How Donnie Yen Became One of the Greatest Martial Artists of All Time

Clara T. Fryman

Actor and martial artist Donnie Yen put in his youth in Boston, splitting his time between periods at his mother’s martial arts school, the boxing gymnasium, and lifting weights at the Chinatown Boys Club. “I was instruction to be in motion films right before I even realized it was a […]

Actor and martial artist Donnie Yen put in his youth in Boston, splitting his time between periods at his mother’s martial arts school, the boxing gymnasium, and lifting weights at the Chinatown Boys Club.

“I was instruction to be in motion films right before I even realized it was a probability,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill could not stop him from getting his instruction in. “I would be out on the road wearing boots and my winter season coat, kicking indicators and lamp posts. I would do a jump kick, then fall down to a complete break up, on ice,  just to exam how effectively my overall body was equipped to management the motion. It wasn’t just about all the kind of actions I could do, it was also about what kind of ailments I could do them underneath.”

That motivation to be a single of the upcoming good motion stars has due to the fact turn out to be actualized. Yen began his profession in Hong Kong and turned a single of the most in-need leads. The turning issue that attained him world stardom and familiarity arrived when he portrayed the famous Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Gentleman, finest recognised as Bruce Lee’s teacher, onscreen. Most not too long ago, his function as the blind struggle monk Chirrut in Rogue 1: A Star Wars Tale brought him further into the international spotlight.

Now, with Ip Gentleman 4 remaining his final kung fu motion picture, Yen demonstrates on the roadways that brought him listed here.

Men’s Journal: What was your instruction like when you have been growing up in Boston?

Donnie Yen: My mom was a martial arts master and she made use of to run a wushu school, so I began my instruction with her. But there was a fast fascination for what the overall body could transform into, as effectively as with the actual physical factor of martial arts. I was innately a curious particular person and I observed myself hungry for information on how to get much better. There wasn’t the access to information that there is now, so it was all about the place you went and what textbooks you could get your palms on.

Outside the house of your mother’s school, the place else have been you going?

I remember getting the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or more, to get out to a boxing gymnasium. There weren’t professional boxing gyms like there are now. They have been genuinely all for respectable fighters and trainers getting prepared to compete. But I observed my way into a single and began to get to know the fighters who permit me into the neighborhood. I was a peculiar sight there—this skinny Asian kid—but they would maintain the bag for me and educate me matters. I put in months there. Searching back, it was kind of a ridiculous working experience.

I received into bodybuilding as effectively since of the Rocky films and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my initially exposure to looking at a physique like that as a key character—and it was superhuman. I preferred to put on muscle mass since I was a tiny slim. I observed out there was a Nautilus device at the Chinatown Boys Club, so I would go there right after all of my marital arts and boxing. I would just expend hours instruction in there and lifting weights.

There are some rather ridiculous films of the workouts you did. Where have been those people routines coming from?

That was when I was hoping to get into motion-star shape. I was hoping to be a “complete deal,” who not only appeared the aspect but also experienced this martial arts information. I took those people routines from books—from whichever Arnold and Sly Stallone have been carrying out. I also incorporated some outdated-school Shaolin instruction and also a tiny inspiration from what Bruce Lee did.

Where did the willpower to do all of that occur from?

I was just relentless in my pursuit to be as fantastic as I could be. I would established insane aims for myself. For illustration, I would problem myself to do ten,000 facet kicks on the hanging bag, and put it in my notebook. So I would be expending just hours carrying out facet kicks, and at the close of the day I would generate down, having said that a lot of hundred kicks it was. By the time I achieved ten,000 kicks those people facet kicks have been so solid. There have been many situations when I ripped major luggage off the wall—maybe about ten situations. I would go into boxing gyms and eventually I would kick their major bag off the ceiling.

How did you take that basis and adapt it to performing in motion cinema?

I made use of that enthusiasm for understanding into each and every task. To start with, I would intensely examine the style that my character is supposed to be effectively-versed in. Then I’d provide in experts and consultants to assistance me provide the finest variation of it onscreen. On leading of that, I was always looking for new designs and approaches I could provide into films on my personal.

Do you remember an illustration of that?

I remember when mixed martial arts competitions and cage fights have been initially coming on the scene—before and through the early levels of the UFC. I was in Hong Kong and I would run all around in all places hoping to discover techniques to enjoy the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was typically interested in looking at the Gracies, and what they have been carrying out with jiu jitsu. At the time I observed it, I realized I experienced to put it in my films. I was a single of the initially individuals to provide it into the cinema in Asia.

How did you experience when the Ip Gentleman function arrived to you?

I was portraying an historic practitioner—not to point out a revered figure, further than remaining the teacher of Bruce Lee—so I labored with Wing Chun experts for about three months. I put in hours breaking down moves and thoughts. It’s not possible for anybody to recognize every little thing there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] stage. I would have experienced to examine for decades with no other obligations. [All I could] do was test to recognize what I could of the philosophies and establish on the basis I have developed in excess of the yrs of several martial arts designs. I do not think this function could genuinely be accomplished by another person with no that [current] information of martial arts.

Over and above the instruction, how did you prepare?

I experienced a responsibility to portray this particular person at the finest of my potential, even although there have been some fictional factors of the tale. Over and above the consistent instruction I was carrying out, I put in a great deal of time meditating on him and what he completed. I would discover audio that I felt represented him. I put a great deal of examine time into getting to know the male further than the legend.

How did you experience when it was so effectively gained?

I experienced no concept the motion picture would do as effectively as it did. I remember when it arrived out, it adjusted my profession a great deal, but it also hit large in mainland China. That experienced an exciting impact since the Wing Chun style experienced began to turn out to be common all in excess of the globe since of Bruce Lee, but unusually wasn’t as common in the several provinces of China. Within the place, martial arts are incredibly regional, and the motion picture was a way for the style to transcend that.

I have heard that 1000’s of individuals have began to follow Wing Chun since of the motion picture, and that is surreal to me. I have experienced a lot of Wing Chun practitioners strategy me to explain to me the affect it is experienced on their lessons. I was just hoping to do the male justice, and we observed ourselves revitalizing the acceptance of the system in a way, which is a good honor.

Was there a moment through the series that is especially unforgettable?

Going up against Mike Tyson in the 3rd film was incredibly fascinating for me. I’m a substantial admirer of him as a fighter, but having him in the motion picture also proved an exciting problem for me, since I experienced to maintain my personal against him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Gentleman character in the way that he fights. That was a incredibly uncommon problem.

How was planning for this very last Ip Gentleman motion picture distinctive from preceding types?

I experienced of program by now founded the instruction program and follow major into the initially motion picture. This very last film was more about the male and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I preferred to do appropriate by the enthusiasts as considerably as closure. This preparing was fewer about remaining explosive and intense, since Wing Chun is a more graceful martial artwork. It’s a incredibly distinctive style than what we typically see in motion films these days. I relished the preparing, understanding this was going to be the very last a single. I permit every little thing else circulation absent and just took the working experience in.

What was the most difficult ingredient of portraying Ip Gentleman?

There is good problem in transitioning between the forms of roles I participate in. Going from an all-out brawler who just desires to inflict hurt to a peaceful martial arts grandmaster can be a great deal. 1 day I’m on the established of XXX with Vin Diesel, wearing my leather-based jacket, carrying out my a single-two-three mixtures and jump spin back kicks, and the upcoming I’m in my classic gown taking part in Ip Gentleman. I have to expend time instruction, but also get my intellect into the appropriate place for [the function]. It can take some time.

How do you retain your baseline physical fitness?

I am always getting treatment of my overall body, via instruction and solutions of restoration. These times I target on stretching to retain myself as flexible as probable, since that is of upmost worth with the kind of motion I’m carrying out. As you get more mature, you are in danger of losing adaptability and getting damage. I do not do major weights at all any more, it just isn’t needed for me to keep solid in the way I want. I target on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the combat instruction I’m always carrying out.

You are taking part in a common in the future Mulan. How did you experience about the actual physical factor of that function?

Absolutely everyone in the film went via months of instruction to prepare for their roles. My character is fantastic with his sword and a master of tai chi. I was honored the director and producing staff members appeared to have respect for my profession and what I have accomplished so considerably. When I arrived to the established, the stunt and martial arts coordinators have been great with me incorporating my personal take on the choreography they put collectively.

What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?

I only did two normally takes. I felt fantastic about the initially a single and they did as effectively, but we made the decision to do another a single. The actions for the two have been distinctive, and I do not think I could recreate them since that artwork is so a lot about remaining in the moment. I do not do tai chi a great deal, but I do actually delight in it. There is another stage of connectivity there—being in tune with your overall body in an elevated feeling. My mom is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a awesome complete circle ingredient to that scene, too.


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