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 between…

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

“I was training to be in motion movies just before I even knew it was a chance,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill could not prevent him from obtaining his training in. “I would be out on the avenue sporting boots and my wintertime coat, kicking indications and lamp posts. I would do a bounce kick, then drop down to a full break up, on ice,  just to exam how perfectly my human body was ready to handle the motion. It was not just about all the form of movements I could do, it was also about what form of circumstances I could do them less than.”

That drive to be a single of the next fantastic motion stars has considering the fact that turn into actualized. Yen commenced his occupation in Hong Kong and turned a single of the most in-desire potential customers. The turning stage that attained him world wide stardom and familiarity arrived when he portrayed the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Gentleman, very best acknowledged as Bruce Lee’s instructor, onscreen. Most not too long ago, his part as the blind battle monk Chirrut in Rogue 1: A Star Wars Tale brought him even further into the worldwide highlight.

Now, with Ip Gentleman 4 getting his last kung fu film, Yen demonstrates on the roadways that brought him in this article.

Men’s Journal: What was your training like when you were developing up in Boston?

Donnie Yen: My mother was a martial arts master and she used to run a Wishu faculty, so I commenced my training with her. But there was a swift fascination for what the human body could change into, as perfectly as with the physical component of martial arts. I was innately a curious person and I identified myself hungry for understanding on how to get stronger. There was not the entry to info that there is now, so it was all about in which you went and what books you could get your fingers on.

Outside the house of your mother’s faculty, in which else were you likely?

I try to remember having the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or additional, to get out to a boxing health club. There weren’t business boxing gyms like there are now. They were definitely all for reputable fighters and trainers obtaining prepared to contend. But I identified my way into a single and commenced 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 maintain the bag for me and educate me factors. I expended months there. Seeking back again, it was form of a mad working experience.

I received into bodybuilding as perfectly due to the fact of the Rocky movies and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my initial publicity to observing a physique like that as a primary character—and it was superhuman. I wanted to place on muscle mass due to the fact I was a tiny skinny. I identified out there was a Nautilus equipment at the Chinatown Boys Club, so I would go there soon after all of my marital arts and boxing. I would just spend hours training in there and lifting weights.

There are some fairly mad movies of the workout routines you did. Where were people routines coming from?

That was when I was making an attempt to get into motion-star shape. I was making an attempt to be a “complete package,” who not only seemed the component but also experienced this martial arts understanding. I took people routines from books—from whichever Arnold and Sly Stallone were accomplishing. I also integrated some old-faculty Shaolin training and also a tiny inspiration from what Bruce Lee did.

Where did the self-control to do all of that occur from?

I was just relentless in my pursuit to be as great as I could be. I would set crazy targets for myself. For illustration, I would problem myself to do ten,000 side kicks on the hanging bag, and place it in my notebook. So I would be shelling out just hours accomplishing side kicks, and at the close of the working day I would write down, nevertheless several hundred kicks it was. By the time I attained ten,000 kicks people side kicks were so robust. There were multiple times when I ripped major bags off the wall—maybe about ten times. I would go into boxing gyms and sooner or later I would kick their major bag off the ceiling.

How did you take that foundation and adapt it to doing the job in motion cinema?

I used that passion for finding out into just about every task. Very first, I would intensely review the design and style that my character is meant to be perfectly-versed in. Then I’d bring in industry experts and consultants to aid me bring the very best version of it onscreen. On best of that, I was normally looking for new styles and approaches I could bring into movies 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 initial coming on the scene—before and all through the early phases of the UFC. I was in Hong Kong and I would run close to all over the place making an attempt to uncover approaches to look at the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was largely fascinated in watching the Gracies, and what they were accomplishing with jiu jitsu. After I observed it, I knew I experienced to place it in my movies. I was a single of the initial individuals to bring it into the cinema in Asia.

How did you sense when the Ip Gentleman part arrived to you?

I was portraying an historic practitioner—not to point out a revered determine, over and above getting the instructor of Bruce Lee—so I worked with Wing Chun industry experts for about 3 months. I expended hours breaking down moves and suggestions. It’s extremely hard for any individual to realize anything there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] degree. I would have experienced to review for decades with no other responsibilities. [All I could] do was check out to realize what I could of the philosophies and construct on the foundation I’ve designed in excess of the decades of various martial arts styles. I do not believe this part could definitely be finished by a person devoid of that [existing] understanding of martial arts.

Past the training, how did you put together?

I experienced a obligation to portray this person at the very best of my skill, even however there were some fictional aspects of the story. Past the consistent training I was accomplishing, I expended a great deal of time meditating on him and what he accomplished. I would uncover audio that I felt represented him. I place a great deal of review time into obtaining to know the man over and above the legend.

How did you sense when it was so perfectly received?

I experienced no notion the film would do as perfectly as it did. I try to remember when it arrived out, it modified my occupation a great deal, but it also strike huge in mainland China. That experienced an interesting influence due to the fact the Wing Chun design and style experienced commenced to turn into preferred all in excess of the environment due to the fact of Bruce Lee, but unusually was not as preferred in the various provinces of China. In just the region, martial arts are incredibly regional, and the film was a way for the design and style to transcend that.

I’ve heard that 1000’s of individuals have commenced to apply Wing Chun due to the fact of the film, and that’s surreal to me. I’ve experienced several Wing Chun practitioners solution me to inform me the influence it is experienced on their lessons. I was just making an attempt to do the man justice, and we identified ourselves revitalizing the reputation of the technique in a way, which is a fantastic honor.

Was there a second all through the sequence that’s specially unforgettable?

Going up versus Mike Tyson in the 3rd movie was incredibly fascinating for me. I’m a big supporter of him as a fighter, but getting him in the film also proved an interesting problem for me, due to the fact I experienced to maintain my have versus him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Gentleman character in the way that he fights. That was a incredibly abnormal problem.

How was planning for this very last Ip Gentleman film different from past types?

I experienced of study course already set up the training schedule and apply foremost into the initial film. This very last movie was additional about the man and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I wanted to do appropriate by the lovers as considerably as closure. This planning was considerably less about getting explosive and aggressive, due to the fact Wing Chun is a additional swish martial artwork. It’s a incredibly different design and style than what we generally see in motion movies currently. I relished the planning, recognizing this was likely to be the very last a single. I let anything else circulation absent and just took the working experience in.

What was the most difficult aspect of portraying Ip Gentleman?

There is fantastic trouble in transitioning between the varieties of roles I enjoy. Going from an all-out brawler who just desires to inflict damage to a tranquil martial arts grandmaster can be a great deal. 1 working day I’m on the set of XXX with Vin Diesel, sporting my leather-based jacket, accomplishing my a single-two-3 combos and bounce spin back again kicks, and the next I’m in my conventional gown enjoying Ip Gentleman. I have to spend time training, but also get my intellect into the appropriate place for [the part]. It can take some time.

How do you preserve your baseline health and fitness?

I am normally having treatment of my human body, by training and approaches of recovery. These days I focus on stretching to maintain myself as versatile as attainable, due to the fact that’s of upmost great importance with the form of motion I’m accomplishing. As you get more mature, you’re in threat of losing overall flexibility and obtaining harm. I do not do major weights at all any more, it just is not required for me to keep robust in the way I have to have. I focus on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the struggle training I’m normally accomplishing.

You’re enjoying a typical in the approaching Mulan. How did you sense about the physical component of that part?

Every person in the movie went by months of training to put together for their roles. My character is great with his sword and a master of tai chi. I was honored the director and producing staff seemed to have regard for my occupation and what I’ve finished so considerably. When I arrived to the set, the stunt and martial arts coordinators were wonderful with me incorporating my have take on the choreography they place with each other.

What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?

I only did two will take. I felt great about the initial a single and they did as perfectly, but we decided to do a further a single. The movements for each were different, and I do not believe I could recreate them due to the fact that artwork is so significantly about getting in the second. I do not do tai chi a great deal, but I do genuinely delight in it. There is a further degree of connectivity there—being in tune with your human body in an elevated sense. My mother is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a pleasant full circle aspect to that scene, far too.

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