Donnie Yen doesn’t need a lightsaber.
Yen, who plays Chirrut Imwe, a blind monk who is also a skilled warrior in the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, says that the lack of a lightsaber doesn’t make him a lesser fighter.
“I’m very happy I didn’t get a lightsaber, because otherwise, I would have beaten Darth Vader’s butt!” he quipped during a special roundtable interview with Asian journalists in Hong Kong last month.
“A true warrior doesn’t need any particular shape or form of weapon. I can pick up a bottle and it becomes a weapon. You could give me a lightsaber, or you could give me a bottle of water, and I can turn it into something deadly.”
Together with Jiang Wen, Yen is one of the first Chinese actors to star in a Star Wars movie. Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla), Rogue One is the first standalone Star Wars movie to be produced.
Set before events in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, this is the story of how the Rebellion got its hands on the plans of the Death Star, which eventually leads to Luke Skywalker blowing it up by firing torpedoes down its exhaust vent.
In Rogue One, the rebels recruit Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) to lead a group of fighters on a mission to steal the plans, which includes Chirrut Imwe, Rebel Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), freelance assassin Baze Malbus (Jiang), and former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed).
Other cast members include Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen.
Yen was initially unsure about taking on the role of Chirrut, as it meant having to commit to a long period away from his family in Hong Kong. “They called me and asked me a few months before the production started, and sent me the script. At the time, I was unsure whether I wanted to participate even though I was flattered, because I knew I’d be away from Hong Kong for five months in London.
“I had just finished another film, and I was already thinking of taking on another film that was closer to Hong Kong. So I was quite hesitant,” Yen, 53, recalled.
It was a phone conversation with director Edwards that set him on the path towards joining the Rebel Alliance.
“I asked him why he wanted me. I would have been put off if he had told me it was because I was Ip Man, or something like that. But he told me that he believed that there was something about me, my personality and persona, that would fit the role that he imagined.
“Then after studying the script and several sincere creative conversations with him, I realised it was not just another role. It’s a very important piece of a puzzle in the story, particularly my lines.”
What ultimately convinced the actor to take the role, however, was his kids, particularly his son, James.
“My kids are bigger fans of Star Wars than I am. I’m a fan, but my kids are much, much bigger fans.
“My son, he reads the comic books, and builds the Lego toys. He was very excited (when I was cast). I asked him whether he prefers Ip Man or Star Wars, and he said Star Wars, of course!” Yen said with a laugh.
According to him, he was given a choice of two characters, and he chose Chirrut because he thought it was a more interesting role. It was also his idea for Chirrut to be blind, as he thought it would suit the character better.
“In the script, he wasn’t blind. It was my idea. During the creative discussion, Gareth wanted to know what I thought of the role. I suggested that, to make the role more interesting.
“And he thought it was a great idea and that it was the right characteristic for this role,” he recalled.
“He doesn’t HAVE to be blind, but being blind suits him, because then he has to feel the Force.
“He has to be directly connected to the Force, and using this power without being able to physically touch or see. The feeling of the Force ... you can’t describe it.”
Playing a blind character proved to be more difficult than he expected though.
“I couldn’t close my eyes. I had to keep them open. I’m wearing contact lenses, and I can still see, though it’s not complete clear vision,” he stated.
“The fighting wasn’t difficult ... in fact, it was easy compared to all my past action movies. But playing a character who is in complete darkness with your eyes open? Now, that was difficult.”
He also added that there are similarities between Chirrut and most of the characters he has portrayed in the past.
“Most of the roles I have played have similarities. They can fight, of course, they are righteous and heroic. And this role is no different, it’s just that I’m just playing it in an English language environment,” Yen offered.
“It’s not like a role I’ve never played before, but the fact that he is blind makes him very different. As an actor, it is something that I had never done, so it was refreshing, and at the same time I felt at home.”
Although Yen described his experience filming Star Wars as “being in a theme park every day”, being in London for so long definitely made him miss home a lot, a sentiment he shared with fellow Chinese actor Jiang, whom he is working with for the second time in his career. The first time was for Chinese period action flick The Lost Bladesman.
“It was a good experience working in an outside environment with a fellow Chinese actor. We both missed home a lot, and because the waiting time was so long (in between takes), we were just sitting around talking a lot!” he said with a laugh.
Of course, you don’t cast Donnie Yen in a movie without expecting him to do some form of fighting, and judging from the trailers we’ve seen so far, fans can certainly expect Yen to kick some butt in Rogue One.
One scene even has him taking on an entire troop of Stormtroopers, a scene that recalls the iconic “Ip Man versus 10 karateka” scene in the first Ip Man movie.
For Rogue One, Yen may not be credited as the action cho-reographer, but it was inevitable that he would be involved in that part of the production somehow.
“I’m ALWAYS involved in the fight choreography! It’s pretty obvious that these are very Donnie Yen-style fights.
“I’ve done so many action movies and everyone has seen my work, so people are always going to ask me what I think,” he said.
Last but not least, don’t worry if you don’t know how to pronounce Chirrut Imwe. Yen himself couldn’t do it at first!
“It’s pronounced ‘CHE-ROOT IM-WAY’. It took me nine months to get it right!” he quipped.