In two of her more well-known films – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tomorrow Never Dies – actress Michelle Yeoh dismantles opponents with a dazzling mixture of stunts and martial arts. Though Yeoh’s off-set work as the global ambassador for the Make Roads Safe campaign may not be as glamorous, advocates hope that by putting a recognisable face to an often obscure issue, they can help combat a crisis that leads to the deaths of 671,000 people every year in the Asia-Pacific region, half of the global toll. Yeoh was in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to raise awareness about helmet use and to shoot part of a documentary on road safety. The Post’s Joe Freeman sat down with her to talk about celebrity ambassadorships, Cambodia’s lawless roads and why she’ll never get on a motorbike.
Q&A with Michelle Yeoh, actor and road safety ambassador
You led a helmet drive this morning at a local school, was that also part of what you were filming?
We did both. We always do that. We try to launch an initiative that creates awareness while we are in that country. And today was so well attended. The initiative is ‘safe head, one helmet’. I think when you teach a child from a young age that this is the right thing to do – when you wake up, you brush your teeth, that’s hygienic. When you wear your clothes you button them the right way. And then if you go out on a motorbike, which here I guess the motorbike is almost like the little car, with the family, you have to wear helmets. And we hope that, in turn, the kids will turn around and tell their parents – don’t forget to wear your helmets!
You were here four years ago? See any change?
You see changes, definitely. An incredible increase in motorisation. Here, there’s like a constant flow of cars, motorcycles, but unfortunately I haven’t seen the difference of everybody wearing their helmets.
Have you ever driven around here in anything other than a car? Have you ever got on a motorbike?
Do you think I’m mad? I might do super stunts in the films, okay, but I do not do that. I mean even crossing the road, because we filmed at the intersection, and you almost feel that: do they actually look at the lights that are changing? It’s almost going to change so I better speed up and go! And even when it’s stopped, they don’t stop, right?
There are celebrity ambassadors for a variety of issues. Why did you pick road safety, or why did road safety pick you?
Well they picked me in the first place. They asked me to come over. Don’t laugh, because at that time every time I said I’m going to advocate for road safety, people would go, road safety? What’s road safety? And I actually had some university student who turned around and said well I don’t drive a car so it doesn’t concern me. They don’t understand that the problem is so big. It’s one of the top five killers. And the rest are all diseases. This is the only one that is human-made in a sense.
Do you think you’ve become more interested?
I would not endorse something that I did not do research about. And when you know the statistics, it’s like you cannot turn away from it. You have to do something. A lot of celebrities, we lend our voices, there’s an awareness because of our visibility, so we shine the spotlight on causes.
How do people respond to your road safety advocacy?
It’s like with any cause, when you recognise the face, you just stop that little second to listen a little bit more, because you know who that person is. And then once you have a message and you can get that across to them, then they get it, then they understand why you were so passionate about it. I think we pause people for a quick second, and then they go “okay, what are you trying to tell me?”
Would you ever consider making a dramatic film to broaden out the issue more for people?
That’s not easy. How many road crashes can you show in one and a half hours of film? People get numb to it. But you see it a lot in the TV series, or in the movies, where they do mention it. They make a point of it nowadays because it seems that it is a part of their lives that they have to be aware of, that they can’t just take for granted and be blasé about.
Interview edited for length and clarity.