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

Actor and martial artist Donnie Yen expended his youth in Boston, splitting his time amongst sessions at his mother’s martial arts college, the boxing health club, and lifting weights at the Chinatown Boys Club.

“I was coaching to be in action motion pictures before I even realized it was a chance,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill could not reduce him from receiving his coaching in. “I would be out on the road putting on boots and my winter season coat, kicking symptoms and lamp posts. I would do a jump kick, then fall down to a full break up, on ice,  just to check how properly my system was capable to control the motion. It wasn’t just about all the form of actions I could do, it was also about what form of ailments I could do them less than.”

That drive to be a single of the future excellent action stars has considering the fact that come to be actualized. Yen begun his profession in Hong Kong and turned a single of the most in-desire potential customers. The turning stage that acquired him international stardom and familiarity came when he portrayed the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Person, very best recognized as Bruce Lee’s trainer, onscreen. Most just lately, his purpose as the blind struggle monk Chirrut in Rogue 1: A Star Wars Tale brought him more into the worldwide highlight.

Now, with Ip Person four being his ultimate kung fu film, Yen demonstrates on the roadways that brought him below.

Men’s Journal: What was your coaching like when you ended up escalating up in Boston?

Donnie Yen: My mother was a martial arts master and she used to operate a Wishu college, so I begun my coaching with her. But there was a rapid fascination for what the system could convert into, as properly as with the bodily aspect of martial arts. I was innately a curious individual and I observed myself hungry for understanding on how to get more powerful. There wasn’t the entry to information that there is now, so it was all about the place you went and what books you could get your arms on.

Outdoors of your mother’s college, the place else ended up you going?

I remember taking the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or extra, to get out to a boxing health club. There weren’t commercial boxing gyms like there are now. They ended up actually all for authentic fighters and trainers receiving completely ready to contend. But I observed my way into a single and begun to get to know the fighters who let me into the local community. I was a peculiar sight there—this skinny Asian kid—but they would maintain the bag for me and teach me issues. I expended months there. Hunting back again, it was form of a mad experience.

I got into bodybuilding as properly simply because of the Rocky motion pictures and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my initial exposure to seeing a physique like that as a most important character—and it was superhuman. I wanted to set on muscle simply because I was a tiny slender. I observed out there was a Nautilus equipment at the Chinatown Boys Club, so I would go there immediately after all of my marital arts and boxing. I would just shell out several hours coaching in there and lifting weights.

There are some pretty mad movies of the exercise routines you did. Exactly where ended up these routines coming from?

That was when I was trying to get into action-star form. I was trying to be a “complete deal,” who not only looked the component but also experienced this martial arts understanding. I took these routines from books—from whatsoever Arnold and Sly Stallone ended up carrying out. I also integrated some old-college Shaolin coaching and also a tiny inspiration from what Bruce Lee did.

Exactly where did the self-control to do all of that come from?

I was just relentless in my pursuit to be as fantastic as I could be. I would established crazy objectives for myself. For example, I would problem myself to do ten,000 aspect kicks on the hanging bag, and set it in my notebook. So I would be investing just several hours carrying out aspect kicks, and at the end of the working day I would generate down, nevertheless many hundred kicks it was. By the time I achieved ten,000 kicks these aspect kicks ended up so strong. There ended up various instances when I ripped weighty luggage off the wall—maybe about ten instances. I would go into boxing gyms and finally I would kick their weighty bag off the ceiling.

How did you acquire that foundation and adapt it to doing work in action cinema?

I used that enthusiasm for mastering into each and every work. To start with, I would intensely analyze the model that my character is supposed to be properly-versed in. Then I’d bring in gurus and consultants to support me bring the very best version of it onscreen. On major of that, I was constantly looking for new types and tactics I could bring into motion pictures on my own.

Do you remember an example of that?

I remember when blended martial arts competitions and cage fights ended up initial coming on the scene—before and all through the early stages of the UFC. I was in Hong Kong and I would operate all around almost everywhere trying to discover ways to check out the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was mainly fascinated in observing the Gracies, and what they ended up carrying out with jiu jitsu. After I saw it, I realized I experienced to set it in my motion pictures. I was a single of the initial folks to bring it into the cinema in Asia.

How did you feel when the Ip Person purpose came to you?

I was portraying an ancient practitioner—not to mention a revered determine, further than being the trainer of Bruce Lee—so I worked with Wing Chun gurus for about a few months. I expended several hours breaking down moves and ideas. It is unattainable for any one to realize anything there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] stage. I would have experienced to analyze for many years with no other tasks. [All I could] do was consider to realize what I could of the philosophies and build on the foundation I have crafted more than the decades of a variety of martial arts types. I really do not assume this purpose could actually be done by another person devoid of that [present] understanding of martial arts.

Beyond the coaching, how did you put together?

I experienced a responsibility to portray this individual at the very best of my capability, even even though there ended up some fictional elements of the tale. Beyond the constant coaching I was carrying out, I expended a lot of time meditating on him and what he attained. I would discover new music that I felt represented him. I set a lot of analyze time into receiving to know the man further than the legend.

How did you feel when it was so properly acquired?

I experienced no notion the film would do as properly as it did. I remember when it came out, it adjusted my profession a lot, but it also strike large in mainland China. That experienced an fascinating effect simply because the Wing Chun model experienced begun to come to be popular all more than the environment simply because of Bruce Lee, but strangely wasn’t as popular in the a variety of provinces of China. Within the region, martial arts are extremely regional, and the film was a way for the model to transcend that.

I have read that 1000’s of folks have begun to follow Wing Chun simply because of the film, and which is surreal to me. I have experienced many Wing Chun practitioners strategy me to convey to me the influence it’s experienced on their lessons. I was just trying to do the man justice, and we observed ourselves revitalizing the acceptance of the system in a way, which is a excellent honor.

Was there a moment all through the sequence which is especially memorable?

Heading up against Mike Tyson in the 3rd movie was extremely enjoyable for me. I’m a huge supporter of him as a fighter, but possessing him in the film also proved an fascinating problem for me, simply because I experienced to maintain my own against him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Person character in the way that he fights. That was a extremely unusual problem.

How was planning for this past Ip Person film various from preceding types?

I experienced of program presently established the coaching program and follow primary into the initial film. This past movie was extra about the man and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I wanted to do suitable by the admirers as much as closure. This planning was fewer about being explosive and aggressive, simply because Wing Chun is a extra sleek martial art. It is a extremely various model than what we normally see in action motion pictures now. I appreciated the planning, understanding this was going to be the past a single. I let anything else move away and just took the experience in.

What was the most hard aspect of portraying Ip Person?

There is excellent problem in transitioning amongst the kinds of roles I participate in. Heading from an all-out brawler who just wishes to inflict injury to a tranquil martial arts grandmaster can be a lot. 1 working day I’m on the established of XXX with Vin Diesel, putting on my leather-based jacket, carrying out my a single-two-a few mixtures and jump spin back again kicks, and the future I’m in my conventional gown actively playing Ip Person. I have to shell out time coaching, but also get my head into the suitable room for [the purpose]. It can acquire some time.

How do you keep your baseline health?

I am constantly taking care of my system, through coaching and methods of recovery. These times I target on stretching to continue to keep myself as flexible as feasible, simply because which is of upmost value with the form of action I’m carrying out. As you get more mature, you are in risk of shedding flexibility and receiving hurt. I really do not do weighty weights at all any more, it just isn’t essential for me to continue to be strong in the way I will need. I target on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the battle coaching I’m constantly carrying out.

You’re actively playing a common in the approaching Mulan. How did you feel about the bodily aspect of that purpose?

Absolutely everyone in the movie went through months of coaching to put together for their roles. My character is fantastic with his sword and a master of tai chi. I was honored the director and manufacturing staff members appeared to have respect for my profession and what I have done so much. When I came to the established, the stunt and martial arts coordinators ended up high-quality with me including my own acquire on the choreography they set alongside one another.

What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?

I only did two takes. I felt fantastic about the initial a single and they did as properly, but we determined to do an additional a single. The actions for both of those ended up various, and I really do not assume I could recreate them simply because that art is so substantially about being in the moment. I really do not do tai chi a lot, but I do really delight in it. There is an additional stage of connectivity there—being in tune with your system in an elevated perception. My mother is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a nice full circle aspect to that scene, way too.


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