Donnie Yen is no stranger to cinematic fight scenes. Well known for his Chinese martial arts skills, Donnie plays the blind, but very powerful via “The Force” Chirrut Îmwe in the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
During the recent Rogue One event, Donnie sat down with us and talked about playing a blind man that made a stick appear to be more powerful than a beloved lightsaber.
What can you tell us a little about your character, Chirrut Îmwe?
Chirrut, he’s blind, but he’s spiritual. Kathy Kennedy described it as he’s the spiritual center of the team. He’s the Force believer. He preaches this, and he’s got a little bit of a sense of humor. Yeah, and he beats up all the Storm Troopers.
That scene was amazing.
So I read that you changed your character. He originally wasn’t blind?
I don’t want to take any credit if it’s gonna perceive it as something that is like a contribution. I think it’s the collaboration of both. That’s the nature of being an artist. You express your take on your character. So in the beginning when I was discussing my character with Gareth and I just felt it would be so much cooler to make him less of a cliché character, like, a warrior monk, you know.
How serious is that, right? How about give him a little bit of vulnerability, you know, like disability? How about being blind? And a little bit sense of humor? That was always my persistence of keeping him grounded, having that sense of humor so the audience can relate to him a lot more. So, I suggested it, and he’s cool with it and Disney loved it and here we are.
How much of the story had to be changed to accommodate Chirrut being a blind character?
I don’t think much. I mean, that was months before we actually were on the set and started filming. So I think that’s just part of what goes with anything about filmmaking. You make adjustments on a day-to-day basis, even with the lines. We revise it and obviously we need approval by the studio, especially with, dealing with the biggest I.P. in the film industry, Star Wars. There’s a lot of responsibility on our hands. But we do get that kind of freedom to shape our character along the process.
You have amazing fans that love seeing how you stretch yourself to the limits with your martial arts. Do you set a ceiling as to what you’re gonna do in movies?
That’s a funny question. Because I’ve been in business for quite a while, 70 movies, right? I have different sets of fans. Straight action fans and Donnie Yen fans. But without realizing the changes of every film in the past decade of my films.
It wasn’t so much of what I’m gonna do with my body each time, but different characters that I try to take on. I mean, I’ve done, besides action movie, I’ve done comedies, romantic, all kinds of trial. I played a monkey king where I insist on not recognizing my face. I just wanted to take challenges as an actor.
I don’t look at myself as “oh, this is this guy who does really good, you know, he specialize in the action field.” Right? But I wanted to be perceived as a good actor and striving to be a better actor each time. I never played a blind person before. That was another reason why I wanted to do something completely different, challenging.
But it was really challenging, and I underestimated the difficulty of playing a blind character because it was hard. Having those contact lenses, I mean it looks interesting, but having to take them off every three hours and let my eyes rest because it irritates them. Every ten minutes I needed drops. It bothers me. Very irritating.
And you can’t really see. You think since they are contact lenses there would be no problem but everything was blurry. Somehow with technology today, they still were not able to manage to make a blue pair of contact lenses and having that specific look and giving the full clarity of sight. So I was having difficulty measuring the distance.
What was more difficult wasn’t even about the seeing clearly. It was more as being an actor; I couldn’t look at my fellow actors in their eyes. I couldn’t get to draw reactions. When I’m talking, I have to look at a point. And that was very, very frustrating because I didn’t wanna look without the complexity of each line and the emotion.
So I was fine-tuning my acting every single day. It was quite frustrating especially when you feel like you’re not in control of yourself, where you’re supposed to have all these years of experience being an actor. So that was quite difficult.
Did that make you feel like you were able to portray the character better because you were technically blind with the contacts?
You know, actually yes, in that perspective yes. In return, certain benefits were given because of the fact that he’s blind, he has to feel; he has to use his heart to feel. That puts my character even closer to the Force. And since he’s supposedly he’s the spiritual center and he practices using the Force but being this blind person, he has to feel the Force.
Would you prefer to fight the Empire with a bow-caster or a lightsaber?
It’s funny when my fans found out that I was gonna be in this movie, everybody thought I’m gonna be a Jedi and have a lightsaber and go against Darth Vader. It eats me up. I couldn’t say anything so I couldn’t tell anyone that there would be no Jedi in the movie. I don’t know. If they give me a lightsaber I don’t think anyone else after Rogue One and any future Star War — they’re gonna have a hard time if they let me swing… Maybe that’s why they don’t want to give me the lightsaber because then you won’t have the story because you just center it to go against Darth Vader and take on the Empire with a lightsaber.
What was it like to hear Disney wanted you to be in Rogue one?
When my agent called and said, “Disney wants you to be in Star Wars?” Then Gareth called, and I was hoping for an answer, and I got it, ’cause I didn’t want to be cast because of the China market. I just want you to kick some Stormtroopers ass.
He felt I have the persona of portraying this character in his mind and that was the answer I was looking for as an actor. But, I know it sounds crazy, but in the very beginning, I was hesitant about coming on board. I know “Star Wars,” I mean, I didn’t want to leave my family, my kids and be in London for five months. I just got off from another movie, and I live in Hong Kong.
And I said, “I don’t know.” Then I went to my kids, Jasmine and James. They were maybe 11 and 7. I said, “Do you want, do you like Baba’s?” ‘Cause I’m kind of known to make a lot of audiences and fans as the man, I.P. man. “Or do you want Baba to be in Star War?” Without a doubt, they said, “Star War!”
So I said yes. Then all the family members and friends and all the fan voices came out of nowhere and said, “Oh!” They found out about it and said, “You gotta be in Star Wars! You gotta be in Star Wars!” I realized that I realized I’m making history here, you know? So I’m so glad.
*I attended a Rogue One press event sponsored by Disney. All opinions are my own.