Doing Well By Doing Good: An Interview with Michelle Yeoh, International Actress and UNDP Goodwill Ambassador

I met Michelle and her husband, Jean, at a dinner a few months ago at a very close friend's home. While I was explaining what we were doing at Epic Foundation, I realized how well informed she was about social good.
07/25/2016 02:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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I met Michelle and her husband, Jean, at a dinner a few months ago at a very close friend's home. While I was explaining what we were doing at Epic Foundation, I realized how well informed she was about social good. The vision I had of this famous international actress was not accurate. Michelle is using her tremendous success as an influencer to drive more attention to the causes she supports.

You are an advocate for a number of social causes, from pursuing gender equality to poverty eradication. In an interview with Star 2, you mentioned that your charitable nature was instilled in you at a very young age. How so?

Ever since we were kids, our parents instilled in us the virtues of sharing and giving. It was part of our life growing up. If we received cash as a gift, we would put aside a sum of that money to share with someone else. When we came across people in need, we were taught to give, to help. It was just that way, and there was no expectation of getting anything back - it was simply about giving.

When I moved to Hong Kong to act in movies, I got a first-hand introduction to philanthropy. I encountered people who were doing well in life, who had a deep desire to give back to society, to do social good. They would organize events to raise funds, and they opened their wallets as well as their hearts, to share with those who were not as privileged.

You've amassed such an impressive and loyal following from your films. In order to become such an acclaimed actress and filmmaker, what sort of challenges did you come across and how did you overcome them?

When I started out, acting was a job. But very soon it became a passion. The challenge about acting is that there are no off days, no breaks. You have to make sure that you give everything, you give your best, because when you are done there is no going back. In a way, your performance is immortalized, you cannot rewrite history, you cannot redo it.

In the movie industry you are always facing hurdles, but one has to look at the challenges as learning opportunities, not as hardship.

A big challenge for me was getting into action films. At that time, I was stepping into the golden era of action films dominated by men. In those movies, the male heroes were protecting the weaker sex. When I asked to turn the tables, to alter a tried and tested narrative, some of my biggest champions were the guys, they lent a helping hand and built the platform that helped me along my way.

And there were the associated challenges in having a female action star: would the audience accept a woman as an action star, would women be able to do the physically demanding scenes?

At the end of the day, we overcame the challenges, and it all came together.

Despite a severe spine injury in your youth, you became Asia's top female action stars and learned many forms of martial arts during your acting career. What propels your strength and perseverance to overcoming challenges? Do you draw parallels between "fighting the bad guys" and "fighting for justice"?

When you believe in what you do, you find the strength to persevere. When I work, I believe I have to be the best I can be.

When you fight the bad guys in movies, you are fighting for good, and consequently you are fighting for justice. So there definitely are parallels.

I also find the strength to do my best because I want to give back to the people who have had faith in me. My parents, my extended family, people who have given me the opportunity to do what I do, who have taught me and supported me, and helped to get to where I am today.

From the time we are born, someone is giving us a helping hand. People have reached out and given me opportunities, and in turn one has to reach out and give back to others.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned so far as an internationally acclaimed actress and global advocate?

It is hard to point to any one particular lesson, because there are so many significant lessons that you learn as you go through life. I find that I am always learning. From my parents, in my career, and in the social causes that I support one of the key lessons I have learned is to be grateful for the opportunities that life has given me.

While I see different sides of life working in the movie industry, the social work I am engaged in brings me in touch with a very different world. I am humbled by those experiences. For instance, people who have so little, yet give so much; the struggles of women everywhere, who persist despite immense challenges; the joy in the eyes of children, who in spite of the poverty they live in, find happiness in small things.

The lesson is those examples is the resilience of human spirit -- that no matter who you are, or where you live -- life is what you make of it.

At Epic Foundation, we are advocating for the 1% pledge where every single corporation should give 1% of its profit to social causes. What do you think of this movement?

I believe that whether you give personal time or money, any support for social good, benefits us all. Contributions from the private sector, foundations, or individuals can make a big difference in combatting development issues.

Such contributions will be pivotal in helping meet the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs that were adopted by world leaders last year. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development underlines the vital role of philanthropy, in helping reduce poverty, inequality, and in fighting climate change.

Philanthropy and corporate social responsibility represent an enormous opportunity for the development world. Money given to social causes can help fund innovative solutions to the world's most stubborn development challenges, such as poverty and hunger.

Finally, do you think that by doing good, you're more successful?

From the time I was young I believed in doing social good -- not for success -- but because I wanted my life to be more meaningful.

In whatever I do, in my movies; the social causes I support; or now as the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme; I always hope that have a positive impact on people's lives.

Even in the movies, most of my roles illustrate the power of good over evil. Stories that are didactic that display courage, honor, and kindness. That goodness and success come from and doing the right despite the odds. If success comes along the way while one is doing good, one should take that as a huge bonus.