Jetset Magazine recently profiled Donnie Yen, who plays the blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe in next month’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The article is a great look at Yen as he prepares for what will likely be his biggest introduction to western audiences in his storied career. Although Yen is an established movie star in Asia (reportedly earning as much as $33 million in 2012 and $28 million in 2013) many casual moviegoers in the United States aren’t familiar with Yen’s work. Indeed, unless audiences caught his relatively minor roles in Blade II or Shanghai Knights, they might not have any idea who Yen is (of course MakingStarWars.net readers are much more savvy than the typical movie consumer and have all seen at least these six films).
In the article, which features comments by both Yen and his wife/manager Cissy Wang, Yen talks about what he brings to his film projects:
“When you hire me, you’re not just getting an actor; you are getting a choreographer, a director.” He likens it to watching Michael Jackson rehearse in the documentary This Is It: “He was singing, and at the same time he would stop and say, ‘no, the beat comes in here,’ or ‘you need to be faster,’ or ‘you are one step off.’ Because if you want Michael Jackson, you’re not just getting a performer, you’re getting the whole package.”
Some might bristle a bit at Yen’s reference to Michael Jackson, but given his multitude of talents and numerous awards for fight choreography, it’s easy to understand his point. Yen brings much more than just martial arts ability and often leaves his unique imprint on his films. For many, that’s the hope for Yen as he brings Chirrut Imwe to life in the Star Wars universe.
Yen says that initially, he almost turned down the role:
“Truthfully, I didn’t want to spend five months apart from my family, filming in London,” he tells me. But then, he mentioned the prospect to his three children. “I asked them ‘how do you feel about daddy doing Star Wars?’ and they flipped out,” he tells me laughing.
It’s no secret that Yen’s family is excited about his role in Rogue One. Yen’s youngest son is reportedly a huge Star Wars fan and definitely let his geek flag fly this past Halloween. Interestingly, it seems that Director Gareth Edwards embraced Yen’s variety of talents and allowed him to collaborate on his character’s development:
Gareth Edwards definitely knew what he was getting when he brought on Yen, and allowed him to flesh out his Force-sensitive character how he saw fit (“it was my idea to make him blind,” Yen says proudly). Today, Yen is pleased with his contribution to the film and even embraces the fact that he will forever be immortalized as a Lego (“I think I might give them out as gifts,” he jokes).
When Chirrut Imwe was first revealed in the group picture tease, many fans rightfully wondered whether Imwe was just another Asian martial arts trope. It’s nice to know that it was Yen’s idea to make Imwe a blind character. Of course, that doesn’t make the character immune to stereotypes, but it’s reasonable to assume that Yen’s suggestion was based on more than just watching many episodes of Zatoichi.
It’s worth noting that in the article, as quoted above, Imwe is described as a “Force-sensitive character.” However, Lucasfilm has made it fairly clear that Chirrut is not Force-sensitive in the manner that we typically expect. The StarWars.com databank, as well as numerous character descriptions, clearly states that Chirrut “lacks Force abilities.” As such, I’m assuming that one line in the article shouldn’t be over-analyzed, but I sure wouldn’t complain if there was some unexpected surprise with Yen’s character.