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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 among periods at his mother’s martial arts school, the boxing health and fitness center, and lifting weights at the Chinatown Boys Club.

“I was coaching to be in action movies in advance of I even understood it was a likelihood,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill could not avert him from finding his coaching in. “I would be out on the street putting on boots and my wintertime coat, kicking indicators and lamp posts. I would do a soar kick, then fall down to a full break up, on ice,  just to examination how nicely my physique was in a position to manage the movement. It was not just about all the kind of actions I could do, it was also about what kind of disorders I could do them below.”

That wish to be a single of the next fantastic action stars has because become actualized. Yen began his career in Hong Kong and became a single of the most in-desire potential customers. The turning position that earned him world wide stardom and familiarity came when he portrayed the famous Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Gentleman, ideal acknowledged as Bruce Lee’s teacher, onscreen. Most recently, his role as the blind struggle monk Chirrut in Rogue One particular: A Star Wars Tale introduced him even further into the international spotlight.

Now, with Ip Gentleman four remaining his final kung fu motion picture, Yen displays on the roadways that introduced him listed here.

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

Donnie Yen: My mother was a martial arts learn and she applied to run a Wishu school, so I began my coaching with her. But there was a fast fascination for what the physique could turn into, as nicely as with the physical factor of martial arts. I was innately a curious individual and I identified myself hungry for information on how to get stronger. There was not the access to data that there is now, so it was all about where by you went and what publications you could get your hands on.

Outside the house of your mother’s school, where by else were you going?

I try to remember using the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or a lot more, to get out to a boxing health and fitness center. There weren’t commercial boxing gyms like there are now. They were truly all for legitimate fighters and trainers finding prepared to compete. But I identified my way into a single and began to get to know the fighters who enable 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 points. I put in months there. Hunting back again, it was kind of a mad working experience.

I bought into bodybuilding as nicely because of the Rocky movies and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my very first publicity to viewing a physique like that as a major character—and it was superhuman. I wished to set on muscle because I was a tiny slim. I identified 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 devote hrs coaching in there and lifting weights.

There are some fairly mad movies of the exercise routines you did. Where by were all those routines coming from?

That was when I was hoping to get into action-star condition. I was hoping to be a “complete deal,” who not only appeared the component but also had this martial arts information. I took all those routines from books—from regardless of what Arnold and Sly Stallone were executing. I also incorporated some old-school Shaolin coaching and also a tiny inspiration from what Bruce Lee did.

Where by did the self-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 established insane plans for myself. For instance, I would challenge myself to do ten,000 facet kicks on the hanging bag, and set it in my notebook. So I would be shelling out just hrs executing facet kicks, and at the stop of the day I would produce down, however a lot of hundred kicks it was. By the time I achieved ten,000 kicks all those facet kicks were so potent. There were numerous moments when I ripped significant luggage off the wall—maybe about ten moments. I would go into boxing gyms and at some point I would kick their significant bag off the ceiling.

How did you choose that foundation and adapt it to operating in action cinema?

I applied that passion for understanding into each work. Initially, I would intensely study the design that my character is supposed to be nicely-versed in. Then I’d provide in authorities and consultants to enable me provide the ideal edition of it onscreen. On major of that, I was often seeking for new kinds and tactics I could provide into movies on my individual.

Do you try to remember an instance of that?

I try to remember when blended martial arts competitions and cage fights were very first coming on the scene—before and throughout the early stages of the UFC. I was in Hong Kong and I would run all over almost everywhere hoping to come across approaches to enjoy the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was primarily interested in viewing the Gracies, and what they were executing with jiu jitsu. At the time I saw it, I understood I had to set it in my movies. I was a single of the very first men and women to provide it into the cinema in Asia.

How did you experience when the Ip Gentleman role came to you?

I was portraying an ancient practitioner—not to mention a revered figure, outside of remaining the teacher of Bruce Lee—so I worked with Wing Chun authorities for about 3 months. I put in hrs breaking down moves and thoughts. It’s unachievable for anyone to understand anything there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] level. I would have had to study for decades with no other tasks. [All I could] do was try out to understand what I could of the philosophies and build on the foundation I’ve created more than the a long time of various martial arts kinds. I don’t feel this role could truly be accomplished by another person with no that [current] information of martial arts.

Outside of the coaching, how did you get ready?

I had a duty to portray this individual at the ideal of my capacity, even while there were some fictional components of the tale. Outside of the constant coaching I was executing, I put in a large amount of time meditating on him and what he completed. I would come across tunes that I felt represented him. I set a large amount of study time into finding to know the gentleman outside of the legend.

How did you experience when it was so nicely been given?

I had no concept the motion picture would do as nicely as it did. I try to remember when it came out, it transformed my career a large amount, but it also strike major in mainland China. That had an appealing outcome because the Wing Chun design had began to become popular all more than the planet because of Bruce Lee, but strangely was not as popular in the various provinces of China. In the country, martial arts are really regional, and the motion picture was a way for the design to transcend that.

I’ve read that countless numbers of men and women have began to follow Wing Chun because of the motion picture, and that is surreal to me. I’ve had a lot of Wing Chun practitioners method me to tell me the have an affect on it is had on their classes. I was just hoping to do the gentleman justice, and we identified ourselves revitalizing the reputation of the approach in a way, which is a fantastic honor.

Was there a instant throughout the collection that is specially memorable?

Going up against Mike Tyson in the 3rd film was really enjoyable for me. I’m a huge admirer of him as a fighter, but getting him in the motion picture also proved an appealing challenge for me, because I had to hold my individual against him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Gentleman character in the way that he fights. That was a really uncommon challenge.

How was making ready for this previous Ip Gentleman motion picture unique from earlier types?

I had of system presently founded the coaching program and follow leading into the very first motion picture. This previous film was a lot more about the gentleman and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I wished to do appropriate by the enthusiasts as far as closure. This preparing was less about remaining explosive and intense, because Wing Chun is a a lot more swish martial art. It’s a really unique design than what we generally see in action movies currently. I loved the preparing, knowing this was going to be the previous a single. I enable anything else move away and just took the working experience in.

What was the most challenging factor of portraying Ip Gentleman?

There’s fantastic problems in transitioning among the types of roles I engage in. Going from an all-out brawler who just desires to inflict hurt to a tranquil 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, executing my a single-two-3 combinations and soar spin back again kicks, and the next I’m in my common gown taking part in Ip Gentleman. I have to devote time coaching, but also get my mind into the appropriate place for [the role]. It can choose some time.

How do you sustain your baseline fitness?

I am often using treatment of my physique, through coaching and methods of recovery. These days I emphasis on stretching to preserve myself as flexible as doable, because that is of upmost great importance with the kind of action I’m executing. As you get more mature, you’re in threat of dropping flexibility and finding harm. I don’t do significant weights at all any more, it just isn’t essential for me to stay potent in the way I have to have. I emphasis on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the struggle coaching I’m often executing.

You’re taking part in a basic in the upcoming Mulan. How did you experience about the physical factor of that role?

All people in the film went through months of coaching to get ready for their roles. My character is good with his sword and a learn of tai chi. I was honored the director and producing staff seemed to have regard for my career and what I’ve accomplished so far. When I came to the established, the stunt and martial arts coordinators were good with me including my individual choose on the choreography they set alongside one another.

What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?

I only did two normally takes. I felt good about the very first a single and they did as nicely, but we made the decision to do a further a single. The actions for equally were unique, and I don’t feel I could recreate them because that art is so much about remaining in the instant. I don’t do tai chi a large amount, but I do actually get pleasure from it. There’s a further level of connectivity there—being in tune with your physique in an elevated feeling. My mother is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a wonderful full circle factor to that scene, also.

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