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

Actor and martial artist Donnie Yen put in his youth in Boston, splitting his time

Actor and martial artist Donnie Yen put in his youth in Boston, splitting his time involving 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 just before I even knew it was a probability,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill could not protect against him from receiving his coaching in. “I would be out on the street putting on boots and my winter coat, kicking indicators and lamp posts. I would do a leap kick, then fall down to a whole break up, on ice,  just to check how properly my overall body was capable to regulate the motion. It was not just about all the type of actions I could do, it was also about what type of ailments I could do them under.”


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That desire to be 1 of the upcoming terrific action stars has given that grow to be actualized. Yen began his profession in Hong Kong and grew to become 1 of the most in-demand leads. The turning stage that attained him international stardom and familiarity arrived when he portrayed the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Gentleman, greatest known as Bruce Lee’s teacher, onscreen. Most lately, his role as the blind fight monk Chirrut in Rogue 1: A Star Wars Tale brought him even further into the intercontinental highlight.

Now, with Ip Gentleman four currently being his remaining kung fu movie, Yen displays on the roadways that brought him below.

Men’s Journal: What was your coaching like when you were being increasing up in Boston?

Donnie Yen: My mother was a martial arts grasp and she utilized to run a wushu college, so I began my coaching with her. But there was a quick fascination for what the overall body could change into, as properly as with the bodily facet of martial arts. I was innately a curious human being and I discovered myself hungry for knowledge on how to get more powerful. There was not the obtain to data that there is now, so it was all about in which you went and what textbooks you could get your palms on.


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Outside the house of your mother’s college, in which else were being you heading?

I try to remember using the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or additional, to get out to a boxing health club. There weren’t industrial boxing fitness centers like there are now. They were being definitely all for legit fighters and trainers receiving prepared to contend. But I discovered my way into 1 and began to get to know the fighters who let me into the community. I was a peculiar sight there—this skinny Asian kid—but they would hold the bag for me and instruct me factors. I put in months there. Hunting again, it was type of a ridiculous working experience.

I received into bodybuilding as properly since of the Rocky motion pictures and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my initially exposure to viewing a physique like that as a most important character—and it was superhuman. I preferred to place on muscle mass since I was a minor thin. I discovered out there was a Nautilus machine at the Chinatown Boys Club, so I would go there soon after all of my marital arts and boxing. I would just shell out several hours coaching in there and lifting weights.

There are some fairly ridiculous video clips of the exercise routines you did. In which were being all those routines coming from?

That was when I was attempting to get into action-star form. I was attempting to be a “complete offer,” who not only appeared the part but also had this martial arts knowledge. I took all those routines from books—from what ever Arnold and Sly Stallone were being executing. I also integrated some previous-college Shaolin coaching and also a minor inspiration from what Bruce Lee did.


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In which did the self-discipline 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 insane aims for myself. For illustration, I would challenge myself to do ten,000 facet kicks on the hanging bag, and place it in my notebook. So I would be expending just several hours executing facet kicks, and at the conclude of the day I would produce down, even so numerous hundred kicks it was. By the time I arrived at ten,000 kicks all those facet kicks were being so robust. There were being a number of periods when I ripped significant bags off the wall—maybe about ten periods. I would go into boxing fitness centers and at some point I would kick their significant bag off the ceiling.

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

I utilized that passion for finding out into each individual job. Initially, I would intensely research the type that my character is meant to be properly-versed in. Then I’d carry in professionals and consultants to support me carry the greatest version of it onscreen. On best of that, I was normally on the lookout for new types and procedures I could carry into motion pictures on my have.

Do you try to remember an illustration of that?

I try to remember when combined martial arts competitions and cage fights were being initially coming on the scene—before and all through the early stages of the UFC. I was in Hong Kong and I would run all-around everywhere attempting to uncover methods to watch the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was mostly intrigued in viewing the Gracies, and what they were being executing with jiu jitsu. Once I saw it, I knew I had to place it in my motion pictures. I was 1 of the initially men and women to carry it into the cinema in Asia.


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How did you truly feel when the Ip Gentleman role arrived to you?

I was portraying an historic practitioner—not to point out a revered figure, outside of currently being the teacher of Bruce Lee—so I labored with Wing Chun professionals for about three months. I put in several hours breaking down moves and strategies. It’s extremely hard for any individual to fully grasp almost everything there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] amount. I would have had to research for many years with no other responsibilities. [All I could] do was try out to fully grasp what I could of the philosophies and construct on the foundation I have created more than the several years of a variety of martial arts types. I never believe this role could definitely be completed by someone without having that [present] knowledge of martial arts.

Past the coaching, how did you put together?

I had a accountability to portray this human being at the greatest of my potential, even while there were being some fictional elements of the tale. Past the constant coaching I was executing, I put in a large amount of time meditating on him and what he completed. I would uncover tunes that I felt represented him. I place a large amount of research time into receiving to know the guy outside of the legend.

How did you truly feel when it was so properly obtained?

I had no idea the movie would do as properly as it did. I try to remember when it arrived out, it changed my profession a large amount, but it also hit significant in mainland China. That had an exciting result since the Wing Chun type had began to grow to be well-known all more than the entire world since of Bruce Lee, but unusually was not as well-known in the a variety of provinces of China. In the nation, martial arts are really regional, and the movie was a way for the type to transcend that.

I have heard that hundreds of men and women have began to apply Wing Chun since of the movie, and that is surreal to me. I have had numerous Wing Chun practitioners tactic me to tell me the influence it is had on their classes. I was just attempting to do the guy justice, and we discovered ourselves revitalizing the recognition of the approach in a way, which is a terrific honor.


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Was there a moment all through the series that is primarily unforgettable?

Going up from Mike Tyson in the third movie was really interesting for me. I’m a enormous lover of him as a fighter, but having him in the movie also proved an exciting challenge for me, since I had to hold my have from him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Gentleman character in the way that he fights. That was a really unconventional challenge.

How was making ready for this very last Ip Gentleman movie distinct from former kinds?

I had of study course by now founded the coaching regimen and apply foremost into the initially movie. This very last movie was additional about the guy and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I preferred to do proper by the supporters as considerably as closure. This planning was fewer about currently being explosive and intense, since Wing Chun is a additional graceful martial art. It’s a really distinct type than what we typically see in action motion pictures now. I liked the planning, understanding this was heading to be the very last 1. I let almost everything else move absent and just took the working experience in.

What was the most demanding aspect of portraying Ip Gentleman?

There’s terrific difficulty in transitioning involving the varieties of roles I perform. Going from an all-out brawler who just wants to inflict hurt to a tranquil martial arts grandmaster can be a large amount. 1 day I’m on the established of XXX with Vin Diesel, putting on my leather-based jacket, executing my 1-two-three combinations and leap spin again kicks, and the upcoming I’m in my regular gown actively playing Ip Gentleman. I have to shell out time coaching, but also get my head into the proper place for [the role]. It can acquire some time.


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How do you retain your baseline exercise?

I am normally using care of my overall body, by way of coaching and approaches of recovery. These days I emphasis on stretching to continue to keep myself as flexible as doable, since that is of upmost value with the type of action I’m executing. As you get more mature, you’re in danger of dropping overall flexibility and receiving hurt. I never do significant weights at all any longer, it just isn’t needed for me to continue to be robust in the way I need. I emphasis on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the battle coaching I’m normally executing.

You are actively playing a basic in the impending Mulan. How did you truly feel about the bodily facet of that role?

Absolutely everyone in the movie went by way of months of coaching to put together for their roles. My character is fantastic with his sword and a grasp of tai chi. I was honored the director and making team appeared to have respect for my profession and what I have completed so considerably. When I arrived to the established, the stunt and martial arts coordinators were being fantastic with me introducing my have acquire on the choreography they place collectively.

What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?

I only did two requires. I felt fantastic about the initially 1 and they did as properly, but we made a decision to do a different 1. The actions for equally were being distinct, and I never believe I could recreate them since that art is so considerably about currently being in the moment. I never do tai chi a large amount, but I do genuinely take pleasure in it. There’s a different amount of connectivity there—being in tune with your overall body in an elevated feeling. My mother is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a good whole circle aspect to that scene, also.