From Ipoh to the Royal Academy of Dance, Hollywood: Michelle Yeoh’s climb to superstardom

michelle yeoh movies
Michelle Yeoh was recently awarded an honourary doctorate from the American Film Institute, Los Angeles. Source: David Livingston/AFP

Michelle Yeoh has been making waves as one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood. She has been steadily climbing the ladder — a quick search of “Michelle Yeoh movies” will show prominent features in “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings,” among others.

It was her role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, however, that cemented Yeoh as a force to be reckoned with. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — commonly referred to as simply “the Daniels” — the film sees Yeoh using her martial arts and acting chops in an impressive and emotional performance. 

The film was so well-regarded that it earned Yeoh a place among Hollywood’s elite, most recently through the awarding of an honourary doctorate from the American Film Institute

“You have made my mother the happiest mother in the world today,” Yeoh joked in her beginning address. “I think now she actually thinks I’m an adult with a real job. I had to keep telling her, ‘I’m not a real doctor, I don’t write prescriptions, mom.’ But she can go around telling everyone, ‘My daughter is a doctor.’”

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert made a special appearance to present Yeoh with the honour. Source: David Livingston/AFP

Michelle Yeoh movies that earned her a doctorate

Yeoh was awarded the doctorate over this weekend at the film class of 2022’s commencement ceremony. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” directors, the Daniels, made a special appearance to present Yeoh with the honour. 

“We were very fortunate to have the great privilege of getting to work with the legend, Michelle Yeoh,” the two Daniels said in their opening remarks. “One of the first things we realised about her was how much kindness she has for the people around her … Not just her kindness, her work ethic, her willingness to be playful and vulnerable, and her bravery.”

More than that, they acknowledged the Malaysian’s extensive journey through Hollywood. At the beginning of her career, typical Michelle Yeoh movies used to centre around martial arts — a natural result of her classical ballet training. 

This was no passing fancy — Yeoh had initially hoped to thrive in a career as a professional ballet dancer and open an academy in Malaysia. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, hoping to propel her career. 

A spinal injury then cut this dream short — though this didn’t stop Yeoh from charging on. She instead refocused her efforts on choreography and other art forms. Eventually, she graduated with a BA in creative arts with a minor in drama. 

Yeoh spoke about the challenges of taking on something new in her commencement speech. 

“The first thing they taught me what to do was to tuck and roll, then how to fall on my side, and then how to fall on my back,” she said. “And after a while, it dawned on me that they were teaching me how to fall. I was convinced I was being pranked. I was like, ‘When do I get to do the real stuff? You know, the jumping kick, the roundhouse kick.’ And they said to me, ‘How are you going to go up if you don’t know how to come down?'”

Equipped with her training and a freshly minted Miss Malaysia award in 1983, Yeoh decided to try her luck in the Hong Kong film industry. She quickly found that her dancer’s training helped in breaking out of being typecast, allowing her to venture into leading roles in large-scale action movies. 

In her speech to AFI graduates, Yeoh spoke about the shift in Hollywood towards inclusivity — allowing greater opportunities for international students and non-citizens like her to be entertainers, artists and actors. 

“We are witnessing a profound shift — greater inclusion, more diverse stories, wider access and unlimited global reach,” she said. “We have shown in our work and at the box office that we are ready for the opportunities and we deserve more. But inclusion is not a destination, it is a never-ending journey. There is always more we can do to improve our storytelling and it is up to you, the next generation of filmmakers, to keep that momentum going.”

Yeoh told AFI graduates that her failures taught her “perseverance, grit and humility.” Source: Angela Weiss/AFP

Michelle Yeoh: Don’t be afraid of failure

While the list of Michelle Yeoh movies speaks multitudes to her success as an actress today, she acknowledged that this came from years of self-doubt and regret. Much of this had to do with her spinal injury — which forced her to reevaluate her entire future career. 

Still, she has expressed gratitude for such challenges for opening up new opportunities she might never have considered. In fact, she told AFI graduates that those moments taught her “perseverance, grit and humility”. 

“You see, after I learned how to fall, I could learn how to fly,” she said. “What I want to share with you today is that our slips and stumbles are the secrets to our flight. Every person who has ever stepped onto this stage has had their fair share of crashes. Trust me, that’s part of the deal. Success without failure is called luck. It cannot really be repeated or relied upon. It is from failure, we learn and grow.”

Eventually, such Michelle Yeoh movies won her the role of a lifetime in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — leading to her being awarded a doctorate from the prestigious acting school. 

Yeoh’s advice to future students? “If you hold onto the love of your craft, I promise you that your art will carry you,” she said. “Be courageous, take chances, break barriers, and be proud of what makes you unique. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to fall, because you are learning to fly. Congratulations again. I look forward to seeing what you can do out there. Be kind to yourself, be kind, be kind, be kind.”