Former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh isn’t arm candy any longer.
The 53-year-old, who joined Netflix’s Marco Polo‘s second season this year, has her own leading role and continues to kick butt on screen.
Yeoh tells PEOPLE her role involves a lot of stunts, which she “loves every moment of.”
“In the past, the action sequences that we do, we work very closely with the stunt people,” she says. “It was fabulous because I had some amazing stunt people from China, of course, and all the Mongolian stunt people, from Germany, from Kazakhstan. It was fascinating to be part of the group and working so closely with them.”
While working with the crew was fun, Yeoh says the best part was the adrenaline rush that came from performing stunts on camera.
“You get to do that only in the movies or only when you’re doing something crazy like this,” she says. “In real life I’m not going to walk around trying to beat up five to seven guys. It was so cool because my godchildren wrote to me and said, ‘You beat up Marco Polo! That’s so cool!’ ”
For Yeoh, kicking butt – for real or not – doesn’t come without staying in great shape.
The actress says that even when she isn’t filming, she maintains a consistent workout routine.
“Doing martial arts, kung fu, learning tai chi … it’s like your hygiene,” she says. “You don’t wake up and not do it. I go through the whole process. It’s part of my well being, exercising and being in shape, so when I jump on to something like Marco Polo to where it’s very physical, it’s not so difficult because I’ve been riding the bicycle. It’s just learning new routines, learning new movements. It’s not hard. In fact, it’s very enjoyable.”
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Embracing the role has also been a source of empowerment for her to inspire women around the world that females are not the weaker sex.
“I think it’s very important to empower women to believe that they can do things without men,” she says. “For me, personally, it is a message. It is a mission that I would like especially the young girls to be able to see and to feel that nothing should hold them back.”
The actress says the Marco Polo series has quite a few women characters who demonstrate this strength.
“Some of them are very flawed but at the end of the day they fight. They truly fight for what they believe,” she says. “For love, for family, for country. For me to be part of that message is … I think it’s a necessity. We are so blessed we can choose the kind of roles and the messages we can impart to our audiences. I prefer to take on roles that are much more challenging on this kind of level.”
Yeoh says she has also developed new fans since starring in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Reign of Assassins.
“I believe when I first started out it was always the girls who came up to me and said, ‘Yes! It’s about time women kick ass and do all these kind of things!’ But today I get a lot of the feedback from the men as well,” she admits. “That is very important because the empowerment of women don’t just come from the women themselves, but from our other halves. From the men. They have to believe with us.”
The empowerment of women is not only shown on Marco Polo but also growing in more recent Bond films, Yeoh adds.
“The girls are getting prettier and sexier and really, really, stronger,” she says. “In the old days they were more these sex idols rather than a strong, feminine role. Now you see even with the partners, the other girls that he partners up with, are not just there for the candy on his arm. They have a very strong, powerful physical role not just in bed.”
The iconic film series has had to change with the times of society.
“To get it right, that takes a lot of effort, understanding of how Bond has to evolve as well – how our society has changed,” Yeoh says. “They want the audience to be girls as much as the guys. I remember in the old days it was always the guys that said, ‘Oh, let’s go watch a Bond movie.’ Now the girls are like ‘No! We think it’s pretty cool, too!’ I think that’s very important.”
Marco Polo season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.