Actor and martial artist Donnie Yen spent his youth in Boston, splitting his time between sessions at his mother’s martial arts school, the boxing gym, and lifting weights at the Chinatown Boys Club.
“I was training to be in action movies before I even knew it was a possibility,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill couldn’t prevent him from getting his training in. “I would be out on the street wearing boots and my winter coat, kicking signs and lamp posts. I would do a jump kick, then drop down to a full split, on ice, just to test how well my body was able to control the motion. It wasn’t just about all the kind of movements I could do, it was also about what kind of conditions I could do them under.”
That desire to be one of the next great action stars has since become actualized. Yen started his career in Hong Kong and became one of the most in-demand leads. The turning point that earned him global stardom and familiarity came when he portrayed the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, best known as Bruce Lee’s teacher, onscreen. Most recently, his role as the blind battle monk Chirrut in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story brought him further into the international spotlight.
Now, with Ip Man 4 being his final kung fu movie, Yen reflects on the roads that brought him here.
Men’s Journal: What was your training like when you were growing up in Boston?
Donnie Yen: My mother was a martial arts master and she used to run a Wishu school, so I started my training with her. But there was a quick fascination for what the body could turn into, as well as with the physical aspect of martial arts. I was innately a curious person and I found myself hungry for knowledge on how to get stronger. There wasn’t the access to information that there is now, so it was all about where you went and what books you could get your hands on.
Outside of your mother’s school, where else were you going?
I remember taking the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or more, to get out to a boxing gym. There weren’t commercial boxing gyms like there are now. They were really all for legitimate fighters and trainers getting ready to compete. But I found my way into one and started 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 teach me things. I spent months there. Looking back, it was kind of a crazy experience.
I got into bodybuilding as well because of the Rocky movies and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my first exposure to seeing a physique like that as a main character—and it was superhuman. I wanted to put on muscle because I was a little thin. I found out there was a Nautilus machine at the Chinatown Boys Club, so I would go there after all of my marital arts and boxing. I would just spend hours training in there and lifting weights.
There are some pretty crazy videos of the workouts you did. Where were those routines coming from?
That was when I was trying to get into action-star shape. I was trying to be a “complete package,” who not only looked the part but also had this martial arts knowledge. I took those routines from books—from whatever Arnold and Sly Stallone were doing. I also incorporated some old-school Shaolin training and also a little inspiration from what Bruce Lee did.
Where did the discipline to do all of that come from?
I was just relentless in my pursuit to be as good as I could be. I would set insane goals for myself. For example, I would challenge myself to do 10,000 side kicks on the hanging bag, and put it in my notebook. So I would be spending just hours doing side kicks, and at the end of the day I would write down, however many hundred kicks it was. By the time I reached 10,000 kicks those side kicks were so strong. There were multiple times when I ripped heavy bags off the wall—maybe about 10 times. I would go into boxing gyms and eventually I would kick their heavy bag off the ceiling.
How did you take that foundation and adapt it to working in action cinema?
I used that passion for learning into each job. First, I would intensely study the style that my character is supposed to be well-versed in. Then I’d bring in experts and consultants to help me bring the best version of it onscreen. On top of that, I was always looking for new styles and techniques I could bring into movies on my own.
Do you remember an example of that?
I remember when mixed martial arts competitions and cage fights were first coming on the scene—before and during the early stages of the UFC. I was in Hong Kong and I would run around everywhere trying to find ways to watch the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was mostly interested in watching the Gracies, and what they were doing with jiu jitsu. Once I saw it, I knew I had to put it in my movies. I was one of the first people to bring it into the cinema in Asia.
How did you feel when the Ip Man role came to you?
I was portraying an ancient practitioner—not to mention a revered figure, beyond being the teacher of Bruce Lee—so I worked with Wing Chun experts for about three months. I spent hours breaking down moves and ideas. It’s impossible for anyone to understand everything there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] level. I would have had to study for decades with no other responsibilities. [All I could] do was try to understand what I could of the philosophies and build on the foundation I’ve built over the years of various martial arts styles. I don’t think this role could really be done by someone without that [existing] knowledge of martial arts.
Beyond the training, how did you prepare?
I had a responsibility to portray this person at the best of my ability, even though there were some fictional elements of the story. Beyond the constant training I was doing, I spent a lot of time meditating on him and what he accomplished. I would find music that I felt represented him. I put a lot of study time into getting to know the man beyond the legend.
How did you feel when it was so well received?
I had no idea the movie would do as well as it did. I remember when it came out, it changed my career a lot, but it also hit big in mainland China. That had an interesting effect because the Wing Chun style had started to become popular all over the world because of Bruce Lee, but strangely wasn’t as popular in the various provinces of China. Within the country, martial arts are very regional, and the movie was a way for the style to transcend that.
I’ve heard that thousands of people have started to practice Wing Chun because of the movie, and that’s surreal to me. I’ve had many Wing Chun practitioners approach me to tell me the affect it’s had on their classes. I was just trying to do the man justice, and we found ourselves revitalizing the popularity of the technique in a way, which is a great honor.
Was there a moment during the series that’s especially memorable?
Going up against Mike Tyson in the third film was very exciting for me. I’m a huge fan of him as a fighter, but having him in the movie also proved an interesting challenge for me, because I had to hold my own against him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Man character in the way that he fights. That was a very unusual challenge.
How was preparing for this last Ip Man movie different from previous ones?
I had of course already established the training routine and practice leading into the first movie. This last film was more about the man and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I wanted to do right by the fans as far as closure. This preparation was less about being explosive and aggressive, because Wing Chun is a more graceful martial art. It’s a very different style than what we usually see in action movies today. I enjoyed the preparation, knowing this was going to be the last one. I let everything else flow away and just took the experience in.
What was the most challenging element of portraying Ip Man?
There’s great difficulty in transitioning between the kinds of roles I play. Going from an all-out brawler who just wants to inflict damage to a peaceful martial arts grandmaster can be a lot. One day I’m on the set of XXX with Vin Diesel, wearing my leather jacket, doing my one-two-three combinations and jump spin back kicks, and the next I’m in my traditional robe playing Ip Man. I have to spend time training, but also get my mind into the right space for [the role]. It can take some time.
How do you maintain your baseline fitness?
I am always taking care of my body, through training and methods of recovery. These days I focus on stretching to keep myself as flexible as possible, because that’s of upmost importance with the kind of action I’m doing. As you get older, you’re in danger of losing flexibility and getting hurt. I don’t do heavy weights at all anymore, it just isn’t necessary for me to stay strong in the way I need. I focus on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the fight training I’m always doing.
You’re playing a general in the upcoming Mulan. How did you feel about the physical aspect of that role?
Everyone in the film went through months of training to prepare for their roles. My character is good with his sword and a master of tai chi. I was honored the director and producing staff seemed to have respect for my career and what I’ve done so far. When I came to the set, the stunt and martial arts coordinators were fine with me adding my own take on the choreography they put together.
What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?
I only did two takes. I felt good about the first one and they did as well, but we decided to do another one. The movements for both were different, and I don’t think I could recreate them because that art is so much about being in the moment. I don’t do tai chi a lot, but I do truly enjoy it. There’s another level of connectivity there—being in tune with your body in an elevated sense. My mother is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a nice full circle element to that scene, too.
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