YEO YANN YANN is an actress with endearing appeal.
Yet behind the talent is a woman whose fame is hard-won, with years of lead and supporting roles on stage and screen, before she hit big time with the feature film “Petaling Street Warriors” and the high-rating dramas such as “The Iron Lady” and “The Descendant”.
Of course, she believes that an actor’s job is gruelling and physically draining.
But having said that, it is also financially and aesthetically fulfilling , given the right opportunities.
For her, it is the ultra-perfect combination.
And no, she would not change it for the world.
YEO YANN YANN is well …. YEOH YANN YANN.
You field her with the most absurd questions and she will answer them disarmingly. Her laughter is genuinely infectious, her jokes can be self-deprecating, and heads turn at the nearby tables where people acknowledge her presence with a smile.
Her illustrious career as a true performer of stage and screen started in Singapore some years ago.
Singapore may have moulded her but it is in Malaysia that she affirms superstar status as a veteran actress. She humbly begs to differ, but her television and big screen roles tell you otherwise.
Show business can be small-minded and judgemental, but she has since learned to weather the storm.
Her voice swells with passion when she talks about an acting character, any character. Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett are my favorite actresses, she smiles.
YEO YANN YANN is a trooper who has survived many years of the harsh limelight and yet remains relatively unscathed.
That’s YEO YANN YANN.
“Never say die,” is her parting shot.
1. How did you first step into the world of show business? Are there any memorable first jobs?
I never really thought I would end up in show business at first! I was an avid athlete and a marathon runner in school, but I did join the school drama club. That was when my interest in acting picked up. I guess you could say that one thing led to another. Later when I went to Singapore to study, I was introduced to the late theatrical doyen and playwright KUO PAO KUN, who became my mentor and helped paved the way for me to study acting as a career. So if you want to talk about any memorable first jobs, although it wasn’t my very first, it would have to be the stage play RED HAWK because that was how I met KUO. That said, I do find all my roles to be memorable in their own way. I work with some very great people and it is always a great and learning experience for me. SINGAPORE DREAMING is another example where I worked with a wonderful ensemble cast. It was also one of my first feature films so I guess that qualifies too!
2. Were there any mentors who helped you along the way?
When I first came to Singapore, I was actually quite young and restless. I had no idea what I wanted in life. But then I was very lucky to have met with KUO PAO KUN during the staging of RED HAWK, in which I played a small role. The immense demands he placed on me as an actor made me realize just how much I had yet to learn. Under KUO, I always felt I could never measure up to his expectations. Thankfully, he gave me a chance and persuaded me to join the pioneer batch of the Theatre Training & Research Programme that he founded. The opportunity to be under his tutelage and guidance has become the driving force in how I act and portray the characters that I play. Outside of theatre, I am also grateful to ROYSTON TAN for giving me such a wonderful break to play a lead role in 881. SAMSON YUEN has also been an important influence in my return to Malaysia to establish myself in drama acting, and giving me an opportunity to play the leading role of Gao Shiqin in THE IRON LADY.
3. Actors sometimes have to tackle difficult or complex roles. From the top of your head, which was the first really challenging character you’ve had to portray?
Hmm… off the top of my head? At the risk of sounding repetitive, can I say it’s the character I played in RED HAWK? It was just a small role as a bar hostess, but KUO PAO KUN gave me such a hard time, it completely changed my perspective on acting! But I don’t blame him, otherwise how could I be where I am today? Of course most people will remember me for my portrayal of Fan Yi in THUNDERSTORM (2006). I suppose that was another defining moment for me. The chance to play a character so hated by audiences all round, and yet portray her in a sympathetic light that people can finally relate to – that was an incredible challenge. But the rewards were well worth it.
4. How important or useful is the Director’s insight when you are playing these intricate roles?
It is very important because ultimately, it is his vision that takes the entire production forward. When it comes to the role I play however, I believe it is a shared responsibility. The Director tells me his vision and perspective of my role, and I add my own input and ideas. We basically come together to drive the direction that my character will take. Ultimately however, the performance is down to me. And to put in something special, I really have to make the character my own.
5. As audiences, it is vital that we sympathize or relate to film characters on some level. How important is it for an actor to empathize with the characters they are playing?
Regardless of our roles, whether on stage, television or in films; we become the characters we play. If we cannot relate to our characters’ motivations – no matter how strange or cruel – then how can we accurately portray them? I wouldn’t be able to believe what I’m doing, I wouldn’t be able to believe in my own performance. And the audience, they will be able to tell.
6. Women are sometimes sidelined or simply depicted as “damsels in distress” in films or TV shows. What do you make of this?
I suppose that is quite true in the past. But there are now more and more roles that portray women in better light, that show women to be strong, intelligent, and more emotionally independent than before. In fact, men are now often portrayed as silly and juvenile compared to women. PETALING STREET WARRIORS is one excellent example… sorry MARK!
7. You are known to play strong, independent women. Does the generalization of women in the industry factor at all into how you choose scripts/projects, or do you decide based on other principles?
I guess the most important thing is still the story behind the script. And the character – can I relate to her story? Does it strike a chord with me? What value and perspective can I add to the character to bring her to life? These are the things that I would consider to be more important to me. It doesn’t have to be a strong, independent woman. Even if she is weak-willed and bullied, if I can empathize with her suffering – I think I would still do it.
8. You were fantastic in THE IRON LADY drama series and you walked away with the 2010 Malaysian Golden Award for Best Actress. What is it like having that title or recognition in the industry?
It is a milestone in my career and a good recognition of all the hard work I’ve put in through the years, and also in THE IRON LADY itself. But my career is not over, and I am always desiring more, not necessarily in accolades. I want to be the best actor that I can be. If possible, I would like to be remembered for a role that I play in the future – something like Fan Yi in THUNDERSTORM, but in film.
9. Have you ever thought about branching out? Maybe to direct, produce, or write your own projects?
It’s always a possibility as I grow older. I have become more mature and learnt a lot of things in life. KUO PAO KUN was such an inspiration to me, I think I would like to take up the challenge if the opportunity arises.
10. You married Hong Kong’s foremost action choreographer MA YUK SING after a whirlwind courtship of less than a year. Tell us if it’s a case of love at first sight?
Lol… certainly not! We didn’t get along well at first. He used to yell and swear very frequently on set during PETALING STREET WARRIORS. Luckily, he didn’t really swear at me… usually at someone else, but it was quite frightening. We did argue quite a bit though, but I think that’s how it started. It’s because we talk so much to each other, we find out more things about ourselves.
11. Speaking about hearts on fire, what’s in MA YUK SING that that prompted you that this is the man you’ve been waiting for this long and that you’d totally treasure him as a life-partner?
I always thought he was a very fierce man. But he has a gentle side too. Outside of the film set, he is actually very soft- spoken, and he is very funny as well. I am very happy to be married to him. Sometimes in life, when someone comes along and tells you he’s willing to follow you forever – you know you’ve found the right man.
12. Tell us what it’s like to be happily married?
Very happy, but also very busy. Sometimes, due to our work commitments, we have to find ourselves apart for some time. But we’re used to it. Being apart helps to keep our relationship fresh I think – it keeps the spice in our marriage! We’re expecting a baby soon so we’ll have our hands full juggling our careers and family, but we’re also really excited too!
“THE IRON LADY” BAGGED YANN YANN the NTV7 GOLDEN AWARD for BEST ACTRESS in 2010.