Actor Yeo Yann Yann has played many roles in her 25-year career, and each character has helped her — little by little — become the all-rounded person she is today.
The resolute character of Gao Shi Qin in the 2009 TV Series The Iron Lady left a vivid impression — it was the first time I saw Yeo Yann Yann on television. Her portrayal of a pragmatic hard-headed matriarch of a traditional Chinese family was so stellar that meeting her for the first time gave me butterflies.
The fact is, Yann Yann has just flown in early that morning from Singapore especially for the LSA100 cover shoot. She walks in casually, clad in jeans and a white shirt, bringing with her an affable personality unlike the no-nonsense character I remember her playing.
Two words: accommodating and humble. There are no signs of a diva arriving on set — just a simple, down-to-earth person with a rather unexpected request: “Can I order maggi goreng please?”
Fuelled and ready to go, Yann Yann demonstrates her prowess beyond the silver screen — this time channeling the character of a supermodel.
“Curiosity is fascinating. You can never stop finding new ways to editorialise a character,” she opens. “Never stop searching because that’s how we keep our creativity alive.”
Before going on set, Yann Yann examines herself in the mirror thoroughly in the brown Fendi number. She finds her angles and explores poses that elongate her stature. But she doesn’t need all of that — her presence alone is enough to magnify her dominance as she nails the cover shoot in just a few takes.
“Everyday is a new day and you never know the surprises that come your way. I surprise myself on how far I can go in terms of acting and work. There’s a lot to be curious about. Even after 25 years, I am still very curious about how human beings think and behave,” she muses, throwing the ball back at my court. “Intriguing isn’t it?”
A journey of over two decades
Yann Yann’s journey has been a slow but steady rise to the top. Having been in the entertainment industry more than half her life, the 45-year-old Malaysian actress has her hands dabbed in every role you can think of.
“I always aspire to play different types of character but the reality is you can’t escape typecasting sometimes. If you ask me, I could try any kind of character for now at this point of time,” she laments.
The Johor-born actor finds herself in the stage where she strives to make whatever changes she can within that limited ‘landscape’. Ready to explore and open to challenges, Yann Yann admits that playing a character takes more than just remembering the lines but a strong commitment that dives deep into ones physical strength, emotional well and mental depth.
From a teacher who has had an affair with her student amidst a broken marriage to a middle class mother struggling through the 1997 financial crisis in Ilo Ilo, it is safe to say that Yann Yann has done it all — not quite. But her determination proves how much she continues to push herself through the most difficult and challenging roles she plays.
“When I play Ilo Ilo, I was heavily pregnant and that was the first time I worked in a totally different body condition. I don’t even know if I could pull that off at that time. It changed the way you prepare yourself for the role,” she recalls.
The art of acting
“It all starts from the script. Read the script over and over again to find out clues about the character. Expand your understanding with research or find ideas from the pocket of memories that you have. Then visualise the character,” she details it down when asked how she’d prepare for a role.
“Discussions and communication are both very important to find out this ‘person’s life and at what stage it is in. The character changes through the storyline and you need to be in the change as well. Sometimes, the movie is between three to five years, or even ten years. Understand and imagine the character, so you’ll be able to editorialise it the best you can,” advises Yann Yann.
Having over 25 years of acting experience, Yann Yann is an experienced actor in her own league. With her unparalleled portrayals of characters on screen paired with a magnanimous personality, Yann Yann has since taken on bigger roles in huge productions like Disney+’s American Born Chinese (starring Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Kuan and Daniel Wu) as well as action thriller film Havoc which is set to be released on Netflix in 2023.
“I remembered the first time I met them (Forest Whitaker and Michelle Yeoh) on the set of Havoc, I was totally star-struck! It took me a while to calm down. I was very shy,” she giggles while mustering deep breaths to keep calm. “I don’t know where I was going and what I was doing. This dream-come-true experience has definitely kept me high for a few days!”
In American Born Chinese, Yann Yann continues her brilliant ‘streak’ — landing another ‘mother’ role; this time a first-generation immigrant. Typecasting aside, she finds nothing wrong with that, saying: “I think eventually I’m still playing a human being. There’s all kinds of people but everyone has their own unique personality. Every character I play allows me to learn something from them — through the way they behave, their mindset and other small minute details.”
The mother figure in film
Her body grows confident, taking a deep breath in while releasing a sense of pride. Yann Yann believes that being a mother and having played all the ‘mothers’ in her career, one thing has never changed — and that is the unconditional love of a mother.
“Every mother has a ‘Yann Yann’ in it. I would say that I’ve grown — hopefully — as a better mother through different stages of my life. And it would show in the different characters that I play,” she confides. “I believe I’m growing as a person!”
She expresses exactly that and more throughout our brief encounter — a ‘cool mom’ vibe with overflowing care and understanding. When Yann Yann speaks, you listen — the kind of charismatic voice that soothes the soul and a sense of wisdom that follows; in a good way of course.
Gao Shi Qin (Iron Lady), Zhung Lichun (Petaling Street Warriors), Chen Mei Li (The Right Frequency), Hwee Leng (Ilo Ilo), Ling (Wet Season), Sui (Modern Love Mumbai), and Khor Kim Choi (as Lee Chong Wei’s mother in the 2018 biopic).
Of all the characters she has played, Yann Yann laughs when asked to pick a favourite.
“I like them all! When you’re portraying someone, it’s very hard to judge them or pick a favourite,” she expounds.
Eyes glinting, she reflects: “I kinda miss them sometimes.” And we do this to ourselves a lot too — living in the ‘what ifs’ and thinking of how we could make changes for the better. But Yann Yann admits that she is not someone who can watch herself over and over again. “Perhaps it’s a good homework for me, to find out what works and doesn’t work for me. But in film and screenplay, it is a collaborative effort — it is not just me who’s creating the whole show. It involves the entire cast and crew, and a strong teamwork to make it happen.”
Regrets aside, Yann Yann reaffirms: “Yes, I would think of how I could’ve done the character better, but it is what it is. I would think of them like that sometimes but you know, these characters when played by different people at different times will turn out all different. You have to accept that it is your best at that point of time and move on.”
Empowering women through her characters
Yann Yann cites Viola Davis as one of her greatest inspirations — someone she’d dream of working with one day. She throws in other names like Maggie Cheung and Meryl Streep into the list.
It is not surprising to have strong female actor in her list of favourites, especially when Yann Yann herself is a role model to many aspiring actors out there. Her dedication to a character is evident through her expressions and editorialisation — each realised with such poise, precision and power. Ultimately, she gives these ‘women’ such an endearing side.
“Somehow, in every real life story and in every family, the core is always a woman. The role I play, no matter the circumstances, revolves around being a strong woman,” she expresses.
On actors who are finding their footing in the entertainment industry, Yann Yann offers: “I think to stand in front of the screen, get ready to be judged. But remember not to be the first one to judge yourself. Allow yourself the opportunity to explore and experience in your learning process.”
Her accolades speaks for herself. As an actress of her caliber, Yann Yann speaks like a dear friend with nothing weighing her down — no amount of fame could inflate her ego. Despite her burgeoning success, she’s not one who want to leave a legacy of sorts. “I can only hope that I inspire some people but I’ve not decided on anything I want to leave yet,” Yann Yann addresses.
Finding time to ’empty the vessel’
Cool, calm and collected, Yann Yann goes back to basics. She finds strength while surrounded by nature. She digresses, bringing me back to her first time working in Los Angeles.
“The working culture in Asia and in America is totally different. In Asia, you don’t really get to rest but in the US, you have work life balance. On weekends, I’d go sight seeing, meet friends and explore the city. For the first time in many years, I was able to do touristy things,” she shares.
A nature lover, Yann Yann finds herself quickly accustomed to the lifestyle there and just like that, she stumbles upon places of nature where she can be found hiking and wandering. “I will be in the forest a lot. I found a regular forest that I would go to every week as I get used to the weather. It’s great!” she exclaims.
The actor opines that the body is an instrument. She finds her body changing when being out of her elements. So it is important to get used to the change of lifestyle, pace, weather and air while allowing the body to heal.
“As I grow older, I take care of myself better. We all try to take care of ourselves but remember this: if the instrument is not doing well, it is hard to work. It’s like tuning the piano, my own piano,” she jests.
Having lived on a tight and busy schedule throughout her career, Yann Yann has never stopped — well figuratively. On days when she is not on set, she finds time to rest while indulging in longer sleeping hours and reading. She understands the need to make herself healthier and to take care of her family.
“For me, I am not able to handle too many things at one time. When I’m working, I’ll be very much engrossed with the character,” she admits of her one-way commitment to her acting. “I would spend time with my family when I’m not acting, and doing what I love.”
She continues with an unsurprising statement — noting that she is a workaholic. “But I strive to strike a balance. It’s hard to share your life experiences with the characters you’re playing on screen, right? In my daily life, I try to be as open as I can — be it in the environment, around people, as well as the changes around you,” she maintains her stand.
She adds that there are some projects lining up including films and TV shows. At this juncture, she stresses again on the importance of finding time to recover.
“Because of the intensity of the work that I do, I need to take the time to understand my body. My body is an empty glass. When I fill it up with a ‘character’, I need to empty it after that. At this point, I need to empty this ‘vessel’ and appraise myself,” she explains with her hands going up and down her mid torso.
It is about going back to the core and asking the most pertinent question — who is Yeo Yann Yann?
It feels to me that her advice is not just relatable to the acting world but also in everyday life. Your body is the medium and you need to allow it to rest and recover. When faced with her next character — and in my case, perhaps the next challenge or project — you can embrace it fully and wholeheartedly if you face it with an open heart and mind.
“As long as I am still sane in the end of the day, I believe the greatest gift I can offer myself is to make myself a better person,” she concludes.
LSA100: 100 Malaysians, 100 Milestones
Lifestyle Asia KL introduces LSA 100, an annual list that recognises Malaysia’s most influential names and celebrates their talents, contributions, successes and milestones. As the bellwether of style, travel, design, entertainment, business, sports, and more, these 100 Malaysians represent the next generation of go-getters who are paving the way for sharing their know-hows with the world through the power of digital media. LSA100 comprises five categories namely The Rule Breakers, The Joy Sparkers, The Dreamcatchers, The Rocketeers and The Explorers. Find out more about LSA100 Class of 2022, HERE.