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

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

“I was training to be in action movies ahead of I even understood it was a possibility,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill couldn’t stop him from obtaining his training in. “I would be out on the avenue putting on boots and my winter coat, kicking indicators and lamp posts. I would do a jump kick, then fall down to a whole break up, on ice,  just to examination how perfectly my system was equipped to handle the motion. It wasn’t just about all the form of actions I could do, it was also about what form of ailments I could do them under.”

That motivation to be 1 of the up coming wonderful action stars has because grow to be actualized. Yen began his vocation in Hong Kong and turned 1 of the most in-need leads. The turning place that attained him global stardom and familiarity arrived when he portrayed the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man, ideal recognized as Bruce Lee’s teacher, onscreen. Most not long ago, his role as the blind battle monk Chirrut in Rogue Just one: A Star Wars Story brought him even further into the worldwide spotlight.

Now, with Ip Man 4 being his closing kung fu film, Yen reflects on the streets that brought him in this article.

Men’s Journal: What was your training like when you have been expanding up in Boston?

Donnie Yen: My mom was a martial arts grasp and she used to operate a wushu faculty, so I began my training with her. But there was a quick fascination for what the system could flip into, as perfectly as with the physical component of martial arts. I was innately a curious person and I identified myself hungry for expertise on how to get more robust. There wasn’t the accessibility to details that there is now, so it was all about the place you went and what books you could get your palms on.

Outside the house of your mother’s faculty, the place else have been you likely?

I try to remember using the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or additional, to get out to a boxing gym. There weren’t industrial boxing fitness centers like there are now. They have been definitely all for genuine fighters and trainers obtaining prepared to contend. But I identified my way into 1 and began 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 keep the bag for me and train me factors. I used months there. On the lookout again, it was form of a insane expertise.

I bought into bodybuilding as perfectly simply because of the Rocky movies and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my very first publicity to viewing a physique like that as a most important character—and it was superhuman. I needed to set on muscle simply because I was a very little skinny. I identified out there was a Nautilus device at the Chinatown Boys Club, so I would go there following all of my marital arts and boxing. I would just spend several hours training in there and lifting weights.

There are some fairly insane video clips of the exercise sessions you did. Where have been people routines coming from?

That was when I was seeking to get into action-star condition. I was seeking to be a “complete offer,” who not only seemed the part but also experienced this martial arts expertise. I took people routines from books—from whatsoever Arnold and Sly Stallone have been undertaking. I also integrated some aged-faculty Shaolin training and also a very 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 great as I could be. I would established crazy aims for myself. For case in point, 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 several hours undertaking facet kicks, and at the conclude of the working day I would create down, having said that a lot of hundred kicks it was. By the time I arrived at ten,000 kicks people facet kicks have been so robust. There have been multiple occasions when I ripped heavy baggage off the wall—maybe about ten occasions. I would go into boxing fitness centers and eventually I would kick their heavy bag off the ceiling.

How did you get that basis and adapt it to doing work in action cinema?

I used that passion for finding out into each individual task. Initial, I would intensely analyze the type that my character is meant to be perfectly-versed in. Then I’d carry in specialists and consultants to aid me carry the ideal variation of it onscreen. On top of that, I was normally wanting for new types and strategies I could carry into movies on my individual.

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

I try to remember when mixed martial arts competitions and cage fights have been very first coming on the scene—before and during the early phases of the UFC. I was in Hong Kong and I would operate close to everywhere seeking to uncover strategies to look at the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was largely interested in seeing the Gracies, and what they have been undertaking with jiu jitsu. At the time I saw it, I understood I experienced to set it in my movies. I was 1 of the very first men and women to carry it into the cinema in Asia.

How did you truly feel when the Ip Man role arrived to you?

I was portraying an ancient practitioner—not to point out a revered determine, beyond being the teacher of Bruce Lee—so I labored with Wing Chun specialists for about 3 months. I used several hours breaking down moves and thoughts. It is not possible for anybody to understand anything there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] stage. I would have experienced to analyze for a long time with no other tasks. [All I could] do was check out to understand what I could of the philosophies and create on the basis I have constructed about the a long time of numerous martial arts types. I really do not think this role could definitely be performed by somebody with no that [existing] expertise of martial arts.

Past the training, how did you get ready?

I experienced a obligation to portray this person at the ideal of my capacity, even even though there have been some fictional elements of the tale. Past the continual training I was undertaking, I used a ton of time meditating on him and what he attained. I would uncover songs that I felt represented him. I set a ton of analyze time into obtaining to know the male beyond the legend.

How did you truly feel when it was so perfectly been given?

I experienced no thought the film would do as perfectly as it did. I try to remember when it arrived out, it altered my vocation a ton, but it also hit significant in mainland China. That experienced an attention-grabbing influence simply because the Wing Chun type experienced began to grow to be well known all about the entire world simply because of Bruce Lee, but surprisingly wasn’t as well known in the numerous provinces of China. Inside of the country, martial arts are incredibly regional, and the film was a way for the type to transcend that.

I have heard that countless numbers of men and women have began to follow Wing Chun simply because of the film, and that’s surreal to me. I have experienced a lot of Wing Chun practitioners method me to inform me the have an impact on it’s experienced on their courses. I was just seeking to do the male justice, and we identified ourselves revitalizing the attractiveness of the system in a way, which is a wonderful honor.

Was there a minute during the series that’s particularly memorable?

Going up against Mike Tyson in the third film was incredibly fascinating for me. I’m a large supporter of him as a fighter, but getting him in the film also proved an attention-grabbing challenge for me, simply because I experienced to keep my individual against him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Man character in the way that he fights. That was a incredibly unusual challenge.

How was planning for this very last Ip Man film distinct from former types?

I experienced of study course by now founded the training plan and follow top into the very first film. This very last film was additional about the male and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I needed to do ideal by the supporters as significantly as closure. This preparing was fewer about being explosive and intense, simply because Wing Chun is a additional swish martial art. It is a incredibly distinct type than what we ordinarily see in action movies now. I savored the preparing, knowing this was likely to be the very last 1. I let anything else move absent and just took the expertise in.

What was the most difficult element of portraying Ip Man?

There’s wonderful problem in transitioning among the varieties of roles I participate in. Going from an all-out brawler who just desires to inflict destruction to a peaceful martial arts grandmaster can be a ton. Just one working day I’m on the established of XXX with Vin Diesel, putting on my leather jacket, undertaking my 1-two-3 combos and jump spin again kicks, and the up coming I’m in my common gown participating in Ip Man. I have to spend time training, but also get my intellect into the ideal space for [the role]. It can get some time.

How do you preserve your baseline exercise?

I am normally using care of my system, by way of training and approaches of restoration. These days I emphasis on stretching to preserve myself as adaptable as attainable, simply because that’s of upmost value with the form of action I’m undertaking. As you get older, you’re in hazard of getting rid of overall flexibility and obtaining damage. I really do not do heavy weights at all any more, it just isn’t required for me to continue to be robust in the way I will need. I emphasis on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the struggle training I’m normally undertaking.

You are participating in a typical in the approaching Mulan. How did you truly feel about the physical component of that role?

All people in the film went by way of months of training to get ready for their roles. My character is great with his sword and a grasp of tai chi. I was honored the director and creating staff members seemed to have respect for my vocation and what I have performed so significantly. When I arrived to the established, the stunt and martial arts coordinators have been high-quality with me incorporating my individual get on the choreography they set with each other.

What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?

I only did two requires. I felt great about the very first 1 and they did as perfectly, but we decided to do another 1. The actions for equally have been distinct, and I really do not think I could recreate them simply because that art is so a great deal about being in the minute. I really do not do tai chi a ton, but I do actually appreciate it. There’s another stage of connectivity there—being in tune with your system in an elevated sense. My mom is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a good whole circle element to that scene, also.

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