Real power doesn’t raise its voice. That’s what Michelle Yeoh suggested to director Jon M. Chu in their initial explorations of her character, Eleanor Young, the feisty matriarch, in Warner Bros. Pictures’ new romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Chu recalls, “She said, I don’t yell because truly powerful people don’t yell. They don’t need to move one muscle or expend any energy on you, and that can cut more than anything else.’”
A striking figure—striking terror, some would say—Eleanor is the epitome of poise and polish, flawless from her coiffure to the point of her bespoke shoes, as only the inimitable Yeoh could portray her. Her happiness at having her eldest son home is tempered by the fact that he is accompanied by a pretty, young woman whose lineage is questionable, yet Nick seems to be utterly smitten with her. Eleanor’s thinly veiled attempts to be gracious and polite aren’t enough to hide her obvious displeasure.
One of the few Chinese actors to gain worldwide recognition in the 1990s, Yeoh was revered by her fellow cast and the filmmakers, not the least of whom was Chu, who says, “I grew up loving her performances and being inspired by her. I will never forget going to the theater to see ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ in a packed house, with people yelling and cheering her on.”
“Eleanor is what we call in Singapore a ‘lion mum,’” offers actor Henry Golding, and that’s putting it mildly, considering her first meeting with her son’s girlfriend. Rachel (Constance Wu), in a borrowed dress for the occasion, is all warmth and respectful affection, spontaneously offering a hug from which Eleanor visibly recoils.
But Yeoh took care to present Eleanor as more than a villain, in a way that mothers the world over might understand. “Everybody looks at her and trembles in their shoes, but Eleanor is a protective and caring mother,” Yeoh says. “She is trying to keep the family together—not just for themselves but for the many others who depend on them. She sent her son abroad for an education but now wants him to come home to assume ownership of their company.
“She thinks this young woman is unsuitable because she has no idea what it takes to be in a traditional Chinese family,” Yeoh continues. “Her son needs someone to support him—as Eleanor has done for her own husband—and she feels it’s unfair to expect Rachel to do that because she is totally unprepared. She’s just not what Nick needs.”
“Michelle wanted to play Eleanor the way author Kevin Kwan envisioned her, as a human being,” says Chu. “You root for her in one scene and hate her in another, and that’s the brilliance of Michelle.”
Ironically, adds Wu, “Rachel does the same thing to her. She sees Eleanor with all her wealth and power and makes a hollow assessment about who she is. Both women need to look a little deeper.”
For a story in which family is an underlying theme, producer Brad Simpson notes, “Romantic comedies often focus on the tension between a couple, but I think we all know that the real tension leading up to a partnership is often with your potential in-laws. In the book, and in the film, Nick is faced with an impossible situation: should he chose his love or his family? There was never any question that the Rachel-Nick-Eleanor triangle would be the focus of the story.”
Rated PG by the MTRCB, “Crazy Rich Asians” is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Entertainment Company.