For the past four decades, Michelle Yeoh’s legendary body of work has defied easy categorization, running the gamut from cult classic kung fu cinema to blockbuster Bond flicks. Her most ambitious role to date is in Everything at onceHer comedic skills and emotional depth are highlighted alongside her signature martial arts skills, which have made her an international superstar. The film, which released on March 30, centers around Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang, an unlikely superhero who travels in the multiverse, but can’t seem to finish her taxes.
Ahead of the film’s release, TIME caught up with Yeoh to talk about her current career renaissance, defying stereotypes, and why kindness is a superpower.
You’re starring in Everything Everywhere All At Once, a title that might also describe your career lately. Shang- Chi was your last film. American Born Chinese is currently in production. The movie is about an owner of a laundry that discovers alternate realities and incredible skills.
It’s a good thing, right? One would never have predicted that I’d be more busy than ever at the age of my generation. I’m very, very lucky.
The film was amazing. Was there something that attracted you to the project?
Have you ever seen a woman such as this make it big? So I immediately said, “I need to meet these two directors [Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert].” They had me with their passion, the clarity of the story that they were telling. Their mothers were strong, and they made it all make sense. After I had understood their motivations, I joined. They told me, “Well, you know, Michelle, if you refused to do this movie, we would have to go back and rewrite the whole script again.” In their craziness, they really believed in me.
How did Evelyn come to be?
Every time I take on a new role, I have to give her history; I have to know where she’s coming from. Evelyn Wang is an amazing character, and deserves to have her entire story told. I created a journal of Evelyn Wang [starting from] when she left China with the man she loved, much to the dismay of her parents, and her father disowning her because she didn’t do what he wanted. Like many immigrants, she had the American Dream. Hoping for one thing, which was what Evelyn did, they started their laundromat, they started a family, and maybe it’s all coming together. But then it’s hard. But not everyone is able keep it together. Not every person is successful in achieving their goals.
Have you ever found it difficult to keep up with the many worlds of the multiverse.
Moments were good for me because Evelyn Wang could make me look just like her! It was an important journey for the audience as well, because you have no clue what’s going on the minute you get dragged into that janitor’s closet with this crazy woman—your brain sort of fractures with her.
We don’t always see films centered around difficult middle-aged women, much less sci-fi action comedies like this one. What was it like to play Evelyn, a multilayered character?
I love the beauty that she becomes a superhero, that she’s allowed to be a superhero. All of us have the superpower in us when we are able to show kindness, because that is a great superpower that will enable us to help the people around us, especially those we love, to find acceptance in ourselves in whatever we’re doing.
How does it feel to play an absurdist comedy role while also being an action star in this stage of your career?
After 30+ years in the business I still find it surprising that you are surprised, then I must be doing something right. As an actor, that’s what you want to do—the last thing you want to do is to be stereotyped or typecast or put in a box. When I approached Evelyn, I was like, “I do not want to be recognized as Michelle Yeoh; I do not want you to see Michelle in any form.”
Evelyn initially feels very limited at the start of her journey. But by the end she realises that she is only responsible for the limitations she creates. What could you relate to about feeling restricted or limited?
If you don’t feel like you’re capable, if you don’t think you’re capable, then you won’t be capable. Because the first person that says no is you— you’ve already said no. How are you going be able do anything?
Here are more must-read stories from TIME