Everybody Was Kung-fu Fighting
Prestige Hong Kong|January 2018

… but Donnie Yen’s beyond that now. He talks to Zaneta cheng about Chinese actors in Hollywood, reshaping the traditional action star and why he dares to talk about the tough stuff.

Zaneta Cheng

Donnie Yen is a fighter. You don’t say, is what you’re probably thinking, but please hear me out. Since the success of the first Ip Man in 2008, Yen has been catapulted to international stardom. Hollywood came knocking. He’s now known in Chinese-speaking circles as “the strongest man in the universe”, thanks to his role as the blind monk Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One, part of the inescapable and unrelenting Star Wars franchise. He starred opposite Vin Diesel in xXx: Return of Xander Cage, tearing down wide American boulevards on a motorcycle and throwing punches at the bad guys. In November 2016, Yen made his hands-and-feet imprint at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. It would seem as though he’s embraced Hollywood with a fervour, but as it turns out he went to Tinseltown to do battle.

“I made Harvey [Weinstein] wait almost 10 years,” Yen says, when I ask what made him decide to participate in the second instalment of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, one of his first major international roles. The mention of the notorious Hollywood producer interests me less than the fact that Yen turned down a Hollywood role even before Marvel and DC began grudgingly to insert one lone, rogue Chinese actor into their otherwise whitewashed blockbusters, to appeal to the mighty mainland market. Why, I ask, hoping to understand his reticence at a time when Chinese actors still aspired to follow in the footsteps of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee?

“I was not intrigued, not inspired. I wasn’t convinced by the roles he offered me, no matter how sweet his talk was,” he says. “We were at a big event held by Dalian Wanda a year before I agreed to do Crouching Tiger. Everybody under the sun came. I remember hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio eating pizza, just chilling. It felt great because, I mean, these are people who wouldn’t normally sit at a table in China, hanging out with Chinese actors, eating pizza. I remember thinking – this is how it should’ve been for a long time. Harvey was there saying, ‘Donnie just do this movie blah, blah, blah.’”

“But I had no interest in Crouching Tiger. I’d done it all. I’ve done martial-arts movies all my life. There’s no challenge in playing that role. The reason I was finally convinced was because my mentor, Yuen Woo-ping – the man who brought me into the industry – was going to direct it, so I said yes because it was a matter of respect and face, but that’s it. I said it to Harvey’s face, too. I wasn’t that interested.”

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