‘Everything Everywhere’ star Michelle Yeoh on her historic Oscar nomination: ‘How can I be the first?’

With Oscar voting underway right now, Best Actress contender Michelle Yeoh is making her case for what would be an historic win. The “Everything Everywhere All At Once” star made a couple of high-profile media appearances this week, first appearing on the cover of PEOPLE magazine and then also as a guest on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

Speaking to PEOPLE, Yeoh discussed the challenges she faced early in her career – particularly following her American breakout opposite Pierce Brosnan in the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies.”

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“At that point, people in the industry couldn’t really tell the difference between whether I was Chinese or Japanese or Korean or if I even spoke English,” she told the publication. “They would talk very loudly and very slow.”

Yeoh said in those days she was often offered roles that adhered to offensive cliches about people of Asian descent. “I didn’t work for almost two years, until ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ simply because I could not agree with the stereotypical roles that were put forward to me,” she said.

Yeoh made Oscars history this year as the first Best Actress nominee to publicly identify as Asian. (Merle Oberon, who was a nominee in 1936 for “The Dark Angel,” was of South Asian descent but hid her ancestry.) Speaking to PEOPLE, Yeoh said the recognition she has received this year has been overwhelming. “You go from shock to bewilderment,” she said of the attention she’s received thanks to “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” “’Wow, is it me? How can it be me?’ Because I’ve worked with so many amazing actresses who should have had this privilege, and so I am very grateful to be given the opportunity to sit at the table and to be seen.”

In a sit-down interview with Stephen Colbert on Wednesday night, Yeoh echoed those statements while specifically discussing her Oscar nomination.

“You fluctuate between feeling very shocked and very overwhelmed with joy, but thinking, ‘How can I be the first?’ Because I know of so many amazing actresses and actors where we’ve stood on their shoulders, and now so many beside me and more ahead of me,” she said. “So I would love to see [the lack of award recognition for Asian actors] be a thing of the past, where this is a norm that you see faces like ours up there being nominated and being given equal opportunity to play those roles.”

Yeoh is locked into a battle with Cate Blanchett for Best Actress at the 2023 Oscars and each star has won significant precursor honors. Blanchett took home Best Actress at the BAFTA Awards and Critics Choice Awards, while Yeoh won Best Actress at the SAG Awards. Both performers won at the Golden Globes, albeit in different categories – Blanchett in Best Drama Actress, Yeoh in Best Comedy/Musical Actress.

Oscar voting is happening right now. The 2023 Oscars take place on March 12.

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