That’s Dr. Michelle Yeoh, to you.
The actress added a new title to her resume on Saturday when she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by the American Film Institute at the film school’s class of 2022 commencement ceremony. Yeoh’s Everything Everywhere All At Once directors The Daniels (AKA Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) were on hand to present her with the honor at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre.
Of their recent collaboration, “I think we underestimated just how risky the script was for her,” Scheinert said during the pair’s introduction speech. “We’d find ourselves on set and and see Michelle putting her wiggly hot dog fingers covered with condiments into Jamie Lee Curtis’ mouth — if you haven’t seen our movie, that happens in our movie — and we were like, ‘That’s brave.’”
“We’ve seen her, obviously, like do a motorcycle jump onto a moving train and that’s really cool,” added Kwan, but, Scheinert was quick to interject, “I think what she did in our movie is braver.”
Kwan also teased that “every few weeks while we were shooting, she’d turned to us and say, ‘If this movie doesn’t turn out good, I’m going to have to kill you both.’ We’re still here! It’s a testament to the hard work of our collaborators who helped us that we’re still alive.” After a highlight reel of her work, the directors brought Yeoh to the stage with the declaration, “Dr. Michelle Yeoh!”
“You have made my mother the happiest mother in the world today,” the star said upon being bestowed with the doctorate. “I think now she actually thinks I’m an adult with a real job. I had to keep telling her, ‘I’m not a real doctor, I don’t write prescriptions, mom.’ But she can go around telling everyone, ‘My daughter is a doctor.’”
Yeoh reflected on her Hollywood journey in her speech, beginning as a ballet dancer before her career was derailed by injury and she decided to pivot into Hong Kong action cinema. She started training at a gym with stuntmen to learn the tricks of the trade, and eventually realized that they were just teaching her how to fall.
“I was convinced I was being pranked. I was like, ‘When do I get to do the real stuff: the jumping kick, the roundhouse kick?’” Yeoh remembered. “And they said to me, ‘How are you going to go up if you don’t know how to come down?’ That lesson sticks with me to this day. I had to learn how to fall.”
The star said she was injured several times early in her acting career, but those moments taught her perseverance, grit and humility.
“After I learned how to fall, I could learn how to fly,” Yeoh said, before telling the crowd of graduating students, “what I want to share with you today is that our slips and stumbles are the secrets to our flight. Every person who has ever stepped on the stage has had their fair share of crashes. Trust me, that’s part of the deal. Success without failure is called luck.”
She also put out a call to action to the young filmmakers, noting that the entertainment industry today is much different than when she started.
“We are witnessing a profound shift — greater inclusion, more diverse stories, wider access and unlimited global reach. We have shown in our work and at the box office that we are ready for the opportunities and we deserve more,” Yeoh said. “But inclusion is not a destination, it is a never-ending journey. There is always more we can do to improve our storytelling and it is up to you, the next generation of filmmakers, to keep that momentum going.”
“Telling stories is a privilege none of us should take for granted,” she continued. “We are time travelers, world builders, change-makers. A scene you shoot on an average Tuesday may seed the dreams of a young child somewhere far away, inspire a future superstar or even begin an important conversation in our society.”
She closed with some words of advice: “Be courageous. Take chances. Break barriers. Be proud of what makes you unique. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to fall because you are learning to fly.”
A second honorary degree was also awarded during the commencement ceremony to AFI Trustee Emeritus Lawrence Herbert — the inventor of a variety of color systems who joined the AFI Board of Trustees in 1987 and served until 2017. He also made possible the 2020 establishment of the Lawrence Herbert Alumni Center on the AFI campus. Herbert was presented with a Doctorate of Communication Arts.