Michelle Yeoh immersed herself in the life of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi for The Lady and persuaded Luc Besson to direct.

“I knew in my guts this was my baby and I knew I would do my best to make it happen,” says Michelle Yeoh of The Lady, in which she plays Burma’s revered dissident leader.

Over the course of a career spanning nearly three decades, the Malaysia-born star has displayed charm, sensuality and remarkable physical prowess in such hits as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sunshine and Tomorrow Never Dies. But the impulse to do something more profound kept nagging away. For years she had wanted to portray an iconic female figure so in 2007, when Rebecca Frayn sent her a script about Aung San Suu Kyi, Yeoh saw her chance.

“Like a lot of people, I knew of Aung San Suu Kyi because she’s one of the very few female icons of our time,” says Yeoh. “She had won the Nobel Peace Prize so I knew about her, but I didn’t know [much more than that] and when I read the script I was shocked that I hadn’t done this before. Who else is there in our contemporary times, especially for an Asian role? All the other iconic figures are Caucasian. There are historical characters, sure, but not of our time really… I hope we will find more.”

The actress flew to London to meet Frayn and her husband, producer Andy Harries (The Queen, The Damned United). Her passion revived a project the couple had nurtured for years. They had previously obtained approval from Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis in the film), an Oxford don who lived with his two sons and had not seen his wife for years. He died in 1999.

Yeoh persuaded her friend Luc Besson to direct. Besson’s EuropaCorp also joined the project as a producer, alongside Harries’ Left Bank Pictures and France 2 Cinéma. EuropaCorp holds international rights, while Cohen Media Group holds US rights.

The Lady covers 1988-99, a tumultuous period in which Kyi returns from Oxford to her homeland, accepts leadership of the National League For Democracy (NLD), defies the junta led by the murderous General Ne Win and ends up under house arrest.

The picture shot in Thailand and Besson filmed secret footage in Burma, which despite a regime change remains inhospitable. “It was never about making her a saint,” Yeoh says. “We wanted you to see the human drama of this family and we weren’t trying to demonise the junta. Ne Win was what he was — a superstitious, greedy dictator.”

Yeoh wanted to cover all her bases, so she read everything she could about Kyi, pored over more than 200 hours of footage, walked the streets of Oxford and met people who remembered the gentle Burmese lady from 20 years earlier. She also studied the pro-democracy speeches and immersed herself in intensive Burmese language lessons.

The on-screen resemblance to Kyi is uncanny — Yeoh recalls how Burmese refugees working as extras on the film were dumbfounded when she walked on set — and the actress imbues her portrayal with grace and quiet resolve.

The address at Shwedagon Pagoda was a critical scene. “It’s the first time she meets with the people to convince them she will always be Burmese and will lead them in a non-violent fight,” says Yeoh. By all accounts Yeoh nailed it, reducing to tears an extra who years earlier had stood in the crowd and watched Kyi rally her people.

Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010 and remains in Burma, where she is trying to revive the NLD.

Yeoh, meanwhile, managed to obtain a visitor’s visa and travelled to meet Kyi. “I went into this room and it was wall-to-wall with books and these paintings she’d done — she’s amazing,” says Yeoh. “Then I turned around and there she was. She just opened her arms and gave me the biggest hug. She was apologising about the mess. I was so nervous before I met her. She’s been so inspirational, and possibly I have never been so impressed by someone.”