Memoirs from a geisha

Actress Michelle Yeoh on bringing a bestseller to life

The critics might have been uimpressed by the film version of Memoirs Of A Geisha, but with three Oscars to its name and a worldwide gross of $157m you won't hear director Rob Marshall moaning. As his film arrives on DVD, actress Michelle Yeoh tells Total Film how she got into character...

How much training was required before filming?
There was too little time; we wish we had more. There was about six weeks rehearsal in all, but throughout the filming we would still be practising all the different skills. It was so important as a geisha to have these tools: playing the shamisen, dancing, kneeling and pouring sake. Real geisha train their entire lives, but we only had six weeks to learn the bare essentials.

Is the film authentic or just a Hollywood vision of Japanese culture?
It was very important to give the essence. The traditional Japanese culture will always be there; this is our celebration of this art form. I don't think it is possible to be exactly faithful - things change over time - but we're accurate to the spirit of what it takes to be a geisha. It wasn't just about imitating them either; it was more about exuding. Geishas are like moving works of art; when they walk through the teahouse every eye is on them. Learning how to walk, kneel and gesture like it was second nature was quite challenging to say the least. I have great respect for women of that time; the discipline and inner strength these women had takes great commitment. It is not for us to judge what their lives were like - we live in a very different time.

How did you feel about the criticism levied against the film for having Chinese actors play Japanese characters?
We do it all the time in Asia; we play each other because we look alike, so we were a little surprised it came up. After all, this book was written by an American guy. At the end of the day it's a movie, a beautiful love story, a celebration of an amazing culture - it definitely wasn't a documentary. And a director has to choose the actors he needs.

How did the film compare to making Sunshine with Danny Boyle?
Imagine the difference - four hours of hair and make-up for Geisha, compared to five minutes in the make-up chair for Sunshine! I'm an astronaut, I'm in space; who's going to care if I have lipstick or not? But Danny is one of the most amazing filmmakers, and he's got an incredible team. When you read the script you can't be prepared for what is going to appear on the screen; the depth of their thinking, their vision, of how original it comes together. These two movies are like the sun and the moon, which is the beauty of being an actor. One day I was a geisha, the next I'm this intellectual astonaut/botanist going to save the world! This is not Star Wars, though; it's almost science fact. It's a psychological thriller set 50 years in the future about how human beings cope with being away from home...