The epic, action-packed science-fiction adventure Everything Everywhere All At Once transcends time and space and leaps across multiple universes. With so much happening — one could say, so much happening everywhere, all at once — it’s prime for a breakdown of what’s going on. And who better to take us on a tour of the multiverse than the center of it herself, longtime martial-artist superstar Michelle Yeoh?
Yeoh stars as Evelyn, an ordinary woman who’s just trying to get through an IRS audit of the family laundromat. Her marriage with Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is struggling, and her relationships with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her father (James Hong) are both strained. During an IRS appointment, Evelyn is suddenly sucked into a universe-hopping escapade.
Across different realities and radically different possible lives, Yeoh carries Evelyn through her own emotional journey. Yeoh sat down with Polygon to dive into some of her favorites among these alternate timelines and lifetimes, and to share some insight on what it was like wriggling hot-dog fingers in Jamie Lee Curtis’ face.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers ahead for Everything Everywhere All At Once.]
Evelyn’s movie-star universe
One of the first alternate timelines in the movie presents the life Evelyn would’ve lived if she hadn’t run off to America with Waymond when they were both young. After rejecting Waymond (and being mugged by one of the directors in a cameo appearance), alternate-Evelyn trains in martial arts and becomes a successful action star, rising to international fame in the movie industry. The parallels between Evelyn in this particular world and the real-life Michelle Yeoh are clear, but even though writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert intended it as a cheeky metatextual nod, Yeoh was insistent that they keep the character Evelyn separate from herself as an actress.
“When the Daniels started, they always wrote [her] name as Michelle Wang,” explains Yeoh. “And I said no, right from the get-go. She is not called Michelle because [...] Evelyn deserves her own story to be told. This is a very ordinary mother [and] housewife who is trying her best to be a good mother to her daughter, a good daughter to her father, a wife that’s trying to keep the family together [...] I don’t like to integrate me, Michelle Yeoh, into the characters that I play, because they all deserve their own journey and their stories to be told.”
Evelyn’s journey grapples not just with the multiverse and the forces of nihilism, but also with her splintering relationships and the constant battle of “what-ifs” she feels within herself. When presented with a version of herself with fame, fortune, and renown, Evelyn is initially drawn to the success she could’ve had if she had just said no to Waymond all those years ago.
“She became a big movie actress, she became very glamorous,” Yeoh says. “But then she lost the things that she loved. She doesn’t have a family. And the worst, she doesn’t have a daughter.”
The hot-dog-finger universe
“Honestly, the truth is, when I first read it, I said, Well, I’m gonna have to find some way to tell these two boys that’s going out of the script,” Yeoh laughs. In this universe, human evolution took a drastically different turn, for reasons also covered with a director’s cameo. Every person in that world has long, rubbery hot dogs for fingers. “[I had] no idea what they’re even talking about — mustard splurting out [of] hot-dog fingers in mouths, like Nuh-uh, no no.”
And those rubbery hot dog appendages weren’t green-screen graphics — they were very, very real. Yeoh says any use of CG in Everything Everywhere was meant to enhance footage, not to create new elements. The hot-dog fingers were made for the actors.
“I had to stick my hand into this tub of wax, and I had hickeys on my knuckles,” she says. “Because they got sucked in and wouldn’t come out. And I was thinking, No! I’m gonna have to walk around for the rest of my life with this tub at the end of my hand!”
In the hot-dog finger universe, Evelyn is romantically involved with Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), the IRS agent who is investigating her in Evelyn’s original universe. The movie shows glimpses of their intimate relationship, pretty standard and normal scenes of a couple falling in and out of love, except with hot-dog fingers wriggling around. In the hot-dog universe, passion is expressed by people shoving those fingers into each other’s mouths, in a kind of dance performance.
“When you do a dance like that, you need a fearless partner,” says Yeoh, referring to Curtis’ undaunted approach to the scene. “You both have to look at each other and go, Here come those hot-dog hands! We literally improvised this dance with each other.”
But even the best partner doesn’t quell the initial anxiety of performing an erotic hot-dog-finger dance.
“Before you do it, you have so many weird thoughts,” recounts Yeoh. “How is it going to work out? You know, it’s going to be so embarrassing. I have not been embarrassed in, like — I’ve managed to keep it together for 30-something years in the business. Am I just gonna lose it right now?”
As absurd as the hot-dog dance is, the moment when Evelyn and Deirdre perform it is almost bittersweet. It speaks to the strength of these two actors, to be able to imbue gravitas into an act that was designed to be absolutely ridiculous.
“You feel the love of these two,” says Yeoh. “So that’s why it doesn’t become just silly. You want it to happen. You want to see the evolution of this relationship. Because they are going through pain and breakup. And then them coming together is like breakup sex.”
Harry Shum Jr.’s big-secret universe
This universe finds Evelyn working as a hibachi chef alongside Chad (Glee’s Harry Shum Jr.). Evelyn’s boss tells her to step up her pace, because her chef skills are slacking and Chad is stealing the show. But chef-Evelyn walks in on Chad in the kitchen and finds that beneath his hat, he’s being controlled by a singing, cooking raccoon, in a parody of Pixar’s Ratatouille.
“[Harry Shum Jr.] is so brilliant with his body language, with that little raccoon,” says Yeoh. “It looked like a real raccoon. It scared the hell out of me the first time I saw it, and then when he’s doing that, Oh, I’m being controlled by this raccoon, ahhh!, we had so much fun. Because it was a real sort of robot [animatronic] on his head, and it was pulling, and someone was controlling its mouth. It looks so freaking real. It was scary.”
It’s also one of the movie’s most hilarious and satisfying long cons, because earlier in the real world, Evelyn tries to explain the whole multiverse-hopping conundrum to her family by equating it to Ratatouille — only she confuses the rat for a raccoon, and calls it “Racca-coony.” Acting alongside an animatronic raccoon really tested Yeoh’s acting chops, but she says the scene where Evelyn explains the plot of Racca-coony was a particularly satisfying challenge for her.
“I don’t do comedy! I don’t do stand-up comedy. I don’t do it!” she laughs. “There’s no ego in this room. Everybody is allowed to be completely silly and wacky. That was the beauty about that, to be free of thinking, Oh, this, it could look weird. It’s like, let it be weird and wonderful.”
The universe where life doesn’t exist
Out of all the chaotic universes present in Everything Everywhere All At Once, Yeoh is drawn to one in particular: the universe where life never manifested, and Evelyn and her daughter take the form of simple rocks staring out onto a canyon.
“I love the rock universe,” says Yeoh. “And I want to take credit for this. Because I told the Daniels, Don’t make us do voiceovers for the rocks. It has to be silent, right? You hear the wind and all that. And they were so ingenious in putting the [makes a TCK-TCK-TCK noise] when the words came out. I thought that was brilliant.”
Some of the movie’s most pivotal conversations happen between the rock versions of Evelyn and Joy, all through onscreen text as the wind whistles around them. It’s the perfect pause in the movie, which punctuates the points with even more precision and profundity.
“The movie is fast and furious and chaotic,” Yeoh says. “It’s like pop art and pop music and all these things happening at the same time. But it’s also very much the world that you [millennials] all are used to — with the internet, the overload of information. And then suddenly from there, you jump to the rock universe, it’s like, Okay, we can all breathe together now. That stillness, I think, makes the chaos even more pronounced. The beauty of it when you come out of the cinema and you think, Look around us, it’s so chaotic the whole time. So we have to be able to take a step back and say, How do we heal ourselves? How do we make this work out? You need to reflect upon it, and you need to do it together.”