Donnie Yen might be the only star of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story who feels so close to his character. Yen is a Hong Kong actor, a well-known Chinese martial artist, action choreographer, and a multiple-time world Wushu tournament champion. But perhaps now, he might be more recognized as Chirrut Îmwe, a heroic member of a small group of Rebels who steal the plans to the Death Star. He also knows a little bit of what it’s like to fight the Empire as a blind man.
“He’s blind but he’s spiritual,” Donnie Yen told us when we sat down last week to discuss his character in the highly anticipated Star Wars film opening in theaters Friday. “As Kathleen Kennedy [producer] described it, he’s the spiritual center of the team. He’s the Force believer. He preaches this and he’s got a little bit of a sense of humor. Yeah, and he beats up all the Stormtroopers.”
Yen refers to a scene in Rogue One – one scene within the 28 minutes we were able to preview – where he single-handedly wipes out a large group of Stormtroopers. It was violent with poetic choreography, which was very well received by the small crowd of press in the theater.
It was interesting to learn that the character of Chirrut Îmwe wasn’t originally blind, and Yen had a little to do with the change in script.
“I don’t want to take any credit if it’s [perceived as] something that is like a contribution,” Yen said, describing the change as more of a collaborative decision. “That’s the nature of being an artist. You express your takes on your character. So in the beginning when I was discussing about my character with Gareth [Edwards, director] and I just felt it would be so much cooler to make him less of a cliché character – like, warrior monk, you know? How serious is that, right? How about give him a little bit of vulnerability. How about being blind? And, a little bit sense of humor? That was always my persistence of keeping him grounded, having that sense of humor so the audience can relate to him a lot more. So, I suggested it and he’s cool with it and Disney loved it and here we are.”
Though Donnie Yen’s fanbase here in the states is just growing, for fans of martial arts films, he’s quite a star. We spoke with Yen about what he thought his fans expected from him in Rogue One.
“That’s a funny question, right? Because I’ve been in business for quite a while – 70 movies,” Yen told us. “And a lot of audience, my fans in particularly – I have different set of fans. Straight action fans and Donnie Yen fans. It wasn’t so much of what I’m gonna do with my body each time, but different character that I try to take on. I’ve done, beside action movies, I’ve done comedies, romantic… I just wanted to take challenges as an actor.”
Hear Donnie Yen talk about his frustrations with playing a blind character!
“In return certain benefits were given because of the fact that he’s blind,” Yen said. “He has to feel, he has to use his heart to feel; that puts my character even closer to the Force.”
Difficulty with sight might have put Yen at a slight disadvantage when it came to delivering his lines, but physically, because of his film history and martial arts training, he definitely had an advantage over the other cast members.
“To me, it’s like a musician, you know? You play music all your life and it’s just, jump in there. As an actor who specializes physical expressions, for me it was just another, just dive in.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but in the very beginning I was hesitant of coming on board,” Yen admitted. “I didn’t wanted to leave my family, my kids, and be in London for five months. I just got off from another movie and I live in Hong Kong.”
“I went to my kids, Jasmine and James. They were, at the time maybe 12 and 8. I said, “Do you want, do you like Baba’s Ip Man series?” – Because I’m kind of known to make a lot of audiences and fans as the man, Ip Man – “Or do you want Baba to be in Star Wars?” Without a doubt they said, “Star Wars!”
“I realized I’m making history here, you know? So I’m so glad.”
Check out Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in theaters this Friday.
Thank you to MomStart for providing photos from our interview.