The world’s most famous female action heroine is deathly afraid of heights.
Yet there was Michelle Yeoh, lashed into a nose-diving stunt plane to simulate zero gravity, in preparation for her role in the sci-fi thriller “Sunshine,” opening Friday.
Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Cillian Murphy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh
(Fox Searchlight Pictures; US theatrical: 20 Jul 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 5 Apr 2007 (General release); 2007)
When the plane “suddenly climbs up again, for a few seconds everything floats - it’s like magic,” says Yeoh.
“(But) there was some censorship regarding some of the expressions that came out of some of the esteemed members of the cast,” the Hong Kong superstar quickly adds.
It was all part of director Danny Boyle’s boot camp designed to turn that esteemed international cast - including Irish actor Cillian Murphy and Fantastic fourth Chris Evans - into eight believable astronauts piloting a more futuristic vehicle. Set 50 years in the future, the crew of the Icarus 2 is hurtling toward the dying sun and certain doom, carrying a bomb designed to reignite the star.
But in what’s sure to set some of her rabid fan base also uttering censorable expressions, the acrobatic star of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “The World Is Not Enough” and “Supercop” did not come aboard to kick butt in outer space. The closest she comes is an impressive sprint down a corridor in Birkenstock sandals.
Rather, the 44-year-old actress gravitated toward a character, the Chinese botanist Corazon, that gives some weight to a movie steeped more in science fact than science fiction.
“I love that my audience is watching the movie, they don’t know what to expect,” says Yeoh.
Boyle cast Yeoh first and offered her any of the eight roles on the Icarus 2, with writer Alex Garland poised to do any necessary rewrites. The Scottish director “fell in love with her” after seeing her dramatic range in the decidedly un-action-packed “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
“Presumably some of those skills ... are brought from that kind of action where you have to be very precise or you’re going to get really hurt,” said Boyle. “But she brings that kind of precision to the acting as well.”
If that meant battling her acrophobia on that plane, or getting a crash course in botany at the Eden Project in Cornwall, or being sequestered in an East London dorm with just her castmates - a Boyle bonding ploy - Yeoh was game.
“It’s just very strange. When I’m there and I’m committed to doing it, whether it’s a stunt, whether it’s for the character, I forget it for that moment that the camera’s rolling,” says Yeoh.
Yeoh, the 1983 Miss Malaysia, got her first break in Hong Kong, modeling watches alongside Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat. It would be one of the last times she would play second fiddle to male action stars.
Though a spinal injury derailed her promising ballet career, her dance training made her a natural for wire work and fight choreography.
On her way to becoming the undisputed “queen of martial arts movies,” Yeoh sustained much worse physical damage. While filming a two-story fall in 1995’s “Ah Kam,” she was hospitalized for three weeks after landing on her head. She has cracked ribs, torn knee ligaments and ruptured an artery after being kicked in the leg during a fight sequence.
And Yeoh will add to her action canon with her next two projects: She just wrapped “Babylon A.D.,” with Vin Diesel, and will start filming “The Mummy 3” in September.
Even if Yeoh didn’t play a Sigourney Weaver-like heroine in “Sunshine,” Boyle couldn’t help but insert a nod to 1979’s “Alien.” Riffing off the scene in which Harry Dean Stanton takes off his hat in a room full of cascading water before getting attacked by the title creature, Boyle filmed a scene in which Corazon is washing vegetables grown in the ship’s oxygen garden.
“As it happens, all the carrots that turned up that day were phallic-shaped,” says Boyle, laughing. “And she was aware as she was doing it how entertained the crew were by the sight of the beautiful Michelle Yeoh washing these carrots vigorously under this cascading water.”
Fanboys can rejoice: The scene will be included on the DVD.
Her action fans, which include directors Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino among their legion, can also rest assured that Yeoh still gets a kick out of martial arts films.
“In a movie, that’s the only time when you’re allowed these kind of fantasies to be lived,” says Yeoh. “Being able to look so cool and be able to fight five bad guys and take them down. When can you do that?
“I mean, if I was put in a situation like that in real life, I would run away real fast.”