'Marco Polo' Star Michelle Yeoh Talks Martial Arts in Film

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

Photo by Guillaume Horcojuelo/EPA

Michelle Yeoh first met John Fusco, the creator of Netflix’s historical action/drama series, Marco Polo, on the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. He’d written the screenplay for the sequel to Ang Lee’s groundbreaking and award-winning 2000 epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the pair developed a close working relationship as she prepared to reprise her role from the original. The star was immediately impressed by Fusco’s knowledge and thoughtfulness, but also a little confused by it. As the sole returning cast member from the original film, a 30 year veteran of martial arts filmmaking, and as a Chinese woman, she expected to be the one schooling the American writer and producer. And that wasn’t always the case.

“I discovered this man who was so entrenched with the historical values and not just culture of China, but also the martial arts element of my part of the world. In fact, he knew much more than me, so I was not very happy with that,” she admits to Fightland with a self-deprecating laugh. “So I wanted to see what he could teach me.”

Fusco was equally impressed with her and, when he started putting together the cast for Marco Polo in 2014, he approached her about a possible role in it. Yeoh was still too busy with her Sword of Destiny obligations at the time to commit to the first season, but he never gave up on the possibility of finding a place for her in the greater series.

When it came time to make the second season of Marco Polo, which premiered on Netflix internationally last week, Fusco contacted Yeoh with a new offer: at the end of the first season, he’d introduced a character named The Hand Maiden. The audience knew nothing about her beyond the fact that she’d shared some sort of history with the show’s resident martial arts master, Hundred Eyes. They hadn’t even been shown her face yet. But it was clear that she’d play a pivotal role in Marco Polo’s ongoing story. Fusco wanted her to be The Hand Maiden.

Yeoh says that she was “very, very touched” that he’d chosen such a prominent role for her, and was eager to learn even more from the showrunner. It was The Hand Maiden herself that truly sold her on the project, though. “What really drew me to the character was the background she came from, what she represented. The values, the love story between her and Hundred Eyes, and the intensity of the emotional ride that she came with. It was impossible to say no to such a rich and full character,” she says. “The action sequences she did [with Hundred Eyes] was not just fighting with the enemy. Fighting with the enemy is very easy, actually, because there’s no thought to it. You just have to do it. But fighting with the love of your life... now, why would you do that? That takes a lot of drama.”

Those intense physical and emotional battles gave Yeoh a rare chance to show off her skills as an action performer and a dramatic actress at the same time. “Showing off physical abilities is a given, because you only have the best stunt coordinators, and the directors and the DPs who know how to film it. It’s not rocket science for us, because we’ve been doing it for a while. But to have the emotional part of the way these two were interacting. They were both warriors. They were both very, very good at what they did, and you know that they could kill each other. Physically they were able to. But how they could emotionally overcome each other, that was the challenge. And, for me, that was the most beautiful part of that love story.”

In between takes, she continued to pick Fusco’s brain, both about her character and anything else that piqued her curiosity. “It’s almost not fair!” she says of his knowledge. “I felt like saying, ‘Excuse me: You are the foreigner, and I’m supposed to be Chinese. Should I know more about our own history, and all that?’ But sometimes you get lost knowing about so many other things that we don’t know what’s in our own background. And it was such a joy to see someone who was so enamored. He was almost like Marco Polo himself. He’s ridden through Mongolia with his son, and he’s a really good martial artist, which I’m totally jealous about. I mean, this is not fair! He’s spent many more years doing it than I have,” she says.

“I was prancing around doing ballet while he was doing the really serious Crane stuff and Tiger Claw. So when he started telling me about all of those things, I would go ‘No! No! No This is all wrong. It should be the other way around. You should be telling me about ballet and I should be telling you about martial arts.’”

Although the role reversal continued to both stun and amuse her, Fusco’s commitment to learning about and accurately representing ancient Chinese culture and martial arts also made her feel like both the Marco Polo story and her part in it were in very capable hands.

While she’s no fan of the current white-washing that’s been happening with a number of prominent Asian characters in Hollywood lately (“I’m sure we have enough very strong, beautiful Asian actors who could play the roles.”) she is open to cultural exchange when it’s done with great thoughtfulness and care. “It’s how much time you put into it. It doesn’t mean that, if you’re Chinese, you’ve learned your Chinese history properly. A historian can be much more knowledgeable and there’s no right or wrong in that.”

And Fusco, she believes, is a good example of someone who has put in that time. “The beauty about this man is that he really lives that lifestyle of meditation, loving the culture, believing in the culture, and there’s a real respect that he’s giving to the Chinese culture. And I really like that. It comes from his heart, which makes a big difference. When you read the script, or when you ask him about certain things, you know that he didn’t just make it up. Great thought has gone into it, whether it was research, or a personal experience. So I trust him. I think it’s a simple matter of fact that I trust him.”


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