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Michelle Yeoh on her start in Hollywood: ‘For the first time I understood that I’m a minority’

The "Everywhere Everywhere All At Once" star said she faced stereotypes early in her acting career. Now, she's nominated for her first Academy Award.
/ Source: TODAY

Michelle Yeoh was a star in Hong Kong. After winning the "Miss Malaysia" beauty pageant in her 20s, she found herself shooting commercials with Jackie Chan, leading to starring roles in action films in Asia, like "Supercop."

But when she made the leap to Hollywood, she found herself being expected to fit into stereotypes.

"It was all stereotypes," Yeoh said on the March 5 episode of Sunday Sitdown with Willie Geist. "I mean, it was every script that you read, the Asian has to come from Chinatown."

The actor said she realized she was different when she looked at other actors and directors trying to fulfill their Hollywood "dream."

"For the first time ... I understood that I’m a minority," she told Geist. "I almost couldn’t understand the word. It was, like, 'I think I better look it up in a dictionary.' What the hell is a minority?” 

Now, Yeoh is living her Hollywood dream. She is nominated for her first Academy Award for her role as Evelyn in "Everywhere Everywhere All At Once." The Oscar nominee said those early Hollywood career struggles taught her an important lesson: Don't give up.

"It’s not giving up," she said. "It’s, like, believing that it’s possible." 

Yeoh rejected the stereotypes, eventually playing a spy in the 1997 James Bond film, "Tomorrow Never Dies" and a wealthy Singapore socialite in 2018's "Crazy Rich Asians."

The actor has already made history as the first Asian woman nominated for an Oscar in the best actress category. Yeoh said to win would be an opportunity to the open door for other Asian actors.

"I see it as a path that is the right path," she said. "Because, you know, with all the shoulders I stood on behind me, the people that are with me now and the people that need to be in front of me, we need this path. So it’s a gift for me to be able to say, 'Look at me.'"

"Everything Everywhere All At Once" is nominated for 11 awards at the 2023 Oscars. Yeoh said she never expected a "little film" to receive so much accolades.

"If you had told me that last year, it would be, like ... 'Ha, ha, that’s funny,'" she said. "Because if you look at it, it’s a weird, wacky, wild, wonderful movie.”

She also expressed gratitude for the film's directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who created the film "from their guts," she said.

"These geniuses had the courage to write a story about a very ordinary woman," she told Geist. "And we women, mothers, daughters, aunties, grandmothers, are ordinary, but are given the opportunity to be extraordinary."