in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and Ang Lee’s masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Invariably chic even when casually dressed, Michelle is soft-spoken with a sharp wit and an acerbic sense of humour. But her most refreshing quality is that she’s as real as a South Sea pearl, glowing, mysterious, and elegant.
I met the actress recently at a press conference of her new cheeky comedy, Crazy Rich Asians, in which she plays Eleanor Young, a sophisticated yet intimidating matriarch who has an impeccable taste in fashion and fine jewellery.
You must have had a ball putting your outfits and accessories together during the filming of the movie.
When I met with Mary E. Vogt, our costume designer, we both know exactly how we wanted Eleanor Young to look — she is very elegant and obviously has an impeccable fashion sense. She is always very coiffed and put together because she is not just the perfect mother, but also the perfect wife. The husband comes from a very big empire. It is important to her that when everyone sees her, they recognise immediately that she comes from a good background, a very important family.
“I brought in some of my own jewellery because we didn’t want fake jewellery for Eleanor Young”
We fortunately had a good budget for the wardrobe, so it was all about the top brands. Eleanor’s elegance is very understated, so we went for Giorgio Armani and Carolina Herrera. I think one of my favourite fashion moments was during the wedding, and she came in dressed in Eli Saab with all the jewels. And I must say, I brought in some of my own jewellery because we didn’t want fake jewellery for Eleanor Young. She has to wear the real thing. We were very fortunate that the other jewellers came forward with their own pieces, so we had some bodyguards around the place whenever we had to dress her up.
So let’s talk about the jewellery in the movie.
My favourite subject, yes.
I adore the emerald ring. Can you tell us more about it?
Oh, that ring is mine from my personal collection. I actually designed it — it’s a very simple, classical ring. I believe the ring was such an important character in the story. This was a ring that Eleanor’s husband had to make for her because her mother-in-law did not accept her and would not give her the family ring. That piece is being highlighted so much in the film that we didn’t want to use fake pieces. This is Eleanor Young; she deserves to have the real thing. And my producers were all for it, so we used my ring, which I am very proud of.
What made you decide to design the ring yourself?
The first time I saw the stone, I just fell in love with it. You know how emeralds have inclusions? This one had none. And when you have a beautiful stone like that, you don’t need a lot of things around it.
When it comes to the red carpet, do you pick the gown first to complement the jewellery, or is it the other way around?
When you get ready for the red carpet, it’s often the jewellery that comes first. If you have an amazing piece that you want to show off, then you will have to find a dress that befits it because it usually depends on the neckline of the dress. If you wear a high-collar dress, it would all clash together. For example, the beautiful Elie Saab dress I wore for the wedding in the movie was bejewelled all the way across, so the only thing was to wear magnificent earrings and, of course, that incredible brooch — from jewellery designer Michelle Ong — on the belt.
How involved were you in styling Eleanor Young?
“I loved being part of putting Eleanor’s looks together. At the end of the day, I want to wear the dress — I will not let the dress wear me”
I didn’t have a stylist per se because I loved being part of putting the looks of Eleanor together. At the end of the day, I want to wear the dress — I will not let the dress wear me. It is important for me to be comfortable with what I’m wearing. It’s also about the perfect pairing. It’s one thing seeing a beautiful piece of jewellery in a photograph, but it is necessary that you try it on and see how it sits on you.
What does money mean to you?
Money means that you can have more comfort in life, assurances that if you are ill and you need emergency things, you will not have to panic. But does money make you happier? Not necessarily. In my younger days, I thought the material things were very important. But then now as I am getting older, I think what am I going to do with all that? It’s more important for me that money allows me to travel, to see the world. I think I’ve worked hard enough where I can do it in a comfortable way. So and I think it’s about that.
If you were to marry again, would you feel the need to stop acting to be a full-time wife, or would you insist on still keeping your career?
I think at that time it was a choice, because I felt that I couldn’t be a wife and hope to start a family if I was always away working. Now, I’ve been with Jean Todt for 14 years, and he adores what I do. He would never comment and say, why are you working in Canada, or why don’t I see you much more often? If he wants to see me, he comes with me. And it’s vice versa. I don’t complain if he has to work. I think it’s the mutual respect and support that you give to each other, that as long as you are passionate about what you do, then your other half should be very supportive. I don’t think I will ever need to give up something as long as I want to do it.
You just turned 56. What does age mean to you?
It’s just a number. I think time is going too fast. Sometimes I’d prefer it to slow down because there’s so much to do and so many places I want to go.