Michelle Yeoh discusses her accent and the role of women in Star Trek: Discovery

Contributed by
Feb 9, 2018

Star Trek: Discovery has an impressive cast, but Michelle Yeoh's might be the name that received the most cheers when casting news broke. After all, she was an unconventional choice, given the captains who have come before, but an absolutely brilliant one.

Over the course of the first season, Yeoh has delivered a staggering performance, from portraying her character's death on screen to resurrecting Philippa Georgiou as the leader of the Terran Empire in the Mirror Universe. I spoke with Michelle Yeoh about Philippa Georgiou, the challenges of playing two different characters, and the importance of representation on our television screens.

You're so excellent on Discovery, it's lovely to have the opportunity to chat with you.

Oh, thank you. Thank you. No, I'm so glad, because I've been written two amazing characters, not just one.

Yes, what's that like? You're playing two very different characters who are supposed to be sort of the same person, but they're not.

They're two completely contrasting characters. I mean, playing Captain Georgiou, she was so compassionate and a great leader, mentor. And it was amazing how they kept her character alive. I mean, you remembered her all the time for the almost seven episodes that she was dead before I reappeared as Emperor Georgiou, that no one forgot about Captain Philippa Georgiou. So that when I came back as the emperor, it was even more shocking, because she just looked so devilishly delicious, I would say. The costume, the makeup, the hair. It was just so commanding.

It absolutely is.

So, as an actor, it's just a little overwhelming—in the sense of being so grateful that a role like that—these roles like that come across for me and playing the emperor, who is very, very different from any role that I've played before. Not just being commanding, but ruthless and cunning and constantly. You're scared when she's in the room. You're really terrified. And it was so funny, because every time someone would come up to me and say, "Oh god. You're so scary as the emperor." I've been having so much fun with that.

It comes across on screen. You're just so resplendent as Emperor Georgiou.

Thank you. I have my team to thank for that.

Star Trek: Discovery is a show filled with female leaders, which is actually pretty rare on TV these days. Do you feel strongly about the role you've played and the way the show has portrayed women?

Mm-hmm, I do. I think that's the thing about Star Trek; it talks about present-day issues, but in the sci-fi setting, you know? And I think it inspires us to reach for something better, and I think that's important because it's the empowerment of women. That's what we're striving for today. It's one of the sustainable development goals that we're working so hard for: gender equality. And then, when you have in Star Trek, where you have the number one, the admiral, the science medical officer, the captains, and they're all women, it's very empowering for little girls or young girls to watch. And also, of all the different races, that we are one race in the future. That you can be of any color. It doesn't matter. And it's very, very inspiring for little girls across the world. I remember when I was Captain Philippa Georgiou in Asia and China, everybody was just blown away. It's like we have an opportunity to be up there. So you know, I think that's very, very important, and I think that's what Star Trek always sets out to do.

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Speaking of the diversity in Star Trek, back when the trailer came out for Star Trek: Discovery, I wrote an article about your accent and specifically being the child of immigrants myself, and how much it meant to me to see it on screen.

Oh yes! The one who started this whole viral thing going! Thank you so much for that. It made such a huge difference for people in Asia to say, you know, it's important we recognize where we are from. We are different but we are the same. Thank you. I didn't expect that [article] to take such a big life on its own, but it certainly did. And it resonated so deeply in that part of the world, and helped people notice the show.

It was a very emotional article for me, and I wrote it very quickly and I did not expect it. It has gone everywhere, and I was so excited to see that. But can you talk about that a little bit, about the decision to retain your accent? Was that a conscious thing that you wanted to do?

You know what, I think the producers, Aaron, Gretchen, Akiva, and Alex, they gave us freedom in how we presented our characters. Because we worked on that. And as you can see, Captain Philippa Georgiou comes from that part of the world, so it would make sense that she still retains it. Even though you might study for years in the Academy, your roots will always be your roots, and it will reflect, whether it's in your little mannerisms or in your accent. You know how it is. That's what we are. And so they never turned around and say, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no. You have to speak more this or more that." So they were very liberal. I didn't intentionally use a very Chinese or Japanese or very, very Asian accent. But sort of across the board, you know this person comes from this part of the world.

Yes. It means a lot, still. I'm so glad that it's there, and just the diversity of race in the show is so excellent. It's unmatched, I feel.

Well, that's always been the spirit, the essence of Star Trek, right? Diversity, the inclusiveness, the gender equality. It's always been, that's been the real spirit of what it is.

Do you have a history with Star Trek?

I loved Mr. Spock. I think that combination of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, because it was the initial Star Trek and those things always stay in your mind, and he's just so iconic with his no expression and everything is by logic. And I think sometimes when you come across someone like that it's almost like, maybe it's a relief. Not everybody is getting melodramatic or overemotional about certain things. We just need a clean, logical sense. So it was nice to remember that. But I am hopeless. It's very daunting, because you walk into the room and there's all these rules to follow. Thank god for our writers and our researchers. Sometimes I go, "Do we really have to be so specific?" "Yes." Okay, fine, you know? I step back. I will be corrected.

You return in the Mirroverse, with Emperor Georgiou's debut.

Don't you just love her name?

I love it.

Emperor Philippa Georgiou Augusts Iaponius ... it just blows you away, that name.

The character just has presence. But even if she didn't, you would know with that name that she was important. Was it difficult to keep her a secret, after Captain Georgiou's death?

Oh. Oh my god. That's why I couldn't bring myself to go to any of the Comic Cons, because I would get stopped by fans and they would say, "Why did you let them kill you off? Why did you let them kill Captain Philippa Georgiou?" And you're like, "Um, well." Then I would have to say, "Please be patient." And then they go, "Are you coming back?" And I'm going, oh my god. "Are you doing flashbacks?" Because I mean, Captain Philippa Georgiou was really killed, right? And there was just no way around -- and knowing that I'm still filming and not be able to say anything, that was the most difficult part. Because everybody loved that character so much. But it was necessary. It was necessary for the journey of Michael Burnham, for Saru, for how it evolved, how the war started. But then I was like, how do I tell them, "Be patient. I am coming back, and I will scare the hell out of you when I come back." I can't go to the Comic Cons because after two questions, I will have to sit there and go, "Um, I can't tell you." And it would be so revealing. It would be a spoiler alert on its own.

No one really expected the Mirrorverse twist. It's such delicious storytelling.

You know the whole revelation, the whole bringing down of Lorca, everything. It was amazing. It was just goosebumps, you know? And it feels so expositional, but at the same time, they told it in such a way, it was gripping, even for me. And I was like, didn't I just film this?

Oh yeah. And it was very satisfying, because you knew there was something not quite right about Lorca.

Oh my god. He is Terran through and through. And so brilliantly played by Jason Isaacs. Because you felt that demon and then you're going, no, no, no. But he's Starfleet. It can't be. Maybe he's just doing the Kobayashi maneuver all the time, like he's trying something new. But now we know. And it's so creepy when it all comes out.

It is very creepy.

You remember when he says, it's like Michael Burnham betrays you in every universe and I say my destiny is to kill him? It was like, yes. Remember, I told him not to mess with my number one [at New York Comic Con] and he did. So I had to.

I was actually thinking about that the entire part of the episode. 

I was true to my words.

What's it like to work with this cast, and especially Sonequa Martin-Green?

Oh, it's wonderful. I call her Bambi. She has got the most beautiful, expressive eyes. So it's a joy to work with her because she's very focused, she understands. She's very giving as an actor and as a human being. So, with Sonequa, it's just a love fest. And she just brings joy when we're in the room. So it was even more fun to play when I was [the Emperor], she would come up to me and go, "Oh, I want my Captain Philippa." Because I'm very scary when I'm Emperor Georgiou. So we have fun. When I watch these young actors, it's like Mary Wiseman, Anthony Rapp, Shazad, and when I watch them it's so satisfying because you know the future is in good hands, very good hands. Because they are amazing actors, and Jason, come on. He's like the veteran. He doesn't do things half measured, so he's intense. And I love Doug. You know, unfortunately, in [Episodes] 13 and 14, I didn't get a lot of exchanges with him, but when I first came back onto the ship it was like that, "Kelpian, you're a slave." I was like, "I'm sorry, Saru. I don't mean that." 

Can you tease anything that's coming up in the season finale for your character?

We're going to KRONOS. [laughs] I'm so looking forward to it, because when we filmed that, we had a lot of fun. But it's an important part of the story, but you'll have to wait and see. It's coming soon!

The Season 1 finale of Star Trek: Discovery airs on CBS All Access on Sunday, February 11, at 8:30 p.m. ET.