[This interview was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Dragon (Wu Xia).]
Donnie Yen had a busy weekend. This year’s NYAFF was his first North American film festival, and he attended four screenings of his films in three days, each one crowded with fans. By the time he accepted the Star Asia award at the screening of Dragon (Wu Xia), he seemed tired but in good spirits. At each screening, the audience received double-sided folders that Yen brought over from Hong Kong, each side bearing his image. I can’t even estimate how many of these he signed.
Yen survived the implosion of the Hong Kong film industry during the mid-to-late 1990s. A reliable action performer since the late 1980s, Yen has since become one of the world’s biggest action stars, the HK heir to Jackie Chan and Jet Li. It began with Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang), but it was Ip Man that really made Yen a bona fide leading man.
When he entered the conference room at the Kitano Hotel on Saturday morning, the assembled writers and I stood. Yen took a moment to learn our names and shake our hands and, even though he didn’t have to, he gave everyone a t-shirt (something else he brought from Hong Kong for his fans). It’s always interesting to meet people whose careers you’ve admired for many years (I still have my Tai Seng VHS copy of Iron Monkey somewhere), and Yen struck me with his class and charm the entire time he was in town.
Before the interview started, he smiled and said, cutting through the small talk, “Don’t ask me about New York.”
Acting isn’t a form of putting a mask on. When you’re done with a role, how do you usually get out of it? Is there a specific method?
Actually, that’s a very good question. I actually have a lot of discussion [about this] with my colleagues in Hong Kong, like Anthony Wong– I don’t know if you know his work. I focused a lot on crafting my acting in the last six years, and I go around trying to find different perspectives from everyone, including somebody like Anthony, well-regarded actors in Hong Kong. They tell me sometimes when you’re acting– You know, there are a lot of bits to acting, right? Where you have to be in the character, you can’t get out of the character. To [Anthony], and I agree with him, you don’t really have to be stuck in the character. At the end of the day you’re acting. If you’re playing a killer, you’re really not going to pick up a knife and just kill somebody. For me, it’s just having that control, knowing that this is my job. I want to focus into the character. Once [snaps] the cameras are off, I try to become myself again.
And how do you do that?
It’s just years of practice, right. Like, I’ll give you an example. When I did Painted Skin, I was prepping. I had all these films lined up. When I was doing Painted Skin, I was ready to go on to do Ip Man. Playing Ip Man was a tremendous amount of pressure on me, as you probably guess, right? So I was prepping in the middle of my film. So what I do is I try to be in that character for that particular film for the first half of the shoot, and then knowing that after the film I have to jump right into another character, I will get into that character on the second part of the previous film. So I remember there were a couple incidents where I was on the set of Painted Skin and I was getting into my wing chun practice in my Painted Skin outfit, right?
And the director caught me! We had a shot over a hill, a shot of me walking away from a hilltop or something, alone. And he spotted me with this camera on the monitor, and when I came back to him he was asking me, “What are you doing?” Well, I gotta do another film. [laughs]
You know, I can’t do this film forever, so I’m prepping for my next film. That’s how I usually do it, you know. I kind of pace myself. And speaking of pacing yourself, when you play different characters… Yip Man the character is very skinny, so I have to be on a constant “not-eating” diet.
[laughs] Right, right.
Really skinny. I probably ate a meal a day — no carbs — while Sammo Hung is cooking for everyone, you know?
Basically I’d sit in a corner.
While everybody else was eating?
Yeah, you know, just kind of not letting the scent of good food come this way, and just try to focus — this is the job, you got to do this [kind of thing]. And then for example, doing The Lost Bladesman, I was constantly eating. I’m not really a heavy/stacked guy but to play that role I wanted to be as heavy as possible. Constantly trying to adapt to what are the character’s requirements. It sounds really abnormal and difficult for someone not in the industry, but I’ve been doing it for many years; my mind tells my body how to turn into that role.
I heard that you actually studied in the same school as Jet Li in Peking. What was the school like?
Well that’s a long– I’ll try to make a long story short. There’s a lot of history to it, you know. Let’s see how to break it down.
Sorry to put you in–
No, no, it’s okay. I think that’s a good question. I would say in China, there’s two forms of martial arts: the new form and the old form. The old form is traditional martial arts, you know, when you see the Shaolin temple and all that. The new form is the form that, during the Cultural Revolution, they kind of unified martial arts styles into more of a gymnastic form where people can compete with each other in a common scoring system. Jet Li was in the Beijing martial arts team. Each province represents each team. Jet Li was from Beijing, so he represented Beijing. You know, Shanghai represents Shanghai. The whole of China is made up of maybe over 30 teams and they compete on an annual basis. They try to promote that martial arts style, but it’s gymnastic. The goal is to bring that into the Olympics eventually. I don’t know if that can ever happen, but that’s always been the aim and the goal.
When I was a teenager, their team– it was what, 1980… When China opened up a center, [or] demonstration team, to America, and Jet Li’s team came to America. And my mother teaches martial arts in Boston and they visited the school. We had these conversations, and a couple coaches from the Beijing team saw– I gave a little performance for them, basically. They thought I was really talented and wanted me to go back to Beijing and train, just out of courtesy. Back then, no one would allow it even though I was Chinese, but not Chinese-Chinese. But somehow, we broke the red tape, and my parents sent me back to China, and I was training there on and off for a year and a half. But when I was training there, [Jet Li] wasn’t there.
I met him twice, he came back. He entered the entertainment business before me, maybe two years before me. He went to do Shaolin Temple during those two years while I was training there. And he came back and we met, took some pictures, and then after those two years I went to start my career in the film biz.
Thank you.[nods] It’s a long story but– Long story short, but it’s still very long. [laughs]
[laughs] You’re known to experiment a lot in your movies with your direction and action choreography, like Legend of the Wolf and Ballistic Kiss. You’re also the first to integrate MMA into fighting scenes with SPL and Flash Point. For Wu Xia, what was your approach?
Back to the basics. Back to the Shaw Brothers. You know, when I action direct, especially in the last six years, I pay a lot of attention to the acting. I’ve been doing these action films for what, 30 years, right? And I find that to truly elevate the level of action movies, the level of action actors, at the end of the day you still have to be a great actor. It’s a proven fact, right, because there are a lot of great martial artists out there, a lot of great fighters, but that doesn’t mean that if you put them in a film, the film can work, or that they can have that kind of magic within themselves and for the audience.
So I said to myself, “Where do I go from there,” you know, six years ago. All martial arts actors talk about bettering their acting, but once they start getting to the project, they go back to staying true to the martial arts. So you basically get all the martial arts that you learned and stay true to the acting. [Editor’s note: Part of the recording was fuzzy/muffled, so parts of the last two sentences are reconstructed from memory and context.]
So you kept martial arts choreography back to basics–
Well, you know, the key is whatever character you’re playing, you link them to a particular martial arts style. Like I’ll be playing a cop, an undercover cop, I wouldn’t be posing in the middle of stopping a crime, right? [laughs]
I would be more hands-on combat, realistic. They all connect together, right? But if I’ll be doing a period film, then the limit is a little bit more expanded, like in Crouching Tiger[, Hidden Dragon]. So basically the farther away from modern days, I think the physical possibilities are a lot greater. Like if I do Hero — Hero was 2,000 years ago — you can fly and you can’t really challenge that. You understand what I’m saying?
So what I did when we shot Wu Xia, I said, “What am I going to do? I cannot do MMA, it wouldn’t look like, so what should I do?” Let me go back to the basics because, number one, again, stay true to the character. I believe that character would be doing something of that genre, traditional, kung-fu, Shaw Brothers. At the same time, the audiences haven’t seen that for a while. It’s been a while, you know, I wanted to bring that, but with a couple of tricks here and there, maybe a little bit of– one or two shots of CGI, like dissecting the body. I was inspired by watching Discovery Channel.
Really, I was inspired. [Director] Peter Chan asked me, “How are we going to shoot this stuff?” And I said, “You know, actually, let’s try this.” So that’s how we did it.
Is there anything you’d want to experiment with? For example, I know that you’ve done mocap before for [the game] Onimusha , are there any ideas that you want to try in your future films?
I want to try anything, really. Of course, as a filmmaker, you constantly have to reinvent yourself. Always throwing things back and saying, “Okay, you did this pretty good in this movie, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to continue to do good in your next movie.” So you always have to be on your toes, you know. You have to be on top of the game and really try to stay grounded and really hear the audience, the majority of which is the younger generation. A younger audience will tell you what’s going on, you know? I communicate a lot with my kids because children are the most direct. You know, they get things from TV, and they tell me. I don’t want to be outdated because at the end of the day you’re still making a movie. A movie is for entertainment, and entertainment evolves from a lot of pop culture — pop culture influences.
But as an actor, again, the past years six, I’ll continue to craft– I’ll set a good example of what someone who started off as a martial arts actor can become. Again, at the end of the day, martial arts should be one of my advantages, packaging, but you are just an actor like any other actor. So last two years I’ve tried comedy. I just finished a romantic love movie with no action at all, you know. I will probably try more comedy — comedy-action, or more comedy less action, or more action a little comedy; 3D movies, CGI. I want to shoot a black and white movie. Actually, when I shot Legend of the Fist, I insisted on trying to have the picture in black and white. I really wanted that whole look, right? But I never got my way. [laughs]
I told [screenwriter] Gordon Chan and director Andrew Lau. We had daily meetings, discussion of how the film’s going to look like. In the beginning, it was more of just a remake of Fist of Fury. But then Gordon Chan came in and said he wanted to do something fresh. But then Andrew Lau said, “For marketing, you’ve got to do this.” So we always have these big debates about how the film’s going to turn out, so we kind of combined the two elements, which I thought at the end really didn’t work as well as if we focused on just one element. Instead of two elements, you know. Just too many things going on in one film.
But in the beginning with Gordon Chan– Actually, no Andrew Lau and myself, we wanted to just have a remake of Fist of Fury and I wanted it black and white like Schindler’s List. You know, let’s make a classic, heavy-drama, Fist of Fury in black and white, but then Gordon came in and he wanted [something else]… But maybe in the future.
Do you see a point where you give up action — you were talking about comedies and stuff — and say doing drama?
I wouldn’t call it giving up. I would do non-action for just the sake of having the opportunity. I mean, not many action actors are being offered to play in non-action movies.
But just like watching you in Bodyguards and Assassins and Wu Xia…
The parts I remember are your scenes, you know, with your kids, not the fighting. One of the biggest parts in Bodyguards and Assassins is you breaking everybody’s heart trying to do the right thing.
Well, maybe what I did in the last six years was working. [laughs]
[laughs] It’s fantastic!
So I was wondering if you [had thoughts about purely dramatic roles]?
You know, I would try, but at the end of the day, I don’t forget the business model of making a movie. At the end of the day, you’re talking about reaching out to as many people in the audience as possible. People come to see a Donnie Yen film, they want to see action. You know, I understand that, I accept it, I respect it. So, if I’m being offered to play a non-action movie, yes, I’d take the opportunity. Why not? I just finished a romantic movie, right? I get paid, I don’t sweat. [laughs]
It was a good experience for me, right, but I will never forget my roots and will continue to make action movies.
You know, I shot Monkey King — I finished Monkey King. We shot in 3D. There are a lot of restrictions shooting action, or movies themselves, in 3D because the camera is so humongous. Certain angles you can’t really– Because in action you want to have many possibilities with the angles, right? But with 3D, for example, you can’t place the camera flat on the ground, so you can’t shoot a person [from a low angle]. So if I want to shoot a low angle of a person, I have to set up a platform for the actor to stand on. So Chow Yun-Fat would jut be standing on top of a platform if I’m going to get a shot like this. Something like that. And the cameras are very heavy, so if you want to do a dead stop or fast cuts like The Bourne Identity [laughs], you know, kinda wild, it’s very difficult.
But you have to understand what you’re working with. I learned a lot doing Monkey King. We had a wonderful team. We hired 30 people from the Avatar team, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Really experienced experts coming [to the production], and we did that together. I learned a lot and yes, I certainly will explore doing 3D martial arts and kung-fu movies. We’re talking about Ip Man 3… D!
They’re talking about it, but we’re in the stage of finding out what it needs, you know? Budget, etc. Wilson Yip, our director, is exploring that possibility.
What is the most difficult role that you’ve ever tackled?
I’d break it down to two. One, obviously, is the Monkey King because, one, the nature [of the role]. It’s tough to put on that monkey make-up and outfit. You’re talking about four hours a day to put the make-up on, another hour of taking the make-up off. I remember the first day of putting the make-up on, I said to myself, “How am I going to sit through the next three months?” Just sitting there, you know, you have to be a really patient person.
And then, nevermind controlling your expression, because once you have all this prosthetic make-up on your face, you can’t really move the way you [normally] move with your expressions, right? So you have to kind of learn [how to do] your facial movements for the first maybe two weeks. Then the outfit, it’s very heavy. And that was the nature of carrying that role. Second, Monkey King has been played successfully by I recall at least two people. One is Stephen Chow. He attacked it in a comedy way, right?
Right, right, right.
You know, when I was doing Monkey King, I kind of understood why he attacked it in the form of a comedy way because there was another person before him. Older, Beijing Opera, like a TV series, very classic. [Editor’s note: Yen might have been referring to Jinlai Zhang’s portrayal here, but that’s complete conjecture on my part.] So I studied both of them and said to myself, “How can I make a difference? How can I compete with these two established, great works?” I spent at least three weeks on daily shoots readjusting the way I move my body, the way I project my– The gesture and expressions. You can be totally like an animal, like a monkey, or, like Planet of the Apes. You can be a monkey but at the same time you kind of have to retain the classical Beijing Opera because people are used to looking at the Monkey King. You can’t just totally throw that away. I’ll give you a good example. I remember when I was younger I watched Godzilla.
And then I was really disappointed because I wanted Godzilla to be that Godzilla using that [rubber suit]. Not to [take away credit from] the Hollywood way of making Godzilla, but I understand there will be lots of audience members coming to watch The Monkey King and they have certain expectations — you know, they way he rolls the eyes, certain Beijing Opera [gestures]. He plays with the, they [pointing to his head].
Right, the helmet and the two things sticking out. Certain things that I studied from the classics. Particularly I made sure that I would keep those elements and make sure when our Monkey King is presented, it’s a least like the classic Monkey King. [Editor’s note: The recording here is a bit muffled, so this is my best reconstruction from memory and context.] But at the same time, [I’m] adding new elements. Adding new elements was the biggest challenge, imitating the old [portrayals] wasn’t as much because I had a lot of confidence in my body control. I was imitating how all those Monkey Kings, on stage, Beijing Opera, how they move. But adding something new, it was something completely out of my game. So at the end of the day I created four stages of the monkey performance. The beginning, totally monkey-like, animal. I was literally sucking my toes.
I was rolling around, I’d grab my toes, it was a lot of improvisation, plus I was the action direction, so I had a lot of freedom for acting. I didn’t want to rehearse that much. Sometimes I didn’t rehearse at all, and I would tell my director, I’d say, “Let’s just roll it.” I felt it in my heart, let’s try it. And I was acting as I was experimenting, the way to project that moment of monkey. I don’t get it every time when I watch the playback, but I was pretty much on cue. Every time I thought of an image in my head and I acted it out and we shot it, it usually turned out…
It was pretty good, you know, it was pretty good. So in the beginning, I thought how would a monkey– Because I did a lot of research, you know? Watched a lot of Animal Channel, Discovery Channel, studied that. What would a monkey do? What would a monkey do with a banana? So I was imitating all that stuff, recalling all my childhood memories watching monkeys, watching Bugs Bunny, a lot of cartoon characters would go through my head, and when the camera rolled, I just kind of let everything go. Just be free and act.
[Editor’s note: At this point the interview had to wrap up, though I still wonder what that second difficult role for Yen was.]