The Academy Award winner previews the Disney+ action comedy series rooted in Chinese mythology: “Our culture, our heritage, is so steeped with history and beauty."

Michelle Yeoh has a production ritual.

Before filming a project, the Academy Award winner gathers with cast and crew for a blessing ceremony, joss sticks in tow, to conjure protection and prosperity for all involved. "I've worked in Hong Kong pictures in Asia and this is something that we always do without fail," Yeoh explains to EW. "It's not a religious ceremony. What it is, we are coming into your space. It's like, 'Give us your blessings, let us work here peacefully, bless everyone who is on the project, and we will not disturb you too much.'"

It's a ritual the cast and crew of the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once participated in prior to production, and aptly, it's a ritual the cast and crew of Disney+'s American Born Chinese participated in.

In the action comedy series from creator Kelvin Yu, Heaven and Earth collide. Adapted from Gene Luen Yang's acclaimed 2006 graphic novel of the same name, American Born Chinese follows teenager Jin (Ben Wang) as he juggles high school social life with home life. When he meets new student Wei-Chen (Jim Liu), he finds himself caught in a battle with Chinese mythological deities from folktales of centuries past.

American Born Chinese
Michelle Yeoh on 'American Born Chinese'
| Credit: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

It's also a gut punch meditation on Asian American identity, which resonated deeply with Yeoh, who portrays Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Wei-Chen's "auntie."

"I have a lot of younger American born Chinese friends, and I see them trying to deal with their identities: 'Am I this or am I that?'" Yeoh ruminates. "And it's very hard, especially when you think, 'I have to fit in.' It's also hard for the parents because it's like, how do I help my child fit in and not stand out in the wrong way? But what we have forgotten is we should embrace each other's differences and not be afraid to be different."

"Our culture, our heritage, is so steeped with history and beauty," Yeoh adds. "Why would we not want to learn more about it?"

The mythological figures in the series originate from stories that trace back to 16th century China — namely, Journey to the West, a novel attributed to writer, poet, and politician Wu Cheng'en. Considered a classic of Chinese literature, the text is a fictionalized account of 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang's pilgrimage to India in search of ancient scriptures. 

How 'American Born Chinese' riffs on the mythology of the Monkey King
Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh) and Wei-Chen (Jim Liu) in 'American Born Chinese.'
| Credit: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/disney

The Monkey King (played by Daniel Wu in the series) and Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) — characters that have been tirelessly adapted for the big and small screens across the east and west — are among the key players. "A lot of westerners know the story, but it's nice to draw the two worlds," Yeoh says. "You have the Goddess of Mercy, who is from Heaven, now part of Earth. I love the way our writers have brought her to a very modern place. I love the fact that we are telling these stories for friends over here that might not know."

Besides, "Who gets to play the Goddess of Mercy every day?" Yeoh quips. "It was a beautiful opportunity to show this very iconic, revered goddess that I have had in my life all my life because of my grandmother and my mom [and] give her a 21st century feel. She could be walking amongst us because she's there to hear you, to help you, and that was what I really found very compelling about this, apart from the action and all the craziness."

Yes, Yeoh's martial arts prowess is utilized in the series, which is packed with gratifying action sequences. The star says the team was very intentional when it came to crafting the martial arts scenes of Guanyin, who is, after all, the embodiment of compassion and mercy.

American Born Chinese
Michelle Yeoh and Daniel Wu on 'American Born Chinese'
| Credit: Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

"We had to be very respectful," Yeoh says. "Goddess of Mercy does not fight. She looks at you with love and compassion." In one particular showdown with Wu's Bull Demon, the antagonist charges toward the deity (olé!) and she fights back, but "to be very aware, she doesn't hit him or punch him," Yeoh notes. "This was something that we did not want the Goddess of Mercy to be doing. She's deflecting him. She's pushing him away. But at the same time, she needs to teach him a lesson or hope that she can impart a lesson on him."

The lessons the divine Guanyin imparts on Wei-Chen also help drive the series, leading to an explosive and fulfilling finale for the teens and the world at large. There is, however, one hindrance that even deities are not immune: the assemblage of IKEA furniture, which Yeoh's goddess humorously struggles with during her time on Earth. As for whether Yeoh herself is adept at the construction of those damn Swedish coffee tables, she cites her character and quips, "If she can't do it, there's no way I can do it!"

American Born Chinese premieres May 24 on Disney+. 

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