For Michelle Yeoh, a typical day at the office usually involves leaping from rooftops, driving motorcycles onto speeding trains and single-handedly whupping platoons of baddies. But during the filming of her new movie Memoirs of a Geisha one of Asia’s biggest action stars faced her toughest stunt yet: learning how to walk in a form-fitting kimono without toppling over. “If I didn’t do it well Rob [Marshall, the director] would have taken me out and shot me,” Yeoh says with a laugh. A little homework was in order. “From the minute I’d get out of bed, I’d walk around the house in it—it became second nature.” So much so that “sometimes I’d be walking down the street in jeans and get into that little shuffle. But then I’d be like, ‘Okay, time out, girl. You look a little strange.’ ”
But in Memoirs—the splashy epic adapted from Arthur Golden’s best-seller that hits theaters this month—she’s the picture of grace. The role of Mameha, a legendary geisha who trains a fisherman’s daughter (Ziyi Zhang) to follow in her dainty footsteps, is a departure for Yeoh, 43, famed for high-octane turns in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tomorrow Never Dies. “Martial arts is just practice,” Yeoh says. “Being a geisha requires complete control.” But Marshall had no doubts she was right for the part. “There’s an innate elegance to her,” he says.
And plenty of determination. Not only did Yeoh cut down her daily exercise routine to reshape her sinewy 5’4″ body into a more rounded, feminine silhouette, she also studied performing traditional dances and playing the samisen (a Japanese string instrument) at a six-week geisha boot camp. “Michelle was very quick to learn everything,” says costar Zhang.
Yeoh has always been a quick study. Born in Malaysia to lawyer Kian Teik and Janet, a former beauty queen, she moved to London at 16 to study ballet, until a back injury sidelined her dancing dream. Yeoh returned to her home country in 1983 and, at her mother’s urging, competed in the Miss Malaysia/World pageant. She ended up winning the crown. A year later a friend got Yeoh her first acting gig—a Hong Kong watch commercial opposite Jackie Chan. The experience led to roles in Chinese action movies. Renowned for performing her own stunts, Yeoh landed her first Hollywood role as a take-no-prisoners Bond Girl in ’97’s Tomorrow. Now she balances a life in Hong Kong with movie projects in the U.S. and Europe. “Home for me is on a plane,” she says.
Trying to keep up with the frequent flyer is boyfriend Jean Todt, a French Ferrari exec she met last year in Shanghai. “It was fate—he was generous and sweet,” says Yeoh, who split in ’91 from Hong Kong billionaire Dickson Poon after a three-year marriage. To stay connected, Todt, 59, gave Yeoh a limited edition cell phone emblazoned with the Ferrari symbol. Not that the globe-trotting Yeoh has time to chat. “I’m terrible on the phone,” she says. “I just text my friends and family and say, ‘Hey, I’m in town.’ ” Rare moments of downtime are spent watching horror movies and doing brain teasers like the Japanese number game sudoku and crosswords. Just don’t ask her to try the Sunday New York Times. “I hate that I can’t do it.” Finally, something she hasn’t mastered—yet.
Michelle Tan. Courtney Rubin in London, Amy Longsdorf in New York City and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles