Michelle Yeoh Still Kicks Ass (Not That We Ever Doubted It)

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Spoilers for The Brothers Sun below.

Michelle Yeoh calls them “my three Es”: Eleanor Young, Evelyn Wang, and now Eileen Sun. They’re the mothers she has famously played on-screen in recent years—in Crazy Rich Asians, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and the new Netflix series The Brothers Sun, respectively—each one powerful in her own right. Some can cut you down with a look, others can do it with a drop kick. Especially Eileen, “Mama Sun,” the wife of a Taiwanese Triad boss and mother of two sons: one a fearsome killer, the other an improv actor.

“But the three are so different,” Yeoh insists of her roles. When she was introduced to Mama Sun in the Brothers Sun script, from creators Brad Falchuk and Byron Wu, “I thought, ‘Great, because this will give me another approach to what it takes to be a mother,’” she says. “The sacrifice for these three women is completely different.”

For Eleanor, it’s her own happiness and control; for Evelyn, it’s a movie star career. For Eileen, it’s her tight family unit and her ambitions for leadership, both of which she leaves when she moves to L.A. with her younger son so she can keep at least one of them—and the secrets of the business—safe. “She comes from the world of Triads, the world where it’s life and death at a moment,” Yeoh says.

But Eileen is not helpless; she knows how to scheme, manipulate, negotiate, and beat someone up if necessary. At the end of the series, after learning her husband hid her sister’s death from her, Eileen realizes that she no longer has to sacrifice her dreams to serve her husband or her kids. She is emboldened to become dragon head (the boss of all Triad bosses), and seek revenge on her husband. With Big Sun hospitalized and likely headed for jail, Eileen returns to Taipei with the intentions of revamping the business.

Eileen is formidable, but the series also spotlights older women, especially Asian women, who are ignored and and taken for granted, despite their valuable skills. “When you’re older, a woman, people forget you are there,” Eileen tells her son Charles in one scene. The series leans into that by having a nosy group of mahjong-playing aunties serve as a secret spy network. And they become literal defense weapons when they protect Bruce, Eileen’s other son, from bad guys. The theme is reminiscent of a line Yeoh, 61, said while winning her Best Actress Oscar last year: “Ladies, never let anyone tell you you are past your prime.”

Just this month, Yeoh landed a new, real-life role: grandmother. “On New Year’s Day the baby arrived,” she says, beaming on our video call, with no detectable signs of jet lag. Her stepson and his partner welcomed their first child, starting 2024 on an unbeatable high. While she says her family has ditched making resolutions, they instead focus on ringing in the new year with each other and good vibes. “It’s like a fresh start with hope and love in your heart,” she says. “That’s the only tradition.”

Below, Yeoh talks possibilities for The Brothers Sun season 2, her fight scene, and her very proud mother.

the brothers sun l to r michelle yeoh as mama sun, sam song li as bruce sun, justin chien as charles sun in episode 108 of the brothers sun cr courtesy of netflix 2023

Netflix

Yeoh with Sam Song Li (Bruce) and Justin Chien (Charles) in The Brothers Sun on Netflix.

My first question for you is, did you have FOMO over everyone else’s fight scenes while you were waiting for your big moment at the end?

[Laughs] Oh, no. You know why? Because it’s like I know I will get a chance to do it, but what I do enjoy is the fact that our choreographers, especially with Justin [Chien], he was training so hard, you could see the determination of what he was doing, and then all the rest of our cast, whether it was Alice [Hewkin], whether it was [Jon] Xue [Zhang], they were so engaged with it. So when they fought, they fought with such passion and our coordinators were so clever that every fight sequence was creatively very different, [like] the first one where they were trying to assassinate him and he was baking and that was all he was concerned about. And then you had the dinosaurs [the fight scene with the dinosaur costumes], which was hysterical.

I liked the one at the driving range too.

They were bold. I mean, they were using a drone, but with that it’s kind of dangerous to have it suddenly go between your feet, right? So that was very cleverly maneuvered. I sit and watch that and say, “My turn will come.”

Since you’re a master of this craft, did any of the guys come to you for advice or tips?

They are well looked-after. The only thing I always say to them is be careful, because if you get injured, be smart about it. But the Sun guys are also professional—they know how to support and make sure that everyone is safe, and that’s what you want at the end of the day, because you don’t want any accidents or broken stuff. We had fun. Even with my fight sequence with Jenny [Yang]. That was like, we were throwing ourselves at it. They were like, “Maybe you guys can tone down a little.” [We’re like] “No, we’ve been waiting for this for so many days!”

Part of that scene involves comedy too—you both use a lot of household motel items while fighting, like the pot of boiling water and the cord on the telephone. Did that make the scene more exciting?

I think that is the point, because we wanted it to be real, especially for Mama Sun. It is like, yes, she comes from this whole world, but she’s not like Charles, her son, who trains every day to be a fighter and he’s surrounded by people who are very skilled in martial arts and things like that. But she’s always used brain over brawn. And in keeping to that tone, we wanted Mama Sun to be able to be very flexible with the capability of using anything that comes in hand. So it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m just going to fight you with my bare fists.” It’s like, “No, if the telephone is there, if the lamp is there, the cupboard is there, she will use it.” There’s a difference between the style of fighting, and that’s what we always try to go for.

I know you’ve been doing this for decades. You started off your career with martial arts films, which I’m sure set up a very solid foundation for you; they were very physically demanding. Are there any lessons you learned from those early films that you still keep with you today?

Discipline. You must learn to pace yourself. This is stuff that I’ve learned over the years, because it’s a marathon. It’s not a 100-meter dash and you don’t do it just one time—there are long hours. And then it’s, how do you keep yourself in good pace? You learn that comes with training. If you are trained, that means you are fit. And when you’re fit, you show respect to the people that you are with. Because if you’re not well-trained and you’re not accurate, that’s where you can have accidents or you put something in the wrong place. So that’s something that I’ve taken with me. But I think that also came from years of dancing.

new york city premiere of supercop

Evan Agostini//Getty Images

Yeoh at the premiere of Supercop in 1996.

As powerful as Eileen is, she’s also still in service of the men in her life: her husband, her sons. But obviously that changes by the end, when she chooses to return to Taiwan and become a dragon head. How would you describe her arc and her headspace by the end?

She must have loved Papa Sun to be with him and have two sons and to allow the husband to turn one of her sons into an assassin. And then to make the hard decision to say, “At least I can save one of my sons.” And to do that, she sacrificed her life. And it was fantastic to be able to see a woman go down low; it’s just as hard if not even harder than to be up top. For her to bring in all the humility, to kowtow, so that she could protect one of her babies.

Afterwards, at the end of the day, she realizes, “Right, I’m going to have to outsmart you because I believe that Triads, these kind of societies, can be turned around. It doesn’t always have to be violence, it doesn’t always have to be this way.” And I think at the end of the day, she figured out that, “I can use my brains and I can outsmart you and be on top and still at the same time keep my family safe.” But that was a great arc to be able to play something like that.

There’s that poignant line where Eileen says, “Why doesn’t anyone ask me what I want? What is mine? What I’ve earned?”

I think all of us have that, especially mothers or women who feel that “I’ve given up, maybe it was work, maybe it was time for myself so that you can have this.” And a lot of the times we go, “Well, you do it out of love. You shouldn’t expect something in return.” But we are humans, we do. And I think the more you try to suppress what you feel you deserve or what you should get, it piles up, then one day it will just pop through. And I think that was what happened. … And that’s when you think we all should stand up for ourselves. Just don’t wait until it’s so late that it explodes. We always constantly have to be mindful of what we need as well.

We all should stand up for ourselves. Just don’t wait until it’s so late that it explodes.”

I also like the little nuances of Asian mothers being passive-aggressive. “I don’t need your help, but I need your help.”

Yeah. “No, I don’t need you to. And if you don’t come and help, you are in serious trouble.”

And it’s like, “Do whatever you want, but I actually want you to do what I want.”

Exactly. “No, sure. Do whatever you want. As if I care.”

the brothers sun l to r michelle yeoh as mama sun, grace shen as grandma wang in episode 106 of the brothers sun cr michael desmondnetflix 2023

Netflix

Eileen visits her mother (Grace Shen) in Taipei.

Do you have any takeaways from portraying these maternal roles? Is there something different you take away from each character?

I think the biggest takeaway is knowing a new group of very young people, such talented young actors. And I take great pride in watching them and watching them grow and blossom in front of my eyes. It’s like Justin and Sam [Song Li, who plays Bruce], Alice and Jenny, because you can see they love their art form, and they are bold and they want to be there. And they are very, very committed. Because I remember the first night Brad had hosted a dinner with all of us and to get to know each other. And I remember when it was my turn to say something, I said, “Guys, I’m giving my 100 percent, and if any of you don’t, you know I can kick your ass. And I will.”

Oh my God. I’m sure they all sat up straight.

Oh no, we all get on so well. They’re a great bunch of kids. And I love them dearly.

Guys, I’m giving my 100 percent, and if any of you don’t, you know I can kick your ass. And I will.”

Have there been any discussions for another season?

We are pushing all the right buttons….So far, thank you for the really nice review. And also it depends on the viewership I guess, like all things, right? I’ve been hearing great things about it. People are very excited. People are interested in it because it’s something very different that’s not anywhere right now. So tune in, and then we’ll do season two, and three. [Laughs.]

Is Mama Sun’s backstory something you’d be interested in portraying in season 2? Or what her journey with the new era of Triads is like in Taipei? What would be a dream for you to see?

Yes. Because when I start a character, you have to give her history, where she came from. How did she become what she is today? We made quite elaborate backstories. Like, why would she fall in love with a Triad guy? How would she even know someone like that? Right? And how did Papa Sun become who he is? Was he Triad initially? Then we came up with this story [that] was, oh, maybe he’d saved her life, but then he was mistaken for someone who tried to hurt her because she comes from a very affluent family. And so Papa Sun got thrown in jail and it was in jail [where he had] to survive. He had to find the gangs, right? So when he came back out, she was trying to repay him and be nice to him. And somehow along the way they fell in love. So we talked about all these kind of different possibilities so that we could make a path for “who is Eileen and how did she get to be a mother of two, married to the Triad boss?”

Also, you can hear her trying to change his ways. Because the reality is, there’s a lot of legitimate Triads now because they’ve turned their businesses around. And I think that is Eileen Sun, she was trying to do that for this business [so] that we don’t always have to be dealing with issues and problems with knives and swords and things like that. So it would be very interesting to see how she takes that path. And going back to Taiwan, she will get so much resistance. How do you fight that? Sometimes, words are just not enough, so we’ll see. It’s exciting to be able to have all these different kind of possibilities to play with.

the brothers sun michelle yeoh as mama sun in episode 108 of the brothers sun cr michael desmondnetflix 2023

Netflix

Yeoh built an extensive backstory for Eileen Sun.

Outside of that initial dinner, did you and Justin or Sam get to bond on set?

Oh, yeah. Actually we hung out quite a lot. Justin is an amazing cook. I mean, he is flamboyant when he cooks. He’s very creative. I know. He’s just a little similar to his character.

What did he make for you?

Oh gosh, he cooked the most amazing steak. He would do sashimi with jalapeños. So [he would do that] when we are not working, but unfortunately, generally, we were always quite busy. Then, whenever we had time over the weekends and things like that, they would come around to the house. We would barbecue, we would just sit and chat.

It’s been almost a year since you won your Oscar. What is post-Oscar life like for you?

It’s still like nonstop, it seems. I think it’s because we made history, right? So in Asia, back at home, even here for all the Asians, that euphoria is still bubbling nonstop. And it’s such an amazing feeling to see such joy in people’s faces for you. That’s very, very heartwarming. So everywhere I go, people are still so excited and still so proud of the fact that it happened. I’m still on some cloud up there.

I remember you saying that you were excited to share that achievement with your mother. What was it like when you finally got to celebrate together?

It was insane. My mom is such a people’s person. She’s always surrounded by many friends and relatives and things like that. She’s so proud and she’s so happy. So when I was there, literally, I’m just her poster girl. I just stand there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Headshot of Erica Gonzales

Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now. 

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