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

Allan I. Fleming

Actor and martial artist Donnie Yen spent his youth in Boston, splitting his time among periods at his mother’s martial arts university, the boxing fitness center, and lifting weights at the Chinatown Boys Club.

“I was instruction to be in motion flicks just before I even realized it was a risk,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill could not protect against him from finding his instruction in. “I would be out on the avenue putting on boots and my winter season coat, kicking signs and lamp posts. I would do a soar kick, then drop down to a whole split, on ice,  just to take a look at how perfectly my system was equipped to regulate the motion. It wasn’t just about all the kind of movements I could do, it was also about what kind of disorders I could do them underneath.”

That need to be a single of the upcoming great motion stars has since turn out to be actualized. Yen started out his career in Hong Kong and became a single of the most in-desire prospects. The turning point that earned him world-wide stardom and familiarity arrived when he portrayed the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Gentleman, best identified as Bruce Lee’s trainer, onscreen. Most just lately, his position as the blind fight monk Chirrut in Rogue One particular: A Star Wars Tale introduced him additional into the international spotlight.

Now, with Ip Gentleman four becoming his ultimate kung fu motion picture, Yen displays on the roadways that introduced him below.

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

Donnie Yen: My mom was a martial arts learn and she utilised to run a wushu university, so I started out my instruction with her. But there was a speedy fascination for what the system could turn into, as perfectly as with the bodily element of martial arts. I was innately a curious man or woman and I found myself hungry for awareness on how to get much better. There wasn’t the obtain to info that there is now, so it was all about wherever you went and what textbooks you could get your palms on.

Outdoors of your mother’s university, wherever else ended up you heading?

I try to remember having the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or a lot more, to get out to a boxing fitness center. There weren’t commercial boxing fitness centers like there are now. They ended up really all for genuine fighters and trainers finding all set to compete. But I found my way into a single and started out to get to know the fighters who allow me into the community. I was a peculiar sight there—this skinny Asian kid—but they would keep the bag for me and educate me issues. I spent months there. On the lookout back again, it was kind of a insane working experience.

I got into bodybuilding as perfectly since of the Rocky flicks and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my first exposure to observing a physique like that as a main character—and it was superhuman. I wished to place on muscle mass since I was a little thin. I found 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 hrs instruction in there and lifting weights.

There are some fairly insane videos of the exercise sessions you did. In which ended up these routines coming from?

That was when I was striving to get into motion-star condition. I was striving to be a “complete package deal,” who not only seemed the portion but also had this martial arts awareness. I took these routines from books—from regardless of what Arnold and Sly Stallone ended up undertaking. I also integrated some previous-university Shaolin instruction and also a little inspiration from what Bruce Lee did.

In which did the discipline to do all of that come from?

I was just relentless in my pursuit to be as very good as I could be. I would established crazy targets for myself. For case in point, I would obstacle myself to do ten,000 aspect kicks on the hanging bag, and place it in my notebook. So I would be spending just hrs undertaking aspect kicks, and at the conclude of the day I would create down, nonetheless lots of hundred kicks it was. By the time I reached ten,000 kicks these aspect kicks ended up so robust. There ended up multiple instances when I ripped significant baggage off the wall—maybe about ten instances. I would go into boxing fitness centers and at some point I would kick their significant bag off the ceiling.

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

I utilised that passion for mastering into every single position. To start with, I would intensely study the design and style that my character is intended to be perfectly-versed in. Then I’d provide in experts and consultants to help me provide the best model of it onscreen. On leading of that, I was generally seeking for new styles and tactics I could provide into flicks on my have.

Do you try to remember an case in point of that?

I try to remember when combined martial arts competitions and cage fights ended up first 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 almost everywhere striving to discover means to view the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was mainly fascinated in observing the Gracies, and what they ended up undertaking with jiu jitsu. As soon as I noticed it, I realized I had to place it in my flicks. I was a single of the first folks to provide it into the cinema in Asia.

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

I was portraying an historical practitioner—not to mention a revered determine, beyond becoming the trainer of Bruce Lee—so I worked with Wing Chun experts for about a few months. I spent hrs breaking down moves and tips. It is extremely hard for everyone to comprehend everything there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] stage. I would have had to study for decades with no other tasks. [All I could] do was check out to comprehend what I could of the philosophies and create on the basis I have designed around the decades of many martial arts styles. I really don’t consider this position could really be done by another person with out that [current] awareness of martial arts.

Over and above the instruction, how did you prepare?

I had a accountability to portray this man or woman at the best of my capacity, even while there ended up some fictional factors of the tale. Over and above the continual instruction I was undertaking, I spent a large amount of time meditating on him and what he completed. I would discover audio that I felt represented him. I place a large amount of study time into finding to know the man beyond the legend.

How did you sense when it was so perfectly acquired?

I had no strategy the motion picture would do as perfectly as it did. I try to remember when it arrived out, it modified my career a large amount, but it also strike huge in mainland China. That had an exciting result since the Wing Chun design and style had started out to turn out to be popular all around the world since of Bruce Lee, but strangely wasn’t as popular in the many provinces of China. Within just the state, martial arts are very regional, and the motion picture was a way for the design and style to transcend that.

I have read that 1000’s of folks have started out to practice Wing Chun since of the motion picture, and that’s surreal to me. I have had lots of Wing Chun practitioners method me to convey to me the have an effect on it’s had on their courses. I was just striving to do the man justice, and we found ourselves revitalizing the attractiveness of the procedure in a way, which is a great honor.

Was there a second all through the sequence that’s specifically memorable?

Going up from Mike Tyson in the 3rd film was very thrilling for me. I’m a enormous supporter of him as a fighter, but getting him in the motion picture also proved an exciting obstacle for me, since I had to keep my have from him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Gentleman character in the way that he fights. That was a very unusual obstacle.

How was preparing for this past Ip Gentleman motion picture distinct from former types?

I had of course now founded the instruction regimen and practice primary into the first motion picture. This past film was a lot more about the man and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I wished to do suitable by the enthusiasts as far as closure. This preparation was fewer about becoming explosive and aggressive, since Wing Chun is a a lot more graceful martial artwork. It is a very distinct design and style than what we usually see in motion flicks nowadays. I appreciated the preparation, knowing this was heading to be the past a single. I allow everything else flow absent and just took the working experience in.

What was the most tough aspect of portraying Ip Gentleman?

There’s great problems in transitioning among the kinds of roles I engage in. Going from an all-out brawler who just desires to inflict injury to a peaceful martial arts grandmaster can be a large amount. One particular day I’m on the established of XXX with Vin Diesel, putting on my leather-based jacket, undertaking my a single-two-a few combinations and soar spin back again kicks, and the upcoming I’m in my traditional gown taking part in Ip Gentleman. I have to spend time instruction, but also get my brain into the suitable area for [the position]. It can just take some time.

How do you keep your baseline exercise?

I am generally having care of my system, by way of instruction and approaches of restoration. These days I emphasis on stretching to hold myself as flexible as achievable, since that’s of upmost significance with the kind of motion I’m undertaking. As you get more mature, you are in danger of losing versatility and finding hurt. I really don’t do significant weights at all anymore, it just is not required for me to continue to be robust in the way I want. I emphasis on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the struggle instruction I’m generally undertaking.

You’re taking part in a basic in the forthcoming Mulan. How did you sense about the bodily element of that position?

Every person in the film went by way of months of instruction to prepare for their roles. My character is very good with his sword and a learn of tai chi. I was honored the director and generating team seemed to have regard for my career and what I have done so far. When I arrived to the established, the stunt and martial arts coordinators ended up high-quality with me including my have just take on the choreography they place with each other.

What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?

I only did two takes. I felt very good about the first a single and they did as perfectly, but we decided to do one more a single. The movements for both equally ended up distinct, and I really don’t consider I could recreate them since that artwork is so substantially about becoming in the second. I really don’t do tai chi a large amount, but I do really appreciate it. There’s one more stage of connectivity there—being in tune with your system in an elevated perception. My mom is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a great whole circle aspect to that scene, as well.

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