Breaking out of the box: Yeo Yann Yann is ready for her next challenge

The Malaysian-Singaporean star of 'Invisible Stories' and 'Wet Season' talks to NME about biding her time and the physicality of her craft

Bordered by the mattes of her smartphone, Yeo Yann Yann appears as a vertical display on my screen. In this age of the pandemic, we’re communicating via Zoom – but it isn’t so much as a social distancing measure as a function of the fact that we’re not in the same country.

I’m in Singapore, and Yeo is in Taiwan to present at this year’s Golden Horse Awards. The opportunity requires a compulsory two-week quarantine, punctuated by random calls from the Taiwan Centers For Disease Control, to ascertain that she is indoors. Later on Instagram, Yeo shares a selfie she snapped while preparing for this interview. “Getting ready in my room – but later, I can’t go out,” she writes in Mandarin. “It’s almost like playing house as a kid.”

On my screen, Yeo looks younger than her age of 43. She is attired in a black top, her hair sweeping down to one side in that magical manner so it doesn’t obscure her line of sight no matter how she positions her head. She has reached the half-way point of her quarantine having whiled away the days with exercise and meditation. “Three meals a day, TV watching… I’m doing everything to kill time.”

She readily admits that it is a weird time to have an award show during a pandemic, even if Taiwan seems to have gotten the coronavirus under control. Before Singapore’s lockdown (dubbed the circuit breaker), Yeo travelled extensively to various festivals to promote her film Wet Season, the Anthony Chen-directed drama that will be the nation’s submission for the International Feature Film category at next year’s Oscars. She took to the sudden grounding with gusto, adjusting to doing everything online: she bought a selfie light for her auditions; she learned how to connect to a Zoom interview; she is her own hairstylist and make-up artist.

Yeo has also been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which a friend sent via PDF. E-reading isn’t her favourite way to read; she loves paper, the way it feels between her fingers. When she reads, she speaks the words out loud, soft utterances helping Yeo immerse in the language.

“You know how when you read fast, you miss the meaning of it? Then, when you come to the next plot point, you don’t understand how your character got to where they did and so you reread the previous passage. I find that verbalising while reading is the best way for me to take in the story.” When Yeo has a lot of lines to memorise, she likes to commit them to memory while on the move, whether in traffic or running.

Besides presenting at the Golden Horse Awards, Yeo also conducted a virtual acting masterclass. She loves sharing her experiences to help others on their journeys; after all, in her line of work, sometimes it takes “many years to understand certain things”. Yeo cites a YouTube clip of Michael Caine giving a masterclass in 1986, which she wishes she’d watched earlier, as a younger actress. “It would have saved me from hitting the wall so many times.”

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Yeo Yann Yann at the Golden Horse Awards 2020. Credit: You Wei Chen

The world has taken a beating from the pandemic – other than the rising infection rates, employment has dipped drastically. Yeo did not feel much of its sting: as a freelancer, it was normal for her to be without work for one or two months. “But it’s too long now,” she exclaims. “I miss being on set; I miss interacting with people. That’s something I miss the most.”

While she is a mainstay on the big screen, like 881, Rubbers, and Petaling Street Warriors, Yeo isn’t a stranger to the television landscape. She wants to return to it but there was never an opportune moment for it. She was approached by director Ler Jiyuan to act in Invisible Stories, his anthology series for HBO. The role was for Lian, a single mother, who has to raise her 19-year-old autistic son whose meltdowns start to intensify following the death of his grandmother, his main caregiver.

Having just wrapped her last shoot, Yeo was taking time to recover mentally and physically from her previous role. The longest period she’s needed to recuperate from a shoot was about six months – for Wet Season, where she played a teacher who forms a bond with her latchkey student.

“If I found a story that I wanted to do, I might give it my all to get the project going”

So, Yeo refused the Invisible Stories role. Even after multiple asks from the director and producer, and even after reading the script, which moved her, Yeo remained steadfast in her refusal.

Until she watched an interview by Meryl Streep, who explained how she picks her roles. “She said that she’s more drawn to a role if it gives a voice to the voiceless,” Yeo recalls. It was like a bolt from the blue. The Invisible Stories character, Lian, had very little say in society, and Yeo’s affinity for her blossomed until the actress grew confident that she could properly portray her. Yeo, while embarrassed by her many initial stubbornness with Ler, reached out to the producer instead, asking if the role was still available – and it was.

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Yeo Yann Yann in ‘Invisible Stories’. Credit: HBO Asia

People tend to go about their lives toeing the line and keeping to our lanes. Which is fine and all, but when you contain multitudes, you need to step outside of your boundaries to realise your potential.

Take Yeo Yann Yann’s childhood, for example. She grew up in Kukup, a small fishing village in the Pontian district in Johor, Malaysia. That was the entirety of her world, widened only when the family gathered around the TV at her grandmother’s house. They clustered around “the box”, as Yeo calls it, to witness the stories unfolding before them.

She recalls watching the 1986 film Teacher Chen Yi-Shin, in which the protagonist sacrificed himself to a fatal wasp attack to save his students. Yeo remembers the sadness welling up inside of her when she watched the teacher’s daughter cry after reading the eulogy at her father’s funeral.

When Yeo’s family moved to Johor Bahru, she became engaged in extra-curricular activities at school. For the school play, Yeo’s first role was a clown. With no speaking lines, Yeo had to mime the clown’s intentions. She realised that like that little girl she saw in the box many years ago, she could conjure up sorrow and other emotions that – if she did her job properly – the audience would feel as well.

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Yeo Yann Yann in ‘Ilo Ilo’ (2013). Credit: Fisheye Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

Yeo tried entering the Singaporean entertainment industry by enrolling in talent scouting show Star Search, but was eliminated in the second round. Then local theatre doyenne Kuo Pao Kun asked if she wanted to study at his acting school, the Theatre Training & Research Programme (now known as the Intercultural Theatre Institute). After she graduated, Yeo joined them as full-time staff, and went on to be cast in stage plays, TV and film. In 2013, she won a Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Anthony Chen’s directorial debut Ilo Ilo.

For her latest role in Invisible Stories, she plays Lian, a mother who pushes ahead even as she’s buffeted by financial and familial woes. In the pilot episode, Lian keeps up a brave front as she quells the outbursts of her autistic son (played by Devin Pan) and faces complaints and judgments from her neighbours. Yeo’s performance garnered her a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress at the International Emmy Awards.

Yeo worked with an autism consultant during rehearsals and shoots for Invisible Stories. The consultant, a teacher at a school for autistic children, patiently fielded questions and proffered suggestions, Yeo using each bit of information to flesh out Lian’s character. Yeo also met with some families raising autistic children.

“They were so kind to have opened their homes to me. They wanted outsiders to understand that sometimes they can’t avoid their kid’s meltdown in public. And when a passerby witnesses this and [doesn’t] understand, it adds stress on the parents and the child.”

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Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan in ‘Invisible Stories’. Credit: HBO Asia

Yeo has done her fair share of action scenes – but Invisible Stories was more physically demanding than what she’d done previously, even the role as a policewoman where she had to be kicked in the stomach and do a backflip from the impact.

“Devin, who plays my son, is strong and is two heads taller than me so he could hurt me if we didn’t communicate,” she explains. “The first day of rehearsal, I got bruises on my legs, my hands. There are scenes where Devin would bite my hand, and another that calls for him to push me to the ground. But on that day of shooting, when I tried to get up, I tripped.”

Yeo is no stranger to acting as athleticism, the kind of practice that requires you to be in peak physical condition. Studying at the Intercultural Theatre Institute in Singapore instilled in her a kind of rigour. “I remember waking up at seven; we go for Tai Chi class, we do Peking opera, Bharatnatyam,” she recalls. “We sit in for acting class and other lessons of all the other traditional art forms. And then we have our lectures to attend. Our day ends at 7pm, and then we still have practices in the evening.”

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A still from ‘West Season’. Credit: Giraffe Pictures via IMDA

Yeo has proven herself to have the range, but her recent roles all seem to embody the maternal. A consummate actor, Yeo still manages to personalise her characters, nuancing the broad strokes of the mother archetype. The recent spate of maternal roles isn’t not something that she’s too perturbed by, though she does have a theory as to why she gets these sort of roles: Films produced in Singapore and Malaysia are usually centred on family life.

Between budget constraints and prevailing narratives, these are the sort of stories that get made. Yeo can’t control the casting calls that come her way, though if she were a producer, she could create her own role. She cites her hero, Salma Hayek, who produced the film Frida in order to play the titular character. “Similarly, I think if I found a story that I wanted to do, I might give it my all to get the project going.”

“I get tired of the kind of roles I get,” Yeo muses. “Maybe I should do a different genre, but Singapore doesn’t really produce that.” She says she’d like to try something along the lines of a Chinese period drama, where she gets to wear the costumes and adopt the speaking habits of the time. The disruption of the pandemic means shooting abroad could be dicey – but Yeo is patient. She knows how to manage her time, and play the waiting game. Soon things will change, and she’ll be on to the next big thing.