Michelle Yeoh: Crouching tiger, hidden dragon, political prisoner...

James Mottram on the Bond star playing Aung San Suu Kyi in a new biopic

For an actress who has been, in her own words, "a geisha, an astronaut and a reindeer herder", Michelle Yeoh's already eclectic career has reached a defining moment.

Even playing a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies and a Bafta-nominated warrior in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon don't quite compare with being cast as Aung San Suu Kyi. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the Burmese opposition politician dubbed "the female Mandela" after remaining under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years is arguably the most daunting role of Yeoh's life.

We meet at Qatar's Doha Tribeca Film Festival, where The Lady, which covers just over a decade of Suu Kyi's tumultuous life, is the closing film. Dressed elegantly in a skirt and blouse, matching bangles on her wrists, Yeoh, 48, is a perfect ambassador for the film – modest yet fiercely passionate. When I ask her how she got away from the role, she snaps back, "I don't want to get away from it!" She hasn't had a holiday since completing the shoot. "I've taken this two years off from doing other films so that I can help this one. It's one of those movies that needs it."

Curiously, when I ask whether this was the toughest part she's ever tackled, she gives an ambivalent answer. "Yes, because it was an emotional ride in a very short time. We were living her life for 10 specific years, and had to demonstrate that in just over two hours. No, because when you're committed, and when it's coming from the depths of you, it all becomes easy." She stops for a second, realising what she's said. "Well, 'easy' isn't quite the word."

Not least of the problems she encountered was having to learn the Burmese language. "There were a few times when I called Luc [Besson, who directs] and said, 'I'm dying! I can't get my head around this!'" Indeed, the pressures of The Lady make her physical trials on Crouching Tiger... (she tore her knee ligaments) and 1996's Ah Kam (she fell 18 feet from a bridge, almost breaking her back and neck) seem like child's play. "She's a heroine," she admits. "And I'm in a privileged position to play her. Not just show her as a saint, but give a unique experience of what went on."

Born in Malaysia, where her father was a lawyer, the actress was well aware of Suu Kyi. After winning Miss Malaysia in 1983, life took Yeoh to Hong Kong, where she made her big-screen debut as a judo instructor opposite Jackie Chan in 1985's Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Stars. Marrying the film tycoon Dickson Poon, who had first cast her in a TV commercial, Yeoh remained in Hong Kong – just at the time Suu Kyi, heading up the National League for Democracy, won the Nobel Peace Prize. "That was like 'Woah, an Asian woman getting this?' I was very driven to find out more."

Whether the film offers much insight is open to debate. Most agree that Yeoh's performance is stellar ("a commanding screen presence," noted Variety, "[she] breathes poise and moral authority in every scene"). But from a director whose last portrait of a female icon was the flawed, flabby Joan of Arc (1999), this similarly stumbles in its attempts to dive beneath the serene surface of a woman whose forbearance came to represent the hopes of a nation. Enduring years of isolation during her house arrest, separated from her Oxford academic husband Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis) and their two sons, we rarely glimpse the inner turmoil this must have caused.

"Their love was so powerful, it gave her strength," Yeoh argues, and certainly the film works best if seen in the framework of her marriage to "the most loving husband in the world", as Yeoh calls him. Seeing his wife only five times during her incarceration, until his death from prostate cancer in 1999, Michael's support never wavers. "It makes you empathise with her, not just as this iconic figure – doing all these amazing things for the people of Burma."

While Suu Kyi was released from her latest period of house arrest in November 2010, the political situation there is still on such a knife-edge, that the making of the film had to happen "under the radar", with Thailand doubling for Burma. "Nobody talked about it," says Yeoh. "Everybody was respectful. You had, sometimes, two or three thousand extras, and Luc would go on set and say in French, in English and in Thai, with Burmese translators, 'Please do not take pictures, please do not post on Facebook, because it might affect the schedule of the filming.' And nobody ever did. That was the level of respect they gave us."

Inevitably, though, word got out. Last June, the Burmese authorities banned Yeoh from entering the country again. Arriving for her second visit, Yeoh was stopped at immigration, despite having a visa. "They said, 'I think we have some immigration problems.' I said, 'But why?' But they wouldn't explain. They sat me down, and kept saying 'No, no, no ...'"

Sent back on the next flight, "a week later they made an announcement that I was blacklisted, without saying why". Fortunately, Yeoh had already achieved her primary objective. On her one unimpeded visit to Burma, last December, she met Suu Kyi. "It was very intimate. She makes you feel very at ease. Never for one moment do you feel, 'I'm in the principal's office! I better say the right things.' Right away she said, 'I'm so sorry. It's so messy here, people are coming in and out.' So you go, 'Phew – she's normal!' She's approachable. I love the fact that she's affectionate. She would hold your hand."

Speaking in flawless English, Yeoh gives off a similar vibe. Encouraged by her mother to pursue modelling, she thinks that "when you have parents who encourage you to be independent, it gives you a certain kind of confidence". She temporarily retired from acting in the late 1980s, at the request of her husband, but the moratorium ended when they divorced in 1992. Returning to her career, she has since broken with playing Asian action heroines – in everything from Memoirs of a Geisha (the geisha) to Danny Boyle's Sunshine (the astronaut) and Far North (the reindeer herder).

While Yeoh has never remarried, she has been engaged to former Ferrari CEO Jean Todt (some 17 years her senior) since 2005. The only thing she doesn't have is children. "I have five godchildren," she says. "So in my mind I do have kids. I have people who love me and a man that I love." You suspect it's this that's allowed her to empathise with Aung San Suu Kyi. "It's changed my life," she says of the role. "It's changed my views. It's made me, I hope, in many ways, a better person."

'The Lady' is released on 30 Dec

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable