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

Actor and martial artist Donnie Yen invested his youth in Boston, splitting his time involving classes at his mother’s martial arts college, the boxing health and fitness center, and lifting weights at the Chinatown Boys Club.

“I was coaching to be in action films right before I even knew it was a chance,” Yen tells Men’s Journal. Even the bitter New England chill couldn’t avoid him from receiving his coaching in. “I would be out on the street wearing boots and my winter coat, kicking signals and lamp posts. I would do a soar kick, then drop down to a whole break up, on ice,  just to examination how properly my body was equipped to control the movement. It wasn’t just about all the type of movements I could do, it was also about what type of ailments I could do them beneath.”

That desire to be one particular of the upcoming wonderful action stars has considering that become actualized. Yen begun his job in Hong Kong and turned one particular of the most in-need qualified prospects. The turning point that earned him world stardom and familiarity arrived when he portrayed the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Guy, very best acknowledged as Bruce Lee’s trainer, onscreen. Most not long ago, his role as the blind battle monk Chirrut in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story brought him further into the intercontinental spotlight.

Now, with Ip Guy four staying his ultimate kung fu film, Yen demonstrates on the roads that brought him right here.

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

Donnie Yen: My mom was a martial arts master and she used to operate a wushu college, so I begun my coaching with her. But there was a rapid fascination for what the body could flip into, as properly as with the bodily component of martial arts. I was innately a curious person and I found myself hungry for know-how on how to get much better. There wasn’t the entry to information and facts that there is now, so it was all about wherever you went and what publications you could get your fingers on.

Exterior of your mother’s college, wherever else ended up you likely?

I don’t forget getting the subway out to Roxbury, which was about an hour or extra, to get out to a boxing health and fitness center. There weren’t professional boxing gyms like there are now. They ended up genuinely all for respectable fighters and trainers receiving all set to compete. But I found my way into one particular and begun 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 train me factors. I invested months there. Wanting back, it was type of a crazy experience.

I got into bodybuilding as properly mainly because of the Rocky films and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was my 1st exposure to viewing a physique like that as a key character—and it was superhuman. I wanted to set on muscle mainly because I was a small slim. I found out there was a Nautilus device at the Chinatown Boys Club, so I would go there immediately after all of my marital arts and boxing. I would just invest hrs coaching in there and lifting weights.

There are some rather crazy videos of the exercises you did. Exactly where ended up individuals routines coming from?

That was when I was trying to get into action-star shape. I was trying to be a “complete offer,” who not only appeared the component but also experienced this martial arts know-how. I took individuals routines from books—from whatever Arnold and Sly Stallone ended up performing. I also included some aged-college Shaolin coaching and also a small inspiration from what Bruce Lee did.

Exactly where did the self-control to do all of that appear from?

I was just relentless in my pursuit to be as good as I could be. I would established crazy plans for myself. For case in point, I would problem myself to do 10,000 facet kicks on the hanging bag, and set it in my notebook. So I would be expending just hrs performing facet kicks, and at the stop of the working day I would compose down, however lots of hundred kicks it was. By the time I achieved 10,000 kicks individuals facet kicks ended up so robust. There ended up various moments when I ripped large luggage off the wall—maybe about 10 moments. I would go into boxing gyms and inevitably I would kick their large bag off the ceiling.

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

I used that passion for mastering into each and every position. 1st, I would intensely analyze the type that my character is meant to be properly-versed in. Then I’d convey in authorities and consultants to assist me convey the very best variation of it onscreen. On top rated of that, I was generally searching for new designs and tactics I could convey into films on my personal.

Do you don’t forget an case in point of that?

I don’t forget when blended martial arts competitions and cage fights ended up 1st coming on the scene—before and all through the early stages of the UFC. I was in Hong Kong and I would operate all around all over the place trying to obtain methods to observe the fights. I would chase down tapes. I was generally intrigued in viewing the Gracies, and what they ended up performing with jiu jitsu. The moment I observed it, I knew I experienced to set it in my films. I was one particular of the 1st folks to convey it into the cinema in Asia.

How did you really feel when the Ip Guy role arrived to you?

I was portraying an ancient practitioner—not to point out a revered determine, past staying the trainer of Bruce Lee—so I labored with Wing Chun authorities for about three months. I invested hrs breaking down moves and ideas. It is unachievable for any individual to realize anything there is to know about Wing Chun, and to be at [his] amount. I would have experienced to analyze for decades with no other responsibilities. [All I could] do was test to realize what I could of the philosophies and develop on the basis I’ve designed more than the years of different martial arts designs. I do not think this role could genuinely be carried out by anyone without the need of that [present] know-how of martial arts.

Past the coaching, how did you put together?

I experienced a responsibility to portray this person at the very best of my ability, even nevertheless there ended up some fictional components of the tale. Past the regular coaching I was performing, I invested a ton of time meditating on him and what he completed. I would obtain audio that I felt represented him. I set a ton of analyze time into receiving to know the gentleman past the legend.

How did you really feel when it was so properly gained?

I experienced no idea the film would do as properly as it did. I don’t forget when it arrived out, it improved my job a ton, but it also strike large in mainland China. That experienced an fascinating influence mainly because the Wing Chun type experienced begun to become common all more than the environment mainly because of Bruce Lee, but unusually wasn’t as common in the different provinces of China. Within the nation, martial arts are really regional, and the film was a way for the type to transcend that.

I’ve read that hundreds of folks have begun to apply Wing Chun mainly because of the film, and that is surreal to me. I’ve experienced lots of Wing Chun practitioners strategy me to convey to me the influence it’s experienced on their classes. I was just trying to do the gentleman justice, and we found ourselves revitalizing the attractiveness of the procedure in a way, which is a wonderful honor.

Was there a instant all through the series that is in particular unforgettable?

Going up in opposition to Mike Tyson in the 3rd film was really exciting for me. I’m a massive enthusiast of him as a fighter, but getting him in the film also proved an fascinating problem for me, mainly because I experienced to hold my personal in opposition to him. Not just as myself, physicality, but as the Ip Guy character in the way that he fights. That was a really unconventional problem.

How was preparing for this final Ip Guy film distinct from prior ones?

I experienced of program now founded the coaching schedule and apply main into the 1st film. This final film was extra about the gentleman and his mentality. The franchise has a legacy now, and I wanted to do suitable by the supporters as much as closure. This preparing was a lot less about staying explosive and intense, mainly because Wing Chun is a extra sleek martial art. It is a really distinct type than what we commonly see in action films today. I liked the preparing, realizing this was likely to be the final one particular. I enable anything else stream away and just took the experience in.

What was the most tough element of portraying Ip Guy?

There’s wonderful issues in transitioning involving the types of roles I perform. Going from an all-out brawler who just wishes to inflict injury to a peaceful martial arts grandmaster can be a ton. One working day I’m on the established of XXX with Vin Diesel, wearing my leather jacket, performing my one particular-two-three mixtures and soar spin back kicks, and the upcoming I’m in my classic robe participating in Ip Guy. I have to invest time coaching, but also get my intellect into the suitable room for [the role]. It can just take some time.

How do you sustain your baseline health?

I am generally getting care of my body, by coaching and approaches of recovery. These times I target on stretching to preserve myself as flexible as probable, mainly because that is of upmost significance with the type of action I’m performing. As you get older, you are in risk of losing versatility and receiving hurt. I do not do large weights at all any more, it just isn’t required for me to continue to be robust in the way I need. I target on bodyweight training—lots of pushups—in addition to the battle coaching I’m generally performing.

You are participating in a typical in the future Mulan. How did you really feel about the bodily component of that role?

All people in the film went by months of coaching to put together for their roles. My character is good with his sword and a master of tai chi. I was honored the director and creating personnel appeared to have regard for my job and what I’ve carried out so much. When I arrived to the established, the stunt and martial arts coordinators ended up wonderful with me including my personal just take on the choreography they set together.

What was it like filming that Mulan tai chi scene?

I only did two requires. I felt good about the 1st one particular and they did as properly, but we decided to do a different one particular. The movements for both ended up distinct, and I do not think I could recreate them mainly because that art is so much about staying in the instant. I do not do tai chi a ton, but I do definitely delight in it. There’s a different amount of connectivity there—being in tune with your body in an elevated feeling. My mom is a tai chi grandmaster, so there was a awesome whole circle element to that scene, way too.


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