Is Michelle Yeoh a Christmas person? “Huge,” says the Last Christmas star, with an emphasis I can feel through the phone line. “If I could have my Christmas tree up all year round, I would do it. I have a playlist on my phone.” Hearing Yeoh in raptures over “White Christmas” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” one might think she’s exactly like her character in the romantic comedy: Santa (yes, Santa), the proprietor of a Christmas store (again, yes) stuffed with so many yuletide offerings it would be alarming if not curated with passion and elegance.
But Yeoh draws the line there. While the actress, whom audiences will recognize from signature roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, cackles over various subjects with glee, Santa eschews humor and frivolity, staying single-minded about her business (and Christmas). It seems Santa has never laughed in her life—she’s curt with employee Kate (Emilia Clarke), calling her simply “elf.” Although, when said elf is constantly turning up late to work and getting distracted from her job by personal dilemmas, perhaps that’s fair enough: “Any boss would have thrown the elf on her butt onto the street, right?” says Yeoh, with no small measure of incredulity. “The atrocious things that she would do!” But Christmas spirit and the inevitable connections between people with hearts of gold intervene, and Santa’s softer side emerges.
Yeoh spoke to Vogue about how Paul Feig convinced her to take her first comedy role, running into Crazy Rich Asians costar Henry Golding on set, and the Christmas food she absolutely cannot abide.
Santa is a very different character for you—Crazy Rich Asians’s Eleanor is scary, and you’re obviously fierce in your action roles. With Santa, we find out she has a very giggly, flirty side, which we’ve never seen you do before.
I know! I have never done that before. I didn’t think I had it in me to do that, to be honest. I was thinking, This is going to be very, very embarrassing. But I have to thank Paul Feig. I mean, he was adamant when he called me. He said, “You have to be my Santa.” And I go, “I don’t do ho, ho, ho. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And he says, “No, you are perfect for Santa: She’s funny, she’s elegant, she has the best store in Covent Garden, and, you know, it’s written by Emma Thompson....” I was like, Oh my God. It was so sweet because he told everyone I was the first person he cast.
I was like, “I’ve never done comedy before. You realize that, right?“ And he goes, “You’ll be wonderful.” And, you know, I always say I want to try something new. I was given an opportunity, and I had to take it because it was a challenge, and I’m glad I did. I had so much fun.
Was there anything that helped with your first stab at comedy? Or did you take to it easier than you thought you would?
Oh, no, I sweated bricks, man, before I actually embarked on the role. I was very, very serious with myself and sat myself down and said, You better think this through; how do you make this character be that lovable, that funny? And it was work. It really was. I’m going to pat myself on the shoulder.
But having Emma explain where the character was inspired from [was helpful]: her daughter-in-law, who is an immigrant from China and who worked very hard to be very successful in what she does. There are so many immigrants in our film, and they all have difficulties that they have to face to try to make a better life for themselves and for their families. And Santa is one of the success stories, right? But it didn’t come easy.
People were probably hoping that you would have some scenes with Henry Golding, your erstwhile Crazy Rich Asians son, but you don’t. Did you run into him on set?
Yes, and unfortunately not for very long because I came right at the end of the shooting. They had shot everything outdoors, and mine was really the last part where we were all indoors in my store, and he spent a couple of days in my store. So we didn’t have scenes together, but we were in each other’s presence, which is always very nice.
Santa has a suitor, played by Peter Mygind. They’re clearly entranced by each other, and it’s so funny to watch. One line is particularly hilarious, about a hideous Christmas gibbon figurine. How many times did you laugh while doing that scene?
Oh, I swear to God, Peter and I had this connection. It was hysterical. We would look into each other’s eyes, and everybody could be killing themselves laughing. And we would be dead serious. We went into our own little universe. No, we were very, very serious about it—there was no laughing or goofing around. But I think what got me was the sauerkraut Christmas tree [he gave her]. When he brought that out, I took one look at it and went, “No way, man.” That was the one that really got me. It’s like, would you give anybody something like that?
I mean, Santa has a lot of very weird things in that shop...
Like that creepy little baby doll.
You know why? Because she believes everybody’s taste is different. Not all the people who walk through the doors will be looking for the same thing, and she will always want to be able to have something for everyone. And that was what I loved about her character.
And are you buying yourself anything special for Christmas?
I have been filming a lot away from home this year. So the minute I finish, I will dash home to be with my family and be surrounded by Christmas trees and Christmas cheer.
What about other gifts?
Yes. You know how we always say, okay, no gifts this year, and then...I can’t look at a kid’s face and go, “No Christmas gift.” It’s like, “Of course I have a Christmas gift for you.” Sometimes we have to do it the Chinese way: “I’ll just give you cash, okay? How about that?”
Is there anything you love to eat at Christmas?
As long as it’s not turkey. Not doing that. No, no, no.
Not a turkey person?
[Emphatically] No. I’m just not. I know it’s supposed to be healthy and lean. I think probably that’s the reason why. [Laughs]
So you’d prefer something else?
Yeah. Anything. We always have a feast. You know, the Chinese, we have so many things on the table. So it’s about being together and dining and wining and laughing. Just hanging out! That’s the most important thing. Who cares about that turkey?
Originally Appeared on Vogue